GLIDER CHRONICLES 2011 – October 15th : Last of the Autumn Soaring

Having checked the weather forecast the day before it was, as expected, a beautiful sunny morning, though as is the way of such things its beauty was not diminished by the expectation.

I cannot say that I sprang out of bed, I could describe it more poetically as an intentioned rising from my nocturnal abode. The truth is I look forward to a weekend lie-in so it does require some willpower to get going, but once rolling, the stone is happy to go flying.

Having had the “good for me” muesli breakfast I got everything ready, packed the car, and got going. The mist on the way to the gliding club was breathtakingly lovely and I forestalled my enthusiasm to get to the club long enough to stop and take at least one shot of its beauty.

Early morning mist on the way to Lasham.


Once at the club I saw an early arrival being towed off the runway as shown in the photo below. I was thankful that it had turned up then rather than interrupting flying by appearing in the middle of the day as has happened many times before.

Early jet arrival before the gliders were even on the runway.


The keen-ness factor must have been ramped way up since the launchpoint bus was already parked on the runway.

The loneliness of the long distance launchpoint bus driver.


I was surprised to find the club busier than expected, mainly due to the recent start of the university year resulting in the recruitment of a gaggle of new students from the various university gliding clubs. These are usually from Imperial College, Brunel University and Surrey University and always a welcome sight to balance the prevailing old and wrinkly demographic.

A further cause for surprise was the glider booking sheet. All “Baby” Grob 102 gliders were taken. Then John, a companion club member at a similar level to myself, came up to also look at the sheet. We took one look at the sheet, one look at each other and agreed to share one of the Discus gliders for the day. Having two of us would ease the rigging pain, though the Discus is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy to rig.

So – decisions made – it was time for the most important part of the day. A good breakfast. Definitely not in the “good for you” category but this is one of my secret weapons – by having a hearty English breakfast I have enough energy to sustain me right through the day so I can take a midday flight while others retire to the clubhouse to have lunch. On one occasion the reduced lunchtime demand allowed me to continue thermalling over the launchpoint.

On this autumn day I had checked the sunrise(7:24) and sunset(18:08) times before leaving and therefore knew that peak sun would be at 12:36. So adding a bit of time to let the ground heat the air to generate thermals I knew that a good launch window would be around 1pm.

An all-action sight outside the main hangar as gliders are prepared for the day.


Breakfast finished – it was time to get out a parachute and get over to start rigging the Discus.

It was lovely – a sunny morning – a bunch of flying twits all together – and a hive of purposeful activity with loads of crazy repartee and banter.

I heard a marvelous conversation between a pessimistic Sean and his more optimistic Antipodean friend Nigel – Sean was not expecting good flying, let alone any decent soaring, but Nigel was undeterred mentioning he would rather presume a good soaring day and be wrong than be in a more negative “space”. I love the mix of the physical activity of rigging with such philosophical musings.


Early aerotow of SH7 off into the blue.

The morning rush-hour at Lasham. Students learning in the K13s.

It was then that John said he needed to go early in the afternoon and I offered that he go first. Truth to tell, with my guess that the day would not get going properly until lunchtime I was all too happy to let John start the flying. So John, if you are reading this – my apologies – I knew then that I would get the best of it but didn’t realise by how much!

Another reason for feeling happy to let John go first was that, as I have mentioned before, I like to take some time to get my head into the right place for the flying.

John ended up taking 3 winch launches and on the first two returning to earth in short order. It was not looking good. He was reporting the lift as being very sporadic and difficult to hold onto. On his third launch he did better and managed to find some lift to earn a very respectable 21 minute flight.

However he was reporting that the lift was topping out at around 1000ft which is rather low so I was not expecting too much, only hoping to maybe get a 30 minute flight. I was thinking I would try one winch launch and then take an aerotow but such a strategy is no guarantee of success.

John finding some lift...

