Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Shirt Sleeve Hiking

At this time of year, a good day is very warm in the sun and absolutely freezing in the shade. From a clothing perspective, layers is the name of the game - you can spend a lot of time adding or removing them.

Today was glorious, with almost no wind, and I was on a ridge almost all day. No shade so shirt sleeves were the order of the day until the sun started to set. Absolutely beautiful - a great way to end the year (I'll be away for the next few days).

A few pics.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Xmas Thermals

The last 2 or 3 weeks in St Andre have been cold, sunny, clear, dry and windy. There's still very little snow - even on the higher peaks - and things aren't predicted to change in the next week. I've been doing quite a bit of hiking and some hike on flies in the less windy days. When the weather is this nice, winter is very bearable and Xmas has almost sneaked up on me.

I'll be away for the New Year but I was glad to sneak a flight today. Little sharp-edged thermal bubbles were good for a hundred meters or so above launch. I didn't fly for very long, but it was nice to turn in some circles and admire the scenery. The Xmas duck is in the oven bubbling nicely now.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Practice Day...

You don't really expect decent flying just before the winter solstice. But today's forecast looked very promising and I had hopes of a mini-XC. The one caveat was the possibility of high cloud - even in St Andre, that's asking a lot of a December sun.

As I hiked up, cloud cover increased. There was no wind at all until the last 50m to launch. Launch was very cold and deserted, with a brisk south wind. There was at least 7/8 cloud cover (cloud base was about 400m over launch)  and it seemed like a sled ride was the best the day had to offer. 

It was too cold to hang around, so I wolfed down my lunch and got ready. I flew off the S side and found just enough bubbles to maintain. I persevered, hoping the sun would break through and transform the flying. I gradually worked up to 100m above launch but no more. The flying was entertaining, but - without the sun - it was impossible to go anywhere. 

I was pretty cold - another problem when there's no sun - and landed just short of an hour. A little disappointing, but good practice for better days...  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fall and Winter Hiking in One Day

Saturday was a hiking day and I headed to La Garde to climb a mountain, les Quatre Termes. This time last year St Andre was under snow, but there is very little snow this year. This is unlikely to last, so it makes sense to climb these peaks when you can. The hike was as I expected - cold, blue skies, invigorating, lovely views - with two notable things.

The first was the weather. The hike started at 900m and the weather was fall-like, lovely for hiking. Conditions were very stable, and at around 1400m I crossed the boundary layer. Suddenly I was into a strong meteo wind and in much lower temperatures; from fall to winter in a 100m. For that point on, I wore all my layers and kept moving until I got back below the boundary layer on the way down.

And, as a complete surprise, I met some horses. I popped up from a steep slope and there they were, just below the summit, near a shepherd's summer cabin. They looked cold and miserable. There were 8 of them, I divided my apple in 8 and tried to share it equally between them. But they didn't form an orderly queue (well, they are french horses, after all...).

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hike and Fly Season is Open

Defining a hike and fly is a little tricky for me. I hike up to launch for almost every flight, but today was my first "hike and fly" of the season. Normally, I fly, and hiking is just how I reach launch. Today I hiked with an efficient descent system in my backpack. My equipment and clothing was chosen for hiking, not flying.

The weather the last week or so has been beautiful in St Andre - sunny, dry, clear and very stable. Very warm in the sun and freezing in the shade. There has often been an inversion at launch height - no lift there - but bumpy, hard to exploit, lift lower down. Great weather for hiking, not really that good for flying. The pattern continued today and I made good use of it by hiking the Crete des Serres and flying back to St Andre.

The hike was lovely; once you climb up to the ridge you have wonderful 360 views. But, like many hike and fly sites here, launch is tricky. Not quite a cliff launch (the snow makes it one in winter) but almost. You have to find a spot to inflate your wing that isn't in the rotor and then kite it to the edge. The wind was strong and I kited my speed wing for 2 or 3 minutes before committing to the flight. On the ridge top, the wind was straight in, but once in the air it was very cross and not easily soarable. I didn't insist and instead enjoyed the flight out.

Almost 3 hours hiking for 10 minutes flying, but that's not the right way to look at it. A great hike and an enjoyable descent! A few pics.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My Favorite Hike

I have a favorite hike around St Andre and I did it today for the 4th time - and the first time by myself. It is the Tour de Courradour, a sort of triangular tour around a highish (nearly 2200m) mountain surrounded by higher ones. It's not too long (the guidebooks quote 4 or 5 hours) or strenuous and a reasonable 'stretch' for visitors not really into hiking. It also works well in the heat of the summer, because a lot of it is in the shade.

The variation I do actually visits the summit; the views are sensational and it's a wonderful spot for lunch - sitting on flat grass at the edge of a precipice, with wonderful views in all directions. The bigger peaks were in the clouds today, but it was as special a place as ever.

A few pics.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Late Fall Hiking

It's a wonderful time of year in St Andre. This is the quietest time of year, before the skiing brings the tourists back. Most of the shops in the village close for a couple of weeks in November. The weather has been lovely - cold, sunny and clear. A little chilly for flying, but lovely for hiking or hike and flies. I took a couple of highish altitude hikes over the weekend, knowing that the snow will be arriving soon and making such things a lot harder. 

