Travels & Tensions

1991 Airwave Challenge - Ager

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My appetite for flying was if anything even greater after the Hungary trip. Tony and Rona were taking another group to Ager of Spain in August to participate in the Airwave Challenge comp being held there. This was fearsomely different country from Hungary, in the south of the Pyrenees, with dramatic precipitous cliffs - and roads to the top. It too turned out to be an epic series of adventures with a good crowd of people. On the first day I only just survived overshooting the tiny campsite landing field and miraculously avoided serious damage to kite or person. You can see the ridges in the backgroundof the picture. We took off from the top of these and regularly thermalled to 4 or 5000' above take off before going XC above murderous looking terrain. It was a gruelling test of mountain and gaggle-flying skills and endurance, where my recently acquired aerotowing prowess brought no advantage, so I wasn't surprised to place somewhere low down in the scores. It was indubitably a valuable character-forming experience, however we must return once more to the main story.

Other Antics

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September: back to the flatlands of East Anglia, under sombre grey skies a lone Dambuster Lancaster with bomb doors open makes a daring daylight raid on Swanton Morley. Glyn Charnock displays the spectacular wounds that he received.
On the field once more: in October Charlie Richardson wins the Ed Bowman competition, and has the club trophy presented to him by Russell Mutton at the end of the day. The now rather mundane business of winch launching in autumnal weather retained few attractions after such a heroic summer that I once more retired into hibernation for the winter.

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Winching Tensions

For East Anglian coastal fliers, before the advent of winching, there had always been a strong need for co-operation and camaraderie and when hoping to fly. It was no good arriving at Cromer on the perfect day with a beatiful 15 mph NE-erly wind and yet to be at the cliff launch point with no other hang glider pilots there. Self-launching from a cliff site was too dangerous. To launch from nearly all our cliff sites, you needed an assistant on nosewires to stabilise the kite nose-down over the cliff edge before you could judge the moment to shout RELEASE! and lunge into the void. Enlisting the help of any curious bystander on the cliff top was not recommended!
Around the rest of the country with inland hill sites, hang gliding was a very much more individualist activity, with a pilot free to rush off to his or her favorite site to self launch whenever conditions were good. This did create something of a them-and-us attitude in the BHGA which did not appreciate how much the NHGC and the SCFHGC had to operate as clubs. Nearly always we could only consider flying at week ends, and then only if we were sure which site to go to (the wind direction forecast could be horribly capricious) and that other hang glider pilots were going to be there (hang glider pilots could be horribly capricious too, at times).
To add a further frisson of anxiety to the day's potential flying prospects, you did of course help other pilots to launch, but you didn't want to end up last in the queue - when you couldn't launch yourself! Your only options then were to wait for other pilots to land on the beach and carry up (add an hour or two), or to beg divine providence to lure new pilots to the take off.

More Tensions

Towing and winch launching from our inland sites were becoming an accepted practical reality, so team operation became even more de rigueur. The sailplane fraternity have had to live with this ever since they started clubs back in the 1920s. However, hang glider pilots did tend to be a rather more anarchic breed, and probably had been attracted by the most minimalist form of aviation. You needed (qualified) winch operators, bikers (motorcycles used to pull the static winch lines back across the field after each couple of launches) and launch marshalls (with radios, to talk to the winch operators).

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So you always required a minimum turnout of hopeful souls wanting to fly. And of course, you all wanted to fly (some of us, exclusively), so in fairness you had to devise a rota system. See the blackboard in the picture. The fly in the ointment was not difficult to imagine. If you did go XC then you wouldn't be on the field to do your stint later, would you?

At least the wind direction forecast didn't matter quite so much - you just went to the field and towed up into wind. If you went to the Lejair field, you had the added advantage that there were usually lots of people there; if Tony and Rona could fit you in, you could pay them for a launch with the School; and if you landed out, you might just be pleading (Lejair had a phone on the field by this time) for somebody to drive your car to wherever you were to retrieve you. You have guessed this is why I went to the Lejair field most flyable weekends. But there were plenty of members of the NHGC (it was a club, after all) who wanted the club operation to be self-financed because the cost of launches would obviously be less than the School had to charge.

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Then there was the knotty question of the field rent. We were using significant acreage of prime arable land. There was no way the Club could afford to buy it. Tony and Rona needed the security of a site for their School activities, and they had negotiated the lease with local farmers. To further confuse matters, Tony and Rona were also members of the NHGC. Looking back, I am amazed at how much co-operation was achieved in such potentially fraught circumstances with very marginal finance.

I'm a Winchman, man - and I'm OK! …

I obtained my winch operator qualification in August 1991 after having gven nearly 200 supervised launches. By this time other noble club members had probably winched up thousands of kites (and had supervised me as well). I enjoyed winching (and all the marshalling and biking jobs too) and was very happy to do it - but … (and it was a pretty big but) only when the sky didn't look XC-able. Given a straight choice I would always have gone to Lejair to pay for a launch. The other side of that particular coin was that Tony and Rona couldn't make a living from pilots choosing to turn up only when they thought conditions were XC-able. Compromise is a wonderful thing.

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