Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Flight of the Year

For several days, today's forecast has looked promising for flying, at least in relative terms - a day of showers surrounded by days of rain. A bit of a crap-shoot, but at least a chance of some decent flying. But yesterday afternoon - contrary to the forecasts - it started snowing and there was still a lot of snow on the ground this morning.
But the roads didn't seem too bad and Steve and I headed to the coast in his trusty van, through rain, sleet and snow - to reach sun, blue skies and friendly winds. What a contrast!

The winds weren't terribly strong, but it was nicely unstable and very easily soarable. I launched first, Steve joined me and we flew around Oceanside for the next couple of hours. The wind was basically SW and we had a few trips S down to the Capes and back to launch before some rain clouds seemed to be heading our way. We headed S to the Capes, Steve went on to Netarts, I decided to head back as the clouds passed to the N to get the van.

Not too bad for the end of the year!

Some photos ->

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Coping with Winter

One thing I've been pleased with this winter is not trying too hard to fly. When conditions have been half-reasonable, I've flown and enjoyed it - even if it has been a sled ride. I've had a few hike and flys and really enjoyed them - the flying tends to be unremarkable, but I enjoy the contrast of hiking and flying.

I have avoided trying to fly on gray, cold, damp days. Sometimes these days turn out to be perfectly soarable but even then it's not a lot of fun. And of course many times they aren't flyable or you wait around all day for a sled ride. So instead I've been doing quite a bit of hiking and enjoying that.

We've passed the winter solstice and the days are slowly getting longer - yippee!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bingen Hike and Fly

Flying has been predictably poor for the last few weeks. Most of the long-range forecasts have been showing a full set of rain symbols. Sometimes you notice that, in four days, there is only a 60% chance of rain and hope you can do some flying then. Then you can try to separate the rain days from the showers days, wondering if you can squeeze in a flight between the showers. Generally, of course, these hopes are all in vain.

As a result, I've been doing a lot of hiking and very little flying. Today, things were good enough to take my wing with me for the hike. I took my lightweight kit, parked my car at the Marina at Bingen and had a really nice hike up through the woods to launch. Lightweight kit makes all the difference in such hikes; the sun was out, I could see Mt Hood, everything felt good.

I arrived at the W launch in no wind, but I decided to go over to the S launch - I was worried there still was a slight E flow. There was no wind at launch, I knew I didn't have enough time for two flights, so I ate my lunch and relaxed before flying down to the river. A no-wind launch, a no-wind landing and my vario didn't beep once on the flight - but I still really enjoyed it!

Some pics at ->

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Playing Hooky

My employer (Autodesk) is very understanding; they let me organize my work around my flying. Today's forecast was reasonable, the next few days look dire, so when an afternoon meeting got cancelled I headed out on the long drive to Cliffside. There were around 8 other pilots there when I arrived.

It was a little too light and everyone was struggling to stay up. It is very easy to top-land at Cliffside (at least 90% of my top-landings have been there) so, when the lift starts failing, you try to top land before you get flushed. Surprisingly, conditions improved as the afternoon went on. You couldn't get very high (the most I managed was barely 200ft above launch) but staying up slowly became easy. Very smooth lift - hardly a bump. At the end of the day, Mark and I were left, flying at will. Lots of top landings, plenty of touch and goes and a whole bunch of fun.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fall Flying at Bingen

Saturday was pretty dismal but on Sunday a variety of contradictory forecasts encouraged me to head through to the Gorge. The clocks went back during the night and winter is definitely approaching. I feel a little bit like a bear eating as much as it can before hibernation - one more decent flight before the winter! There were around 12 pilots on the West launch, including Jim B. and Mark who I hadn't seen since the early summer. Conditions were very light but the weather and views were fantastic.

There didn't seem much point waiting; it didn't look as though conditions would improve quickly. The first few pilots to launch didn't find much lift so I wasn't surprised when I launched towards the middle of the group and struggled. There was some lift, just not quite enough to stay up. I scratched a little as pilots headed to the LZ; towards the end Mark and I were left by ourselves trying to resist gravity. I caught a little thermal, but it only delayed the inevitable. Fun but a little frustrating!

There was a lot of debate in the LZ. The wind seemed to be switching from the W to the E; should we head to Cliffside? The information we had was sketchy, I was reluctant to commit to an hour's drive when Bingen was working reasonably well. This view prevailed, so we went back up the hill.

Bingen has a S launch and a W launch, but it is in the gorge and that funnels any wind either W or E. In reality the S launch can only be used in very light winds. The S launch seemed fine, but I wanted to check the W launch first; after checking it with four others we came back to the S launch. By this time, others had launched and were low, in scratching mode.

I launched and found a nice thermal that got me 600 ft over launch, with wonderful views of Adams to the N. The wind at altitude was clearly from the East. I flew over launch a couple of times before heading East. I hoped to get a good thermal away from the hill and get high enough to have a mini-XC to the W, but no such luck. I ended up scratching and eventually landing in the LZ.

Everyone was pretty happy with their day; when the weather is nice, even a sled ride at Bingen is good! I headed home early, with the roof down in my car, pretending it was the summer.

Tracklogs ->,

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Indian Summer

Paragliding is just full of surprises - some good, some bad. It's the end of October and, while today looked flyable, I didn't expect to get to 5,200 feet. But that's what happened today.

Forecasts were mixed but looked best in the Gorge. On the way out Todd phoned to say that Bingen seemed blown out. I wasn't that worried - if it wasn't possible to fly, the hiking would be good. Bingen was blown out, so a large group of pilots headed S across the river to Bald Butte. The Columbia Gorge can act like a pipe, funneling winds into or out of the American continent. Sometimes the wind is howling in the gorge but 10 miles N or S it is relatively calm - today turned out to be such a day.

At the standard LZ, we worked out logistics and headed up. Launch is beautiful with Mount Hood just to the South, Adams to the North and orchards below. The wind was strong but manageable, it was obviously soarable but I expected it to be purely ridge soaring. Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to launch; I got ready and launched immediately after Joe. After maybe 10 minutes soaring at launch height I caught my first thermal. Toby launched and immediately joined me. The thermals were pretty wimpy (it is the end of October...) and with the strong wind there was a lot of drift - but they were the means to get high. Others launched and stayed up but they seemed to ridge soaring just above launch while Toby and I got high.

The strong wind made it hard to get really high without drifting over a huge forest to the SE. I headed out over the valley, hoping for a mini-XC. I had to fly into the wind and didn't really get much lift; I headed to an 'approved' target LZ T (a local pilot) told me about and had picked out a really nice bail-out. As the bail-out was looking more and more likely, I saw a horse in it - damn! I turned back and landed in a nice field. Some locals took pictures and asked questions and took me back to the 'normal' LZ.

Everyone was really happy with their day. On the way back to Portland I stopped in the gorge for a quick hike. All in all, a really good fall day!

Tracklog ->

Photos ->

Monday, October 19, 2009

Slow Sled Rides at Bingen

As fall sets in, flying changes. You have to downgrade your objectives. Air time replaces air miles. Getting out and enjoying nature becomes an end in itself, rather than something that happens when you fly.
Sunday had a decent forecast for Bingen, so Dan and I headed through hoping for some air-time, but just happy to be outdoors. There were plenty of pilots there by the time we arrived, some of whom had already flown. We headed up to the West launch; there was enough wind to make launching easy, but not enough wind or thermals to make it easy to stay up. I launched first, and struggled. The others launched and didn't do any better. Eventually Dan and I were left struggling after the others landed. After around an hour I tried round the corner, that didn't work and I sank out just as Dan seemed to get some lift; I landed as Dan soared.

Mary Beth took me and a couple of other pilots back up; another group of other pilots followed us up. Conditions had improved; it was easier to stay up, but still no-one got above launch. After maybe 40 minutes I landed (a little concerned by possible showers just across the river) with the remaining pilots. Not great flying, but good practice and nice to be outdoors - pretty much perfect fall flying!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cliffside Blowout, Hood River Hike

One of my motivations for moving to France is to change my driving to flying (or hiking) ratio. Today wasn't my worst of the year but it was pretty close; I had around 4 hours driving for around 4 minutes of flying. The forecast was a little strong today, so it wasn't a complete surprise. But Cliffside went from too weak to too strong very quickly. The recorded winds (down at the dam) tell the story.

