2000 South Africa & Sutton Meadows

2000 South Africa & Sutton Meadows


John Vernon went to South Africa in the summer of 1999 in a group led by Steve Cook and Tony Lucchesi. John returned with horrifying tales of an incredible mountain ridge range, suffocating temperatures, alarming ramp launches, bomb-outs, close shaves, occasional triumphs and all the usual constituents of a hang gliding adventure. He said they were thinking of doing another trip in 2000 - but in March ‘when it would not be so hot’. I put my name down to go. To be flying in close company with Steve and Tony on Toplesses was bound to be an educational experience. Besides, I hadn’t been to South Africa before. The ridge was impressive. It curved away continuously to the left in the far distance, and went a similar distance in the reverse direction, about 2000’ above the plain. We were based in Porterville, a small town in the plain near a ramp launch on one of the few roads to cross the ridge.


Here we are, a grand group of chums bonding in the Porterville Hotel, a frequently patronised refuge after a hard day. From the left: John Vernon, Steve Cook, Rob Clems, Clare (accomplished retrieve driver) and Tony Lucchesi, Andy Hollidge and John Aldridge. Steven Partridge Hicks was in close formation too, somewhere, (but with his Topless, not the Swift) and sometimes buzzed us in a borrowed Jet Provost (only because they wouldn’t let him fly a Lightning – an English Electric Lightning). {Not quite right! See Comments below.}

The VB Masterclass


What you have here are some active hang glider pilots sitting on the top of the Dasklip ramp, surveying the plain and the Piketberg range of mountains in the far distance. My kite is in the foreground – definitely mine because you can see where the tailplane was mended – and the black thing mounted just in front of it was John’s video camera. OK, it has got a hood over it to protect it from the scorching radiation, but in flight it would be filming the back of the pilot’s harness, the control frame and enough of the scenery ahead to give a jolly good impression of how close to the ridge you were flying. Each day, the camera was attached to a different kite, and in the evening the video would be analysed by Steve with helpful advice. It was always absolutely compulsive viewing for all of us, whoever the pilot was. I should say briefly at this point that Steve’s superlative flying technique was almost matched by his command of English … expletives! The sessions resounded with many choice expressions: ‘ … look at that plonker … you’re supposed to RUN down the f*cking ramp … don’t just walk a couple of steps and flop off the bl**dy end, you DoD (= Doddery old Duffer, i.e. anyone 60 or older) … etcetera. It was all very kindly meant, very apt - and extremely motivational. There was no better way of getting personal tuition from an acknowledged maestro. Steve and Tony went out of their way to help us lesser mortals improve our flying. Their observations of me went as follows:
• You were flying a bit fast.
• Flapping jacket arms create drag – get a lycra top.
• Your VB technique was f* pathetic! Learn to use it!
• Push the (control) bar further out when thermalling. Your arms should go full stretch.
• You were pushing you body up on the bar at times – it creates more drag.
• Make your pitch control inputs smoother – you were jerky.
• You were flying too b* close to the ridge at Dasbos – don’t do it!
Plenty of challenges there for me, then.

Steve’s VB philosophy was consistent with a number of points.
• The VB ‘on’ improves the glide angle; reduces bar pressure; makes handling stiffer; changes the batten profile, and removes twist from the outer wing sections.
• With the VB off, pulling on speed is inefficient, and hard work.
• If you are ‘scratching’ (close to the ridge, barely able to maintain height) you need maximum manoeuvrability i.e. VB off.
• With the VB partly on, you can fly at medium speed with good handling, but thermalling requires a lot more effort.
• With the VB full on, the handling is stiff, but going straight at speed is very efficient (provided you are heading in the right direction!).
• With the VB full on you can be tempted to fly too fast. Then when you slow down searching for good lift, the stiff handling is a real pain.
• You have to be prepared to operate the VB very rapidly, and frequently! Wrap the VB cord round your hand. Wear gloves for grip! Brace your whole body with your left arm on the base bar. Yank the cord through the cleat with two or three successive mighty tugs.

