Sunday, 18 October 2015

British Nationals, Ager, Spain

Sunday 9th to Saturday 15th August 2015

Normally I am as keen as mustard to get my blog written up and published. Its serves as my own personal diary as well as perhaps adding some entertainment and information for those back home. 

But two months on from Spain, and I am now only getting around to doing it. Immediately after the comp, I was away for a holiday in Portugal with the boys to celebrate my 50th, and my new contract with iFLY keeps me extremely busy both in the UK and the US. But that hasn't been the main reason behind my reticence to get writing.

Ager launch above the clouds
Team "Wing And A Prayer"
Rev, Chris, Ben, Jonthy

Photo: Hamish Atkinson
The events in Spain started off well. I was in a great retrieve crew along with fellow pilot Chris Pyles. Team "Wing And A Prayer" was run by the Reverend Andrew Dotchin (yes, he really is a man of the cloth) and supported by his son Jonathan. An experienced retrieve driver, "Rev Retrieve" is famous for his speedy retrieves, portable refrigerator stocked with beer and,who knows, perhaps being able to tap in to just a wee bit of extra help for his pilots from the Big Man...

Large field, but the wind switched on landing.
Day one of the comp. I wasn't keeping up with the lead gaggle and experienced a downwind landing. I snapped the keel of my glider as I tried to turn it in to wind, side-swiping it across the ground. With limited spares available I thought my comp was over but Paul Cryer, unexpectedly having to return home, kindly lent me his Moyes RX3. The RX flew beautifully, climbing well and getting me in to goal throughout the comp. I was lucky - I had suffered just a few scratches and managed to get my hands on a replacement glider. I should have been keen to get tapping away on the keyboard to write up the subsequent brilliant flying. 

Nervous times. Taking off with a borrowed glider...
... and landing. Perfect!
Photos: Hamish Atkinson

But, half way through the comp, David "Shedsy" Shields had a serious accident which culminated in him experiencing severe trauma to his neck. Being a close knit community, everyone was and is deeply affected. His closest family and friends went in to overdrive to provide immediate support, making sure he received the best medical,  financial and practical support.

From the regular updates, we know you are fighting back, Shedsy.
Keep going mate. And for your amusement and piss-taking I might just write up one flight - the one where I glided down the "no-go" gorge and ended up doing a 30km detour to get back on track and complete the task, not to mention winning a bottle of the Chairman's pee...  

I know when I come up to see you I will get an ear bashing - I'm looking forward to it!

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Team GB Training Week - Ager, Spain

Sunday 2nd to Friday 7th August 2015

Just three days after the last round of the British Open Series, and it's off to Spain.
With the car serviced just a couple of weeks previously, and with temperatures in Spain expected to be in the late 30's, early 40's,  all I needed to do on the Saturday was get the aircon system re-gassed, something which I had scheduled in my local garage while I re-packed my flying kit, sort out my clothes, pad up my second ladder (so that the car could carry three gliders), and get the streamline camping kit in order. With three adults (me, Phippsy and Sam Allun) travelling together, everyone was having to travel as light as possible, and we would need a comfortable environment for the 13 hour drive. All went well until I picked up the car. Good news - the aircon was re-gassed and didn't have any leaks. Bad news - the pressure sensor had failed and they couldn't get a spare part until Monday. Oops. No aircon for the journey. I stopped on the way back to get a couple of cans of deodorant to keep in the car....

Phippsy and Sam joined Hilly and I late Saturday evening. Having loaded up their gliders and spares, I fed them with curry and beer before we retired early for our rather early start. Alarms were set for 2.45am. 