2:02 pm SE 14G18
1:47 pm SE 13G16
1:32 pm SE 6G09
1:17 pm S 4G06
1:02 pm E 3G06

Anyway, given the forecast, this wasn't a big surprise and I went for a nice hike near Hood River.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Back in the Saddle

It's been nearly 5 weeks since I last flew - by far my longest 'no fly' period since I started flying. Lots of reasons (e.g. poor weather, other things to do) and, to be honest, it hasn't been a big deal. Last time I flew was in the S of France at the end of summer; now it is fall in the Pacific NW. It's a big change - more layers and staying up (rather than worrying about retrieves) are the new priorities.

The forecast today was for strong E winds and blue skies. I had hoped to fly Cliffside - a reliable and simple site - but this morning the forecasts just seemed too strong. So I headed to Kutch with a bunch of local pilots.

In Yamhill I met Deanna, Joe, Leo and Todd - none of whom had flown Kutch. We cached Deanna's car below the bail-out LZ and headed up to launch. After the site briefing I was honor bound to launch first. It took maybe 10 minutes of struggling around launch height but then I got up to around 2,900 ft. As in all my Kutch flights, all my lift came from thermals. After boating around for a while, I headed over to the Flying M Ranch for a mini (ok, micro) XC. Todd joined me and we hiked back to Deanna's car. The other pilots had landed in the bail-out; Joe had a long flight trying to get up, I think the other two had fairly brief flights.

Back on launch there were a bunch more pilots and cars. Two HG pilots had decided against launching - too many trees around launch. Some PG pilots had arrived, flown and were back for a second flight.

Four pilots launched and had nice flights in boaty ridge lift / glass-off - completely different conditions from earlier in the day (Kutch is 'full of surprises'). Staying up was obviously easy, but they could only get 2 or 3 hundred feet over launch. I considered launching (I've never had 'easy' lift at Kutch...) but to simplify the logistics I took a car down. Not the greatest of flying, but not too shabby either - a perfect fall day.

Track log ->

Sunday, September 20, 2009

More Hiking, No Flying

The weather has been unusually poor in France for the last week or so; we had one day of full Mistral and just a lot of unsettled weather. Given my son has been here, I hadn't really intended to fly more than a day anyway, but I didn't even do that. We've managed to hike most days and when we haven't we visited Marseille and Sisteron.

Yesterday we visited an old climbing friend of mine, Murray Hamilton. Murray has been living in France for the last 15 years, working as a guide. After we had lunch we did a Via Ferrata - great fun! Today we are in Grenoble, tomorrow Paris; I will be visiting my mother in Scotland before returning to Portland.

Some pics ->

Sunday, September 13, 2009


No flying for the last few days. I've been looking at possible accomodation, a little cycling (on a bike Ray lent me) and hiking with my son. Today we had a nice, long hike and got back just in time to see the start of the Italian Grand Prix! We are now at L'Épine, which is a little to the NW of Laragne, and will be walking here for the next week or so. I'm also hoping to sneak in a day's flying at some point.

Some photos ->,

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rainy Hike in the Thorame Valley

I spent the morning looking at accomodation in St Andre. As predicted, gray clouds appeared and some showers moved in at the start of the afternoon but there were enough clear spells to make a hike attractive. So I had a three hour hike in the Thorame valley with a 50-50 mix of sunshine and showers. The shepherds are spending a lot of time moving their sheep from field to field. I was surprised to see lambs at this time of year - I thought that was a spring-time only thing.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cheval Blanc or Bête Noire

Today I had a flight very similar to yesterday's flight; I worked hard to get to Cheval Blanc and then wimped out into the Thorame valley. I had tried to get a map for the terrain N of Cheval Blanc, without success. Lift wasn't that easy to find and it took a long time just to get over Lambruisse. And I ended up making the easy decision and landing in the big comfortable valley, rather than going over the high montains.

I have had good luck in France with lifts; for the fifth time I got a lift back to my car from a local.

This could end up being my last flight in France this year - indeed it could be the last XC of the year (that makes me a little sad). The mornings are getting noticeably chilly, even if the midday sun is still very hot. On Thurday my son arrives and we will be hiking most days. Tomorrow I will be looking at accomodation in Saint Andre.

Pics ->

Tracklog ->

Monday, September 7, 2009

Learning St Andre

I've really only flown St Andre by myself and I've been gradually learning how the flying works. There is a classic XC north about 50K to St Vincent (it can be done in either direction) that I'd like to do. I've done the first third or so from St Vincent, and today I managed to do the first bit from St Andre. The problem is that the middle part is over pretty high-mountains and I don't know the terrain very well. If you sink out in the middle, you can expect an 'interesting' hike out.

I made a decent start; although I was flying by myself, there were enough gliders around to help finding the lift. However, after around 5 miles, they all seemed to turn round together and fly back towards launch. I continued a little further, but when I got to the start of 'tiger country' (the Cheval Blanc mountain) my radio was announcing wind maximums of 30k, so I turned into a nice broad valley and landed at Thorame Haute.

I really enjoyed my flight and had a nice little hike before a local stopped for me and gave me a lift back to Ray's place. Tonight I will buy detailed maps for the middle part of the XC and study them!

Tracklog ->

Pics ->

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bumpy Flying at St Andre

The forecast was reasonable for flying, but it turned out to be a lot windier and more turbulent than that. I went up on the Aerogliss shuttle late in the morning and (for the middle of the day) it was pretty windy. A lot of pilots didn't launch, but after watching the ones in the air I launched. The wind (predictably enough) was breaking up the thermals and high pressure was making life a little harder.

I didn't really want to leave the broad valley below launch, so I flew around for about 30 minutes or so before deciding to land. I didn't use the main LZ (it is dangerous in the middle of day, as it is 'conveniently' placed where three valleys meet). Landing was easier said than done; it took me 30 minutes to get down. The whole valley seemed to be giving lift; you could easily spiral down, but then when you set up to land, up you'd go. Eventually I managed to keep out the lift long enough to land.

A nice hike through Moriez and then I got a lift back to the main LZ; the driver was a pilot that had I'd talked to at Laragne the week before. As I was watching a football match at the main LZ, a hang glider came into land and ended up in a tree. The Pompiers and Genedarmes arrived and got the pilot down - he was unharmed - leaving the wing in the tree; the next morning, the wing had been released from the tree.

Went back up for an evening flight; the wind was strong on launch and some parawaiting ensued. Conditions gradually lightened and I launched first and had a short flight before landing back in the main LZ - safe at 7.30 in the evening!

Tracklog ->

Pics ->

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Courradour Hike

I arrived at St Andre and got installed Chez Ray ( The accomodation is simple but comfortable and Ray is very friendly. But the Mistral hadn't quite disappeared, so Saturday was a hiking day. I did a little triangular hike that starts from Peyresq; the hamlet has been bought by some Belgian community and has been nicely restored. On the outskirts of the hamlet is an 'open air sculpture show'.

The hike was very pleasant; I met Alex, an English woman that does long distance hikes and races. She had already been walking about 10 miles before I met her and she was embarrasingly fast. We left the trail and went to the summit of the Courradour; some simple rock climbing lead to a beautiful peak. On the way back I stopped in the walled city of Colmars; very scenic.

Pics ->

Friday, September 4, 2009

Saint Cyr Hike

The last couple of days have seen the Mistral return. No flying, but the chance to look at some property.

I went a hike on St Cyr - a climb through scrubby oaks and a ridge walk - before driving South to St Andre. It looks as though the tomorrow will not be good, so I expect to go for another hike.

Pics from today's hike ->

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sneaked Flight

A surprise this morning - low clouds and we can't see the mountain. We know this will burn off, but still it's a bit of shock. All forecasts indicate bad weather coming in from the NW - the issue is when and how bad (e.g. showers or storms). Not a day when the locals chose to fly; I had missed yesterday, tomorrow didn't look great, so I thought I'd maybe sneak in a short flight.

I went up with one other pilot, Chris. Launch was clear but the cloud base in the Buech valley was below launch. All the peaks we would normally fly over had very low clouds over them. There was a thick layer of cirrus or alto-cumulus stopping the sun from doing its job. No other pilots on the hill. Hardly encouraging.