...and landing SH3

So – It was about 12:30. John had just landed. And it was getting to my 1pm preferred launch time. But would I be able to find any lift?

I was sceptical to say the least and was definitely expecting to need a subsequent aerotow.

Tug pilot looking bored waiting for customers.

Winch queue showing the clouds in the background marking the developing lift - I hope.


By now with all the waiting I had got my head into the right “space” and had all my things : camera. water, map, ready for the cockpit. I collected John after he landed and we pushed it onto the back of the winch queue. I got settled in, adjusting everything as required and making sure the cockpit was set as required.

Just before 1 o’clock I was on the front of the queue and ready to go. Checks done – CBSIFTCB + E for Eventualities – then the request for the cable : “Cable on please – Blue link” – and now seeing the cable slack being pulled in prior to the “All out”. Cable tension taken – and we’re off!

The launch was a good one. I had put a fair amount of “right hand down” correction for the crosswind component plus I managed to get 1400ft! 200ft better than my previous best launches for the single seaters – so I was pleased. Having got the glider trimmed, undercarriage raised – I flew straight into some lift. Fantastic! Not much, just a gentle 2 knots up with Charles talking to himself and being careful NOT to lose the thermal.

I managed to take one picture after having gained some height which showed the conditions with a fairly strong inversion at about 2000ft with small undeveloped cumulus clouds just below it.

A good sense of the conditions for the day. Inversion at 2000ft trapping small cumulus.


The first half hour was spent just playing around to find the shape of the day’s conditions, and from then on I became more choosy. I scared myself slightly when I got too far south towards Alton and encountered sinking air, but whenever I turned for home I found the glider was well within its capabilities to get back with height to spare so I managed to calm down.

Just after one of these episodes my spirits lifted on seeing a family of buzzards. As I have said before, I find flying near such birds a sublime experience and this time was no exception with them infallibly marking the best lift. This improved my visualisation of the air currents immeasurably since although the area was busy with gliders there was no discernable pattern to the thermals.

Grob 102 in the distance in hazy conditions. You can see the streeting of the clouds from left to right.

Company arriving to try and pick up my thermal, but it was too weak to be useful at the lower height.

Seagulls waiting for a meal from the field being ploughed below. They are not to be trusted to indicate good air!

If flying with the buzzards was sublime, flying with seagulls was ridiculous! I had not given enough thought to the fact that they are scavengers of the first water. On finding a flock of them I immediately joined in but found that the air was sinking! When I looked down I could see what had got their attention. A farmer was ploughing a field and they were hanging around above waiting to pick up something to eat from the field. Lesson learnt – choose which feathered friends you can trust.

In the end I managed to stay flying for 1 hour 35 minutes, although not once getting above 2000ft, so another wonderful yet testing flight and in the middle of October too. To fly is a great pleasure, but to also get a chance to develop an artistry in divining the air currents to me makes these flights truly phenomenal experiences.

It is time to take stock of the lessons learnt so far in what are my early soaring flights:

  • When adjusting the glider position within a thermal only make small changes of direction and work very hard to make a 3D picture of the air.
  • Make planned changes to the circle you are flying, testing out in 4 directions from where your circle is at the moment. This is still a work-in-progress for me as I am still learning how to do it properly.
  • If thermalling with other gliders, or birds, watch to see if they are rising or sinking compared to your own flight path and adjust as required, but always stay safe.
  • Don’t automatically think that the other glider has found better air.
  • I end up talking to myself a lot. I guess hearing my thoughts expressed out loud allows me to double check my assumptions.
  • You can trust buzzards to find the rising air.
  • You cannot trust seagulls to do the same.


Discus SH3 back at the trailers and ready for de-rigging.


Having returned to earth and checked that no-one else wanted the glider I flew a quick hangar flight and took SH3 back to the trailer for de-rigging. Many thanks to Ed (he of aerobatic instructional tendencies) for helping out.


