Flybubble Paragliding's Carlo Borsattino recounts a cross country (XC) flight by paraglider from Devils Dyke to Hythe in Kent and gives insights into how this flight was done.
After a fantastic day's teaching on Thursday 5th March 2009, the weather forecasts were looking too strong for flying students safely the next day (a bit too windy, wind off to the west, strong thermals and associated thermal turbulence) but possibly good for going cross country (XC) from the Devils Dyke, near Brighton in East Sussex.
With a zillion other things that needed to be done 'yesterday' (as always, it seems!) I prepared all my kit the evening before (gathered everything together, charged batteries etc), as a good XC day waits for no paragliding man, woman or beast!
Arriving at the Devils Dyke, most of the 'Usual Suspects' from the Southern Club (SHGC) were already loitering with intent in the car park, checking-in the other pilots as they arrived to see who else thought it was looking like a good day for flying. The hungry XC hounds had greedily ordered lashings of spicy thermals topped with creamy cumulus clouds to feast themselves upon. Although a Friday and only early March, it was clear from the numbers already milling about that the hill was going to be jam-packed and the sky would be serving up a boisterous baguette crammed full of saucy para-pickles!
Eyes like a chameleon, the reflexes of a mongoose, a neck like an owl, and the spatial awareness of an Olympic trampolinist were all going to be highly desirable (if not, then absolutely necessary!) characteristics whilst thermalling amidst the random rabble around the hill...
With the wind forecast to strengthen, and go more and more west (going off the hill) and eventually sea-breeze, it was a race against time to get up and away (as it almost always is) before conditions on the hill became untenable. However, getting away too early might mean that the thermals weren't yet well-formed enough and too few and far between, reducing the chances of staying up and so resulting in an early landing.
One of the most important, and most difficult, decisions when flying cross country is when to leave the hill; the problem is that this is rarely black-and-white and we don't have a crystal ball to know for certain how the conditions will develop as the day progresses. We mainly rely on past experiences and our weather knowledge to assess how the day is maturing and decide our flying strategies, which need to be constantly adapting and evolving.
Whilst setting up my trusty Skywalk Poison 2, I assessed the conditions and guesstimated (from various factors, and past experience) that it would probably be good to leave the hill at around 12-12:30. Of course I continued to assess and re-assess the conditions throughout the flight but, as it happened, having been in a position to go 'over the back' on a few occasions from around 11:45 onwards (whilst thermalling with someone flying a yellow Nova Factor with an Advance Impress 2+ harness, the same harness I currently have, which I think was Dave Thomas from the Long Mynd club), I did eventually decide to leave the hill at around 12:30. Others left earlier than this, scrabbling off in small broken gaggles, but I felt that conditions were not yet looking quite 'ripe' enough so waited a little longer for things to mature further, and the prospect of staying up looked more consistent, before I picked my moment to exit stage left.
By coincidence it turned out that I left the hill at pretty much the same time as Paul Andon, flying a Gradient Avax XC2, who seemed to be stalking me from behind as I went on my first glide towards Falmer, and whom I ended up flying with most of the time for about the first half of my flight. Paul (probably wisely) carried on climbing as he tip-toed his way away from the Dyke whilst I (probably impetuously) decided to stick my neck out and head off for the next cloud which was above Falmer and where I'd seen someone (I think Simon Steel?) thermalling not long before.
I found a good climb over Sussex University whereupon Paul left his climb and glided towards me and the thermal I was marking nicely for him. There was some justice in the end however as by the time he arrived in MY thermal he was a bit below me - ha ha! ;^)
My Garmin GPSMAP 96C showed me that the climb we were in was still beneath the 3500ft controlled airspace there (which we mustn't ever fly into), within a few hundred metres of the edge of it, and so I left the climb at around 3200ft ASL to make sure I didn't get 'lifted up' into it - which is by far the easiest way for paraglider pilots to get 'caught out' by an accidental airspace infringement (poor airmanship).