The surrounding clouds lifted a little, Chris launched and sank out. I was going to drive down, but noticed the clouds were a little higher on the nearby peaks. I launched into a thermal, quickly climbed 1,400 feet but was then being squeezed by clouds and headed N. On the next peak, the same problem - a low cloud. So I decided to try the valley, but that didn't work. So I flew back towards Laragne to minimize the retrieve, landed and got a couple of lifts back to HQ. There I borrowed a bike and went up and retrieved the car - it was a DHV1 bike but a DHV0 rider!

In fact, the bad weather never really arrived; after I landed base continued to rise and if I'd launched 30 or 45 minutes later I might have had a much better flight. Anyway, not a great day, but not too bad either.

Tracklog ->

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Exploring Day

Today would have been perfectly flyable, but I went exploring some of the nearby villages and areas. The goal here is to better understand where it would be good to live. There are so many factors (scenery, weather, flying, hiking...) it's hard to know where is best - there are lots of very attractive places around here.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Clouds and Wind

7 pilots headed up La Chabre; we didn't have an official retrieve, so this would be more typical of Laragne flying if I were to move here. Some forecasts warned about S winds and we found three gliders more or less ridge soaring, struggling to get high. There seemed more wind and maybe less thermals than on a typical day. I launched and was pleased to find good enough thermals straight away.

Pretty soon, the clouds were the problem; I was at cloud-base and wanted to head W, but some clouds were blocking me. You had to always choose a route with an escape route available, so I headed N - the Buech valley was in sunshine. The flying was relatively straightforward, though I always seemed to arrive at a peak or ridge that was in shade. I wanted to wait for the other pilots, but I seemed to be either at cloudbase (and struggling to stay below it) or in shadow (and struggling to stay up). As the day went on, the wind strengthened.

Coming onto the sail-plane ridge I headed left (W) for a cloud but it gave no lift. This was a bad mistake, it left me in a position where I had to fight the strong valley wind to get onto the ridge. As I started to sink out, my concern changed to finding the LZ that would minimize the problem of the wind - I got one above the valley bottom that was OK.

I got a couple of lifts back to Laragne without any problems. The first guy asked lots of questions; I first told him I was American then Scottish and he felt Scottish was 'beaucoup mieux'.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


The forecasts for today were hard to interpret After some head scratching, I headed to Mens with 3 other pilots (Rod, Chris and Johan). Mens is on the north side of the Col de la Croix Haute - this marks the divide between the Southern Alps and the rest of the Alps (and often, the good and the bad weather). But it is relatively sheltered from N winds and we reckoned it would work today (as the Mistral slowly ran out of steam).

Mens is a lovely village as well as a flying site; we had a nice lunch there before heading up to launch. There we found at least 40 pilots; the local club competes in a club XC league and the idea was that all members would fly 20 Km, thus winning the comp for the local club. This seemed good news for us foreigners - the locals thought this was the place to fly today!

Alas, this wasn't the case. There was a strong inversion; it rose as the day went on, but it limited my flying to 1800m (6,000 ft). At least 2 of the club members got through the inversion, but most pilots were flying around launch height. With the number of pilots and lack of lift, things got interesting - I seemed to find several mini-gaggles where 4 pilots were turning left and 4 were turning right.

After around 1 hour, my three companions had landed and I flew out to join them. Just before the LZ, I found one weak thermal and decided to take it for practise - I rode it for 2,000 feet, with weak 50ft/min gradually getting stronger. It was my most enjoyable climb of the day.

Not the greatest of flying, but Mens is a very scenic site and the local club members were very friendly.

Tracklog ->

Pics ->

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mistral Day

Saturday was beautiful; cool and breezy - the Mistral had arrived. The sky was bright blue - the continental air descending the Rhone valley had very little moisture content. It was probably flyable at St Vincents (a site sheltered from N winds), but I'd flown the last 6 days and reckoned I deserved a break. So I explored the countryside and towns around Laragne and Gap.

In Gap I had a refreshing beer in a cafe and the paper I was reading nearly got blown away by the Mistral - dangerous things these winds. I had intended to get back to Laragne in time for a walk, but I didn't - I went for a nice meal with 3 other pilots.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Petit Mistral Day

The weather was due to change into a Mistral pattern for a day or so; this is a strong Northern wind blowing down the Rhone valley that can 'blow the ears off a donkey'. Friday is a day of transition - a petit Mistral - where we thought we might fly La Chabre on the North side. We were worried the wind would be too west to do so, and that's how it proved. Rachael, Chris and I managed to get off; there was lift (I got about 150ft over launch at the start) but the thermals were all being broken up by the wind. We landed 15 minutes later, in the same order we launched in, but in different fields.

The others bagged it and we decided to head to St-Vincent-les-Forts - an hours drive away, but a site that works well when the Mistral is not too strong. We arrived and the wind was strong on launch, but gliders were flying and a few were high. Straight off launch I got a good climb and just kept pushing out and thermalling up until I was level with the mountain we wanted to get onto - the Dormillouse. Chris and I headed across and waited over the summit for Karen who had a slower climb; I lost quite a lot of altitude in the process but was able to rebuild it. The others didn't get across to the Dormillouse or, in the case of Johan, only arrived much later and we left them behind.

We pushed South under threatening clouds; we had to work hard not to go into the 'dark gray room'. When we emerged from the clouds we had to build some altitude on a spur to cross the next, higher mountain. Chris got in tight to the terrain and did so, Karen and I struggled a bit. Karen slowly slid down the mountain but I managed to find a thermal to get the job done. Chris and I headed South; Chris flew much nearer the terrain than me and was able to ridge soar. I was a bit too cautious and lost altitude compared to him - given it was after 6pm the danger of turbulence was pretty low but I was still in 'midday flight mode'.

We crossed the mountain and I looked for a thermal and didn't quite find it; we headed to a mountain on the glide out into the valley. Chris managed to get above it but I didn't arrive quite high enough to do so. This extended his flight a little and he got 'one village further' than I did. As I was walking to join him Rachel arrived with the retrieve vehicle and the other pilots - we had a beer in Verdaches and an interesting drive through the Clues de Barles and a nice meal at Digne. We got back to Rebinelle after midnight.

Tracklog ->

Pics ->

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Laragne

There has been a lot of rain in the last two days (fortunately in the evening, so we've been able to sneak in some flying). This is limestone country, so there are very few oveground rivers (most drainage happens underground). The river (La Meouge) below the local flying site (La Chabre) has been transformed from a blue river into a muddy torrent. Kids still play in it, but they emerge covered in mud.

The rain left the ground humid and this seemed to cause some huge cumulus clouds very early. We went up La Chabre and the wind was very slightly from the North; you can launch to the North, but it's hard to find a thermal there. We decided to try to fly a triangle and to head W. The wind became more neutral as we waited and it was obvious we could launch over the S side. I did a reverse, I think everyone else did a forward and there were weak climbs available.

The big problem turned out to be the clouds; there were monster clouds around, base was low at around 2100 meters, ridge height is around 1350 meters. So you had to operate in a pretty narrow band; I had to work hard at the end of couple of climbs to stay in clear air. Over the ridges, there were enough thermals to make progress easy - away from the ridges it was much tougher, especially if it shaded out. We flew W, then S and tried to get head back E, but almost everyone sank out within a couple of Km of each other. Two people manage to 'properly close the triangle', I just couldn't quite reach the climb to make that connection - a sunny ridge where everything else was shaded.

Later in the day we went to a 'glass-off' site to the west; but it wasn't quite soarable - except for a local tandem pilot flying with a four year old child!

A really interesting day's flying....

Tracklog ->

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Laragne - Day Four

Flying XC is full of decisions like "should I turn in this weak lift or fly through it for the better lift I expect soon". Generally, I take weak lift too often but today I made the opposite mistake - I flew through perfectly good lift expecting better stuff beyond, and ended up sinking out.