Beyond the call of duty - 3.00am bacon sarnies
Amazingly Hilly did get up with us, and true to her word cooked bacon sarnies for everyone. Top girl. 3.15am and we were on the road, hoping that the drive to Dover would be trouble free from lorry parks on the M20. As a throw back to my filming days, I've always been good at getting going early in the morning so I opted to take the first driving shift. The TomTom told me that we only had 950 miles to go.
On time for the ferry
Surprisingly we had a pain free journey to Dover, a pleasant ferry crossing to Calais, and the car effortlessly munched the miles as we motored south through France  - with cruise control set at 75mph we were averaging 43 miles to the gallon. Not bad for an eleven year old Audi A4 Avant with 200k miles on the clock.
Phippsy flaked out in the heat

The only problem was that by mid-afternoon we were nearing Limoges and the outside temperature was hitting 30 degrees. Shame about the aircon. Soon enough though we were past Toulouse and by 10pm we had started the drive over the Pyrenees, with Sam doing a sterling job to get us to Ager by midnight.
Beer and bed.

And the next morning, this was Sam's first glimpse of where he would be flying for the next two weeks...

Team GB Training Camp
Looking East along the Ager ridge
The training camp had been scheduled to take place the week before  the British Nationals and at the same flying site. Ager, on the South side of the Pyrenese and about 2 hours drive West from Barcelona, is at the foot of a very long ridge running for about 40km East to West that stands about 1000m above the valley floor, which is itself already 650m above sea level. Over the back of the ridge to the North there are three valleys, separated by some fairly inhospitable terrain with lakes, gorges, and  limited landings. The "Gurp" proves to be a regular hurdle in crossing over to the Tremp Valley to the East, a common route to the usual goal field near Viliminjata. Further North, and the "big stuff" looms on the horizon, offering some spectacular flying when conditions allow, especially over the Fer de Rocher.

And looking West...
Our best friend in Ager - the Griffon Vulture
Courtesy of Wikipedia
The flying at Ager is challenging and memorable not just because of the terrain and climate, but also because of the magnificent Griffon Vulture that prolifically inhabits the area. Masters of thermal soaring, these majestic birds will often fly with you, marking better areas of lift, even locating a "life saver" thermal that hauls you away from getting too low in a  "no land" zone. 

Yes, been there, done that. Two years ago I got caught in a valley with no landings - I will never forget the feeling of relief as a vulture flew out from his nest, started circling and allowed me to fly wing tip to wing tip with him as I crawled out of the valley.Times like that make me feel privileged and humble in equal measure. 
I was expecting to have a rest and prep day before the official training camp was started on the Tuesday, but several of the pilots had arrived a few days earlier and were planning heading up the hill for a pre-training practice day. Being "current" and local knowledge all have an important part to play in flying, especially in competition, so I opted to join them. A day to settle in to the glider and the flying conditions was very welcome. And the views were, as always, stunning....
Gordon (top right in red t shirt) briefs the team
And so the week continued. Every morning, Gordon Rigg ran a briefing session with the motley crew of potential Team GB squad members - a broad range of pilots between the ages of 20 and 50 but all with the common aim of being selected to fly in the British Team at European and World Championships. Fortunately for the older pilots, hang gliding is a sport where age is not necessarily a disadvantage. The more you fly, the better you become. 

After the morning briefing, camel backs were filled, gliders and kit loaded, followed by a half hour drive to the top of the hill. With gliders rigged, partners and retrieve drivers could shelter from the blistering midday sun. Further briefing sessions were held, with the crew spilt in to two separate teams. Gordon running one, and Carl Wallbank the other, adding a competitive edge to the training, and making sure that the radio channels did not become too crowded.

Thanks to me new employers "Airkix/iFLY" for the extended leave...

Carl Wallbank sharing "the knowledge"

Task over the 5 days ranged from between 70 and 130km, taking in the valleys, mountains, lakes and dams of this stunning Catalan region. My flying started off slowly, deliberately not pushing myself too far and too fast at the beginning of the week, knowing that we had a full competition to follow on from the training camp. Carl's superb coaching allowed me to build on my mistakes, and instilled a true sense of team work, which pushed me on at times when I wanted to land. Keep flying, get the most points you can, each and every time. Do it for the team. Several times I struggled low, fighting for a long time to find lift, often with my landing gear out and sizing up a landing field. Nine times out of ten I was rewarded for my endeavours. The flying was breath taking.


