Shit, Sharpenhoe again. And on one of those days, RASP glowing, but light wind. It could be working really well, or you could be waiting to lob off into the hint of a thermal and more often than not, bottom landing. On a light wind day, it's a good day out at Sharpenhoe if you don't bottom land. There'd been a lot of light wind north easterly days recently, too many weren't good days. Many top pilots turned up recently, big Friday before that big Sunday. Many bottom landings, two wings ended up in the trees, only a few got away. And I'd spent two frustrating days earlier in the week, sat on the hill, waiting for that moment and rewarded with brief flights in light cycles. Strong wind days are different, more reliable but different hazards. That's when the top pilots go to town. At the time of writing Hugh Miller sets a new Sharpenhoe record of 275k. Days like that aren't for the likes of me, I'm an everyday pilot with modest ambitions.
On a day like today I think there are 3 big hurdles.
1. Not enough wind to launch get over the bush/tree line and maintain on the ridge without the help of a thermal on launch and bowl or the tree lined ridge, no slope landing, struggle to get to take unless you decide early.
2. If you're lucky enough to get up and into a thermal work it with a degree of safety in mind e. G. Without going back too low over the spine back and trees that have a habit of reaching out and grabbing people.
3. Once in the climb, don't bust airspace at 3500ft and then 4500ft, not forgetting it drops down to 3500ft again in some tracks for quite distance. The Easyjet flights come right over the downwind track from Sharpenhoe as the descend into Luton airport.
Despite, or because of the challenges, Sharpenhoe becomes a bit of a bad habit you keep coming back to, even though you know you shouldn't. We're always amazed when pilots come from distance to fly the Clappers. It just isn't a "banker" site. I'm always confident of getting away from Combe for example. Sharpenhoe, never confident.
So here I am again. I reckoned I'd paid my dues to the gods of the sky in plenty of wasted afternoons recently, I must be well in credit. Wiltshire was down wind, that had been my dream flight from the Clappers, ever since Hugh Ginty - inspiration, club legend and personal hero - had been disappearing over the back showing me the way years back. Anywhere in Wiltshire would be awesome. Only myself and one other on take off. Wayne took off, bottom landing. Another tribute paid to the sky gods, don't let it be one of those days…
I survived two launches into thermal bubbles and top landed. Third attempt, swifts in the bowl, wind on launch, trees moving on the ridge line, let's go. Pretty much straight into a weak but consistent climb, drifting slowly over the back towards the Sundon hills. Steps 1 and 2, tick. Concentrate, I've lost count of the number of times I've landed before the M1. The Sundon hills were working and helped me climb up, up, until just before the M1 the 3500ft airspace starts to be a threat. On bar to Hockliffe, another climb and the step up to 4500ft. This is going ok.
The sky was looking great to the north, classic xc sky. My path was dotted with congestus clouds, not a sky I normally fly, I'm a smiles not miles guy. Should I head north, fly the better sky. It seemed the congestus were building but dissipating, hold your course.
Over Leighton Buzzard, Aylesbury off in the distance, approaching airspace ceiling, Easyjet flight passes overhead between me and and a cumulus marking the top of the thermal. Ears in, speed bar on, busting airspace here comes with real risks. On we go, remembering the airspace drops back down to 3500ft for a bit. Over the A413 and finally free of the confines of Luton airspace and free to 5500ft. Step 3, tick. Except those congestus clouds hadn't gone away. Some pretty intimidating examples up ahead. Although, they were well spaced and weren't still weren't that big. Lasham briefing that morning was spot on, they'd also suggested you'd be very unlucky to come a across isolated showers.
On we go, capping my climbs well short, keeping a course away from the bigger clouds. Thames to my left, M40 up ahead, Oxford off to my right. Benson airspace coming up. Skirt around Chalgrove danger area. Big cloud over Oxford though, and lots of lifty air in my area. The sky opened up ahead on my route to Swindon though, a bit of bar took me to a better place physically and mentally.
Remnants of Didcot power station below gave a climb. I could see Swindon coming into view, that's in Wiltshire isn't it? I was starting to believe. Get there and the train back to London makes for an easy retrieve.
On we go. I'm in much more welcoming sky now, in a part of the country I know very well. The pieces of the jigsaw from those fights from the TV and Dunstable sites were coming together. It's 16:00 and I've been I the air for 3hrs. I don't drink in the air, but I've got a glut of cucumbers on the allotment, a couple of these stashed either side in my harness pockets gun slinger style. One of those quenches my thirst, slow release rehydration.
Over Uffington white horse and I get as low as I've been for a long time. A farmer's working the field ahead and there's a cloud above the field, off I go. It doesn't work, bugger. The ridge line is in the sun and there's villages close by, two targets to go for. I weak climb keeps me up, the ridge line seems to be feeding the thermal and I drift along the ridge slowly climbing back up to 3000ft. Swindon's close, so is Liddington, over the M4 but I'm as low as I've been the whole flight - but still at 1700ft. I find a weak climb over the higher ground near Liddington, birds up ahead circling beckon me into a stronger climb. A sweet climb that gets as strong as any I've had in the flight 4 up takes me all the way to nearly 6000ft, under a blue sky with great visibility. I can see the Severn estuary, I'm pretty sure the Melvern's as well, Reading and possibly London off in the distance, Marlborough the Salisbury plain. This is magic, if only the Gopro had been loaded. It would be a distraction though, I'm trying to imprint the images into my memory banks, be in the moment.
The climb dissipates, I'm drifting over the Marlborough downs. Do I head for Marlborough, taxi Swindon train? Pewsey easy train route back to London. Keep to the track which had Westbury as goal and a train station on the London line. Seemed unlikely given the time of day and sky ahead. Devizes, was up ahead on route but no train station. Whatever, worse case taxi to Pewsey/Westbury and train.
Over the Marlborough downs, drinking in the views, I finally spot Silbury hill getting low near the A4. There isn't much sun on the ground now, it's nearly 18:00. I spot a sunny into wind slope with hay bales coiled up, that might work. It does, a slow climb with Red Kites for company and help drift me over the Milk Hill massif, and the training site I used to use all those years ago with ParAvion under Dave Sollom and Rick Ware & Henry- was it Ruddlers. It felt like coming full circle some how, thanks guys. I'm back up to 3000ft but I'm not optimistic about making goal, I didn't think I was high enough to avoid being flushed down as the air descends from the downs and sure enough Devizes is the end of the ride.
How to get back, I knew I would but when and how unknown, the other part of the adventure begins. Seemed like taxi and train were most likely, maybe retrieve the car the next day. Check the telegram groups etc. I'd been spotted by one of the dunny crowd flying over Leighton Buzzard which prompted a pin to say down and safe. Luke Jones spots it on the way back from a day out in Abergavenny and diverts in my direction from the M4 and dropped me off in Sharpenhoe car park. What a guy.
What a spot of luck, then again sometimes the stars align, it's written. Epic flight, my best to date, epic retrieve. Sharpenhoe I hate you and love you.