Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ballasting Up

It's unusual to get a nice surprise in the mail, but I did yesterday. My employer (Autodesk) sent me a booklet of 'cheques dejeuner' (luncheon vouchers). They allow me to spend 9 Euros a day in a local restaurant. The French don't mess around when it comes to food...

So today I had my first 'working lunch', an excellent couscous. Maybe I should order my XL wing now…

Evening Hike and Fly

I haven't had an evening flight in the last 2 or 3 months - I'm much more into midday flying. I'll be visiting Scotland in the next few days (and I won't be taking a wing there) and recent conditions haven't warranted an afternoon flight, so I fancied an evening flight. The weather has been beautiful but cold for the last few days; very cold air has fought a warm sun and generally won.

After a decent day's work I packed my lightweight gear (beach harness, speed wing, warm clothes and not much else) and headed up the hill. The combination of cold air and lightweight gear made the hike up a real pleasure.

On launch I found around 20 pilots monitoring the wind strength; to me it seemed to be strong but launchable (with a normal wing). As I got ready, some pilots launched and by the time I joined them conditions were much less strong. With my little wing I struggled more than most as the lift weakened and slowly got lower before heading to the LZ after maybe 45 minutes. Everyone seemed to run out of lift at around the same time and landed together.

The circus is visiting St Andre and a bunch of pilots and I packed up our wings watched by various animals!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Back home...

I've been in the States for the last 2 weeks or so on a business trip. It went pretty well from a business and visiting (both friends and family) viewpoint, but the weather was too poor to fly or hike. Even when these trips go well, they are tiring; long days at work, little exercise and lots of eating all take their toll.

Today was my first day back in St Andre. I was due to fly in a little weekend comp, but the forecast (especially for today) was poor and it was cancelled. I got up late and had a nice hike in the mountains N of St Andre; winds, some clouds, some sun. The higher peaks had a dusting of new snow and we're clearly in the fall.

It's good to be back!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

British Open Follow Up

There was quite a bit of controversy during and after the British Open in St Andre, and (at least for a St Andre resident) it makes interesting reading. Quite a bit of it is related to the 'standard' competition debate ("are competitions dangerous?") but a lot of it is specific to the nature of the event and (according to some) St Andre.

While there are competitions in the UK, the British hold their championships abroad principally for logistical reasons. XCs in Britain are fickle beasts, where you have to choose exactly the right site at the right time using detailed weather forecasts. Most of these sites are very small and couldn't support 150 pilots. And then there would be lots of driving just to get to the sites, never mind do the retrieves.

Holding the competition abroad allows them to choose a single site that will work reliably through a week. This year, they choose a week in Slovenia and a week at St Andre. St Andre is both a common and popular choice; a lot of the pilots know it very well. 

Intimidating terrain at St Andre
But, of course, it is alpine flying and presents a bunch of problems an XC pilot in Britain will rarely see - intimidating terrain, strong thermals and valley winds. There are certainly less intimidating places that could host a competition where the flying would be more familiar to a British XC pilot. And a number of the pilots feel that the competition should be held at such sites. 

This is a debate for British pilots (I'm British and a pilot but not, for this purpose, a British pilot) - how do they want to choose their champion, what sort of event do they want? But the economics actually broaden the debate. The event was oversubscribed and capped at 150 pilots; but the majority were not "British pilots" and there's an argument that choosing "less interesting sites" would reduce attendance and make the event uneconomic.

And then there were a lot of incidents; 14 in total, 10 of which were reserve rides - fortunately without any serious injuries. A shockingly high number, especially on one day when there were 5 deployments. I'm told all the pilots accepted responsibility for their incidents, rather than believing they were the victims of a malevolent site or task committee or plain bad luck. The organizers certainly treated safety seriously (for example, everyone flew with a live tracker) and I wouldn't fault any of their decisions. Most of the incidents seem to me to be caused by 'the urge to compete' overcoming normal piloting decisions; maybe augmented by less experienced pilots following others into dubious places. But, of course, others interpret the events a bit differently!

You can read more at Judith's blog and at the paragliding forum.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Plan B....

The forecast looked really good; top of lift maybe 3000m, light winds, blue sky; a local club gave it 4/4. Nothing suggested an early start was needed, I had plenty of work to do, so I arrived on launch at around 12.20. I ate my lunch as people started launching and got off towards the back of the group.

Big lift (quick climb up 1000m) then big sink (1:1 or 2:1 on full bar). Headed N and got stuck at L'Allier. I yo-yoed between ridge height and 200 m over but couldn't build the altitude for the next transition. There were maybe 8 other pilots in the same boat. It seemed like an inversion around 1900m was making life hard; the wind was also stronger than forecast (probably because it was trapped below the inversion).