Paul and I joined up again in another thermal just past Falmer (see photos), now under the FL55 controlled airspace (QNE 5500ft ASL), where we took the climb to cloudbase (QNH approx 4000ft ASL) before going on a glide past Kingston towards Lewes and the hills beyond, to the northwest of Mount Caburn. I did a lot better on this glide than Paul and so arrived with more height over the hills and under some scraggy cumulus clouds, where we both found some weak broken climbs to scrabble about in.
I noticed at this point that I could no longer see any of the pilots who had left the hill earlier than us ahead which meant they had either landed, they were flying in cloud, or they had sped off into the distance and out of sight. I also noticed at this point that Dave Thomas had also left the Dyke after us and was now climbing over Falmer, a few kilometres behind us.
As Paul and I drifted in broken climbs between Glynde and Glyndebourne opera house (see photos), we looked ahead and tried to decide where and when to head next. There was a Big Blue Hole (i.e. no cumulus clouds, which indicates a big area of sinking air) the way we wanted to go (north-northeast) and a good looking cloud street the way we didn't want to go - cross downwind towards Bexhill and the Pevensey Bay coastline (see photos).
If we headed east towards Bexhill our progress would at first be easy but we would soon get 'squeezed' by the wind (which was on the strong side) and thermal drift pushing us steadily towards the sea (i.e. we would run out of land). We decided to push northeast, cross-downwind past Ripe and try to make it across the Big Blue Hole to the cumulus clouds on the other side, which looked to be about 6-8km away. You can see the cloud we aimed for in photo number 24 (middle left, with shadow underneath it).
So many times I have headed off on this kind of glide on a paraglider only to hit big sink all the way to the ground; fortunately this time we were lucky and picked a good time / glide line and arrived at the other side without losing too much height, picking up our next climb over Whitesmith and Golden Cross.
A well as luck, which is always a factor in cross country flying (especially on a paraglider!), I think it is highly likely that another reason for our success here (and at many other points in the flight) was that Paul and I were always working together to help each other find more climbs, always taking turns to lead on and search around for better lift. Too many times I have flown with other pilots who just try to 'leech' off you - i.e. always letting you go ahead and take all of the risks, whilst they 'sit back' and drift along in a climb. My experience is that this strategy rarely pays off for the leech (they mostly get left behind), and doesn't help either pilot in their quest to stay up for longer and fly further.
As we drifted in the climb we picked up over Golden Cross I took the time to reassess how the wind and weather conditions were developing. I could see that, to the south of us, the surface of Arlington reservoir was looking quite wind-swept, our drift was generally fairly quick, and the sea in Pevensey Bay was looking quite choppy with some scattered white-horses. It was definitely a bit on the breezy side near the coast, but less so inland. Checking my Flytec 6030 I could tell that my ground speed was not too high on the downwind leg (less the 60 kph) and that into-wind I was going forwards at all times without any speed bar (although my ground speed was sometimes down to single figures). Looking at the clouds, the sky was developing very nicely with beautifully formed cumulus clouds popping up all over the place (classic 3-5 octants cloud cover), with occasional cloud-streets and no signs of over-development (i.e. no foreseeable danger of dangerous Cumulo-Nimbus clouds forming).
Something that I was really noticing was that, despite the fact that it was a bit on the windy end of what I generally find acceptable, the thermals were on the whole amazingly well formed and generally very smooth; in fact they were so smooth at times that I was occasionally finding it difficult to feel the edges of them, and so letting them slip smoothly - and somewhat frustratingly - through my fingers!
Our climb from Golden Cross was drifting us ESE towards Hailsham, which was not the way we wanted to go, so as we came over Lower Dicker we left it to push crosswind, heading northeast past Hellingly towards Lealands where we found another climb to top up in. We then went on glide towards Battle, finding another climb just north of Herstmonceux along the way, which we topped up some height in whilst admiring privileged views of Herstmonceux Castle and Royal Greenwich Observatory to the south of us. All the while I had also noticed that Dave Thomas was still chasing us a few kilometres behind. I hoped that he would catch us up so that we could all fly together and help each other along; that way we would all have a better chance of flying longer and further!
