The Australian borders have been closed for most of my time away, which was a great excuse not to return to work. It worked out really well for the once in a lifetime invitational hike and fly event in Dubai in November. After this I flew into Sydney, and had a few weeks up my sleeve until the Queensland state borders would open. The only hitch was the last minute Omicron scare which meant I had to home quarantine for three days (thanks to a mate in Newcastle for hosting me). At long last I arrived at the Lake Keepit Soaring Club. The focus was to do some cross country gliding, and perhaps chip away at the indomitable paperwork involved in this sport.
Lake Keepit was perfect for my situation – the club operates everyday and has onsite accommodation, a good fleet and great cross country potential. The manager Ian Downes facilitates a great atmosphere and is busy making sure everything runs smoothly. He even picked me up from the train station – things were relatively quiet given the exceptionally wet La Nina season and the pandemic.
The first day was exactly a year since my first solo so a check flight was arranged in good conditions before I jumped in the LS7 for the first time (unfortunately the day had died by then). The volunteer instructor Vic was complimentary about my flying and didn’t pick any bad habits, in particular my lookout was good which I wanted to pay extra attention to.
On the following day I had a coaching flight booked with Allan Barnes. Aside from his past accomplishments you get an idea for his abilities when the gliding chat radio channel is full of calls enquiring where he is, where he’s headed, how much water he’s carrying, etc. But unfortunately for us we really struggled. Flying for almost two hours in the Duo Discus we used the engine twice and never got to cloud base. It was a windy day and the ground was green and wet – we searched for weak bubbles. I happened to be flying when we got the best thermal of the day (I commented it was like a different day), but it did not last. His feedback afterwards was also quite complimentary – he said he wouldn’t have done anything different. A couple of small tips – avoid sudden movements (especially on heavier aircraft) to avoid control surface drag; try using the rudder rather than coordinated movement to make slight re-centering adjustments in thermals; and, have you read any books (I think he mentioned George Moffat, whose book I later found in the library).
I didn’t fly again until the next weekend. I got a couple of work from home shifts done (thanks to Matthew for lending me his Tesla to get into town to buy a cable!) but mostly it was stormy and wet. The grass was growing really well. On Friday the runway was so wet we had to cancel the day despite blue skies.
So much of this sport is having the right amount of confidence. The safety critical phases of flight, take off and landing, are high workload and you need to be focused – there is no mental bandwidth for any doubts to enter your mind. Of course over-confidence is equally dangerous, and somehow you have to convince the duty instructor of the day that you have the right balance. This has been an at times frustrating part of the sport – that every time I go to a new gliding club I have to start again – and this is the motivator to get my GPC (glider pilot certificate) sorted. It’s not that I haven’t been treated fairly but it is hard to assess your capability for something you have never demonstrated. In this case it was out-landing – I’ve studied the books, done the simulation and I’ve been briefed to the moon (wind, wires, surface, slope, size and shape, stock and surrounds), but I hadn’t actually done one “in the wild”.
My first cross country flight in the LS7. Outlanding!
Early in the flight I began losing height and started retreating towards the airfield. I didn’t have enough height though and made sure my path took me in range of landable paddocks, preferentially choosing to pick those that doubled as likely thermal sources. Despite thinking “ahead of the aircraft” and always being in a safe position, there’s plenty of nervous tension as you climb away from circuit height. Each turn completed in lift gives some relief but you remind yourself not to lose concentration. Finally I was away and flew in the vicinity of Jacob in his JS3 and Ranjit in his Diana2 on the ridges up to Mt Kaputar.
North of Kaputar started to get weak and blue but Jacob and I managed to stay high. There was a leeside climb before I pushed out towards the flats, alone save a Wedge tailed eagle that marked the climb. What I thought were good looking clouds led me astray and for much of the rest of the flight I struggled along the Namoi river. Above me was rather blue and below me was rather wet, so I felt a little uncomfortable at 3500’amsl (ground 800′), especially when climbs were fizzling out at 4100′. I turned into wind and back towards base at Keepit, hoping to connect to the clouds in that direction.
I found a climb in the back corner of a big paddock, then pushed for the lee of a small hill, noting a suitable paddock on my left and leaving myself just enough height to arrive there at circuit height. The hill didn’t work so I turned 135 degrees for the paddock and thankfully found a thermal there (at circuit height!). It was a good one but still I didn’t manage to take it to cloud base, unfortunately. But I had enough to connect to the top of the Kelvin range, so I glided over there. I had just enough height to cross to windward but hadn’t had a chance to assess landing options on the other side, so I opted to search the ridges in the sunny lee instead. This almost worked but in the end I had to retreat to the fields that again, I’d noted earlier.
