Saturday, July 31, 2010

XC to the Dormilliouse

Today's forecasts seemed a bit inconsistent; some promising aspects, but some negative ones too. Meteo Blue's soundings looked good for noon but started to look strange from about 2 pm. In fact, it looked more like a problem with the computer model than anything real, but I decided to get on launch early.
Things looked promising on launch, with less wind and fewer clouds than usual, and it started working shortly after midday. For once, it looked as though we had good XC conditions on the weekend - an opportunity to fly far! 
I launched at 12.30; there was plenty of lift, there were plenty of wings to mark it so I tried to keep a fast pace, heading N and only turning in the best thermals. I managed to get a nice climb at the Antennae and this let me straight onto Cheval Blanc. 
I got high over the summit of Cheval Blanc and had various options. The classic XC heads N over some pretty inhospitable terrain (big mountains, little dead-end valleys, isolated settlements) to reach the Dormilliouse and St Vincent. Less committing routes headed E or W; they were certainly tempting but I decided to go N.
From then on I saw more sail-planes than paragliders - at one point I was in a thermal with 5 of them. There were very few clouds in the sky and this actually helped; first, I could use shadows to better gauge the distance to clouds and other aircraft. Second, it made it much easier to keep track of newly forming clouds.
Things went very well over the mountains; I was able to stay above ridge height and make quick progress. But things changed when I needed to get onto the Tete de l'Estrop, the big mountain that lets you escape this 'empty quarter'. I was behind and above 3 paragliders that were scratching around mid-height on the mountain. I saw they had a thermal, so I headed over to join them. But by the time I arrived, they were 2000 ft higher; worse, the thermal was also above me. I struggled, gradually losing altitude. I had my LZ picked out and was wondering how many hours hiking I had ahead of me when I hit a strong but disorganized thermal. What a relief!
From the Tete de l'Estrop to Dormilliouse is a relatively straightforward ridge. Easy flying was regularly interrupted by some very strong thermals and I reached my target - 50 Km in a straight line, in just over 3 hrs. 
Now what? Part of the adventure of flying XC without a driver is the retrieve and that started factoring into my calculations.
I knew I was tired and conditions were strong. I didn't want to land in the evening in some isolated valley. So I rejected the obvious option of turning round and trying to fly back to St Andre - it meant committing to another 3 hours in the air (a German pilot did the round trip on Saturday, it took him 7 hrs). I could keep heading N or NW, but then the retrieve logistics would start becoming really difficult. Or, I could head out over some flats, land at Seyne les Alpes, drink a beer and take the air-conditioned bus back to St Andre (yes, I had memorized the timetable).
I wish all paragliding decisions were that easy!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Evening Test Pilot

I've been aware that my wing needs to be re-trimmed for a few weeks now; reluctance to launch, heavy controls, slightly asymmetric trim. Last Sunday I did some kiting and it was hard to get the wing completely overhead, even when the wind was strong. Nova has a new, complicated system (NTT ) for trimming a glider and, of course, I want only the best for my baby.

I could get a NTT re-trim done in France - but it involves doing without my wing for two weeks. Hard to do that at this time of year. I've been a bit silly - I could have sent my wing away during a trip to the US in May or when my son was visiting in July and I wouldn't have missed it. Isn't hindsight great?

So I decided to do a 'quick and dirty' re-trim myself and postpone the 'real' re-trim till November - there's too much good flying at this time of year. So, after a decent day at work, I headed to the LZ and stretched all the lines; everything went according to plan, except the wind was blowing at 15-20 mph. I wanted to do some kiting to check everything, but not in that sort of wind (especially with all the spectators).

In the end, I did about 3 minutes of kiting and suddenly the wind died. Everyone jumped on the shuttle and we headed up to launch. It was strong on launch, with a big group waiting. After 10 minutes or so, it was noticeably less strong and I launched. My wing came up nicely, the controls felt a lot lighter, it was flying really nicely - great! I built some height, observing everyone rushing to get ready and headed N along the ridge.

I normally don't get very excited by evening flights; but this one was very nice. I found a nice gentle thermal, got high and headed W (away from the hill) and there was gentle lift everywhere. The sun set - very pretty - and I knew the moon was full but it wasn't quite up yet. I could easily have flown to Barreme; but then there was a retrieve problem and maybe looking for an LZ in the dark wasn't too smart. I came back to the ridge, arriving well below launch, and benched up easily. I flew about for a bit and then headed for the LZ.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Escaping the Mistral

Meteo Blue and Aeroweb are the two forecasts I most use here, and they both had Saturday being good for flying at St Andre. In fact, Meteo Blue's forecast looked epic. But the Mistral had returned and I thought it would be too windy and turbulent, so I decided to go to Montclar. It escapes the worst effects of the Mistral, you take a chairlift up to launch, it's lovely and a relatively simple place to fly.