After the storms during the night, the day was noticeably weaker than previous days - a high layer of cirrus never really burned off. But the forecast was reasonable - with worries of overdevelopment later - so we headed up La Chabre. We launched a little late; after getting up I waited for some other pilots; they got high and set off just as I got low. I re-built my altitude but this meant I was at the back of the group.
I set off on the long glide to Beaumont. I didn't get a climb over Orpierre but the air was boaty and I arrived over the cliffs at Beaumont with what seemed enough altitude and immediate weak lift. I could have turned in this and got higher but I expected better lift just beyond it and kept going. Maybe I was in a rush to catch up? But it turned out to be a bad mistake; given the general weakness I should have taken it. I then was in a classic position - is it better to continue and hope for something or is it better to turn round and hope to find and work the weak lift I just flew through?

I kept going and despite trying hard I sank out. Most of the others sank out early too. Dag and Chris got 50K heading North, always running away from the bad weather. Back around Serres the weather deteriorated very quickly; from growing clouds to monster clouds to thunder and lightening to gust fronts to torrential rain was only 30 or 40 minutes. We sat in a bar, glad we were on the ground.

It's a little frustrating to make such a silly mistake (the first I've made on my trip to France) but it was still a nice flight - just a bit shorter than it should have been.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bad Weather Day

It is dark in Laragne and I'm sitting outside enjoying a wonderful thunder and lightening show. This was all part of today's forecast; we are hoping it will have blown through by tomorrow afternoon. This morning we managed a brief flight at Aspres before the approaching weather stopped play. The wind was strong, especially on take-off and (while it's always interesting to fly a new site) the flying wasn't very interesting - ridge soaring in a strong wind. Bad weather was rapidly approaching from the NW (although the winds were from the S) and I landed first - I didn't really see any point in flying for very long. The landing is at the corner of a large, grass airfield.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Laragne Day Two

There were mixed forecasts for today; as we drove up the hill hang glider pilots were driving down because they felt it was too strong. Up on top it seemed a typical La Chabre day; the inversion was creating a 'vertical venturi' and the sensible thing was to let the inversion break before launching. But it never seemed too strong for a paraglider, never mind a hang glider.

Chris launched and was able to stay up as everyone else got ready. I wasn't keen to launch too soon and then wait for everyone else, so I waited until a couple of other launched. By then it was easy to get up and Chris, Johaness., Mark and I climbed out. My radio wasn't working so I left the others at Beaumont, flew E to the 'volcano' at St. Genis and then flew past Veynes and landed in a wide part of the valley - just over 30 Km from launch. I really enjoyed my flying; towards the end I had a choice between being aggressive and careful; I favored the later (I was worried by the strength of the wind in the valley bottom) but I was probably a little too cautious.

Tracklog ->

Pics ->

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back to Laragne

Laragne is a favorite flying area in France for me and I intend to fly here for a couple of weeks. I'm staying with David and Rachael at Allez-up; they do a good job with weather forecasts and retrieve logistics and generally take the hassle out of flying. This week there is an informal XC course organized, and I've joined in that.

Today we had hopen to head up north towards Grenoble but the wind turned out to be more from the west and made that more difficult. The flying was also influenced by some worrying clouds; twice I went well off course to avoid them. The other pilots ended up heading more to the East (towards Aspres or Veynes); I managed to stick to the route but failed to get over the last ridge to get into the valley leading to Grenoble. I ended up dead ending in a valley below the Col de Cabre (not high enough to cross the col) but I really enjoyed my flight.

Tracklog ->

Pics ->

Montclar Hike

The last day of the comp had a poor forecast - stable with high winds - but the idea was to head up to launch in the hope of getting a task in. I hadn't had a real hike at Montclar and I wasn't attracted by the hanging out at launch for either a poor, bumpy flight or a skunk. So going for a hike was an easy decision.

So that's what I did; I set off later than I intended and was probably a bit overambitous in terms of the hike length. But I really enjoyed the hike; most of it was on some high, open ground used for skiing in the winter and for agriculture in winter. I ended up with a nearly 7 hour hike and I was pleased that my ankle tolerated it.

It turns out that they did fly a short task at the competition. The winner was Luc Armant who won the first four tasks and placed high on the last one; a pretty amazing performance. French took the first 4 places. Top Brit was Adrian Thomas who used his X-Alps training to beat the chair-lift in a 'man vs machine' race up to launch. Skipping the last day of the comp dropped my position to 100; I was pretty happy with my flying (once I got round to launching...) though a bit disappointed with my results.

Pics ->

Friday, August 21, 2009

St Jean de Montclar

For at least 12 years of my kids first 18 years, we have taken a summer vacation in France. We’ve also had a few skiing vacations in winter or spring. We’ve covered most regions of France, including beaches, countryside and Paris. But this is the first time I’ve been in a ‘station de ski’ or even in the ‘hautes montagnes’ in summer.

And it isn’t perfect. St Jean de Montclar isn’t a charming little village with a church, a square, a ‘lavoir’ etc. It’s a ‘nouveau village’ – a village created at the bottom of some chair-lifts, I’d guess in the sixties or seventies. But it isn’t bad either.

It’s hot during the day, but fairly cool at night. You can swim, play tennis or pétanques, hire a mountain bike, go for a walk, take a chair-lift up for a high altitude hike etc. You can even take a tandem paraglider flight (though, after yesterday, I’m not sure I’d recommend that). There’s a big lake just 15 minutes drive away. There’s plenty of cheap accommodation. There was a nice market last Sunday morning. And the scenery is really nice; a combination of open valleys and mountains. Nice villages nearby, with forts and museums. And it’s a nice size; big enough that you have everything you need, but not so big you can’t park your car.

All in all, not a bad place for your summer vacation!

British Open - Day Six

All of my flights at this comp have involved taking off late and flying by myself. This isn’t a sensible competitive strategy so today I decided I would launch early and try to fly with as many people as possible. But the best laid plans…

I don’t like hanging around on launch; I give myself plenty of time to get ready but not so much that I fry in the sun. Today, they brought everything forward an hour and this meant I launched around the middle of the pack. Plenty of lift off launch, but I struggled to get established on the main ridge; most of the pilots resorted to ridge soaring to wait for a decent thermal, but I didn’t fancy that. I headed out and joined a smaller, later group climbing up; we got established on the ridge no problem, but I was back to square one, missing the start and flying with a handful of pilots at the back of the group.

Tagged the first two turnpoints; just as I went for the second one, I saw a pilot just ahead of me tag it and climb in a thermal. After the turnpoint, I went to join him but he was already well above me and either the thermal was above me too or I just failed to find it. I still had plenty of altitude and headed for the next TP, passing over whatever triggers I could see. I never really got any lift and passed maybe 800 ft over goal; the air was pretty boaty and I kept going but shortly after goal I hit big sink. So I came back to goal, hoping to either get lift or to land.

Goal is at a col (a pass between two valley systems) and is often an area of convergence; it can be pretty messy in the afternoon. On the first day one competitor had a low level collapse, a cascade and hit the deck – his injuries weren’t as bad as initially feared but his competition ended there. I was finding some nice lift and very slowly climbing – maybe 400ft from the ground – when I hit the thermal from hell – strong, tiny and sharp edged. If I’d had another few hundred feet of ground clearance I would have taken it, but instead I snuck away. I decided to land S of goal and found a nice field maybe 1 km away.

After I had packed up my wing etc, I found my gloves had disappeared. I searched everywhere, unpacking my wing, flight suit, flight deck, helmet, looking inside my camelback. There are very few credible explanations for what happened (e.g. did a rabbit / marmot / bird take them for their burrow / den / nest?) – I’d really like to know where they are now! If you see a bird / marmot / rabbit wearing OR gloves let me know.

Tracklog ->

Pics ->

Thursday, August 20, 2009

British Open Day 5

The chair-lift follows a slot in the trees and normally the ride up is very hot. There was a nice little breeze today on the way up and it made the ride more pleasant. But once on the plateau the wind immediately put in doubt the day’s flying; the forecast called for light winds, from the S turning SW, but the wind was much stronger than that.

