07 March 2011

Unexpected flying conditions...

While flying over the area on a commercial flight on Saturday, I take great pleasure in looking at the Swiss Alps, particularly because the passenger next to me points out the most well-known summits. As we approach home, I can point out "my" summits to him. He knows the ones situated in the East, but not the West.
That exchange strengthen my resolve to go mountaineering on Sunday. Only to be tempered by the amount of maintenance work that awaits me at home.
On Sunday afternoon, the smog lets some sunlight through, and I pack my paraglider in the car, "just in case".
I get to the landing terrain shortly before 14:00, and there's nobody there! Weird...
The first announcement from the weather beacon tells of a 0 to 6 km/h North-Easterly, which, I reckon, should strengthen if the cloud layer continues to lift. A pilot arrives but he's only here to meet François. The second beacon announces a 2 to 9 km/h North-Easterly. Everything is going according to plan. I contemplate hitch-hiking to the take-off as there is no rush to get there. While I'm getting ready, Arlette and Philippe arrive. Their plan is to go for a walk, but Arlette packed her wing in the boot, "just in case". They accept to give a lift to the hitch hiker and we're on our way.
On the road up, as we round the curve before Les Favrats, they spot a wing in the sky just above the ridge. We leave the car shortly after Le Col du Feu and walk to Le Couteau. The snow that fell over ten days ago has remained on the road and it's not possible to drive up. As we get to the take off, I spot a pilot ready to take off. It's Gwen, from Brittany. We haven't seen each other in a while, and I'm pleased to see him here.
He doesn't waste any time and takes of rapidly. A clean take off, without fuss, despite the cross wind. There is a little too much Easterly to make it a straight-on take-off, but as the wind is very weak, it's easy to correct for it.
He immediately veers to the right, to catch the possible dynamic lift from the Easterly. His plan seems to work, as he hasn't lost any altitude when he comes back. He's a very good pilot, and while I prepare my wing, I hardly glance at him, expecting to have a short flight to landing. The smog layer seems very stable, and I don't think the thermal activity will allow me to stay in the air much longer that the usual ten to twelve minutes.
As I end my preparation, Arlette points out that Gwen is still in front of the ridge, he's been in the air for a good fifteen minutes now. Good for him, I briefly think that if he stay there for a few more minutes, I might get a chance at taking a pic of him on my way to the landing.
I'm ready, and I look at the wind vane to try and catch as favourable a gust as I can. Not that I expect it to make much difference, you can hardly feel anything at ground level. I sort of keep count of a couple of cycles, and then step forward to raise my wing. One glance up, everything seems fine, I apply a little bit of brakes to prevent it from overtaking me while I keep running. I look ahead and load it fully, running as hard as possible to get lift, and in a few more steps I'm airborne. As I sit back in my harness, I bank right to go and seek the lift where Gwen seemed to have found some. There is indeed some dynamic lift, but it's too weak to compensate for the turns, and I don't want to compromise my chances of getting to a good spot on the ridge, so I veer to the right when I get back to the front of the landing, heading for the ridge in a gentle curve that follows the terrain above Les Favrats. Good decision, as I gain quite a bit of altitude on my way. I don't know how much, as the batteries ("fully" recharged!!!) on the variometer have died.
I get to the ridge, see that Gwen is on its Easterly end, and I turn to the West, hoping to catch the usual thermal to the front. Big surprise, the thermal is there, and seems quite big in size. It doesn't feel too strong, as the wing doesn't move too much in the flight, but I gain altitude very easily.
Yay! That's unexpected, but most welcome. For the first time in a long while I dare hoping for more than a straight fall to landing.
I start regretting not wearing gloves. The close to sub-zero temperature is easily supportable for a ten minutes flight, but now that I've exceeded twice that duration, I beginning to regret not having taken more precautions in that respect.
The helmet thermal properties also reveal their limits.
Ludovic, and then Arlette have joined me on the ridge. I moved to the Eastern end when the thermal I was riding seemed to die, to join Gwen.Gwen He in turn moves to the back of the ridge, above Les Favrats, to rise quite fast. He makes a very wide turn, comes back to the front of the ridge and keeps going straight in the direction of the landing field. I've gained quite a bit of altitude, I'm above take off level, and I decide to go back to the center part of the ridge. Ludovic is playing in that area, and it looks as if the lift is there. On my way I lose a little bit of height, but soon regain it when I get to the usual spot.
Ludovic, in the meantime, has also headed for the landing terrain, followed shortly by Arlette. I reckon the cold must have forced them to land, and I reluctantly decide to follow them. I've been in the air for over an hour, at this time of the year, it constitutes quite an unexpected feat.
I'm so high that I decide to "visit" the area by going over spots that we seldom overfly. I'm rewarded by a few puffs of updrafts, which give me a few more minutes aloft. When I get close to the landing, I still have quite a height to bleed, and spend it in a few esses in front of the landing.
My approach and landing are very smooth, just like my instructor taught me, to conclude wonderful flight in very laminar conditions. Everybody on the ground is elated, except for Romuald that hesitated for too long to make up his mind in joining us.


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