My first flights of the year in mid March were coastal, from Cromer and West Runton. 4 hours flying time logged in a day - probably as much as my total flying time from all my tow launches in the previous year! I never tire of looking at these aerial shots. There will be more. Note the long shadows: it must have been getting late in the afternoon.
First XC from the Tow
This picture is not so dramatic, but it is significant. I had landed six miles away from Flixton. My first XC from a Norfolk tow. One thermal, one cloud, which dissipated before I had got half way to the coast. I never forgave Tony for enthusiatically pressuring me to launch as soon as I could. We both knew it was thermic, but I thought it was too early. It was. Just look at those clouds developing soon after I had landed. Phil Chett drove up and down the coast for hours hoping to find and retrieve me, but I hadn't got that far. Never expect gratitude from hang glider pilots: they are unforgiveable egotists.
BHGA Ripon - April 1985
Mike Lake has written of the troubled history of relations between the BHGA and the East Anglian towing community up to this time. I could easily understand the difficulties and suspicions experienced by both sides, but now with some solid achievements - and, most importantly, no accidents - to talk about, Tony was persuaded to take the gear and demonstrate it at the BHGA AGM meeting at Ripon. Here you see some of the BHGA worthies (Graham Geary, Terry Prendergast, Brian Milton? and Ian Trotter) in deep discussion. I believe it did help to establish credibility with the BHGA that Tony and Rona could run a training school with adequate safety provisions. It really was important for us flatlanders that their initiative should succeed, but it was equally important for the BHGA that some operation given their blessing did not lead to future fatal accidents.
Around this time I must have felt the need to "trade up", and purchased this Magic 3 from Robin Rhodes who had flown it for a year in the League, and placed fourth. Maybe it was the very wide streamlined uprights, or maybe I felt some of his expertise would be inherited with the kite. The image on the left was early in May on its first outing at Flixton, where after one of my launches I managed to land on the aforemention pile of stones. Somewhat red-faced, I blamed my grip on the wide uprights. A week later we ventured to Lavenham. By now I had fitted a speed bar with neat wheels, and you can see the banana connection at the hang point, my trusty ventimeter and a smaller (electronic) vario (plus garden altimeter) on the left upright, with the camera on the right upright, and an airmap rolled up around my left arm! So I was definitely in go-for-it mode, but a 1000' cloud base prevented any XC prospects - it didn't stop Graham Drinkall doing a loop on his kite though!
May 1985 - An Irish XC
Why was it so difficult to do a significant XC in East Anglia? I took a couple of weeks holiday and drove to Ireland with the Magic 3, met up with Ian Cross of Ulster HGC near Belfast and tried some of the beautiful sites (mostly coastal though) there. This is Magilligan, looking east towards Coleraine. Great friendly flying experiences, but no XCs. Then to Eniskillen to stay with friends and chance my arm with some solitary hang gliding in spectacular mountains. A 4.5 mile XC was all I managed. Launching unaccompanied in remote areas was just too risky I decided. The final few days were spent down south in Dublin with Doc, Gerry, Declan Doyle and others. We flew from Mount Leinster. Conditions looked good. I got away in the northwesterly wind. Three thermals and 2 hours later I had run out of land and descended at Churchtown in the very south eastern-most point of Ireland. 36 miles!!
But of course, Ireland is not the UK, so I couldn't claim the flight in the National XC League for the NHGC. Aw, shucks! Nevertheless, I had the remarkable luck to meet Phil whilst returning via Merthyr in South Wales, and was able to brag unmercifully about it.
July 1985 - Sculthorpe & big Norfolk XCs!
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.
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 were the compromises of an ethical aviator.
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 coast, not into the sea. And look at those solid cloud shadows - a good omen for workable thermals!
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 exactly where I was, and that the flight was going well.
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.
Cloud Streets, and the best view of Cromer Pier
Two weeks later I 'went for it' again from Sculthorpe. This time I needed two launches to catch a thermal. The clouds were developing very rapidly with some menacing turbulence indicated - you can see this from the picture taken a bit later in the day (sorry lads about the picture quality under the wing). What's more, the clouds were "streeting": that is, they were forming continuous lines along the (westerly) wind direction, rather than being discrete scattered clouds.
This enabled me, on reaching cloudbase, to fly to the sunny side of the cloud street and then to fly fast and straight in clear air parallel to the clouds - the rising air forms a consistent line too. This is complete heaven for hang glider pilots (and is a situation that I have enjoyed only rarely ever since). At times I was a even few hundred feet higher than the main cloudbase, but still in clear rising air. You can get the impression of this from another of the pictures. Normally cloudbase (those flat bottoms to cumulus clouds) is at the same level all over the sky on a thermic day. And the best view of Cromer Pier? Yes, the image is blurred and small but it was taken from 4000' above Cromer - undoubtedly the best viewpoint!
The drift would have taken me quickly out to sea with this street - you can see the elongated cloud shadow over the water. To maximise my distance from Sculthorpe I needed to head south across the "blue" gap to the next parallel street, but had misgivings about encountering powerful sink (it tends to mirror the lift on the sunnyside) in the gap. In fact I made contact with the lifting part of the next street and very quickly was over the coast again, this time at Gimingham. Reluctant to throw away two or three thousand feet of altitude I flew back upwind in the lift line hoping to make enough distance inland to allow a further "street hop". But my progress upwind over the ground was much slower, and the streets were starting to develop into vicious rain showers - very unhealthy. It was definitely time to land. This flight covered 27 miles and lasted 1 hour 11 minutes. My actual speed over the ground whilst straight lining along the streets was probably in the region of 40 mph. That noble pilot Phil Chett came to retrieve me once again.
Lejair towing initiatives
Tony was always very enthusiastic and creative about trying out new methods for training. Here was one, to avoid the need to run alongside the student pilot whilst they mastered the basic controls at flying speed (as illustrated earlier). This one didn't make it into the BHGA training manual! Pictured are Tony and Phil aloft, with Angie Chettleburgh and Julian Floyd.
Hunstanton in November with a fair huley of a 20 mph NWerly wind presented other challenges. The completely sheer cliff top provides no place at all for anyone to hang on to the nose wires to assist a launch from the cliff top. So what do you do? Tie a long rope on to the pilot on the beach (it was a proper tow release bridle of course), then run and pull like the blazes. With luck the pilot took off and attained 200' close enough to the cliff to release from the tow and quickly crab into the lift band of the cliff. I had an hour's fairly hectic soaring on that day.
The wind was strong; so strong in fact that when Julian had a flight on a less speedy kite, he couldn't penetrate into wind and gradually drifted backwards over the cliff top. From the beach we watched in horror: this was a classic danger situation. We expected him to be immediately trashed in the rotor behind the cliff top. Somehow though, he top-landed normally, and lived to fly another day. Sensibly, no one else tried it.