My First Trip to the Seaside – 17th April, 2016
I had often wondered what it would feel like to fly from Derbyshire to the coast. This was the day I found out!
By the middle of the week there had already been a bit of a buzz in the free flying community about the coming Sunday: RASP was predicting a 5-star day in much of the south of England and the only doubt about Derbyshire was whether or not it would be too windy. I’ve known several big XC days when sites like the Long Mynd had enjoyed light winds while The Peak District was howling by 9.30am, so it wasn’t surprising that some locals were opting to travel south to where the wind was forecast to be lighter. The predicted updraft velocities looked good right into the evening, so if the Peaks were not blown out, the chance of a big XCs was high.
As Sunday dawned, the latest predictions showed a light northwesterly in the morning, getting too windy (and westerly) by early afternoon. There was a NOTAM warning about an equestrian event in Grantham but I was expecting we’d track north of Cranwell – if we got that far. I looked at the boundary layer average on RASP and submitted a goal flight to Boston for 120k.
Well, as usual, waking up Sunday morning seemed surprisingly difficult, and getting organised took forever. It was gone 11am when we’d finally met up with Crispin (who is notoriously laid back and unhurryable) at Hathersage, and by the time he’d parked his van in the station car park and we’d got to Brad it was 11:15. Three or four paragliders were already high and heading downwind, and a huge gaggle of over 20 paragliders were in a slow climb 2000 feet overhead. As we walked to the front a number of experienced pilots had just top landed. They seemed glad to be down, were talking about Dave S having had his glider badly out of shape and said conditions were rough and getting too windy. I walked to launch where the wind certainly seem stronger than I’d expected. A number of hang glider pilots were rigging on top and more paraglider pilots were packing their gliders on lower launch and talking of heading home.
There were soon several hangies in the air, and although a handful of paragliders continued to fly, they didn’t make it look worthwhile. It was fairly windy and rather bouncy, lift seemed broken and suppressed and I wondered what was causing these conditions. There was good-looking cumulus to the north, the south and the east, but above us the sky was mostly blue with occasional, short-lived clouds. 30 minutes passed and by 11:45 two more paraglider pilots (Ruth and Hamish) had found weak thermals and made low escapes over the back. The sky above was gradually filling in with more cloud, but those still flying were still not getting up easily and were not penetrating much either. My glider stayed in its bag.
The sky above was gradually filling in with more cloud, but those still flying were still not getting up easily and were not penetrating much either. My glider stayed in its bag.
Deciding whether to fly is always tricky. I know how easy it is for our minds to trick us into flying – or into not flying. There are also powerful influences exerted by a group. We jokingly call such an effect “ground suck” – where a group of pilots discussing conditions becomes unduly negative about them. It’s especially noticeable when the group contains an influential member who expresses doubt or uncertainty, or when the group starts discussing a worrying event such as a serious accident or a scary situation. There seemed to be some “ground suck” happening today, but perhaps my own perspective was equally twisted, and I was suffering from “sky suck”!? I stood away from everyone and tried to clear my mind and focus on tangible evidence as much as possible. The wind remained strong and paragliders were certainly pitching about a bit, but the cloud shadows were still quite slow, so it seemed possible that the current conditions might be a local effect or a passing phase. I stood and watched for another 30 minutes or so. Cyril walked by, saying he had decided to go home because good pilots were packing up, and that was good enough for him. Knowing how his enthusiasm tends to push him into sticky situations, I heartily commended him for his decision.
After a few minutes, I noticed that the wind at launch had definitely eased and gliders overhead were penetrating more easily. It was nearly 12:30 and I decided to get my glider out and set up, hoping this might be the change in the air I was hoping for. I felt rather fraudulent after my recent conversation with Cyril, and I hoped he wasn’t watching me! By the time I was clipped in and ready, the wind had reduced hugely on the hill and had also gone very southerly. A hangie and at least one para were caught out by the sudden change and went to the bottom, and a couple of others slope landed. At that moment the remaining paragliders found a big thermal rising out in front and to the right of take off, (which explained the switch in wind direction) and started climbing easily in it.
A couple of us quickly took off and headed in that direction.. and up we all went! I couldn’t get up to where Gary Stenhouse, “Luis from Spain” and a couple of others were, and they were soon heading off downwind. But it wasn’t too rough or windy, and within 15 minutes I was in a another thermal with three paragliders and two hangies, and we were on our way.