The launchpoint was kept manned right up until sunset so here are the last shots of the day…

K13 on finals to the hangar under the evening sun.

The end of another wonderful day with gliders returning to be packed in the hangar under a perfect sunset.

As the sun is now lower in our skies this is likely to be one of the last Glider Chronicles for 2011 although I shall fly whenever weather and money allows. I will continue with my People & Technology posts, plus I have thought up a little scientific project for the winter to aid visualising air currents. Watch this space.

Let me know if you have liked the Chronicles this year and say if there is any other information you would like to see in the format for next year and I shall do my best.

All the best and Safe Flying!

GLIDER CHRONICLES 2011 – September 16th : Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

There are some times when I wonder if I will ever feel “grown-up”. The flying on this Friday provoked such a reaction, for during the 92 minute flight I was to come close enough to a buzzard or two that it left me speechless – which I made up for with childish glee during the rest of the afternoon by telling every other club member I met about it!

Luckily I was able to get a few photos of our feathered friends.

The Decision
The background to the day was as follows: During the week there had been two great flying days which I could not attend due to work commitments, and I knew that the weekend weather was not looking good. I turned up on Thursday evening hoping to at least hangar fly one of the gliders, but alas, I was too late and they were too busy to fit me in. On returning home I reasoned that since I had finished some work on Thursday ready for the weekend, I could afford to take the Friday off for flying, although it was only expected to be a marginally good day. Well – it made sense to me. So I set the alarm for an early rise in order to be there for the ballot of the single seater gliders at 8am.

The morning arrived with the bleeping of the alarm. Is it just me or are early morning decision processes tricky? I thought that as you got older it should be easier to get up early! Outside it was overcast and I almost decided to give up flying and go to work anyway, thus saving my holiday for later in the year. However in the end I did go to Lasham, though I could not get myself up early enough for the 8am ballot. Lazy, lazy, lazy. I know. But as it turned out it was not to be a problem.

Early morning skies showing the extensive top cover.


So up and prepped; NOTAMs checked; weather checked; and it was off to the club. Only one other person was there to grab a single seater so my early morning “lazy” decision was vindicated. After a “proper” breakfast and the morning briefing it was out to the hangar.

Explanation: NOTAMs
A NOTAM is a “NOTice to AirMen” and is essential reading for any pilot planning a flight. It is administered by NATS and is part of their Aeronautical Information Service, or AIS.

As of today, 18-Sep-2011, the definition of a NOTAM on this site reads as follows:
“Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) cover short duration or temporary changes or short notice permanent changes. They contain information concerning the establishment, condition or change in any aeronautical facility, service, procedure or hazard, the timely knowledge of which is essential to personnel concerned with flight operations.”

Don’t you just love those long sentences? But they are important long sentences and many a pilot has to get used to such language to get through the inevitable paperwork and exams related to flying.

The above items might, for instance, cover operations such as The Red Arrows, or any other flying display; Parachuting; Balloon flying; or even filming where the film crew don’t want little aircraft buzzing around ruining their period costume drama! It does happen.

Discus or Grob? And a Man with a Plan
When deciding which single seater to fly, I had made another “lazy” decision to take SH7, the baby Grob, since I knew it would be rigged. As it turned out it was buried at the back of the hangar so I decided to rig one of the “Modern Beauties“, Discus SH3 as I expected this would be less of a chore to get ready for flying. There were 6 other gliders in front of SH7 in the hangar and a definite dearth of helpers.

The conditions were not looking good as a lot of high cloud was present from the night before. It was going to be a case of waiting for it to disperse, which thankfully it duly began to do during the morning as you can see from the early photos.

The early reports from the initial K13 training flights were that no lift was around, so I decided to take an exploratory winch launch to see what the conditions were like. I expected this to be a short flight that would also get me “rolling” for the day. The plan was then to take an aerotow.

Ahh. Plans, plans, plans – they rarely survive contact with reality.