Pics from Saturday and Sunday

Friday, November 11, 2011

St Andre Scratchfest

The 11th of November is Armistice Day in France and a public holiday. St Andre is one of the few flyable places at this time of year, so eager pilots come from all over. It was a S launch day (always a bit trickier at St Andre) and, after my hike up, I was surprised to find only a handful of pilots there. Half a dozen wings were in the air - roughly at launch height - and there were many wings in the LZ.

As I got ready, more and more pilots arrived and suddenly launch was quite crowded. I launched and was immediately followed by several pilots. After 5 minutes I found a decent thermal and got 300m over launch. Things seemed very comfortable but I decided to wait for cloudbase to rise a little before going XC. 

But the weather didn't cooperate. The day was clouding over, and the thermals didn't last that long. As the lift diminished, more and more pilots took to the air. I soon found myself scratching in a tricky mix of ridge lift and thermals with an awful lot of pilots. To add to the problems, someone in St Andre was burning vegetation and - with the low winter sun sometimes poking through the clouds - visibility was poor. 

I'm the blue wing top right (Stephane from the LZ)
I flew pretty conservatively, avoiding the worst of the crowds, until the skies cleared out a bit. At that point, there were really no thermals to speak off. Weak ridge lift was the only game in town - a pleasant change at St Andre! I'm almost at the top of the weight range on my new wing, so I was please to see that it performed well in these conditions. 

After nearly 2 hours I headed to the LZ and joined a lot of happy pilots. Someone counted over 60 wings in the air when traffic was at its worst. I talked to a pilot from St Hilaire; his club couldn't find accommodation in St Andre and they were staying in a Gite in a neighboring village. 

A few pics - all taken before I got into the heavy traffic!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Deluge in St Andre

The weather has been very dry for a long time in St Andre, but everything changed at the start of November.  Sandwiched between a couple of French holidays on the 1st and 11th of November, a week of very wet weather was forecast.

It has been very wet, with plenty of storms and winds. The lightning has played havoc with church clock and bells; they seem to get it fixed each day only for it to fail again overnight. The big concern in the area is flooding; so far the Verdon has stayed within its banks. There are still a couple of days of rain to go, but hopefully we are over the worst.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Optimism Pays Off

My girlfriend arrives tomorrow for a 10 day stay, the morning's forecasts were good so grabbing a lunch-time flight was an easy choice. 

But as soon as I left the front door, the signs weren't so good. The clouds were screaming out of the north (a bad direction for strong winds at St Andre) and the trees were moving a lot. Near the summit I encountered a pilot walking down with his gear - the signs can't get much worse than that!

We talked and I decided to continue, if for no other reason than to have my lunch on the summit. I was hoping the winds would weaken as the inversion rose. At launch, the wind was strong but seemed manageable and a couple of HG flew. I checked the wind carefully for about 30 minutes before launching. The flying was interesting; at this time of year you sometimes have to work a little harder to stay up than in the middle of the summer, but things are still plenty spicy in the air. After just over an hour I headed back to work just as pilots started arriving on launch.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sharing the Sky

I flew Sunday, but not for terribly long; it was bumpy, cold and hard to get high. After an hour or so I decided to land.

At one point I encountered around 12 vultures in a thermal and couldn't resist joining them. The vultures live in a big colony in the Verdon gorge just to the south and fly the paragliding trade routes in their search for food. If you see them flapping you know it's going to be a slow day.

They didn't really seem to care about or even acknowledge my presence. They circle very smoothly, but are obviously a lot more maneuverable than a paraglider. At one point a vulture turned sharply in some lift and was heading towards me. I knew he could see me and my wing, but I was worried he would fly into my lines. But no; full air brakes on, he dove under me and glided away, doubtless cursing amateur pilots.

PS Maybe I treated this too lightly. A few days later this article appeared on the paragliding forum and you can see the action in this video. I don't think I'll join any vultures in thermals any more.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My New Baby...

I have a new wing and I'm just starting to put her through her paces. It's a Factor 2 (the blue one) and so far, so good. 

I've been flying a Factor 1 but my new wing brings two big differences. It's a a 3 liner, rather than a 4 liner, and should fly a little faster and glide a little better. And, more important, I'm now flying a Small rather than a Medium wing. 

I have really liked my Factor 1; reasonable performance, tons of feedback, very few collapses and (like all Novas) very agile. It has seen me through thick and thin. But, due to personal and equipment weight loss, I'm now only 30% of the way through the weight range. For the flying I do, that doesn't make sense. With my new wing I'm at 80 - 90%, and that's much better for St Andre!

I had a hike and fly yesterday (the wind was predicted to pick up in the afternoon, so I flew early) and all seemed well. Today's forecast looked really good, but reality was different. What looked like a 3000m platform turned out to be 2000m - and it was bloody hard to get that high! But all the better for trying out my new wing; it performed very well in difficult conditions. A little more speed, lighter controls and speed bar, easier to spiral, big ears that work, no collapses when other pilots were having them, working weak lift over the LZ - not bad! There's still plenty to learn, but so far, so good.