Unfortunately, at this time of year it's a 1hr 30 drive to get there (tourists...). And when I arrived I discovered that the chairlift isn't open on a Saturday. It was a close decision whether to just walk up or to go to St Vincent les Forts; I decided to do the latter.

St Vincent and Montclar are both on the same mountain (the Dormilliouse). If conditions are decent, most flight plans start by getting above the Dormilliouse. But there are a lot of differences. Montclar has a huge launch area, is higher and is a thermal site; even in a competition it doesn't feel very busy. St Vincent is a drive up site, launch is tiny, when the Mistral blows it gets very busy and most flights start with quite a bit of ridge soaring until a thermal arrives. Top landing right beside launch is the standard approach at St Vincent and all this is in the center of the village; so there are lots of spectators and lots of professional tandem pilots. In fact, it feels like a little bit of the Northern Alps that has escaped south.

I was one of the first pilots to arrive. There was clearly plenty of wind and staying up would not be a problem. I had a nice early flight but conditions were pretty weak - it's a west facing site and starts working relatively late. Most people were ridge soaring just above launch height; I found a slow thermal that got me half-way up the Dormilliouse but then it fizzled out. I decided to top land and wait for conditions to strengthen.

Conditions were much easier on my second flight and I managed to get above the Dormilliouse. The views were absolutely stunning but I didn't get photographs to do them justice (too bumpy for manual photos, my helmet cam was 'full'). At this point, a standard flight heads SSE along a ridge; but that was exactly downwind and the strong wind would complicate logistics. So I flew out from the peak and completed a nice little triangle before top-landing.

I would have taken a third flight, but the wind was slightly stronger. The number of pilots, the relative inexperience of some, the tricky launch conditions and the small size of launch were all great for the spectators. But they resulted in a long wait for anyone wanting to launch and a few anxious moments. I decided it wasn't worth the risk or the wait.

There actually was a petanque competition going on just by the landing area. One pilot's top-landing attempt went a bit awry and he landed in the middle of game. No-one was hurt, but I couldn't help wondering what the petanque rules say about such an event....

As I suspected, the only flights at St Andre were early morning sled rides, so I felt it was worth the trip.

First flight
Second flight
Some pics
Info on St Vincents

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Leisurely Bike Ride

One of the problems with flying in St Andre is the timing of the forecasts; Aeroweb's forecast is pretty good, but only appears at 9.45. That leaves plenty of time to go flying - even if you walk up the hill - but, at this time of year, it complicates things if you decide not to fly. Alternative activities like hiking and cycling are a lot more pleasant if you start them in the cool of the morning.

Today was one of those days. The flying forecasts had a lot of good things; hot, unstable, not a huge risk of overdevelopment. But it also looked pretty windy. Maybe not too windy, but right on the upper limit. One of these days where it could be very good or very bad....

There were three options;

  1. give it a go at St Andre
  2. drive about 1.5 hrs to Montclar (which is more sheltered than St Andre), take the chairlift up and fly there (possibly back to St Andre...)
  3. do something else

In the end, I decided to go a bike ride. I'd flown the last two days and the forecast for Sunday wasn't bad; I think I would have gone to Montclar otherwise. But by the time I was ready, it was already hot. Around here, most rides involve a lot of climbing, and that is tough when it's hot. So I took one of the flattest rides around; heading up the Verdon valley to Allos. The outbound route involved fighting gravity (which has got strangely stronger over the last few years) and I knew the return route would involve fighting the valley wind.

On the way back, I stopped at Villars-Colmars for lunch, and a very nice lunch it was too. I limited my wine intake for obvious reasons and had a very sedate ride back to St Andre. By then, the valley winds were stronger (or maybe they just seemed stronger), but I had taken onboard enough ballast to get through them. Back home, I was able to watch the Tour de France on the tele and feel I was some sort of 'insider' after my bike ride.

I looked to see if there were any wings in the sky and didn't see any; it's after 8 pm and I haven't seen anything other than birds flying today. Unfortunately, the balise (wind-talker) at St Andre isn't working, but neighboring balises all show high winds this afternoon. So I think I made a smart choice - but maybe I will find out tomorrow that a bunch of pilots had 100K flights!

Friday, July 16, 2010

High Wind Thermal Flying

The last two days have had good XC forecasts - but, unfortunately, reality hasn't quite matched the forecasts. Both days have had high winds; not too strong to fly, but strong enough to make XC much harder.

There are lots of places when strongish winds help XC flying. Tow launched flat-land flying is an extreme case; high wind tow launches aren't very difficult, there is no terrain induced turbulence and you can land anywhere. And, of course, the wind can help build distance; even if you are parked under a cloud, you are moving downwind.