I could have tried to make the transition low, but generally the next ridge (Charvet) is normally more stable than L'Allier so I didn't see the point. I could have waited until the inversion broke or I found a strong enough thermal, but I was getting fed up. So I decided to fly S back along the ridge to launch and then come  back - I was sure things would improve by then and at least I'd have the feeling of going somewhere.

Back at launch, I got a nice climb and noticed that there was a building cloud on the route E to the Crete des Serres. So I changed plan and headed there and had a nice ridge run to the Pic de Chamatte, turned round and landed at La Mure. I went to see Ray and drank a beer before he dropped me back in St Andre.

Not the route I intended to fly, and a little disappointing compared to the forecast, but it was a very pleasant 2.5 hour flight!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Windy End to the British Open

Today didn't look suitable for decent flying, and I normally wouldn't have gone up the hill. The forecasts were calling for 10 knots from the NW at almost all levels and that normally doesn't work here - too strong and not the best direction at low altitudes. But it wasn't completely ridiculous, so everyone went up the hill.

A task was called that took reasonable account of the winds - wide cylinders round some of the turn-points, wide valleys in easy glide most of the time - with the window opening at noon. Like several of the days, the start involved a tricky glide into the wind, to wait in an exit cylinder over a rounded hill out front.

Waves of Lenticular Clouds from the LZ at La Mure
I launched 15 minutes after the window opened and (unusually for St Andre) didn't find it easy to get high. In fact, shortly before the start I found myself low, well below ridge height, and struggling to get back up. When I got back up, I was alone, and I hadn't even started the tricky glide. Not good.

I set off low, with some wings ahead of me, in the hope someone would find a thermal. No-one did, I tried some promising lavender fields and they didn't work. I found myself really low around Hyeges before working my way back up above ridge height. All the time the wind was strengthening. I got high again and tried to cross to the start again, but the wind was far too strong by now.

I returned to the ridge, and admired the waves of lenticular clouds. After nearly a two hour flight, I decided the wind was getting too strong for safe flying and headed to La Mure to land. Just as I made that decision, the task was stopped. It feels a little strange to fly for so long and so hard, just to get minimum distance!

The air was a little sinky on the way to La Mure, and I used about 1/4 bar to punch through it. Google Earth gave me 75 Kph on that part of the flight; despite the strong winds, the air was reasonably laminar (the advantage of landing at La Mure) and I had an uneventful landing.

No-one got goal, but the task was scored. Thankfully, there were no deployments or other incidents today.

Some info on the wings? Ozone R10s had an amazing dominance; 15 of the first 20 overall places, with 2 of the rest being other Ozone wings. But the spread was more than that - the 'last' R10 was in 124th place. 40 out of 150 wings were R10s, with another 18 Ozone wings in the field. 

Some info on the pilots? Russ Ogden won fairly comfortably. I don't really know if all the R10s are 'the same', but if that's the case his win is all the more impressive. 

Some info on the conditions? 6 flying days out of 7, but 2 of the 6 days were stopped (not cancelled) which isn't bad at all.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Bad Day at the Office?

One of the striking things about paragliding is how unpredictable it is. You're standing at launch, the forecast is good, you feel confident, a line of little puffy clouds is encouraging. It looks like a great day and you have every chance to fly 100K - but… you might sink out after 10 minutes. 

But that's not the most striking thing about paragliding. There is obviously a big difference between (say) a good day's and a bad day's hiking; good views versus no views, being comfortable versus being wet. But that all pales in comparison with paragliding, where a seemingly small mistake can leave you in the hospital or worse. In paragliding, a bad day can be very bad. So keeping a sense of perspective is important - I wish sinking out early was the worst thing that could happen in paragliding!

There was a good forecast for today and a 83K task was called. It actually looked like the easiest task so far, because most of it was over relatively high terrain. For the first time, we had cumulus clouds. I started half-way through the order and flew onto the Antennae with a gaggle, not at all worried about sinking out - after all, I've flown there at least 30 times, and never sunk out. Up at 2000m, clouds were a problem.

Then the unthinkable happened; the gaggle as a whole started to malfunction. Things had overdeveloped horizontally and the whole area was in the shade. The gaggle kept circling, but it was going down. At this point, if I'd ignored the gaggle and stayed on the ridge, I'm sure I would have been fine; I might have been stuck there for 30 minutes but I'd have got away eventually.

But I kept following this dysfunctional gaggle (making it even more dysfunctional in the process). Oh, the gaggle is circling out front; I head out front even though it doesn't seem to be going up. I arrive, and it is slowing going down. I turn and see that the gaggle has gone back to the ridge. So I head back there, but now I'm 100m lower.