A not very impressive tracklog.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hiking Weekend

The Mistral blew strong on Friday and Saturday and was still strong enough to stop any flying (except early morning sledders) on Sunday. What's bad for flying is great for hiking and I took full advantage this weekend. Blue skies, big views and just the beginnings of fall colors - lovely.

It was strange to see no snow at all on the highest peaks - the end of the summer has been very dry. The sheep have left the high pastures and are making their way back to the lowlands.  Back home, I put the central heating on for a few minutes on Saturday night. There's definitely a feeling of the seasons changing.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Fall Flying in St Andre

For the first time this year, I've been able to fly quite a bit for the last 3 weeks. As summer moves into fall the flying day starts later and that (together with a flexible work schedule) has allowed a number of late lunchtime flights. Most of those have been little loops or triangles allowing me to land in St Andre and get back to work.

Peak climb rates have stayed high - between 8m/s and 13 m/s (1600 - 2600 ft/min in old money). But, especially towards the end of the month, it has been weaker and you've had to work noticeably harder to stay up, sometimes getting stuck for 30 minutes or more on ridges. At first, I found this a bit disappointing. But I quickly came to enjoy it; it makes the flying a bit more satisfying. 

I flew a nice little loop today; nearly 3 hours, on some seldom flown peaks out to the west of the 'trade routes'. These smaller, rounder peaks give much less lift than the standard highways - especially at this time of year. I was stuck on the Mouchon for 20 minutes before I could transition back to Chalvet and then St Andre. Not very far, but challenging and satisfying, 

 Tracklog and pics.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Yet Another Allos Flight

I've flown to Allos 3 or 4 times earlier this year. I had another flight there today, but I can safely say I worked harder for my flight today than in all those earlier flights combined. Instead of cruising above ridge height, I was below ridge height for quite a while. 

When I got high afterwards, staying out of the clouds was the problem. I landed in Allos with a group of Swiss. One of the pilots had got caught in the clouds and was very relieved to be on the ground; he told us stories of all his lines freezing up as he sat in a puddle of cold water. 

I hitched back and got a lift right away from a lovely couple from Avignon.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

C'est la Saison

Sometimes the explanations are so simple they escape us. I was on launch, hoping for a 2 hour lunch time flight, but conditions were very weak. Those who launched, struggled.

I waited, hoping for an improvement and a little puzzled. I talked to a local, saying things were a little slow today. "Oui, c'est la saison" was the reply - that's the season. I'd kind of forgotten it was past the equinox and the season was drawing to a close! 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Big Clouds and Storms

As I'm writing this, it's 7pm and a big storm has just passed through St Andre; the thunder is still rumbling. Every now and then there is a flash of lightening, often accompanied by a two second electricity break. 

The day was predicted to get stormy in the late afternoon, so I had planned on an early flight. The clouds started forming early; growing tall with little cloud caps. Higher up, there were waves of lenticular clouds. After an hour of flying I decided fly over to Maurel from L'Allier (a little transition I've never made before) and land at La Mure.

I got onto the summit of Maurel and there was plenty of lift, big clouds and blue sky. But there was also a great big cloud covering all of St Andre, Meouilles and Chalvet. In a few seconds, it developed vertically and La Mure was also in the shade. I hurried to land and just had got my wing packed before the thunder and lightning started. You can see the cloud growing here

Surprisingly it didn't start raining for another 3 hours; though we had thunder and gusty winds all afternoon. When it finally arrived, it was sudden and heavy. This all worked out very well for the Foire Agricole - and for me.

La Foire Agricole

It's the farmers fair in St Andre today and all the streets (ok, both of the main streets) of St Andre are covered with little booths selling all sort of 'artisanal' goods. There are a lot of people attending and - especially in the very center - the booths are crowded. There's not enough room to swing a cat in St Andre today!

From my front door, I stepped straight into the market where I found a paraglider pilot selling his olives. With all the crowds, it took me an extra 10 minutes to walk to launch today!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Saturday Triangle

Because of my son's visit, I hadn't flown for two weeks and was very keen to fly. The forecasts were good but not stellar. By the time I got up the hill, I found a lot of grumpy pilots on the S launch. It was a long time before anyone got above launch, but pretty much from then on it was working.

In the air, the meteo wind was roughly SE, so I took advantage of this and flew over some seldom flown, lower, rounder mountains out to the W. After a while, I got high over the Sommet de la Sapee and looped back to St Andre in a triangle and then did a couple of out and back ridge runs before landing in St Andre just short of 4 hours. 

Conditions improved as the day went on and I could easily have flown for another couple of hours, but I'd had my fix. I didn't go very far but it's always satisfying to land back in St Andre after a long flight.   

Friday, September 9, 2011

Etienne's Visit

My son has been out visiting for the last 10 or so days. He's doing very well in the rowing team at college and wanted to use the trip for some pre-season training. So we did a lot of cycling and a little bit of hiking.

The first problem was finding a road bike that fitted him. We were really lucky and found an excellent early nineties bike; it needed some TLC but for 200 Euros we had a bike that new today would be over $6,000. 