Finally I had just the right amount of height for a safe and comfortable circuit into a five star paddock. I’d already pre-warned on the gliding chat channel that I getting low, Allan Barnes had responded, and I updated him with my circuit call and again once I’d landed safely. I found out later that at that time he’d begun a very long glide towards the Carrol range (just to my south), where he managed to find just enough lift to get him safely home. I think it was probably possible for me to find something on the Kelvin’s but I am very happy with all my decisions. I joked that since the runway at Keepit was so wet, I’d opted for a much nicer field instead.
After landing I updated the duty instructor (Tim Carr) and Ian, and confirmed the access was good – two hundred metres on a firm surface to a sealed road via a cattle grid. The paddock was also suitable for aerotow, being a kilometre long, but Ian sent Christian, who’d outlanded some days earlier, to come and get me. That’s another great thing about Keepit – there’s usually people around, rather than heading back home after a weekend. We got the glider into the trailer as the sun set. Christian thought we should try and thank the farmer – I wasn’t sure we needed to make it more of an adventure, towing a trailer up a muddy track – finally we turned around in the high grass when we came across a rutted pond, and no farmhouse in sight.
It was a full house on our return, people offered their congratulations (or sarcastic remarks, of course), and we had plenty of leftovers from the barbecue and beers in the fridge. Overall a great experience, and I felt it was a very judicious use of brownie points – Christian was well fed and watered and we had a good chat, both in the car and back at the club with hang gliders Rick, Mark, and Bruce.
The next morning I put together the glider again, out from the trailer, with Simon’s assistance. Recently solo, he is from a recreational general aviation background and always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (when I need help!).
Another great cross country, this time I only got low off the aerotow. It gets expensive to tow higher than 2000’agl and if you can’t find a thermal from that height, is it worth flying at all? Managed to jag one at circuit height just behind Runway 20. Soon I was joined by Allan Barnes in the Duo and Ranjit in the Diana2. We headed towards Mt Borah – I got behind, topping up, and did the rest of the flight on my own. Most of the paragliders were scratching low around the west launch but one was up near cloud base.
I pushed out to the northwest, there were juicy clouds but it wasn’t always easy to find the climbs. Ranjit in fact missed one or two and headed back to Keepit to land (I found out later). I did well following the edge of the plateau, then turned left to follow the Kelvin and Carrol ranges. I hadn’t really planned it, but I did have the foresight to check with Allan about the airspace procedure for Tamworth, as after 3:30pm it is inactive on weekends. So after following some good clouds southwest into the flats I got on channel for Tamworth, made a call, and flew across to the Melville range.
The flying was good but having to make airspace calls does influence things a little – sometimes it’s good to leave your options open a little bit when announcing your intentions. I transited to the northeast and decided to finish the flight by pushing as far east as I felt comfortable, keeping high. It was hilly country with no landings, but I knew I was in range of good paddocks. Great views of big clouds and distant showers to the east and I think I might have even seen the ocean. I turned around 49km from Keepit. Final glide was great, with a required glide of 22:1 I could push 80-100 knots, more at the end.
The clouds were high and well spaced, but somehow they just didn’t look so great. And then there was some delay on launch – I didn’t get into the air until 2:17pm, after Jacob and Ranjit. Then conditions were booming. I took off to the north without waiting for Justin Smith or Matthew Atkinson, and again I ended up flying on my own. Jan Tupy had a good head start on me, paragliding from Mt Borah, and he’d shared his location on Whatsapp. I was trying to catch him before he got too far away – hitching home doesn’t work with a glider!
At 3:35pm I sent Jan a message, “Mate, you’re a bit bloody quick, I’m only just at Bingara now, I was at cloud base just before, you’re about 35km ahead so I’m getting a bit nervous I might not be able to make it back. I’m just going to have a little bit of a poke ahead, it would be awesome to see you but maybe I can’t afford to give you so much of a headstart next time.” Ten minutes later I sent another message to say I’d given up and turned around. Within half an hour Jan replied to say that he’d landed – without a retrieve him and a couple of others had landed in Warialda.
I’ve been claiming that the Australian inland is better to suited gliding than paragliding, unless you like long drives late into the night, but the premise is that in a glider you can fly into the wind and land back at the airfield. Once I returned to the hills besides Bingara where I’d had my last good climb, I started to have my doubts. The thermal was nowhere to be found, and the cloud streets showing me the way home earlier had now vanished. I knew I had to watch the clock but the suddenness of the day turning off really surprised me.
