1998-9 Monte Cucco & the Topless
1996 set the pattern of my flying for the next few years. Each year I would try to fly in one exotic foreign comp, but for the rest of the season I would fly my socks off XCing from aerotow launches in Norfolk, or occasionally anywhere else in England that was sensible enough to offer aerotow launch facilities. BHGA 'All Out' comps at Kemble, Wroughton and Long Marston provided good opportunities, whilst the friendly Midland Aerotow Group at Swinford was within tolerable motoring range if for any reason aerotowing was off in Norfolk.
Monte Cucco Leagues
The Umbrian mountains in Italy are a splendid place to hang glide – if you like mountains. Like the foreign Leagues before them, these adventures too were a similar heady mix of sheer terror, exhilaration, humiliation, utter despair, jubilation, dehydration, and rehydration in invigorating company. Schizophrenia won the day. This picture is the Monte Cucco take off in 1998 with a flock of sheep in the background. The flock of hang gliders in the foreground are all folded flat because there was a stonking 50 mph wind whistling across the top. I had no illusions about my prospects that day and had been too frightened to rig. Three of these kites did blow away and were variously destroyed. The only exercise worth doing was counting the kingposts. Not many – huh? My Klassic would have added one more. It wasn’t the wind that blew away the kingposts but the urge to shed that draggy appendage, to fly faster, and flatter. Just look at this closer up. Ok, so there is a harness on the nose to stop the whole thing blowing away in the wind, but the elegance of the wing shape and section, and the taughtness of the fabric … it makes you drool.
The small white thing at the back is a tailplane. It wasn’t to help you go faster, but (arguably) helped prevent a “tuck”. In very rough thermic air hang gliders could be tucked or tumbled (turned upside down) in the turbulence. Massive structural failure immediately resulted often with fatal results, but sometimes the pilot survived if they managed to throw their reserve 'chute. I should perhaps explain for the mystified – you don’t bail out of a hang glider. The reserve, whilst mounted in your harness, is however attached to the kite. You do have to throw the 'chute, but the theory is that you and the kite together descend under it.
Topless gliders dominated the top half of the final scorecard. I was close to the bottom of the list, on account of my serious lack of acquaintance with hills, so I blamed the Klassic and started to think about alternatives.
The McCarthy Team
Steve Cook (from the right of the picture) was a gardener and a phenomenal pilot. Tony Lucchesi and Ozzy Haines were others in the McCarthy team. Johnny Carr should be in there somewhere, too, I think. They were a league of gentlemen - but splendidly maverick gentlemen - and were a privilege (and possibly slightly dangerous) to know. They flew La Mouette Topless gliders. The McCarthy Corporation had sponsored their gliders, and the League for that matter. (This will be become relevant, I promise you.) In the busy skies of the comp Steve was involved in a mid-air collision with a woman pilot. They both threw their 'chutes. Steve’s opened. Hers did not. They descended rapidly onto the mountainside below. I heard the chatter on my radio (we had 2m radios by then). The task continued. Miraculously neither pilot was hurt. Steve rebuilt his kite that evening and flew in the comp the next day. A very tough cookie indeed.
Topless into the Millennium
In March 1999 Tony Lucchesi got in touch. They were selling the McCarthy kites to trade up to new Toplesses. Ace League pilots did this sort of thing. Did I want to come down to Devils Dyke (Brighton) to test fly one? I did - instantly, but with misgivings on a number of counts. My expectation was that the tightness of the sail and the higher performance would result in stiffer handling and a lot more effort to manoeuvre it. My Klassic was very soft in this respect – part of the reason I had chosen it (and why it wouldn’t fly very fast). A single test flight on the Topless completely eliminated that misconception – it handled beautifully. Afraid that someone else would snatch it, I bought it on the spot, without even remembering to ask if it was the one that had been mid-aired in Monte Cucco.
One other misgiving was bypassed by the decision to purchase – would I be able to lift it? Somehow, I would have to manage. Whilst I might make disparaging remarks about the drag of kingposts and their associated rigging wires, they were a very lightweight way of supporting the wing spars. Without the tension in the top rigging wires, the main spar in the wing would have to be cantilever, and of impossibly massive dimensions if made in aluminium. Hi-tech glass fibre composite spars became the solution, but they did increase the weight by some kilos. And there was that fibreglass tailplane thing – even more vulnerable to carry around than the Klassic winglets were.
The 1999 League was again in Monte Cucco. I did better this time, not only because I was now more familiar with the territory, but because of the Topless’s improved performance enabled me to speed-fly between thermals and keep up with the gaggles of hang gliders – a vital strategy for comp flying. Friendly help and advice from the Topless gurus Steve and Tony was invaluable too. But it was no good flying fast if you didn’t get to goal. This picture was the culmination of 4 hrs 32 min of flying when I did get in to goal. It was the final frame on the film of (hopefully) all my other turn points. Dare I say I was at last beginning to relish the prospect of mountain flying tasks, and was starting to love my Topless.
So I was starting to get into goal – which was good. On that day however, 83 pilots got into goal. I was last but one, and my ‘speed’ score amounted to just one point. Well, that was better than a zero, and I was pretty pleased about it. So you had to get to goal and you had to get there fastest, to win.
I haven’t yet burdened you with an explanation of the VB, but it is important for a later section, so here goes – and do pay attention. The VB (variable billow) – sometimes referred to by those hard of hearing as the VG (variable geometry) - was a device on the kite which enabled you to make it fly faster whilst in the air. It worked by deforming the main spar so that the whole sail was tightened up. This flattened the sail, reduced its camber and washout and reflex and increased the speed it could fly – so you wanted it. The disadvantage was that in tightening the sail, it became more like a rigid wing but without the aerodynamic controls i.e. a flying plank (see Tony Webb’s Fledge, shown earlier). Attempting to use weight shift on a rigid wing perversely produces the opposite effect from a flexwing. Shifting your weight to the right turns a flexwing to the right (right!) but on a rigid wing makes the nose yaw to the left. Achieving any semblance of steerage in approximately the desired direction required great exertion.
The justification for this picture (Monte Cucco again) is that it is the only one in my collection that shows any evidence of the VB. Near the base of the right upright and the wheel on the base bar is visible a short length of white cord. In fact the cord was about 5 metres long and disappeared into the upright and thence eventually was attached to the main spar through a four-gang pulley block. In flight, the pilot pulled on the cord and locked it in a cleat to increase the VB. That was the principle at least. In practice, to fully apply the VB you had to pull about 2m of cord through the cleat, against ever increasing tension, single handed. It required the strength of Hercules. All the top pilots used it to good effect of course.
A better reason for showing this picture is that, lying on the grass, is the ebullient, ever helpful, very special good egg Johnny Carr (McCarthy Topless team etc), hang gliding champion from the earliest of days; and sheltering under the wing from the glaring sun is Dave Rayment, revered pioneer hang glider manufacturer from early times too, who was our cool retrieve driver.