We used to cycle together 6 or 7 years ago but hadn't since. As I expected, our "performance curves" have crossed some time in the last few years. He probably hadn't done a ride over 1 hour before coming out, but he took to it very easily. 

We had some long, hard bike rides (of course, they strangely seemed longer and harder to me). The weather was reasonably cooperative - warm but not too hot. Of course, we're in the Alps, and there are lots of steep 10 - 15 Km climbs. And we're in France, so lots of nice restos for lunch. I appreciated the latter more than the former. On the last day - accompanied by Ray - we had a 7+ hour day that left us all nicely tired - the perfect preparation for Etienne's cross-atlantic flight!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cheval Blanc Weekend

Saturday was clearly non flyable and I went a long hike up Cheval Blanc (2300m, 7500 ft). Wonderful mistral weather - cool, windy, sunny - in fact, it was almost too cold. The only things flying wore feathers, and it was impressive watching them; the vultures were still able to make progress to the North (from their colony near Rougon). 

Sunday was flyable, but the skies were curiously empty. A HG competition has just finished and pilots are arriving for a PG competition, so I expected lots of pilots in the air. But no - I saw many more sailplanes than PG or HG in the air. 

Forecasts indicated a strong inversion and that's how it seemed. I flew onto Cheval Blanc hoping to head further N but struggled to get high enough to warrant continuing. I spent around an hour on the peak, going backwards and forwards looking for good lift. The most I got was 100m over the summit - with views very similar to when I was walking - before calling it a day.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Back Home...

I got back from Portland and Brussels on Saturday evening to find "le village en fête". There are all sorts of things going on, including the circus, a kiddies fair, a pétanque competition, music and fireworks. 

The music went on until 2 am but no-one told the church bells - they started as usual at 7 am. I managed to get back to sleep but couldn't ignore the the 9 am bells. Over a bleary eyed breakfast I saw that the forecast was good for flying but very hot (34C or 93F). Late start, really hot - obviously a day to ride the shuttle to launch. I also took the opportunity to borrow a small Mentor 2 wing from the local school, Aerogliss.

Up on launch, another surprise - loads of hang-gliders taking part in a comp. HGs and PGs use different launches at St Andre, so this wasn't a problem but it was nice to see so many darts in one place.

I tried to fly the Montagne de Coupe (a classic, though seldom flown, triangle) but didn't follow all of the route. The wind was from an unusual direction (SSE) and got stronger and stronger, making the return to St Andre problematic. In the end, I bailed and landed N of Digne. A lift back to Digne from a local, rehydration via a couple of beers and then back to St Andre by the tourist train. A very satisfying day…

The Mentor 2 was as well behaved as expected. Apart from launch (trickier - for me, anyway - because it's a 3 liner) and brake pressure (much harder than my wing), it seemed at least as good as my Factor (an older, higher rated, bigger wing). At the train station I found some scales and confirmed I'm inside the weight range of the small wing. But I didn't like the color…

The fireworks are just starting - I wonder when I'll get to sleep tonight...

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Old Friends

Back in Portland for a business trip, Saturday was flyable. I hadn't taken any flying gear for my trip, but I had 'cached' an old wing and harness in Portland for occasions like this.  So I joined Dan, Mark and Mary Beth for a day's flying - just like the old days.

Summer is a tricky time to fly in Oregon. The 'chosen' site for the day was (unusually) one I hadn't flown before - Hoover Ridge. And a pretty intimidating one it was too. From launch, you can only see trees or water and the trees seem especially close. 

Since I was flying gear that had been sitting unused in a garage for 3 years, I graciously let the other launch first. I considered my old wing a faithful companion, but it was horribly difficult to inflate in light conditions - no doubt it was badly out of trim. I struggled into the air and had an entertaining - but not terribly enjoyable - short flight, landing with Dan after about 30 minutes. You might expect a lower graded wing to feel reassuring to fly, but that wasn't the case at all. I never really felt 'in contact' with the wing - I seemed to be reacting to the wing, rather than controlling it.

Everyone landed at the same time and we all went back up to launch. The others flew, but I wasn't terribly keen - I really hadn't enjoying flying my old wing and I didn't trust it on such a technical launch. The little enthusiasm I had evaporated when another pilot launched into a tree.

We had a nice evening meal before the long drive home; typical Oregon flying, with a more driving than flying. I enjoyed my day out with my friends, but was disappointed by my old wing. I expected to find an old friend and instead found something unfamiliar and a little spooky.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Updating My Gear

I'm going through a bit of a flying gear overhaul. It's been more prolonged and involved than I expected (and I still haven't got to the wing).
It started with a lightweight pod harness. But things spread from there. The harness has a really small primitive cockpit. So my clunky GPS and vario got replaced with a single, sophisticated GPS-vario. But that wasn't the end of things; my lightweight reserve was too big for the harness reserve container; so an even smaller reserve was needed. 

There is a lot to like with these changes; lighter gear and better in-flight performance. But it isn't all positive. The gear is more fragile and needs a lot more attention - I still haven't worked out where to put a hook knife. And a bad landing is never a good idea, but (with the lack of back protection) it wouldn't be good for me or (with the lightweight materials) my gear.