The wind got stronger in the early afternoon and the only ones flying were students at the local school and professional tandem pilots – all using heavily assisted launches. Just crazy. Eventually, the wind got less strong, a shorter task was called but there was a lot of overdevelopment. I wasn’t convinced and was expecting to ride the chairlift back down. Two people launched and the task was cancelled.
Again, a lot of pilots flew down – this seemed even more dubious than yesterday. As I got to the bottom on the chairlift the first drops of rain started. A brief deluge and 30 minutes later it was all blue skies and sunshine. I headed to Seyne to see the citadel, but only had time from a brief tour before it closed.
PS As we were on launch and the South wind was strongest, a paraglider appeared high above us from the S, flying fast. It stopped for maybe 5 turns over the nearby peak (the Dormillouse) and continued North. To the North there is an impressive range of mountains called Les Ecrins – I haven’t checked out how the flight hits these mountains. I’ve climbed some of these peaks on skis, but flying over them seems a little – hmmm - committing. Turns out this was a 330 Km (around 210 miles) flight; not a record but not far from it; the retrieve was a commercial flight back South.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

British Open Day 4

There were predictions of thunderstorms in the afternoon, so the idea was to head up the hill early and get in a short task that avoided the high ground. Riding up on the chairlift, the sky was 95% blue, but the other 5% was pretty impressive. We had just enough time to program the task into our GPSs before it was cancelled. Right then it was perfectly flyable, but based on the forecast and the growing mushroom clouds it seemed unlikely that a task could be safely completed. There was some grumbling but five minutes later a thunderclap silenced all that.

Most pilots flew back down the hill but launch conditions were poor and I didn’t see the point so I rode the chairlift back down with some fellow wimps. The afternoon weather was a little surprising; no deluges, very little fireworks, no gust fronts - just a gray, slightly gusty and damp afternoon. I wasn’t disappointed at all to have a rest day and I explored some of the nearby villages. At one town hall notice-board I found the poster of an XC pilot that disappeared a week ago; it was on the evening news a couple of nights ago.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

British Open Day 3

The day started with a blue sky, no clouds and zero wind. The task was 70 Km and involved a different start. You had to get about 6km from launch to the NW (into the wind); then come back, climb up and then a long run South on the main ridge, and then flying on the flats and around the lake. Because the start was further away, an early launch seemed to make better sense.

Before launch opened a couple of smallish dusties blew through all the wings, followed by a big one about 200 meters away. I was ready 20 minutes after launch opened, but everyone else had moved their plans forward too, so there were only around 20 pilots left on launch. At this point the wind switched; it varied between 90 degrees cross to straight over the back. We all baked in the heat, watching all the other pilots climb out, worried if another dustie would appear, wondering if we were going to get off the hill. A pretty stressful, unpleasant experience. There were a couple of ‘dodgy launches’ in little lulls and, just after the race had started, we got a decent cycle and got off the hill.

Like yesterday, we struggled to climb out; like yesterday, I found some lift away from the hill. A few pilots followed me but most seemed to stay kicking the treetops. Straight up over the peak, I climbed to 11,500 ft pretty quickly as the main gaggle came in below me, already back from the start. A couple of gliders had flown off a bit earlier, I was by myself and could have got a little higher but I saw a couple of fluffy clouds on the route to the start and decided to head out.

Slow going into the wind, got the turn-point, back to the main LZ with maybe 600 ft of clearance and slowly climbed out in weak lift. I headed South on the main ridge; a few pilots were following the ridge back North. It’s hard to accurately judge the position of another glider, but it certainly looked as though some gliders were going over the back of the ridge very low; I’m a wimp and stayed out in front.

I got the turn-point in the South, and had a choice of coming back up the ridge or flying directly NW to the next turnpoint. There were enough little clouds that I took the direct route. Lots of bumpy convergence, with my vario making very strange noises, led me to the next turn-point. At this point, I should have flown to a peak over the lake but I was pretty tired. I’ve flown four days straight in pretty strong conditions and today seemed like hard work. I headed back to the main ridge with plenty of altitude trying to decide whether to go on or to ‘throw in the sponge’. When I saw goal, it seemed to suck my glider towards it, and I landed there, missing out the last 3 turn-points.

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind a ‘bad-weather day’ tomorrow – but the forecast is excellent. Damn! I’ll see how I feel in the morning, but the idea of a nice, relaxing hike is pretty attractive.

Monday, August 17, 2009

British Open - Day Two

The results from yesterday were up in the morning; half the field made goal. Out of 110 pilots who flew, I came 79th – around what I expected. At a competition, I’ve learned to focus on my flying rather than my results. On a good day at a high standard comp, almost everyone has a great flight. I’d rather place last and have a great flight than score well with a so-so flight. And any flight here is pretty good once you get above the high ridges …

Today, the forecast was good but called for a stronger west wind. A long 80K task was called, with around 8 turnpoints, mostly on the relatively flat valleys to the west. All the pilots were struggling to visualize the task and the general consensus was just ‘to go where the GPS told you’. Easier said than done…

I took off towards the back of the group with around 10 pilots. Launch is relatively open and flat and the thermals kick off in front of launch, so decent cycles are rare and a group of pilots generally launches together. An immediate right turn is needed to avoid a cable car, so the first few moments of flight can be rather exciting. We didn’t get any lift off launch and slowly sunk out. Some pilots stuck to the slope, but I moved out front and found a ratty thermal that improved with height. A small group of pilots slotted in below me and we climbed up over the nearby peak – the Dormillouse.

The pilots that had launched earlier had got really high over the start, but we were struggling to get more than a 1000ft above the summit, around 3 or 4 km from the start. I delayed my start in order to climb a bit higher and things went reasonably well but it meant I was flying almost alone. Out to the start, back to the mountain, build back some altitude and head to the second turn-point. I could see a decent sized gaggle over it and expected to tag it and join the gaggle at around mid-height.

Unfortunately, the gaggle flew off just before I got to the turn-point. I followed but it was a bit disorganized as everyone was looking for lift. I joined it at the bottom, turning in weak lift as we all drifted away from the third turn-point. This was a tough choice; the climb wasn’t worth the drift but we were a bit low to expect to find some better lift. It might have been possible to drift back towards some high ground and eventually get up and make forward progress, but it seemed pretty indirect. So I headed back on course and the bottom few pilots did likewise and we ended up landing a few minutes later. I don’t know if the rest of the gaggle escaped or they just drifted further away before sinking out.

I wasn’t in any rush, so I started walking back to the village, St. Jean de Montclar. After maybe 30 minutes a car stopped and offered me a lift. It was the mayor of St. Jean and his wife; they asked lots of questions about flying. They were very happy to have the paragliding competition in their village. Although St. Jean offers great flying, it isn’t as fashionable as sites further north in the Alps - everyone was very glad of the extra business.

Thirty pilots or so made goal; I was 75th for the day. A lot of pilots landed around where I landed – the leg from the 2nd to 3rd turnpoint was over the flats and into the wind and (with the benefit of hindsight) was always going to be a tricky one.

Tracklog ->

Sunday, August 16, 2009

British Open - Day One

Having an apartment in the village helps a lot; I could relax in the morning and left just before noon. A relaxing ride up on the chairlift and I was at launch in plenty of time. A 60 km task was called which involved a ridge-run South then a run back North over the open valley system, crossing the lake, before heading back South to the standard LZ near the village.

You don’t have a lot of height to work with off launch here and a lot of the early launchers struggled. My energy levels seemed a bit low and I wondered if I was going to have a short day. I launched towards the back of the group and there were enough pilots in the air to mark the useful lift. My energy levels increased with my altitude! My timing was pretty good; things only got really busy for the last 10 minutes before the start and I was well positioned without having to endure too much traffic.

Things went pretty well, I was towards the back of the group, with plenty of pilots to mark the lift in front of me and just enough pilots to thermal with to make things easier. Conditions were pretty strong; at one point I left a thermaI that I found a little too rough (I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that). The wind was behind us for the run South, and I tagged the way-point without problem then climbed up towards the base of a cloud before the run NW into the wind.

I applied speedbar to leave the cloud – and it didn’t work. The left side was jammed and I couldn’t operate it. I was flying into around a 6 to 8 mph head wind, wanting to use half-bar but couldn’t. For the next 10 Km gliders passed me as I got lower and lower; there wasn’t much I could do about it. Over the open valley, I could find some lift, but it wasn’t really strong enough to overcome the drift. I got the next way point, but was low by then. I really wanted to head E to get back onto the main ridge, but I was too low to make it that far. So I headed NE, along the course line. Unless I could get a bunch of altitude, I didn’t want to commit to crossing the lake (there are very few landing spots down near the shore). I flew low over goal and I could have continued for another couple of Km because the ground falls away down to the lake, but ground-suck set in and I landed in goal without tagging the last two waypoints. As I was walking back to my apartment, the leaders came flying in.

