A humbling task…

Perhaps it was the six hours driving on Thursday evening that contributed to my poor score, but whatever, Friday’s XC task from Milk Hill in the North-South Cup was a rather humbling experience for me, and I hope I’ve learnt a lot from it.

The story starts on Thursday evening – Fiona, Angus and I drove to the Powis Arms at Lydbury North to be there in time for the briefing at 2230. We arrived at about 2200 only to be told that tomorrow’s task was going to be at Milk Hill, nr Marlborough. ie. only an hour from where I’d started from five hours earlier! So rather than a super-early start on Friday we decided to drive back down south again, stay at Fi and Angus’s house and have a more leisurely start.

So we arrived at Milk Hill at 1030 where the briefing was already underway at the top of the hill. This was our first mistake… we should have arrived earlier, although to be fair, we had been told the night before that the briefing was going to be at the bottom of the hill at 1030…

Because it’s a small site pilots we’re going to be launched in small groups , then more pilots would be allowed to launch once they’d thinned out a bit or got away, and so on.

An epic looking sky (Photo: Crawford Coulson)

The sky was looking lovely when we arrived and so I wasn’t in that much of a hurry to take off. Ok, I wanted to be in the first half, but not necessarily the first ten, so I took my time getting all my kit sorted. Just when I thought I was almost ready I noticed a twist in my risers so I rotated my harness through the risers one way, but that only made it worse. By now I was really wanting to take off but I was getting slightly flustered and it took a further few minutes to sort it out. So this was my second mistake – not being prepared to get off straight away, especially since Richard Westgate saying “watch out for the spreadout” after the briefing.

The first wave took off at 1100, but I don’t suppose I took off for at least half an hour after them by which time the sky had deteriorated to about 7/8 cloud cover I reckon. The first gaggles had already got away by this time but with so many gliders still in the bowl it was difficult to make the most of the few climbs that came through. So I, along with 30-40 others (some on the White Horse hill in front) milled around trying desperately to get away. After another half an hour I’d say the sky was 8/8 cloud but amazingly people were getting away in small gaggles of 2-3, so by 1300 I’d say maybe half the field had got away, leaving the rest of us feeling rather sorry for ourselves.

An early gaggle making good progress (Photo Bruce Goldsmith)

Bruce’s photo above shows how the sky had changed from earlier on… Meanwhile, back in the bowl, it was getting rather boring and frustrating as you can imagine! With no breaks in the cloud in sight I landed to have a change of scenery, and then when I decided to launch again I had fun and games with my glider deciding it’d rather be in an upside-down wall configuration which made launching somewhat tricky! Eventually I moved lower down the hill and took off for the second time at about 1330 I guess, 30 minutes before the window close time.

I then boated around in the bowl for at least another hour, occasionally getting 300-400′ above take off in very weak lift, but I never felt comfortable in going for it. Eventually, at about 1445 I found myself in a weak thermal with about six or seven others and we drifted over the back in the weakest of weak climbs. The gaggle worked well for maybe 4km by which time we’d probably only gained 1,500′. But then it started to peter out and this is when I made my third mistake – I pushed forward on my own expecting others to follow, but no, they stayed together as a group. Meanwhile I’d found another climb just north of the A4 and all seemed to be going well until I lost it… Agghh… And then I made my fourth mistake – instead of using the last thermal indicator on my B1 Nav to help me find it again I panicked and went on a downwind dash to a small ridge just north of Preshute, where I arrived below ridge height  but managed to climb up and soar it easily enough. But it was only 30m high, a bit like soaring a large dune!

So there I was, pinned to this tiny ridge, watching three or four of the gliders in my gaggle fly overhead at a good height… Bloody hell! I persevered on this ridge for about 30 minutes before I managed to gain enough height to dash over the back to land near the minor road a mile or two north of Ogbourne St George for a whopping 15km! I later discovered that one of the pilots I’d been flying with, Dave Thomas, flew about 75km to Bicester, which was one of the top ten flights of the day I believe, the best being Richard Bungay’s amazing 116km! Bugger, bugger, bugger!

Into the murk (Photo Bruce Goldsmith)

As it happened, the sky did eventually improve later on – Neil Furmidge, who’d flown in from Saudi Arabia earlier in the day I believe, took off at 1600 and flew 70km or so!

So to summarise, here’s what I’ve learnt from the day…

  1. Always get to the hill as early as possible! Just because you’ve been told the briefing is at 1030 at the bottom of the hill it doesn’t mean it will be!
  2. Try and take off as early as conditions will allow
  3. If it’s a very weak day and you’re in a gaggle and the lift dies, stay with the gaggle and work it. Don’t panic and dash off downwind
  4. If you’re on your own and lose a thermal you’re in, use whatever tools you’ve got to find it again – the chances are it’s there somewhere. Don’t end up on a poxy 30m high ridge which you’re never going to get away from.
  5. Even when it’s 8/8 cloud big distances can be flown. Never give up.
  6. Conditions can improve later on – maybe I should have stayed on that ridge longer rather than giving up… As long as you’re still flying you’ve got a chance!
  7. There are always some poor buggers who’ve done worse than you, so don’t beat yourself up too badly! There were quite a few better pilots than me who never managed to leave the hill at all…

3 responses to “A humbling task…”

  1. Hi Tim, I live in a village at the bottom of the hill, literally a walk to takeoff from my house. However like you I drove all the way up to Shropshire and back down again 6.5 Hrs of driving to end up where I started! Anyway I took off too late, failed to climb out and after 3 hours of scratching I had a splitting headache and decided to can it and go home for a cuppa and a lie down. Probably not the best thing to do to contribute to the south team score .. but hey ho. Well done for even climbing out!

    1. Tim Pentreath Avatar
      Tim Pentreath

      Colin, I feel for you – that’s seriously annoying! I thought I saw you on Friday but then not any more over the w/e – I guess you stayed at home… Catch up again soon…!

  2. Tim, I was watching you head for and soar that ridge, desperate to see you get a good climb out as I was in such weak lift – I’d have been over in a flash. Both Neil Furmidge and I were in that same gaggle as you at the start and I was going along just not believing I’d even get off the downs. It just shows how thermls, however weak can get fed from groun sources passing underneath and keep things working. I did start to get a good climb just after your location, up to about 3000ft and then got low again the other side of the M4, by then separated from Neil and everyone else, with Neil about a mile behind me. We were both close to preparing to land but were lucky, Neil climbing quickly behind me and then me picking up something. We joined up later – just in time to bet buzzed by a private jet at nearly 4000ft. I would not class it as an Airmiss, but it was very close – maybe 300 metres behind me after veering away from first Neil and then me. It was easy for a bit and then went to pants after trying to get slightly crosswind to the north around Oxford to stay away from Luton airspace. Neil on his super hot ship (omega 8) got well away from me and got an excellent climb, out of touch for me. Sadly both Neil and I went down almost at the same time though. I’m really dissapointed that we separated at that critical time (my fault as I hung back to top up at cloudbase before Oxford), as the two of us working together would have had a much better chance of picking up the next climb – the sky was actually looking better than it had all the day since those very early leavers from Milk hill. Being on the ground from 5pm, the sky was working for well over an hour afterwards. Not a bad 5 hours in the air – actually it was just megga fantastic and a pity we couldn’t have shared our time together like from Liddington last month.

    See you soon to do it all again Dave thomas

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