Flying a pod - the Advanced Lightness - has pluses and minuses. Most of them are expected - e.g. weightshift is reduced, it's warmer, I'm sure it glides better. But some weren't. For example, my pod starts shaking as I approach a strong thermal from upwind long before my wing or my GPS have told me it's there. Or I get a blast of warm air up my leg when I enter a thermal. Nothing bad, just a little surprising...

My GPS is the Flymaster B1-Nav and it is specially designed for flying. It has a whole set of interesting features - a widget to show you the 'best lift' in your current thermal, something to tell you the wind direction and strength, funky sounds when you get near a thermal. I hope to be convinced of all their benefits soon, but I'm not quite there yet. 

But my biggest complaint with the GPS is a little embarrassing. I think the manufacturer should have done a little more analysis of their client-base. Paraglider pilots tend to be, you know, a little older than snowboarders. I can display 6 'custom' fields, but that doesn't mean I can read them. I'd prefer to display 2 or 4 fields that I can easily read.

Trip Stateside

I will be heading over to the States tomorrow for a trip that will keep me away for a couple of weeks. As I type this, the sun has just disappeared over Chalvet and I'm sitting out on the terrace, enjoying the evening cool, a local wine and watching the swallows swoop over the village. At this time of day, there is often a stream of wings heading to the LZ, after their gentle evening 'restitution' (glass-off) flights. But not today - it was a little windy, so I squeezed in a bike ride, not a flight.

I'm looking forward to my trip, but I'm also regretting leaving here and looking forward to getting back. It's hard to leave the S of France in summer. I wandered about the village this morning, just drinking in the atmosphere and snapping some photos.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lunch Time Hike and Fly

I had time for a short flight on Monday around lunch time. Saturday and Sunday afternoon had both ended in storms, and this left a lot of moisture on the ground, resulting in a sweaty hike up. I got up to launch before noon; big clouds were forming, but it was a S day, and it's much harder to climb out from the S launch than the normal W launch. Lots of people on launch, lots in the air, either maintaining or sinking out.

I launched and struggled in traffic. You know it's a difficult day at St Andre when you have to worry about ridge rules and you're looking at trees for signs of movement. But after 10 minutes struggling I caught a nice thermal and got almost 1000m over launch. No-one seemed to want to join my thermal so I enjoyed watching the other wings getting smaller below.

I really couldn't fly for very long, so I just had a nice little ride around St Andre and the Lac de Castellane before landing and getting back to work. A pity, because as the day evolved it seemed to get better and better - a much better flying day than Saturday or Sunday. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Spot On Forecast

Saturday looked good early, but the upper atmosphere is very moist and overdevelopment (both horizontal and vertical) was in the forecast. After a hot hike up the hill, I found plenty of people on launch and plenty in the air, too. Unusually at St Andre, I found myself flying in traffic for the first 10 or 15 minutes and a little worried by a couple of pilots.

I ended up flying around the Thorame valley until things shut down. I had hoped to fly back to St Andre, but there always seemed to be a monster cloud in the way. Cloudbase was relatively low - 2600m - which put many of the peaks in the clouds and discouraged me from flying further N. Some goldfish bowl flying around the Thorame valley - a relatively open, friendly place - seemed the best option. The clouds closed in very quickly, and once they did, my sink alarm seemed to be on until my feet hit the ground.

Back in St Andre with a big storm moved in from the S, with some gust fronts, before soaking the village.

A few pics and a tracklog.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Best Alarms

As I was flying the other day, a grape sized white round object hit my shoulder and bounced into my pod. Horrors, hail! I pressed my speedbar, headed to the LZ and looked behind me. Some clouds with the beginnings of mamatta but nothing indicating precipitation, never mind hail. 

A few seconds later I realized what it was. A limestone pebble in my wing had dislodged in turbulence. I continued my flight and, after landing, removed the offending stone.

I guess the best alarms are false alarms!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Refresher Course

Mistral 1 Windsock 0

The last 10 or so days have been very windy - mostly mistral weather, but also some showers (a strange combination). Although I've seen a few wings in the air, I haven't tried to fly. I tailor what I do to the weather, so instead of squeezing a flight out of a poor flying day, I go hiking or cycling. I sometimes miss flying, but it is a lot less frustrating.

I like to feel "current" with my flying; when I see a good forecast, I want to be confident I can use it. If I launch straight into a strong thermal, I want to be glad, not terrified. So once I go 2 weeks without a flight, I'm happy to accept a "practice flight". The forecasts were calm but mediocre today and I was happy to sneak a late morning flight. 

Showers were forecast for the afternoon, I had work to do, so I knew it would be a short flight. Launching towards the end of the morning was fine - it would allow me to use the 'standard' LZ before the day became too thermic. It wouldn't be easy to stay up - so better practice than launching at 1.00pm.

And that's how it worked out. I arrived at the south launch around 10.45 just as a group of pilots launched; a few of them got above launch but only for a few minutes. By the time I was ready to launch everyone had landed; I struggled in messy thermals for ten minutes before getting well above launch and boating around. Testing, but not too testing. After around 45 minutes I headed to the LZ to beat my noon "sensible landing limit" (the LZ can be very turbulent on a summer afternoon).

