What a cracking evenings flying ...again! I took the afternoon off as the RASP predicted conditions would be good. Would it be too greedy to wish for two times one hour flights and get the Bronze legs done and dusted in one day?
As I rode along the M40, I saw the silhouette of a K13 near Stokenchurch. "Great", I thought, "Conditions look good. I suspect it will land soon and I can have a crack at 1 hour in the air"... Silly me. 1 hour 30 minutes later with no sign of the K13 landing. We went to the hangar to dig out the K18. The K18 was literally at the back of the hangar so two hangar unpacking beginners pushed, pulled, scratched heads, and swore until the puzzle was solved and the K18 was out.
It was nearly 4pm and an overcast sky was blotting out the sun. The K18 was sent up with the more experienced pilot, and I took a launch in the K13 to get familiar with the 35 circuit. The tow was pretty gentle, with little bits of scratchy lift about. These were worked for forms sake extending the flight to 18 minutes.
The sky "turned off" when it was my turn in the K18, but frankly I was happy with that. The conditions were great for a glider conversion. Once the K18 popped off the ground I could tell I was in for a treat: What a wonderfully crisp handling glider. It is crisp without being flighty. I really am looking forward to many more hours in that lovely glider.
Time was marching by, and with it any chance of a long flight. As the evening group assembled Rob turned up and was quickly dispatched in the K18. There was a gap in the thick stratus cloud slowly approaching Booker through which the sun still looked strong. Rob took a high tow, and looked like he would be in the air for a while. So it was decision time - hang about for the K18, or take the K13 and see if the conditions would allow one last bit of lift. Stuff it - let's have a play in the K13.
So we took off at 18:03 into a sky which might just have some gentle evening lift. Roy circled the tug round a promising cloud with lift at about 1600ft. I made a note of the position and hung on a little longer so that I could come back and connect with the lift higher up.
At about 1900ft I came off tow and headed back to the cloud. There was definitely lift, but it wasn't that strong and it was tricky to stay constantly in lift. I admit I was starting to get a bit grumpy. I had obviously missed the best part of the day and this was going to be my third, and last, short sled ride of the day.
But then I saw Rob in the K18 MUCH higher, and I made a quick bee line under him. Woosh... lift varied from 0 to 2 knots but I was determined to go up. With the glider as close to 40kn as I dared, and lots of bank we were going up! As the lift was quite weak, the gentle wind had blown me back into the 3000ft airspace. Once at the 3000ft I pushed forwards to cross the line of the motorway bridge and Saunderton train station. And joy of joys, I was heading towards a little street of promisingly grey clouds. I had been so busy thermalling, I had forgotten to start my flying timer. I made a mental note to add a couple of minutes to the flight time.
As I pushed forwards, the sink was impressive - 6kn down! But I persevered and was rewarded by a fantastic 'whoomp' of lift and a 2-4 knot thermal. Up I turned, round and around to 4000ft. By this time I had been in the air for 20 minutes, and I was beginning to think... you know what, with cloudbase well above airspace, I'm at 4000ft, and the clouds in my vicinity look good. Dare I think an hour might just be a possibility?
I love the view from 4000ft - it is pregnant with possibility. With the excellent visibility I could see London, Didcot, Heathrow and more. To my left was the airfield, the tarmac runway and large blue hangars making it such an easy landmark, and as I peered to my right I could see the trading estates of Thame and a little to the right Haddenham airfield. The bit of my brain I'm preparing for cross country said, "You know what, you could probably dolphin fly to Haddenham from this height in the K13 against a 5kn headwind".
The local sky was filled with little streets of clouds all proclaiming lift that could be explored and topped up. So off I toddled, exploring the lift and practising the art of dolphin flying. Rob had disappeared towards the Hambledon valley whilst I was thermalling lower. As time passed, I kept an occasionally check on my watch - at the 30 minute mark I was still well above 3000ft and I knew this was destined to be my longest flight.
As I periodically checked the airfield I saw Rob had landed, but a white glider had joined me much lower down. I was in pretty weak lift at the time, so thought whoever was below was probably finding it very tricky! I think I should put a warning note on the outside of the glider saying, "Early solo pilot - I will turn in any and all lift, no matter how weak!".
At 45 minutes, I was jubilant. I was still above 3000ft and the sky still had lift to play with. Unless the sky instantly turned into 10 knots down everywhere, I had got my first 1 hour flight!
At the 1 hour 10 minute mark, I thought it was time to come down. They had moved the bus 30 minutes ago, the tug was packed away and I could just make out two cars and a buggy at launchpoint. I imagined somewhere a loudhailer was calling, "Come in EBZ your time is up!"
It was after 7pm, the lift was decaying to just hints of zero's so back we went to Lane End. I still had 3000ft to play with, so with a HASSLL check I practiced stalls, and dives followed by tight climbing turns. Oh the unabashed luxury of exchanging 1000ft of height for a couple of minutes joy of slinging a glider about the sky!
Below 2000ft I had a quick look at the wind sock to see if the wind had changed direction, or strength. It was lighter, but still more or less from the North. Having spent most of the last hour between 3000-4000ft, 2000ft looks very low! And to think on my first flight of the day I was determinedly circling in zero to 1/2 knot lift at 1100ft.
We plonked down at 19:30 and to say I was jubilant would be an understatement. Although my knees were killing me, I jumped out of the cockpit and did a dance of joy. I had been in the air nearly 1 hour and 30 minutes, and all of that after 6pm!! It just goes to show if you get yourself in the air often enough, even in the evenings, lady luck eventually comes knocking on your door.
I would like to say a heartfelt thanks to those Tuesday and Friday evening volunteers without whom I probably wouldn't find the time to fly: Symeon, Roy, Paul, Graham, Geoff, Robin, Chris and also Richard, Sue, Paul, and Mike.
I also have to buy Rob a beer - that's the second flight he's marked a climb that's "got me in the game".
I'm going to leave my last paragraph to a fantastic book I'm reading by Ann & Lorne Welch, which I feel most closely captures the emotions of my gliding flight, "It is easy to get an impression of gliding as a sort of aerial pot-hunting.. But that is not true. The challenge... is not to gain a man-made trophy, but to pit skill and intellect against the strengths and weaknesses of the unknown sky - a sort of modern voyage of discovery in which the difficulties, even dangers, which might beset the traveller are unknown. Each flight is different, with moments of deep despair when no lift can be located, and the glider would be in imminent risk of being back on the ground, followed by relief and elation when some tiny scrap of lift was found and worked with care and skill until, once again, the pilot was literally on top of the world."