After the lift got weak (at about 3000 feet over Hathersage), the Cayenne went on glide, and I weaved around in scrappy lift with the guy on the Iota (Mark Gravestock) until he too headed off downwind. I was very unwilling to follow as I was in slight lift, couldn’t see anything to go for and certainly didn’t want to bomb out in the Grindleford valley again! I also had a feeling that this apparent “ceiling” might just be a kink in the temperature gradient, in which case my perseverance might be rewarded with a trip to cloudbase. But it didn’t happen. It was obvious I was under some sort of extensive spread-out, there was little sun on the ground and thermals were quite weak. I went into “extreme bishing” mode, making very slow progress but staying at around 3000 feet for the next 30 minutes. A satellite pic (taken an hour or so previously, before I launched) shows the blue hole over Bradwell (marked) and the extensive bank of cloud which followed it.
One of the hangies was behind me for a while, and later I saw the Cayenne in a climb about 5km ahead over Owler Bar, but after that I didn’t see anyone else. I continued bishing under the spread-out towards Dronfield, unable to get above this “ceiling” at 3200 feet and trying to resist the temptation to glide towards the sunnier stuff downwind until it was within easy reach.
It was bit frustrating because the area of spread-out seemed to be following me (and even overtaking me at times), and I occasionally wished I’d gone on glide with the other pilots near Hathersage. I imagined that they were having a fantastic time by now – and making good progress in the 50% sky up ahead. Another satpic from the day (taken later – around 2:15) shows how this area of spread-out had moved with me. I’ve superimposed my track, showing my position at the time the image was taken:
Scratching around for so long meant I’d had little opportunity to crosswind, but I was conscious that my current course was going to run into RHADS. I struggled to centre a weak climb over Dronfield and finally lost patience and dived downwind for a farm sitting on a little hill in the sunshine. Descending over the farm at 1000 feet ASL waiting for a thermal, I cursed myself loudly for being so reckless!
But only 700 feet from the ground I found something…. and YES! I was climbing again – a slightly stronger climb, and with a bit of work I was finally up – this time to about 4000 feet. It was a stroke of good fortune to get up to such a reasonable height at this point, because I was getting close to Netherthorpe ATZ and needed to cross-wind. I was out of the spread-out now and finally under a better-looking sky, so I went on a southerly, cross-wind glide towards a growing cu. The cloud was still growing as I flew, but I had sink all the way and arrived over a little wood near Langwith with only 600 feet AGL. But right behind that wood I found a nice thermal, and felt extremely lucky to get up from yet another low save. I was now clear of Robin Hood so didn’t need to do anything reckless from now on. In Google Earth you can see my route and cross-wind glide near Netherthorpe:
In the next thermal I had plenty of time to settle down, reaffirm my commitment to the thermal I’m with (forsaking all others), and solemnly vowed to never go gallivanting off unless I was on my own and in the blue.
In the next climb I had plenty of time to settle down, reaffirm my commitment to the thermal I’m with (forsaking all others), and solemnly vowed to never go gallivanting off unless I was on my own and in the blue. A nice view of Thoresby Lake and Thoresby Hall.
I’m not very good at commitment. Within 30 minutes of fervently vowing fidelity I’d thoroughly run out of patience with a big, decaying cloud over Sherwood Forest, saw a pretty little one forming downwind and immediately went for it. I definitely deserved to be dumped, and 10 minutes later I arrived over an industrial estate on the outskirts of Tuxford (where I landed four days earlier) in sink and rapidly running out of options. Those factory buildings were in the shade, but they were my final hope, so I got on the accelerator and aimed for a spot downwind of those black roofs.
From about 600 feet AGL (again!) I found a weak thermal from the industrial estate and scraped back up. I could see gliders on aerotow from Darlton.
The River Trent! Last time I flew over this bit, I got a nice climb from the cooling towers of High Marnham power station. Now it has completely disappeared, leaving a few circles on a huge brown square. I wasn’t terribly high, so probably shouldn’t have been enjoying the view quite so much. By the time I’d crossed the Trent I was getting uncomfortably low and needing low save number 4!
Then, for the first time in this flight I saw a bird climbing nicely ahead. It was a buzzard in a strong thermal and I dived over, arriving at about 1000 feet and got what felt like my first proper climb of the day! I felt a strong sense of gratitude to that buzzard! At base for the first time in 2 ½ hours of flying, I finally had time to breathe, assess my options, take a drink …and even enjoy the view! Looking back at a glistening River Trent from about 5000 feet.