Vilamitjana landing field
The regular goal field at Vilamitjana proved to be a popular finishing point, with several goal beers drunk, thanks to the regular supply from retrieve driver and photographer Alan Moffat (shh, dont tell Andy you nicked them out the back of the truck!) After hours of flying there is a great sense of achievement and a huge "buzz" racing in to goal against fellow flyers.

Gordon Rigg, Alan Moffat, Neil Atkinson and Phippsy in goal.

Michelle on windsock duty

After a full and busy training week, the competition started in earnest....
Report to follow.

Monday, 3 August 2015

All To Play For

Wednesday 25th July 2015

The last day of the British Open Series.

Rain. Overnight rain. Damn. With only about 300 points separating 1st and my 6th place, I was willing the weather to deliver a task able day. Being the last day of the last round of the BOS, this was going to be the final  chance to improve scores and positions. Some pilots had already gone home, either through work commitments or because of a gloomy forecast, including Gordon Rigg in 1st place, and with such a slim margin of points separating the top places, it would only take one slip up from the remaining leading pilots for it all to change at the top. On track to meet my "Top 6" target, (a national team has 6 pilots so I thought it a good starting point to aim for) did I now dare to believe that a top 3 finish was possible? It was definitely all to play for.
Early morning panoramic view from the Long Mynd
And the view over the back....
A quick drive up to The Mynd before briefing and I could see that the forecast had been overly pessimistic. Yes, the cloud was still hugging the hill, but it was lifting, and there were large patches of blue sky and just a moderate breeze. Of course, it would suit some pilots to have the day cancelled, rather than risk losing their lead, but we are there to fly. I texted Phippsy (then in third position and who was recovering after his sons wedding in South Wales the day before) to let him know that we might be flying...
"If I can make it, I won't be there until midday at the earliest. Keep me updated." Rightio.

Back at briefing and the number of pilots had decreased significantly but with stand-in Meethead Trevor Birbeck calling the shots, we were soon dispatched off to The Mynd where there would be a task briefing at 11.30am. No retrieve, so back up the hill in my car. Arriving first I had the glider off the roof and half rigged before most of the other pilots had arrived. When they did, I heard rumblings that perhaps the Mynd was not the right site for the day with some pilots forecasting that the wind would veer more to the NW - not the forecast I had seen so I ignored the rumours and finished off rigging.

Shortly before the task briefing, Phippsy arrived on the hill. The one pilot ahead of him in the series and who was still on the hill must have been taken aback - if we did get to fly then the stakes were now rising. Being in 2nd place, and with Gordon not flying, Luke's route to first place had just got a little more complicated.... Would there be another challenger for the top spot? It's exactly these situations that make competition flying so compelling. Amateur, minority sport it might be, but it is no less competitive, with the same pressures, challenges and psychological battles as other more main stream sports. Who would keep calm and not blow their chances.
Phippsy, Trevor Birkbeck and Craig Dolwin shelter from the approaching rain

Darren Brown and I helped Phippsy get rigged in super-quick time before briefing. A 52km race to goal downwind was set. A small task, but very appropriate for the day. Soon, and with rain on the horizon, Justin Needham was clipped in and ready to go, apparently to try and "surf" the gust front from the approaching squall line. Unfortunately the right window of opportunity didn't open up, and he hastily retreated as the rain began.

And did it ever rain! A veritable downpour. Huddled under Phippsy's wing doubts were starting to creep in that we would fly. As soon as the rain stopped there was a scurry of activity to chamois the gliders to help dry them off. Gliders don like the rain, and fly like planks with a significantly increased stall speed which makes landing at best challenging, and at worst plain dangerous. Some pilots called it a day and de-rigged, but the top 6 (minus Gordon) were still there.