The super sophisticated id-cards weren’t ready in the morning but we seemed to be able to fly reasonably well without them.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

British Open Practice Day

I awoke just before noon, opened the curtains and found a big blue sky, little wind and some big clouds building. I went outside to find out when I could take the chairlift up to launch and was reading the signs when someone called my name. It was Willie Todd, someone I knew from my rock-climbing days in Scotland but I hadn’t seen for nearly 30 years (when MacEnroe was a promising tennis player…). Willie has been living in the Alps for a long time, working as a guide, but he also flies and was going up for a flight. Willie told me the lift closed at 1, so I rushed back for a quick breakfast then headed up the hill as some French families were coming back down for their lunch.

Launch is a big plateau on the side of a mountain – a ski-area in winter, and a pasture in summer. Today there were lots of wings but no wind and only occasional cycles. I found Willie and tried to catch up on the last 30 years. There didn’t seem to be any rush; few people were launching and only a few of them were staying up. Eventually we couldn’t deny there were quite a few wings above us; both paragliders and sail-planes were all well represented.

I choose my cycle carefully and got a nice thermal off launch. I rode it for over 4,500 feet; with no wind, I climbed out directly above launch. The day before a comp is always difficult; you want a decent flight but you don’t want to get back to base at midnight. It was tempting to head South to St. Andre but I didn’t want to sink out in an isolated valley and have an epic getting back. So I stayed inside the local valley system and had a nice flight, trying the high ridges and the fairly open (for the Alps) valley system.

There were some sizeable clouds around and the atmosphere had an ‘electric blue’ appearance, so I was reasonably cautious. But no worries - plenty of lift and nothing excessive. The wings were all well spread out and, once away from launch, I only thermalled once with a paraglider.
I flew ‘somewhat’ near sail-planes a few times and (though I’ve done it before) it was a little unnerving. Once I only detected a sail-plane heading towards me by its shadow. And a couple of times I thermalled up with a sail-plane, trying to keep track of it, and was a bit worried when I lost it; when these guys fly off, they disappear very quickly. A few weeks ago here, two sailplanes collided; there were no survivors, so paranoia / caution seemed well in order.

After two and a half hours I decided to land. After a shower I went through a fairly painful sign-in process for the competition. The USA has the reputation of being a lawyer’s paradise; but here I had to provide evidence of all sorts of insurance and, before flying tomorrow, I will be issued with a competitor’s photo-id card.

Friday, August 14, 2009

French Leave

For the last 28 hours or so, I’ve been travelling to the South of France. I have a 6 week sabbatical – a treat I get every 4 years – and I’m using it to fly and hike here. In fact, it is a little more than that – I’m hoping to move here (either full-time or for the summer months) and I’m using this trip to fine tune my planning. I’m really looking for a place where outdoor activities (flying, hiking, cycling, skiing…) can be done more easily (less driving, better weather). In the last month I’ve barely flown in Portland – the thought of driving for 4-6 hours, taking my chances with (possibly outrageous) conditions and then driving back (maybe skunked) has just been too much for me.

Just booking the flights was challenging. I need to visit my mother in Scotland on the way home, so ideally I wanted a triangular trip – Portland <-> Paris <-> Glasgow <-> Portland. But however you try to do it, it seems as though airlines can’t cope with anything except a return journey. Everything I tried to reduce the cost just increased it. Change a return trip to a single trip? Ok, but triple the price. Cut a bunch of flights from your trip? Sure, just add $800 to the price. In paragliding terms, they can do ‘out-and-backs’ but nothing else. So I ended up with a cheap Air Canada flight - Portland -> Vancouver -> Montreal -> Paris.

Checking all your flying gear is always a bit worrying but at Portland I was told “your gear will go straight to Paris, collect it there”. At Vancouver, I had to go through Canadian customs and immigration. As I did so, I looked idly at a random luggage carousel what did I see - my flying gear! Wow!

It turned out I had to pick it up and move it from the US to the Canadian system, when it would then get transferred to the French system and I’d get it back in Paris. It couldn’t or didn’t move automatically from USA to Canada. If I hadn’t seen it, I’d have arrived in Paris and my gear would have been … who knows where. Talk about a ‘near miss’…

Apart from that, the journey went well. A little sad – the last time I did this trip, I visited my father-in-law and had lunch with him before the long drive South. But he died suddenly last January – these little opportunities are gone for him, and for me too, and won’t be coming back.

Things are always a little more difficult (or less predictable) in France than the US. When I arrived at the apartment I’ll be staying at for the next week, I asked the young girl if there was a super-market nearby. Yes, she said, there is an “Eight till Eight” just across the street. When I was young and naïve I would have fallen for this trap, but I asked her when it closed. “Seven o’clock” she replied, “you’d better hurry”…

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Dog Days of Summer

I've already said that Portland is a tough place to fly in the summer. Last weekend I went kayaking with my son in the San Juan islands, I didn't fly the weekend before, so I was itching to fly this weekend. But last week was a heatwave with Portland temps maxing out at 107F (42C) and the weekend was only a little cooler. I had a choice of a 6 hr drive to some flying at Mt Howard but I just couldn't face the drive. Encouraged by a half-decent forecast, I hoped to fly the Gorge on Saturday. But it blew out early on Saturday morning and Sunday didn't look any better, so I decided to join Brad and Maren on an SIV course at Yale Lake for the Sunday - at least the lake would be reasonably cool and I'd get some air-time.

I'm a bit of a wimp and don't really enjoy SIV clinics. But SIV can help when things go wrong. It's best to avoid problems, but if you regulary fly XC something will go wrong eventually - you'll get a nasty collapse, you'll fly into rotor, you'll spin your glider, you'll need to avoid cloud suck etc. SIV clinics build skills that increase the chances of handling such problems.

I got my current wing (Nova Factor) around 9 months ago and I love it. It's a step up from my previous wing (Nova Mamboo) but I haven't done an SIV clinic on it (apart from an impromptu clinic going over the back of Baldy - So this was a good opportunity to try it out.
It was nice to not have to look at the weather and decide what to do in the morning. And to get up at a civilized hour. And to have a short drive to Yale Lake. And to fly in shorts.
The SIV clinic went pretty well. My glider was well behaved in everything I did. It didn't feel very nice in a B-line stall (it oscillated a little), but that isn't something I've ever used or intend to use 'for real'. It 'fell' from the sky during accelerated collapses (asymmetric and symmetric) more than my previous wing and the tips were always a bit slow to re-inflate. One accelerated frontal seemed to leave my wing parachutal (when I tweaked the As, one side was soft). But overall it was pretty docile; no nasty turns on asymmetic deflations.

Most of the time at an SIV clinic isn't flying; it's talking to others, watching others fly, kiting, or riding in the boat. And I did a fair amount of these things today. Yale Lake is a pretty scenic place, immediately SW of Mt St Helens. Normally I fly there late in the fall or early in the spring, so it was nice to fly when it's warm and watch others boating around and swimming. Brad and Maren (local instructors) and Stu (boat owner, driver and tow operator) all got a chance to fly as well.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Return to the Toutle

The Toutle is a flying site created when Mt St Helens blew up in 1980 - the blast cleared the trees from a ridge and made launching possible. The site combines ridge soaring and thermalling - if the thermals are weak, you can generally ridge soar until a good thermal arrives. Until recent years, it has been a popular site for Portland based pilots because it is very reliable and works when the NW summer weather pattern sets in.

It has also proved a dangerous site. Although ridge soaring techniques can work at the Toutle, they aren't really sufficient. It's in a valley in the mountains and it should be flown as a thermal site. In recent years, the trees have grown up in front of launch; this has made launching harder (the trees are hard to clear and produce a bunch of turbulence). And a lot of pilots top-land there too, directly into the turbulence. There have been several accidents at The Toutle, mostly a few years ago; in recent years, fewer pilots have flown there and the standard of pilot has improved.

I had last flown the site in 2007 and decided the trees created too much turbulence on launch. But last weekend there was a big work-party on the Toutle; Jan Kubic had arranged to have some of the trees taken down and "the Toutle is back". So I headed up on Friday afternoon with Hannes and Dan, keen to fly the Toutle again.

