José Ascaso had been riding his chestnut mare most of the day and was beginning to feel tired. Together, they had made good progress deep into the Pyrenean valley alongside Rio Ara. His plan was to spend the night in Broto, a small mountain town, and ride on into Ordesa Gorge the next day. The valley had become steep and narrow with the mountains rising to 6000 feet on both sides. He hoped to spot the Lammergeier, it is known to fly in the gorge. It is a large vulture with a wingspan of almost 3 metres and weighing up to 7 Kg. It feeds on bone after the other vultures have taken the flesh of dead animals.
He became aware of a bird in the corner of his eye, it was a graceful white glider, high above the valley but below the mountain tops. It was weaving around, circling, searching for an up-draught to gain height. There was no airfield in the valley to accommodate such a large craft and the few fields were small and sloping. It got lower, still searching for a thermal. He could see both pilots as they flew close to the hillside, wingtips almost brushing the tree tops.
Lower and lower it sank. He saw the landing wheel down and the pilot approached a small field. He would crash, surely, if not on landing then into one of the stone walls bordering the fields. The glider dipped from view behind some trees on the opposite bank of the river. After a few seconds, José saw a cloud of dust rising above the trees. He called the emergency services and tethered his horse. He waded across the river and see whether the pilots were injured.
The water was cold, it was melt water from the tops of the mountains, but no more than waist deep. In a field, he found the glider and a man from Chandler’s Ford with his co-pilot inspecting the machine for damage. Relieved not to have to deal with dead or injured pilots, he called the emergency rescue and cancelled the rescue party.
It had been a spectacular flight for my friend and I. We took an aero-tow to 5000 feet from Santa Cilia airfield and within half an hour we had climbed to the mountain peaks, 10,000 feet high and 25 Km from the airfield. Then we turned east and flew along the tops of the Pyrenees for 30 Km to Ordesa Gorge and here we turned south to avoid Monte Perdido whose peak is over 11,000 feet. We turned east again to cross the Cinca valley. This valley has a large lake and seems to attract Mediterranean air from the coast. This moist, warm air destroys thermals and visibility is reduced.
The cloud base was low so we returned to the peaks and flew straight along them and back for about 90 Km without thermalling. We tried the valley again; conditions were still bad so we turned back to the mountains. But where were the thermals? Those we had used and the spots where they occur no longer offered any lift. Losing height, we decided to try the little town of Broto where the warm roads and buildings often trigger thermals.
No luck. We were trapped in the valley with mountain peaks rising above us. We flew back and forth along a hillside gaining a little height here and losing it there. I was busy looking for suitable landing spots and identified a small field with a ruined barn in the middle of it. It seemed the best option around, probably flat, no obvious rocks or ditches in it and a grass surface but was not big enough. However, the stone wall boundary on the approach was low.
I recalled a talk on mountain flying by an enthusiastic Alpine pilot. Is it dangerous? we asked him. No more than other flying, he said, but if there is an accident it will be more serious. I tightened my straps, stored the camera, snacks and water supply to that they would not become dislodged. I checked my ILB, individual locator beacon, in case it was needed. Perhaps I should have felt scared but I didn’t.
My friend took us in as low and as slow as he dared. Full flaps and full air-brakes at just under 60 knots, then hard on the wheel brake once we touched down. Could we stop in time? The opposite wall was fast approaching. Then one wing tip caught in a clump of grass and the glider swung around 180 degrees, kicking up a cloud of dust as it skidded sideways.
We sat for several seconds, unable to see out for the dust cloud. What the pilot said cannot be told but we were both happy to be bodily intact. What about the glider? We had just experienced a ‘ground loop’ and they can often break a glider in half.
José turned up, dripping wet. His English was good and he interpreted for us to the farmer, who arrived in a pickup truck. A few locals turned up, concerned that we were OK and with offers to help. They told us exactly where we were and which track took us to Broto.
We called Louis, the chief pilot at the airfield, to ask is someone could come and fetch us. Will be there in 30 minutes, he said. How could that be? We were 80 Km from the airfield as the crow flies and much further on the narrow twisting mountain roads. He had been mending an antenna on a nearby mountain. There is a network of antennae over the Pyrenees which pick up the identifications signals transmitted by gliders, like air traffic control but without the control. He had finished the repairs and was checking it when he saw we were in trouble well before we phoned him.
We knew we would be the butt of jocular comments the next day from the other pilots but the teasing was shared with another pilot. He had heard by radio that we had landed at Broto and flew over to gloat at us. He, too, got trapped in the moist air and had to land at a nearby airstip.
And the glider? Cosmetic damage only. It was fit to fly and we continued with our holiday.
For the Tecchies
The final track down into the field which was 260 metre long. The trace looks angular because the computer samples position every 4 seconds. Once on the ground we turned on the diagonal to give a longer ground run. Graph shows height above sea level and the time of the flight. Our landing field was higher than the airfield.
Instrument panel shows the moving map display which also tells us how far we can fly before hitting the ground. The map includes controlled airspace and warns when you are getting near to it. The on-board computer tells us more information than we can cope with. Wind speed and direction is useful, speed over the ground, best speed to fly to cover the distance, time of arrival and final glide. This calculates from where you are and your height, whether you can make it back to the airfield without searching for another climb. You can see the track marking our where you had thermals previously.
Top left is the air speed indicator, top right the altimeter reading 9000 feet. Centre is the radio on the left and electric variometer on right. The needle indicates that we were going neither up nor down. Bottom dials are the engine controls and the mechanical variometer calibrated in speed up or down in knots. Yellow handle on the left is to release the tow cable.
There is also a FLARM (Fight Alarm) which warns of any nearby aircraft and their position to help avoid collisions.
Check http://www.fly-pyr.es/contentwk/en/ if you haven’t done it already. There is some good footage of flying in mountains.
If you want to try a glider flight, contact Lasham gliding, you can arrange a trial flight or two or, like me, you get hooked on it.
Slip the surly bonds of earth
And dance the skies on sunlight silvered wings.