Just over 3 hours door to door, some decent exercise hiking up and an interesting 45 minute flight. Time for a quick lunch and then back to work!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Aix, Lavender and Visitors

I've not been flying as much as usual because I've had quite a few (non-flying) visitors lately. Of course, visitors do tend to come in the summer, which - at least from a flying perspective - is a pity. I've flown between the visits but not during them - flying is too intrusive for that. So some gentle hikes, site-seeing, rafting and visiting villages.

One of the main routes to St Andre is via the TGV station at Aix. It's actually outside the town, but it's nice to take visitors into the town center. It's a lovely town and it's small enough that you can see a lot in only an hour. In the center, the main street is Le Cours Mirabeau and if there's a more beautiful street in the world, I've yet to see it. Photos of Aix

I've taken to using a 'scenic route' to drive to Aix. It crosses the Plateau de Valensole, which is famous for its lavender fields. At this time of year, they are magnificent - row upon row of flowers and a wonderful scent. Lavender attracts bees, of course, and the resulting honey is very nice - except when the bees meet my windscreen…

My visitors have gone and the weather this week is beautiful. Warm sun, cool air, deep blue sky, dry and windy - typical mistral conditions and great for everything except flying. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

First Swim of the Year

The last few days have been the hottest so far this year in St Andre (30 C / 85 F) and - after an energetic weekend - I felt a little lazy today. At 6.30 I headed to the lake for a short swim. Ray had told me the water was really warm - but he's training for a triathlon and wears a wet suit. I'd call it refreshing, not warm.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Best Laid Plans

Sunday didn't look great for flying, with a solid looking inversion just above 2000m. I was in two minds whether to fly, but I decided on a short flight before watching the grand prix. The flying turned out to be better than I expected and after about an hour I had a decision to make. Continue N up the Verdon to Allos (a flight I'd done a couple of times in the spring) or stay in the Thorame valley? I wanted to keep going, but I was a bit worried about the valley winds in the Verdon. And whatever I did, I was going to miss the grand-prix.

But then I hatched a cunning plan. Land at Thorame Basse and watch the grand-prix in the local cafe. Surely that would work? But I arrived at the cafe only to discover it was closed for the annual vacation. Grrrr!!!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

First Evening Flight of the Year!

I'm a little bit shocked. The summer solstice has passed and I've just had my first evening flight of the year. While evening flights aren't as interesting as the afternoon ones, they certainly are more relaxing. It's nice to boat around in smooth ridge lift and watch the sun go down. It's more of social experience than afternoon flying - you share all of the flight with other pilots.

Gotta make more of an effort to get out in the evening!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

So-so flying but scenic hiking

After a really great start to the year, the flying for the last few weeks has been a little disappointing. I spent some time in Scotland (without my wing) and have been busy with work, but the main reason has been the poor flying conditions. A combination of winds, rain and afternoon overdevelopment has restricted my flying to "fish bowl" style flights - good practice, but not terribly satisfying. 
For a variety of reasons, I don't expect to do much flying in the next few weeks. So I need to hope for good conditions to coincide with my flying opportunities. 
The flip side is I've had some great hikes (see this and this) and bike rides. The rain in June produced some impressive wildflower displays on the mountains - and plenty of grass for the sheep. It's always a pretty time of year (e.g. see the river Verdon and poppies and wheat). And afternoon thunderstorms always make you feel glad to be on the ground…

Saturday, May 28, 2011

My New Harness?

I've got my new harness this weekend from the local paragliding school. It's an Advance Lightness and it has a number of pluses and minuses. 

On the positive side it's a pod harness and it's extremely light; better glide, warmer in winter, lighter for hiking up to launch. On the negative side, it doesn't have a lot of storage space, it's a bit flimsy and has very little protection if you have an accident. I'm struggling with the choice; do the pluses really outweigh the minuses and make it a sensible choice? Will it be my everyday harness or just for some flights? Do the performance advantages really outweigh the safety / practicality issues?

I was a bit nervous about flying it, but everything seemed very straightforward. The speedbar is very easy to find; it was easy to launch and land. There were a few things to worry about; the carabiners are higher than my previous harness, so I need to keep my hands higher and weight shifting is harder. I have to sort the cockpit out so it's easier to read the instruments.

So far it's hard to know how well it will work out, but it was a promising start. No-one liked the flying conditions this weekend, but I didn't have any problems. After a couple of flights (I had an early morning flight to try it out in easy conditions, before a spicier afternoon flight), I watched some tennis before cycling back up to launch to retrieve my car.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Upgrading the Train de Pignes

The old and the new
The Train de Pignes (link) is a little tourist train that runs 4 times a day from Nice to Digne and back, going through St Andre. Tourists can fly into Nice airport and get to small villages without hiring a car. I often use it to show visitors surrounding villages; you can admire the scenery and have a 'full' french lunch and not worry about driving back. Of course, I also use it for retrieves when I fly my paraglider.

It's more than a tourist thing. It runs throughout the year and for locals without a car (especially in small villages) it's an important mode of transport.

