2002 Brazil & Top Secrets

2002 Brazil & Top Secrets


After no flying during December and January (weather, Christmas, or inertia were probably the main excuses for most of us) John Vernon passed me the word: the boys were going to the Pre-Worlds comp in Brazil in February! Did I want to come?
Feeling very unprepared and uncertain but not wanting to miss anything, I said yes - definitely. So here I was in mid-February after the winter lay-off, at Sutton Meadows, frantically preparing for more adventures. We were to be in Governador Valadares (600km north of Rio de Janeiro, in bumpy country) at the end of February. Hell's Bells! That was a damn tight schedule. I had three shaky aerotows that day, trying to sort out new bits of kit, not to mention older bits of kit that had suffered battle damage during the previous season. With barely thirty minutes of flying time, I then had to pack up the kite and get ready for the great trip.


This may be the time for a brief explanation of the plethora of stuff attached to kite, or the harness, or to the pilot that was by now pretty much essential for flying in comps or with other groups of pilots. In the image you can just see, at the bottom of the left upright, a grey box - the Davron 808 recording barograph, which included airspeed, variometer and altitude displays. Above it, on the upright, was a Garmin GPS12 with a GPS map display to show your position and log your track. This was now the preferred method of validating flights in comps - you had to download your track at the end of the flight into the Comp Director's computer. Farewell to cameras and the dreaded intepretation of film photos. A Good Thing, really - except that I dearly wanted in-flight pictures to show off to friends at home. So I continued to carry a camera tucked into a pocket in the harness (for streamlining). On the speed bar (the kite's streamlined carbon fibre base bar) there was a magnetic compass. Unlike the electronic, state-of-the-art, battery-powered equipment I have already mentioned - which required a brain the size of a planet to set it up correctly, and was quite capable of failing in mid-flight anyway - the compass was a relatively reliable navigational aid, if somewhat limited in scope. There would also have been an airmap attached to the right upright if I had been intending to go XC.
Now, to move on to the gear attached to the pilot, starting at the top: the helmet. Built into the helmet were radio earphones and a microphone. These were attached by wires and connectors to a 2m radio in another harness pocket, from which emerged a PTT (push-to-talk) wire that was fed inside the right arm of my flying jacket, inside the glove, to a microswitch velcroed to my index finger. Radio communication in flight was brilliant - when it worked. But as you can imagine, it was electronic, state-of-the-art, battery-powered equipment requiring a brain the size of a planet etc … and it was even more capable of giving up just when you needed it (like for retrieves in foreign countries).
Strapped to my back, inside the harness, would also have been a Camelbak 2 litre water container filled with isotonic drink, with a tube and 'bite-valve' that had to be positioned strategically close to your mouth. This added a further 2kg of weight to an already gravitationally challenged pilot - but for Brazil I knew it was indispensable.

Ah dammit! I've forgotten so far to say anything about the drogue chute that was nested into yet another pocket on the back of the harness. This was nothing to do with the reserve (safety) chute on the front of the harness. It looked like a toy parachute 1 metre across that you deployed on your final landing run to shorten the landing distance when trying to get into a small field.
Finally, inside the helmet, and arguably the most important equipment of the whole lot: a pair of eyes with matching spectacles, backed up by a well-functioning brain. The spectacles were desperately important for good distance vision and for reading instruments and maps only a few inches from your face.

What did I used to say about wanting to fly like a bird …

Top Secrets?


By now you have probably rumbled that a Top Secret was not a top secret, but the latest hang glider produced by La Mouette, and it was in fact a rigid wing with much vaunted performance, superior to the Topless, no less. Steve Cook and some of the lads were now flying them, and John had acquired one too …

This was Steve Cook sitting at the top of the ramp under his Top Secret judging the best time to launch. That grey patch in the middle distance is not smoke from a forest fire going up into the sky but a cold thunderstorm shower outflow cascading downwards like a waterfall and spreading out over the ground. Not a sensible prospect for lesser mortals (which was why I was taking the picture). You can see the refined elegance of the fabric covered wing section - even more slender and less twisted than the Topless. It had draggers (a bit like ailerons) on the top surfaces for directional control, and was equipped with flaps on the trailing edge of the wing that were adjustable (and essential!) for slow speed short landing runs. The T-tail was John's special innovation - John had started manufacturing these. I think the idea was to improve the effectiveness of the small tail plane by lifting it out of the wing turbulence zone, and the fin was supposed to help in directional stability. Very beautiful carbon fibre work, it made your mouth water.


A Bump too Far

On the subject of water, the wet season hadn't finished when it should have - some weeks previously. Thunderstorms still developed on many days. The ground was very green, covered with high vegetation and often waterlogged. It did not make for good thermalling conditions, nor for good out-landing choices.
The first couple of flying days showed my lack of preparedness. The logbook reported: new helmet noise; PTT broken; 'wheels got in the way'; base bar slippery; nose batten broke again; and later: GPS failed; PTT still wrong; couldn't use VB (uurgh).
By the third flying day, I was beginning to get things together: 95km task set; good flight (for me) 2hr 10 mins, 45km; landed in a nice green field with the drogue, and a … splat! It was a paddy field (well, that's what it seemed like).
I made my bad out-landing choice on day four: got trapped near the river; harness zip broke; completely left behind by other kites; almost engulfed by monster thunderstorm; heavy landing and nose-in; shoulder injury. I couldn't afterwards lift a beer glass to my mouth with my right arm. The doctor who accompanied the French Hang gliding team (yes!) said it was a slight disjonction de clavis and an allongement du muscle. 'Put the arm in a sling for a couple of weeks, and take anti-inflammatories'.
So that was the end of my flying this trip. I lent my kite to another lad whose kite had disappeared during a retrieve and was never recovered. Then all I had to do was sit in the swimming pool (aqua-therapy), listen enviously to the radio conversations of those flying, or play chess with other occasional walking wounded like John Vernon (grazed knee) and Tony Lucchesi (twisted foot) whilst unsuccessfully learning Brazilian Portuguese - much harder than Hungarian.

Back in the UK it was clear that my recovery was going to take longer than a few weeks.

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