Even in the Alps, a talented pilot can use a high wind to his advantage (e.g. big alpine flight). But I didn't notice anyone thriving in the conditions we've had in St Andre the last two days.

One of the problems here is that LZs are limited; you can't just head where the wind is taking you. Both days, I tended to fall out the back of thermals (the wind pushes you much more than the thermal) and (instead of flying circles) I had to deliberately push into the wind on every turn. Things are much bumpier, especially when you fall below ridge height. And the wind direction was never constant; it changes with the terrain and your altitude. When your tracklog doesn't show circles or ellipses, but instead a sort of wave pattern, you know it has been windy!

Anyway, I've enjoyed the last two days flying, but I hope the winds are less strong tomorrow!

Tracklogs for yesterday and today

Monday, July 12, 2010

Escape from Lambruisse

I left Etienne (my son) in bed and sneaked away for a flight. The ride up on the shuttle was quick, but there wasn't much action on launch. It looked like a slow day and I launched towards the end, but didn't have too much trouble finding lift. Clouds were building from the S, so heading N was the obvious thing to do.

Everything went pretty quickly until Lambruisse. I had a glider ahead of me and a little higher and I saw that he was in huge sink; so I took a route further to the W but found myself in monster sink too. I managed to get into the slope above the village and at least escaped the worst of the sink. There were some little bubbles of lift in the sink and I concentrated on working them as best I could. I saw another glider land as I went from slowly descending, to maintaining and then very slowly climbing. After about 5 minutes things improved to the point when I could do a full 360 in weak lift.

A few minutes later I was back at ridge height, wondering what to do next. I decided to head to the Grand Cordeil, hoping for a return to St Andre. I really wanted to get high here, because I had to fight a strong wind to get back. But, despite arriving well above the peak, I couldn't find any decent lift; by the time I was level with the peak I decided to try another approach and headed N and cross the Thorame valley.

My intent was to get high on the other side of the valley and then head N to Allos. But this didn't work either and I ended up landing at Thorame Haute and taking the petit train back to St Andre.

I tried two things at the Grand Cordeil, and neither worked. This left me wondering if I was too indecisive; maybe if I had committed to one route or the other, I'd have found the lift I needed. But, I have to say, I was very happy with my flight - especially working my way back up at Lambruisse.

Etienne was up by the time I was home and we headed down to the lake for a swim!

Tracklog and Pics

Being a Tourist

We are all tourists, of course. And for the last few days I've been acting as a tourist where I now live. My son is visiting me in St Andre and my ex-wife stayed for a few days and we did all the standard sort of things.

The little train makes it easy to visit surrounding villages and to have a 'full' lunch without having to worry about driving. The Verdon is a nice, cool place to be in the heat of the afternoon. Fortified villages abound here - this was the boundary between France and Italy. And the hiking is pretty special when you get into the Mercantour; we did a gentle family one plus a more 'sporty' 3000m peak.

Some pics and info...

Petit Train
Easy hike
Fortified village
3000m Peak

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Summertime arrives

Over the last few days the weather has improved at St Andre. Although clouds have built up in the afternoon, there have been no storms and it has been possible to fly through the afternoon. I've been getting some reasonable flights, including a nice evening one.

Saturday's forecast was reasonably good and there were quite a few pilots on launch when I drove up with Bjorn. We watched pilots launch and generally struggle; we launched at the end of the bunch and headed N. Bjorn headed through some lift I turned in and that was it - I lost contact with him about 5 minutes after launching.

I got reasonably high before continuing N and flew over some pilots at the Antennae and felt very superior. But then I got my come-uppance as I struggled for lift and ended up joining them. After messing around for 10 minutes I flew back to the Antennae to get high again. The wind was strengthening from the W all the time and the thermals were leaning back a lot.

At this point I probably should have headed East (no-one seemed to be making good progress to the N) and tried to get back to St Andre by Argens - that way I would have made some decent use of the W wind. But I continued heading N and then struggled for lift on the ridge above Lambruisse and had to commit to one side or the other. Staying on the W side of the ridge would have been more logical. But if I sank out, I would end up landing in the same area as the day before and didn't fancy that. So I headed over on the lee side of the ridge, still hoping to pick up a thermal. But I barely got a beep and I ended up landing at Thorame Basse; two pilots from Nice were there and I was able to share their retrieve.

Back in St Andre, I had time to watch Germany destroy Argentina (a figure of speech, it was only a football game), then walk up the hill to collect my car, and then watch Spain versus Paraguay.

Pics ->
Tracklog ->

My son will be visiting me for the next couple of weeks and I won't be flying very much (if at all) when he is here. But I'm glad we seem to be finally getting some reasonably flying conditions.