The trains are being upgraded from rather small, old trains to sleek new machines. I rode a new one yesterday, and it was a real delight. Clean, spacious, with plenty of room for luggage and bikes. It's nice to see that level of investment in the local community.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Straight Line to Digne

I got back from a week's break in Scotland at 2 am and didn't get as much sleep as I'd like. The forecast looked good but with an inconvenient wind direction (SE) and a real chance of afternoon storms. I decided an early flight made the most sense so I got up to launch well before noon. Despite strong cycles, people were struggling to stay up.

I launched at midday and groveled below launch for 5 minutes before I rode a thermal for a vertical mile. Despite the early hour, clouds were building rapidly over the big mountains and I decided a flight out of the big hills towards Digne made the most sense. Things went according to plan, with a really good thermal over the Mouchon. 

The second half of the flight was all new territory for me and I wasn't sure what to expect. I got onto a peak just above Digne that looked like an excellent thermal trigger (I later found it's called the Cousson and a drive up site for Digne pilots) and expected a good climb. I was disappointed and gradually lost altitude there until I found myself scratching with 3 or 4 local pilots who had launched from that peak. I yo-yoed between 1500m and 2000m several times, but I really wanted to get quite a bit higher before crossing the Bleone. After 30 minutes I got fed up and decided to head N instead, but I hit a bunch of sink just before a 'no-LZ' zone. I was pretty sure I had enough altitude to cross it, but I didn't want to take the risk and decided landing was a better option.

I believe the local pilots land in a sports stadium in town, but I wasn't too sure and instead found myself a nice field just outside the town. Retrieve was via the 'Train de Pignes', the tourist train between Digne and Nice.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

No Fly Weekend...

I'm sure I've had some a no-fly weekend in St Andre this year, but I can't actually recall one. I've been away a few weekends and didn't fly then, but I think this is the first I've been here and didn't fly. Both days were flyable but only just.

Saturday looked marginal for flying and I decided it was better to hike (see pics). Today had a better forecast; some showed it pretty good, most suggested it would be windy. I won't be flying next weekend (I'll be in Scotland), so I decided it was worth a go. For once, I got to launch early. But then I spent too long chatting,  then helping a pilot struggling to launch, and then - in the space of a few minutes - it was blown out.

A couple of pilots still launched, but almost everyone packed up their wings and headed down the hill. I got back home just in time to watch the Grand Prix.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


I haven't changed anything in my normal flying gear for well over 2 years. There hasn't been a lot of incentive - I'm very happy with my gear and it seldom limits my flying. 

But a number of things have me considering some new gear. Almost every flight I do is a hike and fly, so weight is important. I'm flying in the Alps, so handling strong conditions well is more important than ridge-soaring in weak conditions. Many of my flights are out and backs or triangles, so flying into the wind is important.

So I'm considering a smaller wing, to come in around the top of the weight range. The local school lent me a small Mentor 2 today. WIth new wings it's hard to sort the hype out from the reality, but I was very impressed. This is a newer, highly regarded and lower rated wing than the one I currently fly - it's got plastic batons in the leading edge. 

Of course, it's hard to make your mind up in a single flight, but it was solid and performed well. The plastic batons mean it has a lot fewer lines than my wing - it's a three line glider, whereas mine has 4 lines. I expected a 'detuned' experience but that wasn't the case at all; there was plenty of feedback from the wing. Being smaller, it seemed to cut through turbulence and sink better than my current wing. I got below ridge height a couple of times but was always confident in the wing.

The wing I really hope to get is a small Factor 2, which probably won't be available for 3 or 4 months. This should offer a slight performance advantage over the Mentor 2, but I must admit I'd be perfectly happy with the Mentor 2.

Really, wings today are very good... 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hiking at Cloudbase

Unstable weather prevailed over the Easter weekend (and is predicted next week too) in the Southern Alps - thanks to a depression near Tunisia. Good weather in the morning, clouds by noon and the risk of big storms by mid-afternoon. Not my cup of tea for flying…

I had a nice hike today along mountains I've flown over before. Clouds were forming and reforming all the time and the view was constantly changing. Almost all of my hike was along ridges, but I had escape options if lightning became a problem. In the end, there was about 60 seconds of light hail but nothing worse. 

I got back to St Andre in the early evening to find people clearing up after a big storm in the afternoon. These things can be a little random, which is why I went hiking in the first place... 

Friday, April 22, 2011

First Long Hike this Year

Partly because flying conditions have been so good, I've done less hiking than I would have liked this year. Today, I managed a nice, long hike and expect to sleep very well. It's a route I've flown several times - the Crete des Serres to Chamatte and back - but today was the first time I walked it. The winds aloft were very strong and translated into gusty conditions at ridge height - a bad day to be in the air, but a great one for hiking. After nearly 9 hours of hiking, I got home in time to attend some meetings with my colleagues.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

So-so weekend flying

The flying conditions this weekend weren't great in St Andre - windy, with overdevelopment forecast for both days. I flew both days, but not for terribly long - there was plenty of time for an evening hike both days. Today was slightly better with a more favorable wind direction. Fortunately, the overdevelopment was horizontal both days, with no afternoon storms.

I made a big effort to get up early to launch on both days, but I was still later than I should have been. I don't think I missed any big flights as a result (everyone seemed to land pretty quickly) but I had tougher launches than I'd have liked. 