Mark Woodhams, guardian of the Club Class

Rain and struggling to make height gains
Then more rain, but a shorter shower and a brighter looking sky developing after it.Another flurry of glider wiping. Right, here we go. No more waiting around. I clipped in and made my way to the take off. A club class pilot beat me to it and started soaring the hill. I waited for signs of other lift, ignoring the jeers of pilots behind me. I launched when three buzzards started climbing out in front. Yep, it was definitely lifty, but very lumpy.

Turning right (North) up the ridge I struggled to make decent height gain. Phippsy was off shortly after me and immediately seemed to be doing a lot better to the south, so I flew over to join him. Frustratingly I found it difficult to make the same height gain, something that continued for the entire two hours we eventually spent flying the hill. First Phippsy, then Luke, then Justin, then Dave Matthews all out climbed me. Being heavy on my wing  I can expect some loss of performance in sink rate (but gain in gliding performance) but this seemed to above and beyond that. What the blazes was I doing wrong? Luke was calling "wave lift", something that I have little experience of flying. Subsequent feedback from respected pilots is that I was perhaps working the lift too hard, and instead should have just "parked" in to wind to maximise the lift in the apparently small wave bars. Lessons learned for next time.

Rain flying.... Lovely. Not.
More rain, and I'm flying. Not the best place to be. Carl Wallbank pulled some radical turns to descend quickly and land. Luckily with the Mynd ridge being so long (as Phippsy says perhaps that's why it is called "The Long Mynd.."), we could run from the worst of the rain, but  the glider was showing all the characteristics of a wet glider so I opted to keep flying, waiting for the weather to cycle and hopefully deliver the forecasted brighter spells.

A glimmer of hope
 And it did. The sun was now hitting the ground upwind of us and the glider was now behaving more predictably,  Luke was the first to leave the hill, going on a death glide to activate the task at 10km.  I took a climb to base for (the first time) downwind of Phippsy, Justin, Darren (Brown) and Dave, who called on the radio he was leaving the hill. Struggling to stay out of base at 2500, I was nervous that he would start gliding downwind and not know where I was,  I decided to start my glide too, ahead of the gaggle, and to escape the  frustration of my poor performance on the hill.  

Suspecting  that Luke was on the ground I glided through the "sink hole" heading towards cliking clouds and thermal triggering terrain. A couple of little bleeps, a couple of 360s.
"What you got there Ben?" asked Dave, gliding a few hundred meters behind me.
"I'm going down slightly slower than I was a minute ago..." I replied, as I sized up landing options.Off on a death glide to a factory and rising ground. 

A few more bleeps and circles but I knew the game was up. Downwind was a large flat field near a lane which I gauged I could get to safely. As a last ditch attempt to stay up I flew to one side of the field where the trees were thrashing about (a sign that a thermal is kicking off) but didn't find anything. Not until that is, I flew a base leg and turned into wind at a perfect height to make a landing near the gate. And that's when I found the thermal. My left wing was violently lifted and I was now heading in the wrong direction. Too low to use it, I hung on to the left upright,  intending to ease the glider back into wind without over reacting. Stay calm, it's coming round. Bingo. Back on track. Plenty of speed, round out and a gentle flare. Perfect. And that's why my glider has become such a trusted friend.

As I carried the glider to the edge of the field I was greeted by Tony, a local chap who lives with his wife in a caravan on the edge of the field while they renovate their adjoining house. An ex-glider pilot he was genuinely enthralled by it all, and we chatted away while I de-rigged, and watched Dave, Justin, Darren and Phippsy circle way above me....

Mark Woodhams kindly retrieved him having been to pick up Tim Swait from the Club Class who had also managed to squeak away from the hill. A really good effort by him, and landing just a few metres short to activate his task.

Sharing the sky with Tim Swait

 I was soon back at my car and driving home, waiting with baited breath to hear what had happened. My minimum score wouldn't affect my 6th place, but these boys were about to set the cat among the pigeons. I couldn't wait any longer.
"Phippsy, it's Ben. So what's going on?"
"I'm having supper.... Oh the scores. Luke 10km, Darren, Justin and me 20km, Dave 25km. I've just won the championship".
"Yep. Luke 3rd, Dave 2nd and me 1st!"