On launch you can see that things have improved but the trees still create a formidable obstacle. There were some rock-and-roll launches but everyone cleared the trees. Conditions were (for the Toutle) pretty disappointing, with a little too much wind and not regular or strong enough thermals. I can't say I enjoyed the flying (I like ridge soaring, I like thermalling but I'm less keen on combining the two) and I was happy to fly out to the valley and land on both flights. I was happy with my day, though; the site is very scenic and launch is a 'social' place - it was good to be back!

There were some pretty dodgy top-landings. It seemed to me that the Toutle problem has maybe been declared solved a little too soon. Paradoxically, a safety improvement may lead to more accidents as more but less skilled pilots start flying the site.

(As I started this post, Dan phoned me with news of James' accident today. It sounds as though he was being more sensible top-landing than some of the attempts yesterday and was just hit by some rotor when flying round for another attempt. Let's hope it's not too serious for him).

Some photos ->

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Long Day

XC flying on a paraglider isn't really like any other sport I know. It's much less predictable than rock climbing, ski mountaineering, cycling, tennis etc - you might fly 100 miles or sink out after 10 minutes. A good day can be spectacular and a bad day can involve a hospital visit or worse - it's not like going for a hike.

Going through to Pine Mtn from Portland for the day in midsummer just adds to the extremes. A 8 hour round drive (plus any retrieval time) makes for a long day. Conditions are sure to be demanding. All of this is worth it if you get a great flight and a bit frustrating if you sink out immediately.

So Sam, Tyler and I were excited as we headed through nice and early. We knew Brian Webb (who had broken the Oregon state record with a 136 mile flight from Pine almost exactly a year ago) was leading a party of Aussies out at Pine and (as we didn't have a driver) we were hoping for a little help with the logistics. We weren't disappointed - the whole party was very helpful and great company. When we met up with them we learned that Lindsay had taken a 100 mile flight the day before.
Up on the West launch the results of the wet spring were clear - wildflowers (lupin, indian paintbrush) were everywhere. Sam, after a low save, got off the hill efficiently and headed out with some of the Aussies. The rest of the Aussies, Tyler and I sank out and relaunched and headed down the highway.

Pine is a big-air site and you can go a long way between thermals. Once you are away from the mountain, there isn't much terrain to fly. I went from 12,800 ft to 5,300 ft without getting lift. From 500 ft above the ground I managed to climb 1,000 ft in really messy lift. At that point I was really pleased with myself and expected to get back high - but no, the lift was by then all above me and I had to land just before Brothers.
Communications weren't very good. Tyler and I were at Brothers, we knew where the Aussies had gone, but we didn't know where Sam was. Radio and cell-phone gave no result. Finally, Sam sent a text message he had a lift and was coming back. Sam had gone in a different direction to the Aussies and had a very nice 50 mile flight. We later learned that the Aussies had landed 75 miles out.

Since we were there, we took a brief evening flight with many of the Pine Mtn regulars before driving home. It was an 18 hour day for me, a little longer for the other two. Sam had a great flight, while Tyler and I had reasonable flights. The important thing is we were all on the positive side of the risk / reward divide. Trying to get XC flights from Portland in mid-summer is hard work!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

More Sugar

We headed to Sugar, but this time the Washington based pilots stayed to fly Black Cap. Tom, Doug Jackson and Dan launched before me; they got some lift - Dan was a few hundred feet over launch early on - but were starting to sink out by the time I launched. Like Dan, I got some lift early, but couldn't use it without committing to going over the back low.

Like the others I struggled, but I eventually got up and turned N from just below 9,000 ft - much lower than I would have liked. Overall, conditions seemed weak - maybe I was just flying too early. There was a nice cloud street over the second range of the hills but I never got high enough to get onto it. I made the first transition and then flew the front range (there were no clouds above it) and struggled to get high - climbs were slow but fortunately there were enough thermals to make progress. Maybe I should have slowed down and waited for conditions to strengthen, but I ended up sinking out after 14 miles or so - enough to get back into Oregon.

I slowly packed up my wing and waited under a tree as clouds started to form over the front range of the hills. I was looking enviously up at the clouds when I saw movement in the distance. Dan had relaunched and was flying the clouds! He sailed over my head and landed another 5 miles to the N.

Later, Tom and I headed to Abert's Rim hoping to fly it before driving home. It was hot and smelly (the lake is alkaline) and there was no wind; we resolved to wait an hour. Some Bend pilots arrived; Tim immediately headed up the hill. After an hour we got ready to leave - but then Tim launched and slowly benched up. Amazing - there was almost no wind down on the road! Our enthusiasm wasn't strong enough and we headed home. Really, flying in the desert is full of surprises - it seemed impossible that conditions were soarable only a few hunder feet higher.

On the way home I got a text message from Dan that I had won the cumulative distance comp; over 3 days I had flown 2 miles more than he had! The prize is a gas card to use for more flying.

Leonardo ->

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Black Cap

When we got up on Friday there were already clouds in the sky; over development seemed likely and did happen. But we did manage some nice flights from Black Cap early and late.

Dan and I had a flight as it was over developing to the N and the E. As the wind was from the S and pretty strong, that left flying out over the valley to the W, so that's where we headed. With threatening skies on my right and lovely, puffy clouds on my left, I flew out W. I picked a huge, empty field to land in and was just packing my wing when a group of horses arrived to examine the intruder - maybe the field wasn't as empty as I thought. They were very curious!

At the end of the day we had an interesting flight. Conditions were slightly on the strong side at launch and in the distance - maybe 10 miles away, over flat ground - some clouds were showing streaks of virga. We looked at conditions carefully and I came to the conclusion that, at the end of the day, things were manageable.
I took off and flew along the ridge to the N and then glided out in boaty air to land 4.5 miles from launch. As I packed up my wing, Dan arrived in sight, higher over the ridge than I had been; he glided out and landed half a mile north of me. I was wondering how he did that when Tom appeared much higher than Dan or me; instead of gliding out towards us he used speed-bar and ears to lose altitude and land.

It seems as though the distant virga was giving a mini gust front and that conditions had built after I launched; Tom topped out nearly 1,500 ft higher than I had. I never used my speed-bar and Tom used it almost from the start. It all goes to show that, even at sunset, you can get surprisingly strong conditions in the desert.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Competitons and Competitive Fly-ins

Paragliding and competitions have a difficult relationship. Have competitions a valid place in paragliding? The debate goes on, but is similar to the discussion in rock climbing that started in the eighties (after I had effectively quit the sport). One view is that the competitions just formalize what is going on in an underhand way. I buy this argument (i.e. "if you really think you're the best, prove it."). In any event, competitions have become firmly established for many years in paragliding and are, well, competitive and serious.

But this has left fly-ins with a dilemma; does it make sense to have a competition as part of a fly-in? Fly-ins are supposed to be fun, comps are supposed to be serious so how do you combine the two? One approach is making the competitive aspects fun / trivial (e.g. spot-landings or bomb-dropping). But it's genuinely difficult to have a credible competition as part of a fly-in.

The Lakeview fly-in has a cumulative distance competition. It is based on 'cumulative launch to landing distance' over 3 days and has a lot of flaws. Out and returns or perfect triangles are (literally) valueless. In many respects the most effective strategy is to have as many sled-rides as possible in 3 days - of course, this strategy would test the driver more than the pilot. However you do things, a good, dedicated driver is super-important and Dan, Tom and I (aka Team Nova) had the Mary Beth advantage.

Anyway, during the Lakeview fly-in the 'cumulative distance competition' is there and you have to choose how to address it. One approach is to ignore it. But the competition strikes a reasonable balance between 'fun' and 'testing skill', so we choose to fly the flights we wanted to make (rather than flights that would score well) but to record them for the comp.

Sugar Rush

After some debate, around 8 paraglider pilots headed over to Sugar on Thursday morning. We were concerned that things might blow out or overdevelop so we launched early and everyone sank out. I didn't exactly help myself by accidently switching off the sound on my vario beforehand; I flew through some workable lift and was puzzled by my machine not telling me I was going up.