At this point Paul and I were close enough to each other to be able to shout across to one another. He called across to let me know that he had decided to go and land (later he told me that he thought it had gotten too windy for him to feel comfortable, he was concerned that it might become more windy later, and the area we were heading towards was quite hilly and wooded). I said OK but decided to carry on myself as I felt comfortable that things were within my own personally acceptable safety limits (although I too would have preferred if it had been a bit less windy) and totally at ease on my Skywalk Poison 2. A slight comedy moment then ensued when Paul first glided off to the SE, towards Bexhill and the coast (where it was looking much windier!), for about half a kilometre, then realised the error of his ways, turned back and glided back past underneath me again, heading inland (where it was looking less windy) to then go and find a nice big field to go and land in.
Slightly ironically (for me) at this point I lost my climb and so headed off on a long sinky glide passing over Bodle Street Green, Dallington, and Ponts Green, sinking like a stone the whole way, and looking like I was going to be landing imminently myself in exactly the area Paul didn't want to land in - doh! I was sinking pretty quickly (-3 m/s sustained) almost the whole way, which on the plus side told me that somewhere nearby there had to be something going up - now I just had to find it before the ground found me first!
I was rapidly running out of height, and therefore time, when I bumped into a broken 'climb' between Ashburnham and Penhurst which at first only went up for about 1/4 of the way round, then 1/3, then 1/2. I wasn't actually climbing but at least I wasn't sinking at 3m/s any more! Then, after some searching and re-centring, the climb was going up for about 2/3 of the way round and I started to climb slowly overall; certainly not home-and-dry yet but at least some progress was being made! Finally, after lots of searching around and re-centring, I connected with the real climb which, as expected from the big sink before it, was a good 'un all the way to 'base - yeehaa! 😀
Whilst I was climbing I watched Dave Thomas head out on glide towards me from a similar position to where I had been before but much lower than I was; unfortunately he did not have enough height to make it across the big sink-hole and ended up landing near Ashburnham Place (I later find out Dave was indeed trying to catch me up so we could fly together, which would have been great). This was a shame as now I was on my lonesome for the rest of the flight. C'est le Vol Libre!
For the rest of the flight I kept trying to push NE on each glide, then being drifted towards the E or ESE whilst I tried to climb as efficiently as possible in each thermal - which is not as easy when you're on your own! I passed just to the north of Battle (with fantastic views of Battle Abbey), picking up short climbs over Whatlington and Sedlescombe then a much better climb over Peasmarsh, just north of Rye, where I took the chance to take some photos all around (see photos 25 - 31).
After topping out on the climb from Peasmarsh I tried to push more to the northeast, as I was gradually being pushed closer and closer towards the coastline, but it was becoming apparent that I was fighting a losing battle with the wind. I found another climb, but was being drifted quickly ESE towards New Romney and the sea, so left it to try and push crosswind again, hoping to make it across another blue hole to the next cloud-street; the sky was looking very good ahead! I didn't find another climb and so glided (see photos 32 - 35) all the way to the ground, landing comfortably and without any problems just past Burmarsh near Hythe.
Shortly after I landed, a really friendly fellow (Mr Carmichael) came over to see if I was alright and needed any help; soon after another lady arrived, also wanting to check if I was OK. I explained that I was fine and what I was doing. Mr Carmichael very kindly invited me back to his place for a cup of tea and a lift to somewhere more convenient for me to hitch from. I packed up all my gear and walked to Mr Carmichael's house, where he and his wife were incredibly friendly and hospitable to me. They made me a very welcome cup of tea (I'd been flying for 5 hours and not drunk anything!), plied me with biscuits and delicious homemade pickle and cheese sandwiches and made phone calls to train stations to see which the best route back to Brighton was for me. Mr Carmichael then drove me to somewhere which he said was less "camel dung country" (or words to that effect) so I could hitch to Ashford train station. Thank you very much Mr & Mrs Carmichael!
What an amazing flight, and what a fantastic day! 😀
Flight date: 6th March 2009
UK National & Southern Paragliding XC Leagues
Read more stories and articles on the Flybubble Blog.
See photos taken by Carlo during this cross country flight: