Freesteel Blog » A flight to the heart of England

A flight to the heart of England

Friday, July 31st, 2015 at 11:19 am Written by:

This blog has as many gaps as my logbooks which are sitting on the to-do section of my desk waiting for their pages to be filled with flights and caving trips done many moons ago.

After expo my passenger and I drove back to his house in Bristol. I continued onwards the next day through horrendous rain showers to a campsite behind the Long Mynd for the third and final BOS hang-gliding competition of the season.

Here’s a picture on take-off on the Long Mynd in special smudged-lens-o-vision:


The lens smudge was still there high up where all the world looked flat. I’m pretty sure this is Wenlock Edge (the trees sloping down on the left) that Becka and I cycled along last month just before she fell off her bike.

Due to some complete fluke, I made a 70km flight from here to a small village called Radford that was so patriotic it had two houses with union jacks on flagpoles in their front yards.
On the way I passed high over the notorious Clee Hill where I saw two gliders suckered and beating back and forth across its scree slope face and slowly going down. There was a vortex of five sailplanes like white swans banking hard in a tight rising column of air behind that hill. Luckily I’d lost my fear of being sliced up by these things and dived straight for them. They were high above me by the time I got there.

Hang-gliding competitions are like a form of geocaching, and the task set for the beginners’ Club Class like me was to reach this 400m radius goal cylinder near Kidderminster whilst still in the air.

To make it easy, you have a flight computer that displays a big arrow pointing you where to go.

To make it difficult, there’s wind drift, obstacles in the way, and no idea exactly what feature I was aiming for on the ground. You can’t see the names of the towns from above, and it all looks nothing like it does on these google earth maps.

Consequently I ricocheted about the place consuming a vast amount of luck and altitude.

I believe the strategic decisions were as follows:

I identified the urban mattress Kidderminster up ahead and thought that the goal was roughly centred on it.

I didn’t want to cross the scary pointy pine forest which looked completely solid giving absolutely nowhere to land, so I made a right turn to avoid it.

I caught a couple of thermals back to the cloud height and carried on going.

Then I suddenly noticed the arrow on the computer pointing to the left instead of ahead.

I tried to glide straight, following the arrow, and went considerably downwind when I probably should have been ferry-gliding. I couldn’t identify any target on the ground, so I just watched distance number on the computer to count down to zero at a rate which kind of felt like it was going to happen just a couple hundred metres above the ground.

There wasn’t anywhere good to land that wasn’t a field of tall wheat crops (wheat everywhere, as far as the eye can see). Luckily, before this became a critical issue, I caught a strong thermal that took me away.

Without the computer pointing me where to go, I really didn’t know what I should be doing now, so drifted with the wind for a while.

A light aircraft passed me by on the same altitude causing me to scream. Then another glider I recognized in the competition (grey with a white nose cone) joined me for a few minutes and circled, which convinced me I had not yet gone anywhere I wasn’t supposed to be. Finally, a pink and green microlight came alongside to have a look while I was doing lazy circles and defying gravity without any engine.

As I passed over the M5 I could hear the roar of the traffic. This was the only external sound encountered in the whole flight.

It was all going so well and beautifully that I resolved to cut things short and come down in a sheep field before something went completely wrong and spoiled everything.

I was stranded in a not very good pub for the next 5 hours unable to drink more than one pint of beer without getting a bad headache. I got rescued by the Club Class Retrieve Driver at 9pm and driven back to the campsite.

The next day (Sunday) it rained a lot.

Then on Monday it was too windy. Many of us had discovered the amazing pub breakfast. I cycled to Bishop Castle and then to Clun to burn some of it off, due to a tip-off from an indian cafe owner that there be snakes at Woolbury Hill. (We did find the castle.)


Tuesday was pretty windy on the hill. We sat in the cafe of the Long Mynd Gliding Club (what a discovery) and many of us paid for a 30 minute roller coaster ride of terror in a tin can. Sailplane gliders are just not natural.

On the final day there was going to be a lot of rain showers and not much wind.

For some reason I decided to take off first after a particularly brutal patch of rain and in full view of all the best pilots in the country, expecting my flying style to be criticized.


But they don’t give a damn about that. As soon as it appeared that I was managing to stay up, they came at me like gannets. I stayed away from them at the unpopular north end of the ridge not gaining much height while everyone seemed to go off to the south end and buzz about there like a swarm of flies. Unfortunately this meant I had the sailplanes to contend with as they chose to use the less crowded end of the ridge.

I should have joined the crowds in the right place, because then I might have done something, but I was too scared. I top landed by the car just before a huge patch of rain and couldn’t take off again as the start gate was now closed. The most fearless Club Class pilot did go for it, but missed exiting the 5km start cylinder by a mere 14metres.

Then it was back to the headquarters for the long wait and the unbelievable news that some pilots had actually made the task.

I sat in the back of the room where the scoring was done, and it was like watching a three hour Arthur Miller play with the props at centre stage being a table of glass trophies waiting to be dished out. At least three in each category, Flex, Club Class and Rigid wing.

The points from all the previous days and competitions were already known, so what happens on this day isn’t going to make much of a difference.

Scene 1: Grumpy man on sofa says, We know I’ve won the Rigid class. Can I take my prize and go home now so I don’t have to drive all night. Phil the scorer says, It’s not up to me, ask the Meet-Head.

Much frustrated hanging around ensues, and wives wondering why you have to wait so long for your piece of glass that you can easily pick up next year.

The Meet-Head is the man or woman who officially sets the task on the day, including all the time gates and relevant radii, like a very nerdy Wizard of Oz sending you on a some kind of mathematical location quest.

Scoring is a total a dark art. Phil downloads a tracklog from your flight computer and runs a program that turns all those UTC time-stamped squiggles into a number between 0 and 500, plus some fudge factors. One of the fudge factors is that if you go into an illegal air zone (as you get round some airports or experimental laser establishments) you get no points.

Gradually pilots begin to dribble in or phone up and arrange for lifts. Many of the leaders came short and didn’t score points, so the order at the top was got revised, which is a big deal. I sat back and laughed at the drama.

I mean I do a lot of ridiculous sports that definitely have no objective. I mean, caving, what’s the point of that?

Well, finding new cave passage does actually amount to something and makes a difference years into the future, but no one tallies it.

And diving, that really is pointless too. You just plop in the water and swim with the fishes across a shipwreck or something trying to have a good experience. It’s an aimless way to spend your time.

With canoe polo or octopush you’re counting the times the object gets thrown into the goal, which at least exists.

But only this hang-gliding sport has this bizarre random point scheme based on a rather sophisticated algorithm accounting for the distribution how far along the gliders have landed along the course to determin the quality of the day constant and many other fudge factors. It all adds up into this final flowchart thing.


I didn’t learn any of this at school. At the end of the evening Phippsy won, which was great because he does a fantastic Master of Ceremonies thanking everyone and wrapping up whilst bouncing around hugging his trophy.

On the other hand, I’m in a bit of a pickle because the rules say that the winner of the Club Class isn’t allowed to fly in the Club Class again. I am not ready for it. I haven’t got the right glider. I’m not going to be so lucky again.

This is as much of a reward as accidentally getting a girl pregnant: fun at the time, but the consequences are expensive.

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