Graham Phippsy
British Open Series Champion 2015
With permission of ASM1Photography
I could not have been more pleased for him. With an enviable flying CV, including being a member of Team GB, Phippsy has been a major force in keeping hang gliding alive in the UK by bringing new people in to the sport through his highly regarded hang gliding and paragliding school, and often in the face of excessive commercial pressures. What a result for him, his school Cloud 9, and his Wills Wing dealership.

And what an end to the series. I got my top 6 place and now it's off to Spain to train with Team GB and then fly the British Nationals, hopefully against some of Europe's top pilots.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Let Your Spirit Fly

Saturday 25th July 2015

5.30am. Equipment checked the night before, car packed. British Open Series, Round 3 in Mid Wales, here I come. Looking at the diary for the next month, it would come as no surprise that flying is a rather important part of my life. First this 5 day comp, then a couple of days later, heading off to Spain for a couple of weeks to train with Team GB and compete in the British Nationals, an international competition that attracts some of the best pilots in the world. How lucky am I  that I now work for a great company that understands flying, being the world's leading manufacturer and operator of indoor skydiving tunnels

After I hit the road at 6am I received a call from my oldest and dearest friend. His father had passed away in the night after losing the battle with cancer. He was one of those characters that formed a part of my childhood memories - a humble and kind man, and a rock to his family who all adored him. I am told to fly with the spirit of his dear Dad.

Back on the road and I was never going to make the comp briefing. so I arranged with the organisers to meet at the site of the day. The wind was already blowing strong in the valleys, but the Long Mynd in Shropshire was the place to go"The Mynd" is a very popular flying site, with excellent potential for long flights across the UK, and the countryside in the area is stunning. As I arrived at 10.30am, the hill was already covered with rigged gliders. Right, no time to waste. Time to step in to action. By 11am, I was rigged and ready. Next thing, what to do with the car? Normally I would have travelled up from briefing in the retrieve car. Oh well, it would have to stay up the hill until I could get back later to pick it up. At least now I had a few minutes to catch up with friends - it's the old "band of brothers" thing again - it's a tight-knit community, but definitely not exclusive. Everyone goes out of their way to make new pilots and their families as welcome as possible. The BHGC works hard at bringing new pilots in to the competitive side of the sport with various initiatives to support  and nurture those participating for the first time.

The Task Board
At 12pm, the task briefing was called. As pilots fumbled with various electronic gadgetry to enter a newly created  waypoint, a 158km race to Aylesbury via a turn point at Banbury was called. A big task for the UK, and just short of the magic 100 miles, but London airspace effectively limits flights, unless you want to meet a 747 head on... A full site briefing was held. The Long Mynd Gliding Club operates just behind the the hang gliding take off and with up to thirty  pilots in the air alongside winch operations and sail planes on the ridge, we would all have to follow set procedures to stay safe.

Looking up to the north end of The Mynd

Not one to hang about on the hill, I was one of the first off as the "Launch Window Open" klaxon was sounded. Quickly settling in to being in the air again, I watched as a stream of pilots took to the air. I had turned right (North) up the ridge, whereas some of the other pilots including Gordon Rigg, turned left to the south end, potentially to make it easier to get over the back away from the gliding operations. I struggled for some time to get high, being teased by strong cores that then broke up. I could hear Luke Nicol and Gordon on the radio flying together, and leaving the hill at the first Start Gate at 1.15pm. So I headed to the South side and guess what? I got the climb and got away!  I've got to get my starts sorted...

I think that's Ludlow!
Drifting over the back I was now at least half an hour behind the lead gaggle but there were still several pilots around me. Making cloud base for the first of many times, and with various "lessons learned" from previous flights here, I knew that heading for Clee Hill would probably end in a quick landing, so I chose a route to the south, heading for the upwind edge of the clouds and over sunny ground.  I was soon hunting for lift over Ludlow, keeping an eye on the gliders to the north of the town. If they started climbing I intended to race over and join them. Instead and after searching over the town, I  found a nice climb. As my lift accelerated several gliders came to join me including Darren Brown and Wayne Thompson. My "Push-To-Talk" switch on the radio was broken, but I could hear them discussing that I was turning left, and they were turning right, so I repositioned myself in the thermal and started turning right. Nice and safe for everyone. Don't want any more "proximity calls" do we????

