On 18th April 2014 Carlo Borsattino, Chief Flying Instructor (CFI) of Flybubble Paragliding set a new UK paragliding record for distance on an EN B paraglider, flying 182 km straight-line from Leckhampton, a challenging site near Cheltenham on his Gin Carrera. In this article Carlo describes the flight and gives unique insights on how he achieved it.
The weather forecasts for Friday 18th April showed it being blown out for paragliding in SE England but great for XC flying in the west of England and Wales … and so the plan to go to Leckhampton was born.
It didn't take long to find keen XC pilots to fill the Flybubble van: Nancy Elliott, Simon Steel, Paul Andon, Kenny McPhee, Mark Watts and I. Greg Hamerton and Franco Cardiel were at first undecided but finally finally couldn't resist the lure of a possible XC adventure, so gave chase as we drove up early in the morning.
The drive to Leckhampton took 3.5 hours, so we arrived at 10:30. There were already many paraglider pilots on launch including British paragliding team member Guy Anderson who explained that pilots were trying for a new UK declared goal record of 214 km (!) for the day. Guy sportingly gave us the goal coordinates and a few tips on the best route to take. This was the direction we were planning on flying in anyway (if by chance we got that far) but now we all had a common goal!
With the possibility of a long flight ahead, I thought I'd give the XCPee in-flight toilet system a try. Being an old hand with these kinds of systems, Mark gave me some manly advice on how to fit it. I’ve heard stories of pilots putting them on incorrectly and wetting themselves as a result! I went off to fiddle in the bushes on my own. Being an XCPee virgin, it took me a little while to fit and test it properly. Since I was in a public place it was probably lucky that I didn't get hand-bagged by a disgusted old lady!
What with preparing all my PG kit, planning routes and retrieves, meeting old friends and fitting my XCPee (not all at the same time) I launched at 12:00, three quarters of an hour late. I paid the price for this. By comparison Mark launched at around 11:15, and Guy and Kirsty Cameron about 10 minutes later. By the time we launched they were already long gone!
It’s a challenging site to begin with, but with crowds and some terrible airmanship from a few over-competitive pilots, it was unpleasant and not a little dangerous. Good pilots work with everyone and climb best not by pushing others out of the lift but by thermaling better.
It was great to get up and away from the mayhem around launch and to have only a few gaggles scattered around the sky nearby to mark the climbs (and sink) and help to keep things moving along. These pilots included Flybubble XC team pilots Nancy Elliott (Skywalk Chili3) and Greg Hamerton (Niviuk Icepeak 6), current British Champion Adrian Thomas (Gin Boomerang 9), Jan Kott (Ozone Enzo), Martin Knight (Niviuk Icepeak 6), Richard Bungay (Gin Boomerang X), Karol Mlynarczyk (Ozone Delta 2), Jon Collie (Swing Astral 7) and Al Wilson (Nova Factor 2).
Our climb out from launch was quite mixed and broken at times, fizzling out at around 3100 ft ASL over Ullenwood. I liked the look of the clouds towards Gloucester so pushed off-course to reach them and found a good climb - soon to be joined by others - which took us up to 4000 ft ASL above Birdlip!
Thinking ahead, the boundary layer wind was roughly NE so we needed to push crosswind (SE) to avoid being pushed towards Bristol airspace later on, which would most likely put us on the ground if we allowed that to happen. If we managed to push to the SE really well then we might be able to go east of Colerne ATZ otherwise we'd need to go through the 'Bath Gap' which had been lifted from 3500 to 4500 ft ASL for that day. This was the trickiest part of the flight ahead, at least as regards airspace navigation.
Conditions en-route were classic with moderate regular climbs and nicely formed cumulus clouds marking the tops of most of the thermals. The flight was about two-thirds climbing to 4200-4800 ft ASL then gliding when climbs weakened or we reached cloudbase, one-third mincing around in weak stuff to avoid getting low. It felt like we did a bit too much mincing at the time, and I'm sure we could've gone faster; then again it seemed to work well and our average speeds were … average.
