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Real Gliding

I first joined the Dorset Gliding Club more than 30 years ago. Without making much progress I soon quit and took up hang gliding instead. In those days hang gliders were rapidly improving and ultimately became capable of being flown cross country (XC), using thermals, for respectable distances. My longest flight was 114 miles. Eventually I moved on to flying paragliders whose performance also started to allow decent XC's. They had the advantage of packing up into a rucksack wherever you might have landed for the return trip back to the take off point.
 
All this time I played with the idea of eventually getting back to trying to fly "real" gliders, or sailplanes as they are sometimes called.

Well, the time came in October '07. This wasn't the warmest or driest time of year for learning and often needed a bit of determination to face the effort of dragging the gliders out of the hangar, laying out the winch cables, waiting in turn for the shortf lights with the instructor (bless them) then staying on to help to bring back gliders to the launch point or whatever other tasks were involved.

It was worth it. Three months after starting I was airborne on my first solo flight at the Dorset airfield, on New Years Day. Going solo for the first time is a great experience. If the instructor thinks you are up to it then you can afford to have confidence in yourself and enjoy the flight.

New Years Day SoloGoing solo was a significant step but was only that, one step on the way to my real ambition, to fly cross country. Before I got there however there was a bonus in having the solo qualification - I could visit other clubs, some with 7-day-a-week operations, to gain experience in other types of glider and flying in other airfield environments.

Amongst the clubs I visited was Lake Keepit in Australia, some 250 miles north of Sydney. Here I could escape the English winter and indulge the fantasy of thermalling high above the unfamiliar countryside in a single seater, adding further to my confidence. In Australia launching is mainly aerotow - being towed to perhaps 2000ft by a light aircraft before releasing from the rope. I came to prefer this method of launch to the winch launches I had been used to.

Back in the UK I needed to progress to being allowed to go XC. This involved proving that I had the necessary skills to navigate when I was away from familiar territory, that I could pick out a suitable field for "outlanding" if I should lose lift on the way and, more importantly, that I could be trusted to get into that chosen field safely.

I also needed to demonstrate that my flying skills had progressed from the early "solo" stage, with flights of more than an hour, along with the ability to recognise and avoid dangerous flight conditions.

All this took some time and, with the rather poor summer weather, it was August before I was ready for my first XC attempt. The day came with decent prospects but  some more stable conditions, which suppressed the thermals, had started to come in from the west by the time that I launched. I was determined to give it a go even if it meant the risk of an outlanding. It was a struggle initially but fortunately conditions improved as I approached Salisbury. Soon after, from a height of nearly 5000ft I could see my goal in the distance, Lasham airfield near Basingstoke. I had flown circuits there several times over the previous winter so I was comfortable making my approach. This 100km flight was very satisfying for my first XC and gave me a vital part of the next level of qualification, the FAI Silver Badge.

The UK summer ended with no more XC opportunities. Come the winter and again Lake Keepit tempted me for another visit. This time they were happy to let me fly a higher performance glider (an LS-7) and to let me off the reins, to try to fly XC tasks that the other pilots were attempting or to set my own tasks. On my second XC there I picked a turn point nearly 100 miles from the airfield and just went for it. After reaching it and having turned to head for home, searching for lift and not finding any, I got worryingly low. Which of those fields is best for landing? Was I going to be very unpopular, demanding a retrieve by road that would take at least 5 hours? It was a great relief when I found a saving thermal back to a comfortable height.

Australian flatlands
On my last XC in Australia, I had flown nearly 360km out over the flatlands and back along the hills but was still 25km from home. Being so used to the performance of a paraglider means that I am still poor at judging the far better performance of a sailplane. I was concerned that I didn't have enough height to reach the airfield and the thermals were now much weaker. On top of that there was a headwind.
 
I needn't have worried. It was soon clear that I had far more height than needed, so I pushed the stick forward and whistled home at 110 knots. What a blast!

Peter Robinson 12/08


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