Watching Steve’s technique on the video was a revelation. He would be flying fast, above the ridge, with the VB on, gradually losing height and seeking to find another good thermal source (probably a gully) for a fast climb-out. A surge of lift, then instantly: VB off; reduce airspeed; stab the rising wing downwards vertically into the core of the thermal; arms out full stretch to 360; half way round the first 360 put back half the VB to gain another 30’; assess the vario; 4 up, 6 up, (“4 up” etc is jargon for 400 feet per minute climb rate) centring … strengthening, 8 up, rocketing upwards now; 6 up, starting to diminish; 3 or so 360’s by now, and time to go! Last half 360, whack on full VB with three rapid yanks on the VB cord, and straighten up along the ridge at 50 mph once more. Height gained: probably 2000’ in about 3 minutes. Wuhaiieeey! Phenomenal.

So that was how it was done! Inspired, I started to practice on my Topless in my harness, on the ground, but I could barely get the VB full on, with all my strength. To do it more than a couple of times in a flight would leave me exhausted. You needed the physique of an Olympic gymnast. Steve had this; he was a gardener. I did not. But the dream and the vision stayed with me, back to the chillier climes of East Anglia.

Norfolk Towlines Fray

The ever-increasing cost of the field rent for the Hill Farm flying fields finally broke the back of the combined operations of the Lejair Flying School, the Norfolk Hang Gliding Club and the Norfolk Aerotow Syndicate. A less expensive option was to limit the land used to a few narrow runways across the fields. This allowed Lejair and the NHGC to operate winches in a somewhat restricted fashion, but did not provide enough room for the Aerotow tugging. The Syndicate started to look elsewhere for a suitable flying ground. Tony and Rona found the financial (and in fact the meteorological) climate more and more difficult in this country, and started to look for Mediterranean alternatives for Lejair in Spain. Sadly it was to become a parting of the ways. The Aerotow Syndicate found an alternative home at the Cambridgeshire Microlight Club's field at Sutton Meadows near Ely and moved there in October 2000.

Sutton Meadows & CAC


If you look at your road map of East Anglia, to the West of Ely and North of Cambridge you shouldn’t have much difficulty in locating roughly where Sutton Meadows is. Actually, I didn’t manage to get it into the aerial shot – it's is just off to the mid left hand side. The settlement in the middle distance is Sutton, though.
The Sutton Meadows field had a number of potential advantages: it was a thriving Microlight Club with hangars - and toilets! – and possible synergy with the Microlight pilots and their activities. From the XC hang glider pilot’s point of view, it was further from the sea and therefore had better XC distance potential. It was closer to London and we might entice more pilots to travel up from the South. For me it was a mere 20 miles distant from home. However, whilst being in the Fens and undeniably East Anglian it was 50 miles from Hill Farm in Norfolk, and we knew this was going to stretch the allegiance of Syndicate members resident in Norfolk.


Most importantly, we needed to retain some tug pilots without whom of course we would be completely grounded. Clearly we would lose Tony, but fortunately Roger Wood and Pete Stevens carried on their stalwart efforts.


This is Roger standing alongside his delightful microlight biplane and passenger; and that’s Pete and Jackie (but not at Sutton Meadows and not in the Syndicate’s tug – was it at Stephen P-H’s place?).

We made the move to Sutton Meadows, installed a caravan on the field, changed the name of the Syndicate to the Cambridgeshire Aerotow Club (CAC) and started to gear up enthusiastically for a splendid new season of XC opportunities from Sutton Meadows in 2001. I swore I was going to master my VB technique - but hardly had the New Year started and we were beset with … ooh No! …

Foot & Mouth Restrictions

XC flying to other airfields was banned. The National XC League was cancelled. This didn’t mean we couldn’t fly - but you had to do out-and-return or triangle flights back to base, successfully. At times we were even discouraged from driving to the flying field. The restrictions were eventually lifted towards the end of the flying season. A BHPA Aerotow comp was held at Long Marston (Stratford upon Avon). A 69km race to goal at Newport Pagnell was set. I got to goal, the slowest of the seven who did - so I hadn’t quite forgotten some of the South African lessons.


In the whole year I logged a mere 12½ hours flying time. It was not an auspicious start for the CAC, but we had survived. Here are some of the survivors (from the left): George Freeman, Pete Stevens, EP, David Drake, Charlie Richardson.

Surely 2002 would have to be better?

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