In the end I landed after a very short flight with around 25 others - almost all of them with a story similar to mine. In the end the day didn't match the forecasts; only about 40% of the field made goal.  

Going back to my earlier point (what's a bad day in paragliding), the first 'early-lander' I met had hit a powerline in landing and destroyed his wing. There was a deployment that ended in the trees (at this point, I don't know the state of the pilot). Me - I had a one hour flight, with two nice 500m climbs before a safe landing. 

Not that bad…

Thursday, September 2, 2010

British Open - day four

Today's forecast had some good things (weak winds) and some not so good things (high cirrus, subsidence aloft), so a fairly short, technical task was called on the lowish terrain out west of launch. Things were very slow on launch, with the incoming breeze following the sun round the sky. To start with, it was over the back; for a long time, it was 90 degrees cross from the S. It was a long time before the wind dummies could launch, never mind stay up. Conditions seemed to strengthen when they straightened out and suddenly launching (especially the new Ozone gliders) was a challenge.

The start involved a transition into the wind, waiting on some shallow terrain, then entering a 8K cylinder. I launched towards the end of the sequence and went across (I think) with the third gaggle. Start was generally uneventful, get the first turn-point and head S; the wind was mostly from the WSW but not too strong, so you could make progress. But I was either climbing in a thermal or on around 1/2 or 3/4 bar all the time - very little time to relax.

The second turnpoint was a long way to the S and I was relatively low when I got it. By this time, there was a thick veil of cirrus, but there were still workable thermals and I managed to get back up. I headed NW towards the third turnpoint, but conditions were weakening all time. I felt if you could get this turnpoint, things would get easier - basically just a downwind run to goal. By now, I was towards the back of the pack.

I got onto a slope leading to the turn-point at mid height, expecting to get some lift from the valley winds but that didn't happen. I headed back to the road and was surprised to find the wind in the valley from the N (i.e. 'downhill'). Anyway, I landed after 3 hrs 20 minutes, just over 2/3 of the way round the course, very happy with my flight.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

British Open - day three

The forecasts were pretty good for today; not too windy, sunny, blue skies, but with a possible inversion to deal with. Things were happening slowly on launch, and a 101 Km task was 'simplified' to a 90Km task. Basically a 35K run N to the Tete de l'Estrop, a tricky transition back to Cheval Blanc then a ridge run SW along the 'Montagne de Coupe' and back to goal. Easier said than done…

I had arrived in plenty of time to make my preparations; in particular, I kited my wing in weak conditions to make sure I was ready to launch. The start was very simple - basically fly 4 or 5 K along the main ridge and exit the cylinder. (Comps give one hour between launch opening and the task starting; sometimes, you need that hour because the start is hard; and sometimes - like today - you really only need 15 minutes. This all worked out fortunately for me today).

While there wasn't abundant lift, conditions had become strong on launch. Most of the pilots blasted off at the start of the window. I compromised between when I wanted to launch (maybe 30 minutes into the window) and avoiding launch blowing out (which it was on the verge of doing). With the strong conditions, the marshals helped everyone launch. 

And they helped me too; but normally I pull out the wing tips and make sure the wing is ready to inflate. Today, I was a little lazy and left that to the marshals. In strong conditions, all these things become harder and they threaded a wing tip through the lines. When I went to build a wall, it didn't look pretty….

I ended up disconnecting and setting it all up again. All the time, conditions were strengthening, but I was acutely aware that I might not fly. 15 minutes before the task started, I launched dead last. I almost connected with the bottom of the gaggle as the task started.

The flying was reasonable and I joined up with several wings. After yesterday's fiasco, I was very attentive on glide. Onto Costa Longue with a group of wings and no real trouble getting established. Near the summit, I was probably a little conservative and let too many wings fly off while I built altitude.

I got established over the Montagne de Boules and then tried a couple of times to commit myself to the glide to the first way point. But the wind was strengthening from the N all the time and I turned back twice. While I could have gone on a 'death glide' and got a few more points, I decided to turn round and have a better flight. My second attempt had left me low on on the mountain and I struggled to work my way up.

Once I did so, I could join the pilots that had tagged the first waypoint. I had a decision to make; try to fight around Cheval Blanc with the 'real pilots' or simply glide back to the super tempting Thorame Valley.

Conditions were very rough; there were 5 parachute deployments; most or all were on Cheval Blanc. Does this sound like 'wimp justification'? Anyway, I took the easy option and was very happy with my 2.5+hr flight.

Back at the front of the field, 87 of the 150 pilots made goal, with times from 2 hrs 20 minutes to 5+ hrs. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.