It was Day 2 of the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA) British Club Challenge (BCC), and looking through the caravan skylight the sky was blue with conditions similar to the day before. Hundred House was the new venue called for the BCC, given the more Easterly breeze. This was over an hour away from the Slackers camp site in Llangatock so I enjoyed being chauffeured there by more experienced XC hound Andrew Craig; it felt good to share encouragement and be confident enough to leave my car far behind with a clear intention of leaving the hill, knowing that every kilometre flown would take me towards my (mobile) home.
As the day was not looking likely to start early, we had time for a leisurely cup of tea in the sunny landing field before a gentle stroll up the hill to the take off. Sitting in the sun at take-off watching birds mark out good lifty areas was enjoyable, although unnecessary perhaps given the 10 or so gliders that flocked to the first properly good thermal.
That first climb took took a good size gaggle of myself and 7 or 8 others off the hill to around 4,000 ft just after 1 p.m., at which point gaggle suck seemed to set in as everyone waited for the next move. A couple of wings had left the hill earlier and pushed on, encouraged by seeing them already off towards the Brecons in the South and by a nice looking cloud in that direction, I barred away from the comfort of the group, aiming for what I hoped would be good lift. The strategy worked to a fashion, with just enough in the way of 1’s and 0’s to keep me up and restore some height.
I could hear other pilots talking about lift or a lack of it in various parts of the sky, this time I left the radio on and it was helpful and encouraging to hear the range of experiences being played out. Although I was struggling in weak lift and not getting anywhere fast, I knew that many other pilots were facing the same conditions and that I was doing OK staying up and making little progress. This ‘hanging in there’ phase continued for a long half hour, until finally a useable climb took me away from the danger area South West of Builth Wells and provided enough height for me to make a decisive move.
Seeing a large town in the distance to the South South East I decided to ignore clouds off to the West and use the available glide to get to what I hoped would be a fairly safe bet for some lift. After the event, I heard from a local pilot that ‘Brecon doesn’t really work as it’s in a bit of a bowl, better to use the higher ground.’ That belated piece of local knowledge explained the big blue sinky hole I’d been gliding in and in which I’d burnt up my options… there did not seem to be much lift around and by the time I came over the town I was scoping out landing options and hoping I’d have just enough height to scrape over the built up area for the maximum chance of finding something.
On the far side of Brecon, a few beeps from the vario indicated a little bit of rising air which in the event was just enough to keep me aloft. I locked onto it knowing it was the only card I had to play, while feeling grateful for the Delta 2’s excellent ability to find and core what little lift was available. Useful lesson number 2 of the weekend; higher ground with cloud above trumps what from the air appears to be a good thermal source…
A very long, very slow, very drifty climb out of Brecon from 600 feet eventually put me level with the long line of hikers on top of Penny Fan, giving a chance to relax and enjoy the incredible view over Southern Britains’ highest peak, while starting to feel confident that this could be another long flight.
By this point a couple of the wings from ‘my’ original gaggle were off to the West, working flying sites and ridges around Sennybridge on the North of the Brecons. Rather than follow their lead I was instead tempted by the prospect of a good cloud street which had developed over the national park towards Swansea. Whilst crossing the busy A470 and parking areas, I messily squeezed a welcome banana under my full face helmet, took a drink and felt relieved. My apologies to anyone who may have felt rain on an otherwise sunny day.
The next couple of climbs took me West, across the National Park and in my intended direction. Without much airspace to worry about, at this point it was simple finding the next good climb and going with the flow. All good things come to an end though and although my street cloud continued to the South West, it appeared there was only another 20 km on offer by heading with the wind in that direction. A dwindling climb and the idea that it would be a good move to keep pushing West parallel to the coast required a new strategy.
Through the radio I was constantly hearing conversation between Ali Andrews and the Combined Forces team. Knowing they were still in the air and in the game gave me motivation to keep going, and I found it very useful experience to flying with the radio on even if I wasn’t using it for outbound communication.
Seeing a high steep ridge off towards the North West, I changed direction and strategy and aimed to connect with it. This worked, delivering an immediate climb as soon as I reached the shallower southerly edge. But, flying West over rising ground behind the ridge my climb vanished. I quickly found myself with very little height and few options.
For the first time in an hour and a half I saw a glider with which I would come to share the skies taking a good climb off a shallow rocky slope on Black Mountain. Sometimes it pays to be resident in a less than perfect location for paragliding; with the soundtrack of my own voice in my ears saying ‘it has to work, it has to work’, I prepared to draw on my extensive experience of scratching around in minimal lift on the South Downs. Those grey rocks heat up better than the ground in Sussex though and the slope worked like a good alpine mountain source. Although I’d arrived with less than 50 feet AGL, the wing quickly tugged hard on the risers showing good lift. Once again I thought, God Bless Wales!
Climbing out, I caught up with the wing previously marking the slope and I recognised one of the BCC organisers Rich Harding. At this point I was very pleased to be in company again, particularly in having caught up with a very good pilot who knows the area well.
Then came the most pivotal moment of the flight; Rich and I broke formation, he headed West North West staying on Black Mountain, while I headed West South West with the wind drift towards a large wind farm West of Cwmgors.
This turned out to be very much the right decision; the thermals I found in front and above the windmills eventually taking me to the highest point of the flight at 5,800 feet as I neared Pontarddulais. What a gift! A while afterwards it was suggested that maybe I’d worked a convergence line, I don’t know if that was the case but in the air I could finally relax on a very fast downwind final glide. Boosted slightly by additional lift over Llanelli, the last 25kms were the easiest part of the day, my job simply being to enjoy the stunning view over the estuary of the river Loughor and the Gower beyond.
Eventually an unexpected Westerly sea breeze denied a finale of making Rossilli beach with enough height to join another paraglider enjoying a spot of evening cliff soaring, but it didn’t detract from the elation of landing out at ten past six, with a straight line distance of 93km showing on the GPS and the knowledge that I’d absolutely aced the day.
I hitchhiked the last 2 km to the coast to celebrate in the evening sun with an ice-cream and spend a few moments basking in the feelings. It had taken me six years of ups, downs and perseverance to log my first (with turn-points) 100 km flight.
To do it at the BCC really was the chocolate flake in the cone.
If you’re even slightly tempted to take part in the competition just do it whatever your level; it is an easy-going and fun event with lots of support and encouragement on offer to get newer pilots into XC. It definitely encouraged me to push further and take my flying to the next level. Last one to the beach buys the 99’s!
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