24/06/02 - Rich Harding, 83.5km from Olivers

A Kid Swinging On Heaven's Gate

"Today, I saw music in the sky", I exclaimed to myself as I peered out of the window at 9am on Monday. Conditions looked great, the PC went on, Anoraknophobia went in the CD player and, as Alex's call came through, Mr Hogarth crooned with him in unison the immortal words "Are you coming out to play? Could be quite a day".

Half an hour later the sky was developing nicely and we were driving towards Oliver's Castle in the Polo, hoping we were correct in thinking the wind was lighter as we went east, having spent a frustrating, blown out day on the site last Tuesday.

When we arrived the wind was blowing a perfect 10 and there was no-one else in sight. Huh? Then a blue Sport appeared from low on the ridge and climbed above us, Alex soon joining him, radioing me to hurry up but I was determined to finally sort my new harness' geometry - I'd measured my hangpoint separation on my old Woody Valley against the glider bag so I could mark it off on my new Apco. I took off but couldn't get into the thermal they were in so had to scratch around for ten minutes, during which time Alex rejoined me - I told him on radio I hoped he hadn't come back for me.

The next cycle soon came through and we were away, as two more pilots carried bundled gliders back to the front. This climb was not at all sorted low over the back and Alex appeared to be turning back, a couple of hundred feet below me, until I found a decent part, called it and he flew underneath. He then returned the favour, finding a better core when I lost that one and, as we crossed the Marlborough road, we were dead level in a consistent seven-up, turning tight right-handers around each other. After a couple of minutes I ignored slightly too big a tip tuck and lost half my canopy but I managed to catch him back up.

As we passed north of Milk Hill, Alex decided that it was time to glide off downwind and I asked if he wanted me to stay with the weak 1-up/1-down we were now in or follow. It soon became irrelevant as the cloud disintegrated very fast, so I floated off towards Alex, who was in another unsorted climb west of Marlborough. Halfway to him, I found another weak climb, just as his disintegrated, and eeked it out as he was forced down to Marlborough. As I said to him on the radio at the time, Alex is an absolute star - as he was standing in his landing field cursing, he saw two birds starting to thermal out above him and called me over on the radio; less than ten minutes later I was at base (4500 at this point) for the first time on the day, over Ramsbury.

In my mid-teens I lived in Culham, nr. Abingdon and now I could see Didcot power station away to the north-east. Having never been over the back of Oliver's before, this was the first time I knew where I was; better still, with all the airspace I was about to encounter, for the rest of the flight I was never going to be in the slightest doubt of precisely where I was on the airmap. Even better, I could mentally add back in the contours that are lost from on high. I crossed the M4 on a glide, between Membury Services and Junction 14.

I caught a weakish but sorted thermal over Woodlands St Mary whilst I eyeballed Harwell UKAEA and its associated Protection Zone, continued my track east towards the A34 and got a boomer just south of Chaddleworth that took me back to base, briefly accompanied by three sailplanes that ran underneath me, all from different directions.

Eventually I glided off towards Hampstead Norreys, where the LTMA kicks in at 4500. As base was now close to five grand this meant no more playing with the chilly bits under the fluffy white things but I'd now worked out the day's thermals to the extent that I could map them with the minimum of information - and as Alex had said on the climb out, it was a day for predictive flying, as the cycles were short enough that if you went for a cloud that was already developed it was decaying when you arrived.

For some reason then I chose to fly towards a cloud over Pangbourne - it was the most vertically developed, clean-shaped cloud in the sky and, needless to say, it wasn't working any more when I arrived. Divvy! I was back to ground sources and landing options. Just to the south-south-west of the town (i.e. directly upwind), a chap with a tractor of sorts was cutting a grass field with a six-lane athletics track marked out. Thanks, mate - you're a bloody star! I stayed in the outside of this one, turning lazy 360s, giggling...

"...And I sang that pretty tune An open airy song And my heart it looped the loop Well, I could do no wrong..."

...and at a little over 3000 feet (the base of the LTMA being 3500 here) I glided off towards Sonning Common, working little bits and trying to spot my childhood best friend's house below. I headed for the dual carriageway out of Henley to Nettlebed and its junction with the Watlington road, marking the edge of where the LTMA descends to 2500, considered landing by the Thames but could see loads of marquees - glad I didn't - the Regatta was on and I'd have breached the 'large gathering' rules. I remembered that Adrian Thomas had made Nettlebed a couple of years ago for a little over 70km. I was chuffed to bits.

I caught another climb over the road and headed over Stonor House. It petered out but I had a 3500 ceiling still so I aimed between Stokenchurch and Wycombe Air Park's ATZ. I think I should have tried to stay with it - from then on all I caught were snotty bubbles of lift and it was dubious I'd get across the M40 so I picked a small ridge to try for a final save.

I cautioned myself not to wreck it all now - I'd been in the air for four hours and was mentally exhausted. The ridge didn't work and I was rotored behind some trees on pre-finals just as I tried to bar forward; the glider collapsed massively and turned downwind in a second; I cried "Oh, no", seriously scared; as I was being turned I was way too low to throw the bag; I had to sort it out; the glider dived and collapsed, I caught it, stabilised it, turned back upwind; five seconds later I landed; the shakes quickly evaporated and turned to sheer elation.

I packed up (badly), walked back down the road to find a landing witness, checked bus times and directions, repacked bag to avoid a visit to the chiropractor, spoke to Alex, who was now on Milk, having got back to Oliver's and had a second go, called a local friend to try to cadge a lift, thumbed into High Wycombe, straight to the bus station, ran to Bay N for the Reading bus, had a pint at Reading Station and caught the train back to Temple Meads - the flight took four hours exactly; the retrieve spot on five!

Walked back up to the house on the cliff...pressed play...

"...Today I saw music in the sky It sang around me, I went blind Like a masterpiece in a disguise Couldn't stop it pulling at my eyes"

If my heart were a ball it would roll uphill.

Marillion: Between You and Me (Anoraknophobia, 2001) - live version: http://artists.mp3s.com/artist_song/2339/2339173.html



"What the hell do we want? Is it only to go where nobody has gone? A better way than the herd? sing a different song? 'Til you're running the ledge, to the gasp of the crowd Spinning round in your head, everything that she said."