Getting SH3 rigged

View into SH3's trailer

SH3 rigged, cleaned and ready to go out to the launch point

Up and Away – but only just
By the time I had the Discus rigged, cleaned, over to the launch point, and sorted myself out – it was 12:15 and the conditions were just starting to get going. There was a medium strength southerly crosswind and we were launching on runway 09 towards the east.

I queued up, got strapped in and waited for a cable. The winch launch was unremarkable, though only a 1300ft launch height – I am still not getting good launch heights with the single seaters. However it was enough for some minutes of bimbling around and I decided to go upwind to the south of the airfield. This was to cause a few problems later but did result in finding some lift.

I flew around and did not manage to pick anything up until eventually I saw another glider coming in below me to join the circuit from the south-east and I decided to follow it in. I was pretty high as I began my circuit, and as part of the pre-landing checks put the undercarriage down.

All was going fine and I was expecting, as planned, to take an aerotow next. But then at around 700ft on the downwind leg I got the most amazing kick up the pants as I hit a 4up thermal. I am afraid I could not resist it since (a) I knew I had enough height and (b) knew there was no-one else in the circuit. After just one turn I knew I had a good one and put the undercarriage back in its box.

So all was going well and I climbed up to 1000ft but the next problem as alluded to earlier was that I was now drifting close to the launch area. I could also see that they were getting ready to launch a glider so I had to leave my beloved 4up thermal and go further south, upwind and away from the launch area. The waiting glider below was now being launched, but I had lost the “biggie” and was only getting weak 2up thermals, though enough to keep me at my height.

Thermalling on the south side of the airfield. The launch point is on the left hidden by the glider


At last another good thermal came along and I took it, beginning the inevitable drift back over the launch point as I circled. This time, however, I could see that they were not ready to launch so I called up and asked if I could overfly the launch point. Luckily this was allowed and I happily continued thermalling from the south of the airfield to the north without disturbing their operations, gradually climbing from 900ft up to 1500ft.

Being on the north of the airfield allowed me to check a bit of theory about thermal formation. I had heard that one should look for places where you would get differential heating. I reckoned I could see one where there was a wood on the south side of a brown stubble field. I was hoping that the air just on the north of the wood would be sheltered from the wind, allowing a big enough bubble of warm air to form which would later get detached due to the windy conditions.

Enlargement from previous photo of the view north. The red rectangle shows the wood and field described in the text where I found a thermal.


I was absolutely open-mouthed when I found this actually worked! It was not the best thermal of the day, but the theory did seem to work. Fantastic! With this thermal I managed to get to about 1800ft, at which height the lift seemed to “top out”. This was to be a consistent feature of the day’s lift.

It was shortly after this that I had my first encounter with a pair of buzzards.

Words fail to put over the feeling when encountering these wonderful fliers. I am not so deluded to think that I am anywhere near as good as they, nor can I claim a close kinship – the best I can say is that I felt linked to them in some small way. Yes – the word is “Participated”. I participated in their world and felt awe at the effortless connection they have with the aerial habitat. I also felt very lucky that I was able to fly with them for the small time I did.

Of course due to my higher speed, I could only fly around the outside of their circles, and as you would expect it was almost a guarantee that wherever they were – there was rising air. I was gratified to see that they were not at all bothered by my presence, being quite happy to pass within 50 metres of the glider, although I was careful to make sure I kept far enough away so that neither they nor myself would be disturbed.

By now I was back on the south side of the airfield where the air was moving in decidedly strange ways, definitely not in nice circular thermic bubbles. I decided to try and sort of “wind-surf” by flying to and fro rather than staying in circles. This seemed to work for a while but “needs more research”. It was at this time that I came upon another buzzard and managed to get some photos which I hope you agree are pretty amazing. Apologies for the angles since they were definitely “action” shots with one hand flying the aircraft and one hand on the camera.