I was now at the edge of R313 – the red arrows training area at Scampton. I had been here before, but on a week day, when the restriction is usually in force. But being a Sunday, R313 is open (unless restricted by NOTAM), so I was free to enter this big red cylinder showing on my GPS – and stay under my nice line of clouds. I had checked NOTAMs the night before, but couldn’t help feeling a little nervous: Could I have missed a notification, and be flying into the middle of a red arrows training exercise? Even worse, might I lose my flight in the XC League!? The view in Google Earth:
Just before 4pm I found a gentle climb over Lincoln under a growing cloud. Again, I had lots of time to enjoy the view and take a breather. I could see people flying kites and someone ground handling a red paraglider on West Common. Later, I found out it was Chris Webb. Over Lincoln I was even thinking I’d be happy to go down here. Being a cheapskate, I knew that the train fare from Lincoln to Sheffield is a very reasonable £15, so felt that the disappointment of bombing out at this point would be ameliorated by the reasonable cost of getting home. But I bravely resisted the urge to spiral down, and continued my journey.
That magical number again: 100km from launch. Yippee! It’s been a while! But I’m on glide in sink, and within a minute of this photo being taken I was down to 1000 feet again and needing low save number 5!
For the fifth time I was getting too low for comfort and headed for some farm buildings where someone was stoking a large bonfire. By the time I found the core I was down to about 1000 feet again, but so glad to be climbing again I didn’t mind the constant smell of smoke all the way up!
Although I’d got low a couple of times, the flying since Lincoln had seemed easier. Before there had been a noticeable slowing of climbs at 3000-odd feet, and weak climbs were ending at this altitude. But now even the weak thermals seemed consistent all the way up and I like flying across peaceful landscape in gentle thermals. Being able to wind all the way to base is nice too. It’s easier flying from cloud to cloud than grovelling around at 2000 feet reliant on my knowledge of thermal triggers. I felt good, and even began wondering if I might get to the seaside! I’d never got to the “End of Land” before, but always thought it would be a wonderful experience. I kept looking ahead, wondering if I was imagining it or if that thin blue line was the sea. But eventually, it was unmistakeable: I can see the North Sea! Woop woop!
There was a nice sequence of clouds all the way to the sea and I felt I had a really good chance of getting there. With less than 20km to go I emerged from the downwind edge of a cloud at about 5400 feet and decided to set off for the coast. I had a good tailwind and at minimum sink I thought I’d make it, but after two minutes of sink, I knew I’d miscalculated: I needed another climb and started desperately searching for one. The cloud I’d been aiming for had dissipated too, and I briefly considered going back upwind to the one I’d left, but that was never going to work. I flew on downwind, just hoping to bump into something. 7km from the beach at 1500 feet ASL I found something – and for the next 10 minutes I bimbled along in a very weak thermal, knowing that every turn was taking me nearer to my destination.
Finally, after 10 minutes of milking every scrap of lift I could find, I had gained about 400 feet, but more importantly, I’d drifted 4 km downwind and was now within easy glide of the beach. Yeehaa!
My original plan was to land on the beach, but turning into wind I realised there was quite a strong offshore breeze, and so I turned inland at the last minute and opted for a nice little green field in a caravan park. My track on Google Earth shows how that weak thermal helped me to get there.
A lovely Scottish couple who owned one of the caravans were walking their little Scottie dog and came to say hello. They told me I was at Chapel St Leonards and offered to drive me the 7 miles into Skegness! By the time I’d packed up Alex had driven the car around to pick me up, so I didn’t even have time for a celebratory landing coffee! Within minutes, Alex, Jean, Dougal and I were pootling at a leisurely pace towards Skeggy. At the bus station the man said I’d missed the last bus to Lincoln by 10 minutes, but I could catch it if I could get my mate (Alex) to “put pedal to the metal” and beat the bus to Horncastle. For a minute, I was tempted: I’d be home for £20! But then reality set in: My new friends had already gone well out of their way to help me, and the thought of Alex putting “pedal to the metal” was almost impossible to imagine! I settled for the train. Thank you Alex and Jean!
The last train out of Skeggy on a Sunday is the 7:15pm to Nottingham. The fare to Sheffield? £34.10! Ouch! I knew I should have landed at Lincoln! Joking aside, the train trip was long but extremely pleasant: The ride was smooth, I had a table seat, the views were beautiful and the coffees from my flask never tasted so good!
All the way home I couldn’t help feeling how incredibly privileged I am to be having adventures like this. More please!