The situation was no longer looking any good – I’d already changed into low gear, looking for altitude rather than speed, but I was now further than I’d ever been from the home airfield, with a headwind and dying conditions. The route I’d taken was mostly over rolling lightly forested hills, and now that I was lower I chose my route more carefully with less glide up my sleeve to reach a good paddock. I patiently worked whatever lift I came across but at 78km out I was closely inspecting a paddock from 2000’agl.
It was another five star outlanding candidate, the tractor finishing off the last of the hay a short distance from the highway. But stumbling across a thermal I banked to the left – I had to try – and even if I only made Barraba it would shorten the drive home. In the thermal drift I lost four kilometres. I would never get to cloud base on the return leg but I now had enough to reach Barraba on my left, if needed. Keeping it within <20:1 glide I followed a more direct line, hoping to pick up some lift to get me over the high country. Three more climbs and I got over the summit of Hobden (1097m), 37km out.
I hoped to get my last thermal here and glide into Keepit, but I found some unwelcome sink in the lee and was probably lucky to find the thermal at all. Again it was drifting me away, and I tried again a few times upwind until comfortable that I’d reasonably extracted all of the lift on offer. I had a 30:1 glide to Keepit to arrive at 300’agl, a stretch into wind, but maybe if I flew slowly?
Again more sink as I left Hobden hill, and my required glide increased – not a good sign. Ahead of me was a large cloud shadow from some convergence to the west, and ahead of that was a Lake Keepit. I suspected I might find buoyant air over the lake – but thought it best not to rely on that as a strategy late in a final glide. So I gratefully took as many turns as I could in the next thermal, making it seem achievable again, and updated Ian via Whatsapp – he’d been unable to hear me reply to his radio calls.
Finally the lake was buoyant and I reached the airfield with over 1000′ to spare. Ian had cleared the kangaroos from the runway and I touched down at 6:59pm. Of each of my four cross country flights on this trip, I think this is the one I am most proud of – it really didn’t seem likely that I’d make it back. I’m sure Ian was relieved but obviously didn’t want to encourage me too much, “dont do that again”! As it turned out I got home about twenty minutes before Jan did, hitching.
The next day I knocked off another work from home shift. On Wednesday I was ready to go again, it would be my last day. My main objective at Keepit Soaring was to do some cross country flights (a real outlanding was a really good way to kick this off), but on this final day I thought I’d try to work towards getting some on paper experience. So Richard and Allan Barnes helped me program a 300km declared task into one of the club instruments.
We were expecting a good day, but after midday it was still blue, so we delayed a little. I was first on the grid and Allan said he’d be “right behind me” so I set up, but let him go first while I had some instrument trouble – we had to re-enter the task. I pinged off tow when I reached his altitude, only about 1500′ or so, but if you can’t get up from there at the airfield, do you really want to go cross country?
We struggled for quite some time, joined by Justin, and things took quite a while to improve. I haven’t flown with water yet but the guys managed to hold onto theirs for the time being. Allan snuck away ahead and as far as I could tell I was the second one, but didn’t see the others for most of the rest of the flight. Finally I broke through 5000’amsl with stronger climbs, both at medium sized dams, and there were a gentle wind shears on the inversions with the only clouds on the ranges.
Allan had reached the Liverpool range to the south but still hadn’t broken through 8000′ like I had on the flats, and when I tagged the first turn point I found conditions average despite the cumulus and veered away from the hills. I gave myself twenty minutes or so to find some solid climbs but the clock was ticking away, and finally I abandoned my task half way through the second leg of the triangle.
I didn’t fly straight back but thought I could extend past the Kelvin range to get a undeclared 300km. I climbed from 4500′ to 5500′ on the southern end of the Kelvin’s, continued north, and then returned again at 3500′, this time definitely needing a climb to make the glide to Keepit. I found one in a new spot and kept the airfield within glide for the rest of the flight, much to Ian’s relief, who had described my chances of getting back as “PROB30” at one of the morning briefings!
The following day I ticked off my Independent Operators certificate, which is an important milestone, as it allows me to fly without an instructor present on the airfield. Once I’m back in Kingaroy I’ll refresh the private passenger rating so I can introduce some mates into the sport, and the final step will be my GPC (Gliding Pilot Certificate), hopefully not too far away. On the final evening everyone put their hand up for a feed at the Carroll Gap Farmhouse to farewell Jack the tow pilot, with whom I got a lift back to Queensland.