Circling near a buzzard

Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery


The time was now around 2pm and I was getting quite tired as it was proving to be a tussle to stay airborne. I flew around to the west of the airfield as I could see ground movement of the launch point as the operation moved onto runway 23. This coincided with hitting some really strong sinking air going down at 600ft per minute just as I was on the downwind leg of the circuit. I almost thought I would have to turn in early and land crosswind but luckily came out of the sink and found some lift and carried on to return to a normal landing.

I opened the canopy and just stayed in the glider resting and contemplating my experience while I waited for the retrieve buggy. I had just completed a 92 minute flight, I believe one of the longest of the day, and had managed to fly with the birds. Definitely one of those “self-actualising” experiences as Maslow would say.

A day for the birds. Photo of a red kite taken later from the ground near the threshold of runway 23.

Bird of a different kind, but still beautiful.
SH3 waiting to be put back in the trailer.

Late afternoon sun.


And so it was time to go home and Reflect upon the day’s experiences. I hope you enjoyed my Rambling here and that I did not Rumble too much!

Until the next time…

GLIDER CHRONICLES 2011 – August 13th: Modern Beauties – Part 2

So – The story so far. I had just completed the Duo Discus check flight with Chris, my instructor and it was still the morning (just), so the next thing to do was to get one of the Discus single seaters rigged and for that I needed to get hold of someone knowledgeable in such things.

Discus SH3 sitting in its trailer

Let me explain: The three club Discus gliders are kept in trailers rather than in the hangar ready to go. This means that if you want to fly one you have to enlist the help of at least one other soul and put it together – a process called rigging. Luckily the Discus is really easy to rig. Usually on a good soaring day there are a few people who want to fly the single seaters so they all help each other.

However, this was not a good soaring day and could I find someone to brief me in the requisite art? The phrases “hens teeth” and “gold dust” come to mind. Most of the instructors I talked to used to own one but had not rigged one for many years now and were too rusty. In the end I was pointed at the famous Merv, a well known character and fount of knowledge at Lasham who also got his mate, Dave, a current Discus owner, to help out.

Merv is very knowledgeable, an instructor, and possesses a particularly laconic temperament. This coupled with my own psyche resulted in me apologising a lot of the time for disturbing him. My apology rate abruptly increased when I found I had left my diligently purchased BGA wing sealing tape at home and had to borrow some of Dave’s. The guilt rate went up even further when Dave used his car to tow the rigged Discus out to the launch point because yours truly has no towbar on his car! Yeah. I was feeling fairly small by this time, but Dave was great and helped me out in getting ready. Merv was also helping out and doing his instructorly duty briefing me about the flying as well as being ready to observe my performance.

After some final recommendations from Merv to watch out for PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillation) on take-off due to the sensitive elevator I got myself strapped into the cockpit. The radio seemed to have a dodgy connection, but once I jiggled with the panel and its knobs it came good. If it did stop working it was not going to be an issue since this was only going to be a local flight to get the hang of the glider, and given the prevailing conditions it was going to be a short one. I normally carry a spare radio if the conditions are good so that I can either use it as a spare should the main one fail, or sometimes it can be useful to listen to two frequencies at once.

While waiting for the aerotow I was feeling fairly nervous, so just sat in the glider while I waited and calmed myself down and managed to relax. The tug pilot was told I was a Discus virgin (actually the phrase used is: “First time on type”) so knew to treat me gently!

I went through the pre take-off checks and was hooked on. During the take-off run, the elevator sensitivity was noticeable and I did have a couple of PIOs but got it under control fairly quickly. After that it was another lovely flight, albeit under rather overcast skies.

The glider handled very well and I landed back near the trailer where Dave was waiting with his car to take the glider back and help me derig it and pack it back into the trailer.

Shot of SH4 showing the Discus wing shape.

So many thanks again to Merv and Dave for helping me out with becoming current on the Discus.
I am looking forward to many hours of great soaring in these “Modern Beauties”.