With dark cloud bases lining up downwind, it was tempting to head straight for them, but the shadowing on the ground was widespread. What if I didn't "connect" with the cloud? What next? With so much shadow killing off any land warming, I did not want to be low over it. Stick to the plan: head for the upwind side of a cloud with upwind ground also in sunshine,visualising where the column of warm air would be connecting ground and cloud. It might not be on track, but a better chance of staying in the air. Beep........ Beep......Beep.. Beep Beep Beep.....! Got it. 

The journey to the first turn point was relatively slow. Continually working "off track" options, but importantly still in the air. To the North of Worcester, Wayne and I joined up again and he caught a belter of a thermal. I was climbing well but left him to enjoy his roller coaster ride. Cloud base and time for a glide.Continuing down towards the turn point I started get low again. Come on. 2000 foot above the ground. 1500'... 1200'... Something start working. Please. Thinking of my childhood friends Dad, I was urging the day to deliver. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness as I started sizing up landing options.

Getting low with "the street" starting to develop to goal.

Come on, Ben. Don't give up.
With renewed focus, I started working hard. Very hard. 

Beep...... Something was bubbling. 
Beep...... Beep...... Slow up and start searching. 
Beep. Beep. Beep. 
After exploring the area, often pushing back up wind while slowly descending, I found it.
Who knows what happened in those minutes, but I did not feel alone. Strange thing, the power of thought and spirituality.

From that moment on the flight completely changed. Slowly but surely I started climbing again, and was soon heading  back up to cloud base and easily made the turn-point. I met up with Steve Penfold on his Airborne glider for one of the last climbs of the day. Having had to continually assess where the next climb was going to come form, the sky magically paved a way all the way to goal, some 40km away. 

Clouds paving the way to goal
A glorious cloud street set up as far as the eye could see. As I pulled on speed I raced along, flying faster than I have ever flown before, ducking in and out of the cloud street. I thought Steve was coming with me but I think the speed with which I took off caught him by surprise! Even flying with the bar to my knees I was still going up. 

Gliding along the edge of the clouds

Covering the ground at 120+kph it would not take me long to get there.  4,500'... 4,700'... With airspace at 5500' I was concerned about being sucked in to it, and getting disqualified, so I zig-zagged alongside the cloud to find what little sink there was. Unbelievable. 
And  there was goal. Not difficult to spot from 4,000! I flew over the wind turbine in the middle of the 1km finish radius and could see a field slightly beyond with hang gliders. But how to get down? I was still climbing so headed back up course, with Tim King on his rigid flying nearby. And then the realisation that I had been flying for 5 hours hit me. Having suffered "random cramp" (an inexplicable and  unpredictable severe cramp in my left leg that is the only side effect of my back op) several times in the flight, and feeling exhausted, I just wanted to land. I eventually found some sink and started spiralling down. 

Thumbs up for goal!

The landing field and the street clearly visible

Touch down!
Touch down. I had made it. I was greeted and congratulated by Team GB and fellow Wills Wing pilot Phippsy from Cloud 9 who took the obligatory goal picture. Neville Almond , flying his first competition task for many years, was already packed and ready to go having stormed the course on his ATOS glider. 

158kms later, one happy pilot!
.After all the big flying I have done over the years at home and abroad this was my first "BOS" goal. I am still a relative newcomer to competitions with this being only my third full season, and up against pilots with more than twenty years of competition experience. Other Team GB pilots were of course also "in". Carl, Gordon, was good to be in a goal field with such company.  Now I just need to be there first...

Preliminary results here.
Track logs in from Livetrack24 here.