The climbs were wind-blown but a steady two to three metres per second up and with the bonus of smooth edges. I found myself in a gaggle thermalling with fourteen other pilots and thought what a beautiful sight it was. I wondered what the locals would make of this usually quiet flying site now teaming with brightly coloured gliders, turning three-sixties in Unison… As the thermals started to get stronger, I heard reports of pilots starting to find it “bumpy” and reminded them that if they were no longer enjoying the air, to head to the LZ. Most pilots had already been up for over an hour and a half.
It was late July when the new club president, John Brassil, first approached me and asked if I would be interested in running a ‘Hike and Fly’ event for the Sydney club. John and the Committee of Management had been selflessly giving up their free time to improve the club (organising swing and flings and a new weather station), so I agreed and set the first 2 weekends of September for the event. The aim of the weekend was to introduce new and experienced pilots to the flying site of Lake St Clair. I hoped to provide group ‘Hike and Fly’, thermal and XC briefs and, weather permitting, an XC task. We also opened up the weekend to the neighbouring clubs of Stanwell Park, Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Newcastle, as we felt this would be a great way to bring the wider paragliding community together.
It seems that if you want rain to fall on a particular date, you should organise a paragliding event, as this is a fail-safe guarantee. Our first chosen weekend was blown out with widespread rainfall for the weekend. We made the call three days before and informed all Pilots that we would move the event to our bad weather back up of the 8th and 9th of September and crossed fingers and toes the weather would behave. As our second weekend approached, the forecast again looked average at best, with rain and strong wind on the Friday and Saturday and clear skies but moderate winds forecasted on the Sunday. As neither John nor I desired to camp with a group of paraglider pilots in the rain, we postponed the Saturday flight session and Saturday night social party and made it a day trip. We rolled the dice and hoped that the winds wouldn’t be too strong for the Sunday.
Our first official brief was at 0845 at the official LZ of the St Clair flying site. Arriving at 0830, the Sky Out team were amazed to see so many cars parked in the staging area, which resembled an IKEA car park more than a grassy paddock. There were 38 pilots, ranging from PG 2 to PG5, from the five paragliding clubs. Worried that the wind would blow out, I quickly briefed the group on the Landing Zone, the correct landing approach (as we would have large numbers of gliders coming in to land at the same time) and the associated dangers. I also had the privilege of informing the group that due to the recent rainfall and the risk of sliding or damaging the track, the team wouldn’t be offering 4x4 lifts up the hill for pilots or their gear. If they wanted to fly today, they had no option but to hike and fly. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat as I answered the only question from the group, “What is the hike Like”?
I replied with “It is a gentle, undulating hill which should take 30-45 minutes.” I could feel my nose growing longer as I said it…
The group started hiking just after 0900 and, truth be told, I think the majority of the group enjoyed the experience. There is something very special about hiking up to fly. You feel more connected to the hill, and are able to assess the conditions throughout the hike, build your mental picture of the day and work out what may be possible. I won’t lie, I did hear the odd muttering of, “F$%king Gentle Hill,” but the group all arrived at the top smiling, with most finishing the hike in under an hour.
The wind on top of the hill (591 m) was already gusting beyond what I thought was safe for the less experienced pilots, so we descended down the hill by fifty vertical meters to escape the compression. I gave a flight brief to the group with a focus on wind strength, position on the hill, thermal drift and radio protocol. I also mentioned that although my team of Justin, Julian and John Brassil would be guiding/observing them, they were all licensed pilots and would need to do their own risk assessments and make individual decisions as to when to fly, where to fly, and when to land. We then opened launch and Rob Chant was first off to taste the air. He penetrated slowly but easily through the compression of the hill straight into the mix of dynamic ridge lift and wind-blown thermals and quickly climbed above ridge height.
Once the pilots had seen a glider not only get off easily, but gain altitude so quickly, it was a mad rush of pre-flight checks and reverse launching to get into the sky. I took the less experienced and confident pilots a little further down the hill and explained to them the importance of timing the cycles and launching at the right time. Most new pilots took a couple of attempts to inflate the glider but once established, they made committed launches and joined the ever-increasing gaggle flying on the ridge. With the Sky Out team positioned in the various gaggles, I stayed on the ground to ensure all pilots had a safe launch. Once all pilots had taken off I launched in to the very strong cycles and joined the various gaggles flying the thermic west facing side of the hill.
Slowly the wind increased further causing the thermals to track harder over the back of the hill and into the lee side. We radioed pilots to ensure they stayed well upwind of the compression and to tell pilots flying slower gliders to start heading to the LZ. With half of the group heading to the LZ, it was easier to gaggle fly and for the team to keep eyes on the pilots still in the air. The local wedge-tail eagles, who are notoriously aggressive, had remained docile and pleasant when the sky was full of paragliders. Now that our numbers had dwindled, the big male came back to announce we were in his “Hood”. He squawked and dived on one glider and chased another right off the ridge and towards the LZ.
Eventually the wind increased to the point where gliders were struggling to penetrate at trim and I radioed for all remaining pilots to head to the LZ. On the glide in we found the air incredibly buoyant all the way to the lake, with pilots maintaining height (and some slightly gaining altitude) with half bar on. Butter smooth air over the lake enabled the remaining pilots to boat around or perform wingovers, or other descent manoeuvres, before landing in the LZ with the rest of the group. Once everyone had packed up, we had a quick debrief on the day with the plan for a more in-depth briefing and “rehydrating” at the Royal Pub in Singleton. 38 pilots, 2.5hrs of airtime and many new experiences for the group, what a day!