Our gliding flights in the Pyrenees were going well. A friendly rivalry arose with the two pilots of another glider and we were determined to outdo one another.
Today was my turn as pilot in command of our 2 seater, Whisky Bravo. The tug plane took us from Santa Cilia airfield on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees towards the local hill where there was some rising air.
Sensing the rising air just above the hill I pulled off the tow and turned sharply into a mountain thermal. It was rough, violent and narrow and we needed our seatbelts. I turned tightly, almost standing the glider on its wingtips. In the buffeting air we were already 1000 feet higher.
Gliders are towed up into the air. They slide down and at about 1 metre per second while travelling at 65 mph.
The trick is to find air going up faster than the glider is coming down. This is easy on a summer’s day when some air heats up and begins to rise making a thermal.
At the top of the thermal is a nice fluffy cumulus cloud.
Soon we had gained 3000 ft and were able to watch our friends in their glider search for lift. They failed to find any and sank lower.
We watched them desperately searching for the elusive lift. Soon they had to land back at the airfield. We radioed to express sympathy for their plight and tried not to snigger as we did so.
We headed up into the mountains and then turned east towards Andorra. Conditions were good and we were soon at 8000 ft but only a few hundred feet above the mountains.
We enjoyed some dramatic sight-seeing of the snow fields, mountain lakes, tracks and refuge huts. When our friends caught us up we headed east.
In one thermal we shared the lift with several Griffon Vultures and a pair of European White Storks. What a great privilege to have these magnificent creatures flying along by your wingtip.
Often we see Eagles and Kites as well. They are all expert glider pilots and climb when we cannot. For them lazily circling in a thermal is like us sitting in front of the TV.
Once again we were above our friends and teased them with some gentle banter. We flew over the Canfranc valley, a steep sided and dark cleft that carries the road up to Somport where a tunnel takes you 5 miles into France.
On the East side of the valley there are some curious rock formations, some white, some dark, twisted and curved strata giving a dramatic effect.
We flew along a ridge and as the ridge rose to meet us, so the thermals pushed us higher. At the peak of the ridge a vigorous thermal took us up to 9500 feet.
After 3 hours and at 50 Km from the airfield we decided to return. The airfield is in the Aragon Valley which runs East-West.
On the way out we had flown over the mountains on the north side. On the way back we decided that the south route looked good with clouds marking thermals.
We flew over the small town of Sabananigo and onto a ridge of hills which promised lift. We calculated that we could get back with 1000 feet to spare.
In still air a glider can fly 10 Km for 1000 feet loss of height. High performance gliders can have a glide ration of over 50:1.
Unknown to us conditions had changed and a mountain wave had begun. The North wind blows over the Pyrenees and the air has to go up over the top of the mountains. It usually stays up but under certain conditions it comes down the other side and then bounces up again.
Wave conditions are good if you can get into the rising air. It is like an elevator and I have been up above 20,000 ft in wave. Of course you need oxygen up as high as that.
This was happening and descending air filled the valley. Our instruments showed air descending at 18 mph. We flew from one side of the valley to the other to try to escape the descending air. Now we were trapped below the ridge line and had no escape.
Suddenly, from having 1000 feet to spare we found ourselves examining the local supermarket in the town of Jaca from only 300 ft and still 20 Km from home. Nearby was one of the few flattish and large fields but it had crop in it. My co-pilot, Chris, an experienced instructor, took control and we prepared for landing.
If we misjudged and were too low we would hit the motorway; too high and we would overshoot the field and hit some rocks.
If the crop in the field was too tall it would catch one wing first and slew us round. If there was ditch in the middle of the field – well for a moment I wondered what it would feel like to have broken legs.
Danger Isn’t it dangerous? People ask. There are risks as in every walk of life. We know about the risks, the danger points, the situations to avoid and we take steps to negate them.
The vultures can be a risk. If you fly up behind and below one it will be startled. It responds by folding its wings and dropping. If you hit it – well you can imagine hitting a 10 Kg bird at 75 mph.
Gliders have had their wings and tail knocked off, cockpit canopies smashed. There have been a few fatalities because of collisions.
Landing out can be a hazard. You have to find a field big enough and flat enough. A filed without a ditch or fence across, without boulders in the middle and with no electricity wires across it. Drinking troughs and old farm machinery are hazards.
There is a way of trying to get sheep to move to one side but it is unreliable. If there is only the one cow in a field, it is almost certainly a bull. Once all these features have been assessed, you have to judge your height to land just right and stop before the end of the field.
The crop was only a foot high and swished away either side of us. It was a perfect landing. We radioed our colleagues who were at 9000 feet above the snow line. I am sure I heard them laughing. It was just a short walk from the field to the supermarket and we waited in the café there until we were picked up.
Getting the glider out of the field was a bit of a struggle. I suffered a few strained muscles and my friend damaged his back again.
The custom is that we buy our retrievers a few beers and pay for their dinner. At 12 euros for the menu in the local truckers’ pub, it did not break the bank. Asparagus and ham, rabbit, beans and potato followed by ice cream and accompanied by local wine was most welcome.
Who says holidays should be relaxing?
If you would like to try a glider flight, go to Lasham Gliding Club near Alton.