Back on launch with my vario sorted out, the hangs were getting ready. Some PG pilots got up, but not high enough to fly away and most sunk out, though Tom was doing well. It took me some time, but eventually I got a nice thermal and was able to drift away from launch in it. I circled just above an ATOS for about 2,000 ft; it was interesting comparing performance and strategy of these very different wings. Further on I got up to nearly 13,000 in a nice climb; all I could see above me was the base of a cloud, so I moved on early rather than risk a "white room encounter". As I flew away from the cloud I could see it wasn't the threatening monster I feared - but better safe than sorry.

Sugar is in California, and I flew back into Oregon high enough (around 11,000 ft) but didn't get much afterwards. As I got lower I found a weak thermal and struggled to use it. I could average 50ft / min, I could get peaks of 300ft /min and searched for better lift without finding it. Eventually, I couldn't even get 50 ft / min and concluded the thermal was above me, so I headed on and landed out just after 17 miles.

Mary Beth arrived; she had picked Tom up just short of the Oregon border - a great flight considering how little flying he has done recently. We headed back to Sugar in time to see the third wave of launches set off North. A couple of pilots, including Jim Baldo, had got high and headed for the hills. We picked up Dan (who had got high enough to set off but not quite high enough to make the first long transition) and headed back to Lakeview. We had an ice cream and tried to fly Black Cap but the wind was over the back, so we headed off to the local Mexican eatery, where Tom and I paid our margerita fees.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

To Travel Hopefully...

Tom Huff and I set off for Lakeview on Tuesday evening. The fly-in proper started on Thursday morning, but the forecast for Wednesday midday looked promising and, as it's a seven hour drive, we decided to sleep out at Pine Mtn to break the journey. Pine and Lakeview are out in the high desert and, for someone brought up in Scotland, deserts are the most fascinating landscapes in America.

I slept out under the desert stars, listening to distant coyotes. The moment the morning sun hit my sleeping bag I got up before I baked. Brothers is a really small town / village / hamlet (around here, there are one building 'towns') but it has a shop / saloon / post-office / restaurant and we headed there for breakfast. I'm sure it used to be more lively (the school closed down a couple of years ago) but all the tables were busy for breakfast with a mixture of locals and tourists. It's hard not to think of immigrants arriving a hundred years ago and struggling to survive in the harsh environment. And I know it sounds condescending, but it felt good to support this little business in Brothers.

Suitably stuffed, we headed onto Lakeview. We had hoped to fly Black Cap, but it was pretty hopeless. Initially, the wind was over the back. Then, as huge clouds built from the S, the direction sorted itself out, but the sky was too threatening to launch. We met up with Dan and Mary Beth and some other pilots and explored a launch for Abert's Rim used by hang pilots as thunder grumbled and lightning flashed.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bingen Flights

Portland is a tough place to fly. Predictably enough, the winters are gray and wet and good flights are rare. However the summer is also disappointing; a NW weather pattern sets up with strong winds in the gorge and the local sites don't work in such conditions. The net result is that, if you want to fly, you have to do a lot of driving. Woodrat, Pine and Baldy are all 4 or more hours drive away. Last Saturday I went to Baldy and the wind was too strong to fly - an 8 hour round trip to get skunked!

The forecast for Saturday was more encouraging and it looked as though we might get a decent flight in the gorge. The forecasts were all for light winds, and it wasn't clear if we would end up launching Cliffside (which faces east) or Bingen (which faces west). In these circumstances, you have to just head through and choose your site based on what the wind does.

Dan, Hannes and I drove through and we were joined by Mike and latter on Todd. The wind was weak, but clearly from the west, so Bingen - a very difficult site to get away from - was our target. Although the sun was out and it was hot, there were no birds soaring and no convincing cycles on launch - it was much more stable than the forecast. I found no usable light in my first flight - and no-one else did any better. Back in the LZ, the wind was slowly strengthening; we took a second flight and it was easy to stay up. But it was just ridge lift, there was no chance of getting high and the wind was getting stronger. I didn't see the point of boating around for an hour and then having to land in really strong conditions and went out to land and everyone else came to the same conclusion. As often happens in the gorge, the wind picked up in the bottom hundred feet and landing was 'interesting'.

I'll be heading to a little fly-in at Lakeview (in the desert, near the Californian and Nevada borders) in a few days and hopefully we will get some decent flying there. In the meantime the local forecasts don't look encouraging!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Baldy Better

After staying in Ellensburg overnight, we headed back to Baldy early in the morning. Conditions looked very similar to the day before, but at least we were there early. The S launch was the one to use and Dan and I took off before most of the locals. There was lift available almost immediately and it wasn't difficult to get up.

Dan seemed to head S before he had got much over launch, but I just kept working a thermal and got 3,300 over launch. The wind was basically SW but very weak; the real issue was avoiding overdevelopment. I decided to head with the wind towards junction 11 (basically NE); that route was free off the clouds - at least, up to junction 11. There was plenty of lift but there were also plenty of threatening clouds just beyond the junction. I ended up being chased from the sky by the overdevelopment and landing at the junction.

From the ground I could see rain falling in three different directions and was pretty comfortable with my decision making. Dan had landed down at the little air-field S of Baldy; he arrived with Mary-Beth and we headed to Yakima for some ice-cream.

Leonardo ->

Pics ->

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Baldy Badly

Dan, Mary-Beth and I set off early, but not early enough. By the time we arrived at Baldy Butte, thanks to a couple of minor delays, the locals were launching. When we were ready to launch, thunder was rumbling from a big black cloud over our heads. We retreated to the car and read during thunder, lightning, hail and plain old rain.

The sky slowly cleared and four hour later the sun hit launch. Immediately, the wind switched from S to N - typical desert conditions, where the sun can act like a switch. I said to Dan we had to wait to make sure conditions had stabilized before launching. We waited while conditions weakened - a steady breeze from the N became super light. After 30 minutes we decided things were good and we would take a sled ride to the LZ just as the locals arrived back up.

We laid out and after some delays Dan launched in light conditions and started to sink out - no surprise there. I started to get ready and noticed that Dan was finding some lift and coming back up to launch; I could see conditions were strengthening. As I was ready to launch, I noticed Dan was directly above launch and pretty much parked. Despite this, I launched in strong conditions and went up but not forward; no big deal, time for some speedbar.

As I went to release my speedbar I noticed I had drifted near the huge radio antennae so I turned sharply away and that set me behind the ridge line. At this point, I decided I was unlikely to penetrate out in front of the ridge. I decided to turn and run S, with the wind. At this point I was around 150ft over launch, in around 22-25 mph winds, obviously heading into some turbulence.

I expected to fly quickly through the turbulence (with a ground speed of 45mph+) and build some ground clearance, but instead my ground speed was slow - I was in the backwash of the rotor. According to my GPS, my ground speed never exceeded 20 mph. I managed the wing as best as I could; I had 2 or 3 collapses, one of which left a big (but pretty simple) cravate. I kept the wing flying straight and cleared the cravate. I never really built a lot of ground clearance but after a minute or so, I found myself in some sinky air and side-hilled in around 400 ft below launch.

From here I could watch Dan as he turned and ran. He had a lot more ground clearance than me and he was able to land down in a wide part of the canyon without any problem.

I'm really struggling to understand my own thought processes. I'm normally very conscious that the decision to launch is super-important. But here I had seen Dan struggling and never even thought about not launching. Then I compounded the problem by not releasing my speedbar in advance (I only do this very rarely, when I know I'm launching into strong conditions, to avoid accidentally using it during launch). I was basing my decisions on old information - the weak conditions of a few minutes earlier.

I'm absolutely appalled by my poor decision making. In fact, it's worse than that - I never even tried to make a decision. I never really put myself out of 'launching mode' into 'decision making mode'. I really can't explain that - I guess I was just complacent. Conditions did change very quickly but that's a pretty pathetic excuse.

The second problem was not having my speed system ready for immediate use off launch. Given I screwed up this time, I need to adopt a different approach where it is always available. Then (if my decision making screws up again) I will at least have some speed immediately available.
I was very lucky with the turbulence and my wing; although things were gnarly, they felt managable. But when you're flying through turbulence like that there's no way to predict how things will work out. In particular, although the cravate was big it didn't give a lot of drag and it came out fairly easily. I need to build on that luck and improve my launching decisions.
Dave Norwood (aka Preacher) videoed the most exciting part of my flight and you can see that here -> - a real video nasty.