I managed a little loop today; tricky flying with strong winds and a low cloudbase. I was a bit lazy and had my first collapse in 20 months. I headed low over the back of a ridge and underestimated the effects of the strong wind. A good wake-up call…

As ever, my wing behaved impeccably. All intermediate wings today are very good, but mine has proved an exceptionally reliable companion. Even in washing machine conditions, it keeps flying and on the very rare occasions when it collapses, it recovers without any panic.

Monday, April 11, 2011


I've been very happy not to look at a flying forecast for the last couple of days. Normally at the end of the winter, you're just desperate to fly - but I've had plenty of decent flights over the last few weeks. 

Good flying needs good conditions. But without my electrically heated gloves I wouldn't have had a fraction of my flying hours this year. Even on the coldest day, they give 2 hours of flying. I've always struggled with cold fingers and (at least until the batteries run out) they have solved the problem.

It's not often technology really solves a problem!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

One Thermal Flight

Today's forecast was excellent for flying - except the wind was 180 degrees from the wrong direction. Ever curious, I wanted to give it a try. After a long wait on launch with the wind over the back, I got off in a tiny puff, turned left and climbed 2300m in a single thermal. Easily the highest I've been in St Andre… 

I decided to use the unusual wind direction and head towards Digne or Le Brusquet. Everything went well until just before crossing the Montagne de Coupe. I thought I had it easily on glide, but the valley winds on the Bleone knew better. In the alps, valley winds overcome meteo winds almost every time. Just as I was due to pop over the last ridge, my ground-speed plummeted, sink and turbulence were everywhere and I was looking for a safe place to land.

I think (maybe apart from a couple of hike and flies in the winter) this is the first time this year where I didn't chose to land. Sometimes the choice has been reluctant (cold fingers, a meeting to attend, to simplify retrieves) but today the choice wasn't mine.

Pics and tracklog.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Glass Ceiling

I was a little late heading up the hill today and was worried things would blow out before I could safely launch. I was relieved (well, sort of) when I got up to launch and found benign conditions and around 10 pilots waiting. A few earlier launchers had sunk out and it was surprisingly gentle, with a strong inversion around 2000m easily visible.

In the air, things were fine but a little slow. Just over an hour into the flight I arrived low at Les Serres, below the inversion. I turned and turned; I could easily stay up but was continually bouncing my head against the glass ceiling. Les Serres is a fairly rounded peak, and the thermals didn't seem strong enough to get through the inversion. After 20 minutes of this, I found a strong core and it took me up. Things became colder, the sky was bluer and all of a sudden I was 1000m higher.

Decision time! I had Allos on glide - but I'd flown there twice in the last two weeks. Past Allos to Barcellonette? I would be too late to get a bus back home. Back to St Andre? Why not! 

So that's what I did. Above St Andre, the wind up the Verdon was really strong (I had long periods where my ground speed was below 10K). I arrived just above ridge height on the Crete des Serres, but the wind was almost 90 degrees cross and strong. I was worried that conditions could pick up further and decided landing was the sensible approach.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

3 out of 3 for April

Spring has arrived and is just gorgeous in St Andre. The locals say the weather is 'a month in advance'. I've already gone my first bike ride of the year and had a few nice flights. 

Today looked like a marginal day for flying and I debated going for a hike instead. But I was curious to see how reality matched the forecasts. The forecasts were dead right, with a solid inversion at around 2100m. It was pretty windy so I just flew locally, doing a lot more ridge soaring than is normally necessary at St Andre. It also allowed me to check out one of my favorite local hikes, the Crete des Serres - it is almost free of snow.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Another Boring Flight to Allos

I had a really nice flight today, over the mountains to Allos. Allos is a bit of a dead end - you can fly further, but then the retrieve gets really awkward, because the Col d'Allos is closed (and will be for another 6 weeks, until the snow melts). So I was a wimp and landed at Allos, happy with my day.

While I'd like to tell you how difficult the flying was, that would be an exaggeration. Within 5 minutes of taking off I had 500m of terrain clearance, and I kept at least that until I landed 1hr 35 minutes later. Take-off was busy (the first time this year I've seen a lot of pilots). The cycles were pretty strong, and a few struggled with the launch conditions, but everyone made it into the air safely.

Pics and tracklog

Friday, April 1, 2011

A SE Wind in St Andre?

A late afternoon meeting on Friday combined poorly with an excellent forecast. I could still fly, but not for terribly long. After a warm hike up, I watched around 10 wings struggling to get away - the wind was much stronger than predicted. Once they started going up, I joined them. 

After a few minutes below launch height I caught a nice thermal. This is the first time I've flown St Andre when the wind was from the SE. Almost all of the useful terrain faces the W, and (combined with my need to get back for my meeting) I wasn't sure what to do. In the end I flew over some smaller, rounded ridges out to the W of the normal flight plans. At one point I got high enough to consider heading for Digne but I had to rule that out for retrieve purposes. Rather than trying to fight the wind back to St Andre, I decided to land near the main road and got a lift straight back to my meeting.

Amazing how different the flying can be when the wind comes from a strange direction!