Our route took us first along the east side of the Cotswolds, passing to the east of Stroud. We passed to the west of Tetbury with various Royal residences below us including Highgrove, home of HRH The Prince of Wales and Gatcombe Park, home of the Princess Royal. They came out to wave specially.
We sank to 2000 ft ASL 10 km west of Malmesbury, and things were looking a bit dicey for us all. Here the gaggle worked well, with pilots spreading out looking for lift. After mincing around in scrappy climbs for about 15 minutes, Jon Collie found a good climb. Greg then marked an even better climb ahead so I left Jon's climb for that and the rest soon followed.
We got back up to 'base at 4 grand and Greg and Karol pushed on. Nancy and I soon followed whilst the rest hung back, probably because the sky ahead wasn't looking so good, plus the tricky airspace loomed. Those who managed to stay high here fared better as they were able to push more crosswind away from Bristol airspace, so were in a better position to cross the Bath Gap, which we were now fast approaching.
We entered the Bath Gap from its NE corner. We were low at times and had to work together to pick up weak climbs. I spotted a blue Advance Omega 7 (Mark Jones) climbing well under a cloud to my SE. A good opportunity to push crosswind! I left the weak climb I was in and headed towards him. Shortly after I did so, Mark lost his climb and headed off on glide towards Bath. I was getting drilled on my glide, and could see that Mark wasn't finding any lift, so I turned downwind to glide over Bath, hoping to pick up a climb off the city. Come on famous Bath hot springs!
Down at 2000 ft I found a weak broken climb and drifted for a few minutes over the city centre. Greg and Karol, whom I'd overtaken, came in to join my climb. Nancy glided in under us, much lower, hoping to find our climb. Instead she found heavy sink so had to land on Beechen Cliff School running track, a tight committed landing with few alternatives within view of the city centre. Although a convenient landing spot for getting to the stations, taking a Roman Bath and going shopping, I don't think she'll choose to land there again! 😉
Meanwhile Mark had found a stonking climb near the downwind edge of the city so I shot off towards him. It was one of the best climbs of the day and got us back up to 4000 ft. Those hot springs really do work! Mark headed off downwind in a hurry. We gave chase!
We got drilled again on glide, and ended up low again, scrabbling along in bitty broken climbs. This time I found the good climb, over Radstock town, which got us all back up to 4600 ft ASL. Hip Hip Hooray!
I flew with Greg and Karol for the next 65 km, heading downwind. We worked well together to find and maximise the climbs. Our route took us over Glastonbury and Taunton, where Mark landed. The three of us split, with me choosing to go it alone on a slightly more southerly route, partially because I'd spotted a wing climbing that way (Adrian Thomas). Meanwhile Greg and Karol went on towards Tiverton, whilst I went more SW passing over Cullompton, where I found a lovely climb which got me back up to 4500 ft ASL at just after 5 pm.
I bimbled along for another hour and a half in weak climbs, helped by several birds of prey including some buzzards and red kites. The thermic day gradually fizzled out. During my long final glide I was blessed with beautiful views of Dartmoor National Park basked in the warm early evening light. It's good to be alive! After six and a half glorious hours in the air, the ground gently came up to meet me and my other-worldly flying dream came to an end.
I landed in a grassy field a few miles north of Okehampton in West Devon, 35 km west of Exeter and 35 km east of Bude, elated.
Only two pilots managed to reach the declared goal of 214 km: Guy Anderson and Kirsty Cameron, on their competition wings. A fabulous achievement and a new UK declared distance record.
My flight at 182.4 km was about 30 km short of the declared goal. At 197.7 km with turnpoints it is the longest ever UK XC on an EN B or EN C wing to date.
It's always interesting to analyse what happened afterwards and see why some pilots managed to fly further. Comparing Guy's and Kirsty's flights to mine it seems that our average speeds were close, which is surprising as I was flying an EN B wing and they were on competition wings: Carlo 30.2 km/h; Kirsty 31.5 km/h; Guy 31.8 km/h. It seems that the main reason that I didn't fly further was because I launched too late and missed half an hour of good conditions. Silly me!
Thanks to my gaggles for the excellent company and to Gin for a really great glider, the Carerra. This was one of my nicest flights ever and my longest XC in the UK to date, so I'm over the moon!
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