Sculthorpe! - July 1985

Sculthorpe! - July 1985

Tow launching hang gliders with a pay-out winch was all about being able to find runways: smooth ones, long ones, that faced in all the important wind directions. This was becoming the limiting factor in our endeavours.

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By some absolutely remarkable feat of quiet tact and diplomacy, the NHGC got permission to use Sculthorpe - recently moth-balled by the USAF. I am told that Pete Hammond deserves the credit for this (and for the negotiation of Watton too). A magnificent asset: just look at that runway - 1.6 miles of it!! And the cross runways were a pretty good length too. It was a good job nobody seemed to mind that I had been active in "East Anglia against the Missiles" - an anti-nuclear group active during the Cold War years. Such are the compromises of a would-be birdman.

The very first day I arrived at Sculthorpe, I "went for it" on my first launch with Tony and Rona's payout winch. This picture was taken at the start of my flight, thermalling up and looking back towards Sculthorpe from well outside the airfield boundary. The wind was westerly. This was definitely a Good Thing, because one small disadvantage of Sculthorpe was that it was in the wrong place - too damn close to the sea on the North Norfolk Coast. With this drift the wind would carry me roughly parallel to the North Norfolk Coast, not into the sea. And look at those solid cloud shadows - a good omen for workable thermals!

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Cloudbase is where you aspire to get to when thermalling cross-country. The next image is what it looks like: grey and foggy, and it is cold and damp. The air in which you have been ascending has expanded with the reduced pressure on gaining height. Expanding air cools itself. Water vapour in the air reaches the temperature at which saturation occurs and droplets of water form - the mist. Cloudbase is the natural limit to altitude whilst thermalling in a hang glider. You could enter cloud (and the air is still certainly rising into it) but (a) you can't see where you are, (b) you don't know which way up you are, and (c) it's against Air Law to do so (without adequate instruments and qualifications). This picture was taken on my first encounter with cloudbase on this flight, somewhere over Westwick between Norwich and Cromer, from about 3000'. With restricted visibility near cloudbase it does get difficult to know where you are. I did know (roughly) where I was at the time, and I was a very happy man. Having arrived at cloudbase, the next task was to head for another cloud downwind without delay - the clear sunlit air between the clouds was a pleasant relief from the gloom of cloudbase, but was usually sinking air. The next picture was taken in transit towards a good looking cloud judged by its shadow, and - exultant whoops of joy! - in the far distance I could see Barton Broad. So I knew much better where I was, and that the flight was going well.

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Having passed Barton Broad, I flew over Hickling Broad (it's not blue! look for the tiny sails). Catfield was down there somewhere! So there I was, flying silently like a bird, riding the natural air currents, over the countryside of my earliest memories - an overwhelmingly nostalgic and heavenly experience. But there was more to be done - I wanted to cover the maximum (straight line) distance from Sculthorpe. This meant bending my course southwards with the great sweep of the Norfolk coast towards Gt Yarmouth. I was heading towards the right of this picture, but the inexorable drift of the wind out to sea brought me over Winterton on Sea (marked with a blodge - ignore the fingerprint on the left) with 2000' of spare altitude to spiral off before landing in the sugar beet field, completely exhausted, and totally jubilant. Two hours flying time, and nearly 40 miles covered: a "personal best" in every respect and (I think) the longest XC achieved in East Anglia at that time and done from a single tow launch. (The journey back to Sculthorpe was an adventure of its own which is described under "Retrieves!" below - see 1991.) Jim Bowyer of BHGA League fame was on the airfield that day, observing Lejair's operations, and was cordially congratulatory when I eventually reported back.

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