1984 The Himalayas

The Himalayas - 1984

The link between this and the early history of the NHGC is somewhat tenuous, but it concerns the development of a pilot who dearly wanted to fly like a bird above the countryside of his youth. So if you will indulge the memories of an increasingly old and not very bold (former) pilot, I will proceed.
Offer an Englishman with a hang glider the opportunity to fly in the Himalayas and what do you expect? It seemed a jolly British and natural thing to do. Not many other Brits thought so, apparently, but Jack Donaldson did: he was 70 and didn't fly without a shirt and tie. Judy Leden was there - all expenses paid; one of five invited world-class pilots. Maybe the £800 cost deterred them, but since this included flights and free transport for the kite, it seemed worth it. Looking back, the list of other world class pilots was impressive: Larry Tudor and Chris Bulger (USA), Steve Moyes (Australia), Gerard Thevenot (France) and Joseph Guggenmoss (Germany). This was a one-on-one competition. I was seeded 20 out of 30 pilots, which seemed about right. Yes, there were other brave souls with much less experience than I had. After my Pandy experience, I packed five spare uprights!

Setting the Scene

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If you like to get the feel for a place, then take a close look at the mountain vista. This is Himachal Pradesh in North West India. Everest is way off to the right. We were based in Palampur (4000’). Take off was at Billing (8000’). The main landing ground was at Bir. One set task was to fly along the mountains to the west to Dharamsala. Yes, the heights in the picture are in meters (x3 for feet, roughly). The experts did it fairly frequently. I never got past the first major ridge en route. Another task was the triangle out from the launch (marked on the map). The day I was pitted against Chris Bulger I did actually achieve this (my first ever triangle). Chris had landed before me and so won the round, and he had flown round the triangle twice!

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On the right is the dirt track road to the top: 4000’ and a couple of hours of purgatorial, bouncing, gut-wrenching, stifling, hair-raising, sweltering ascent in the back of army jeeps stinking of fuel – the ultimate daily test of stamina and character, especially if you were suffering from the trots. Many of the pilots were. Fortunately I remained fairly secure in that region. Judy suffered, and yet did extremely well to place third in the contest. In fact, if you want an account of the competition, you really should read the “Himalayan Highs and Lows” chapter in Judy Leden’s book “Flying with Condors”. At the top, it was … very crowded; half the local population had walked up there. Jack Donaldson is on the left. Don’t ask where the loos were.

Flying with Condors; Author Judy Leden; Publisher: Orion Press 1996; ISBN 0 75280 133 3

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The main landing ground was a decently vast area, on the left of the picture. Take off is way up the mountain slopes beyond the top of the picture. The rest of the terrain was pretty hostile for landing: narrow terraced slopes, criss crossed by telephone wires almost invisible until the last moment. On the first day, a practice day, I managed to miss the landing ground (!) and scraped and bounced onto a terrace, miraculously not bending any aluminium. 'Did you think you had the glide angle of a Mitchell Wing?' was the amused comment of an American pilot.

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Storms and a Death

On the second day, we were all late taking off (jeeps breaking down on the road up). Clouds developed with ominous rapidity whilst we were in the air. There was a rumble of thunder. Suddenly what had looked to me like comfortable altitude (it was the day of this photo) became a dreadful race to get on the ground. Look closely at the picture in the top left hand sector and you wil see a few kites way below me circling to get down. I spiral dived as fast as I could to lose height, but my vario said I was still going up - the effect of the updraught into the storm. In desperation I circled even faster, but rotated so fast I got dizzy and couldn’t maintain it. Being sucked up into the cloud was not a survivable option. Then I saw the outflow from the storm thundercloud: a great swathe of rain advancing down the mountain slope towards the landing ground. The air there had to be going down, didn’t it?! I headed straight for it … (don’t do this at home). On breaking into the rain band I immediately had to fly as fast as possible to match the increased windspeed and even so only just maintained station vertically above the landing ground. Certainly I was going down now - about 2000’ in a couple of minutes. The kite descended vertically like a helicopter.

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As I neared the ground the cadets rushed underneath and leapt up to grab any parts of the kite they could reach and then I was safely anchored on the ground, relieved indeed but not fully comprehending the risks I had taken. The cadets told me that a German pilot had hit a rock on landing and was killed. Read Judy’s book.
On the third day, the clouds were also building up early. I decided not to go up the hill, but to stay in the hotel and consider the wisdom of what I was doing. Storms developed that day too. There was a 10 day cycle to the weather, we were told. The storms would clear the air for five or six days before the next stormy spell built up. We flew the next day.

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Gloomy faces of Judy, Chris Bulger and Joseph Guggenmoss at the top on a day when we didn't fly. Despite the fatality the contest continued. It was a heavily sponsored event - it had to. The next picture was a typical view 'over the back' in clearer weather towards mightier and mightier mountains. 'Don't go there!' was the instruction - a retrieve might take a couple of weeks.

Co-operative Aviators

My primitive altimeter never showed more than 10,500'. The pointer had gone round the clock once and was probably hard against the stop. I guess I was thermalling up when this picture was taken. What I regret most is that I never got a picture of companions in the air. Not hang gliders (we couldn't launch quickly enough to fly in gaggles), not condors either, not eagles - although they were big birds - but vultures! Ugly, bald-headed consummate aviators, they were unquestionably a good omen. Join a group of these circling and you would go up a lot faster than anywhere else in the sky, and with no worries at all about air traffic control (mid air collision being the most scary aspect of flying in hang glider gaggles). So there I was: an Englishman with my hang glider in the Himalayas flying with … well, vultures.

Dehydration

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Landing out in the hostile terrain was almost as high stress an activity as the launch. Fortunately the natives were friendly. As they saw you descending they would gather in the fields beneath from all directions. Usually the first thing I had to do was to try to speak. My mouth and throat would be completely dry with fear, exhaustion and dehydration. "Pani, pani" (water) was the first word uttered. We didn't have camelbaks in those days, and stirrup harnesses were not equipped with suitable pockets. Most of my flying decisions were probably made under extreme dehydration - I don't recommend it. Towards the end I did reluctantly tape a bottle of water to the upright (more drag producing encumbrance) but I couldn't access it during flight. Plenty of free help and enthusiasm (too much) was available to de-rig the kite (aaah - mind those battens!) and to carry it back to the nearest road (phew - thanks!). Wonderful Indian hospitality, sweet tea, and Hindi language tuition were offered whilst awaiting a retrieve vehicle.

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Home Again

I survived seven rounds to the end of the comp, placed 15th=, won a small amount of prize money which I donated to Deepak Mahajan for Indian pilots, and returned with five spare uprights. My attack of the trots delayed itself until I was driving home from Heathrow at 3 o'clock in the morning. Looking the thinner for it a week later, I surveyed the transit damage to the kite - fortunately only cosmetic scuffs and minor sail repairs were needed. Altogether this had been a totally incredible unforgettable adventure. I had added 13 hours to my log book (see p9) and for the rest of my flying career retained a huge respect for - and avoidance of - thunder clouds. Of course I brought back plenty of films too and ended up giving ten slide shows to friends including SCFHGC in Ipswich and NHGC in Norwich. Look closely at the picture and you will see the Ventimeter/Makiki/Altimeter instrument cluster on the upright, and my banana connection suspended from the hang point.

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