The Uk Hang-Gliding National Championships 2016

Every year the top UK Hang Glider pilots travel to continental Europe in order to compete in the UK National Championships. Whilst there are other competitions based in the UK throughout the year, the ‘Nationals’ are held overseas to take advantage of better flying conditions, allowing the pilots to practice racing around long cross country tasks. Although I have been flying hang-gliders since 1988 and had previously represented the UK at many international competitions, I had hardly flown my glider during the last few years due to work and family commitments and so this was my first Hang-Gliding competition for 10 years. I was anxious to do well and hoped to achieve at least a top 10 place overall.
Hang-Gliding has come a very long way since the daredevil pilots of the 70’s. Their makeshift wings were often homemade and based on a weight-shift controlled design by Dr Francis Rogallo of NASA. They didn’t go very far or climb very high, but they did allow foot launched flight to be born. Today’s gliders are much more advanced and much, much safer. Most are computer designed and use a combination of carbon fibre, aircraft alloys and advanced rip-stop sailcloth in their construction. They are all tested and certified by many different countries and are designed to be very stable during flight. They also have an impressive speed range which is typically from 30 – 130kph, although the majority of the time you don’t need to go quite that fast!

The latest weight-shift controlled gliders typically have a glide ratio of greater than 15:1. This means they can glide over 3 miles for every 1000’ of height. Some gliders that use aerodynamic controls in addition to weight-shift (nicknamed ‘Rigids’) can glide over 4.5 miles for the same height loss. From 10,000’ this gives you quite a large area to search for thermals and other forms of lift!
The competition tasks set can vary greatly and depend upon the weather conditions. The world Hang-Gliding distance record stands at well over 700km! At one competition in Australia earlier this year the organisers were able to set a record 367km task, with many pilots completing the course and getting to goal. Typically on the continent tasks are shorter and around 70-180km and take between 2-3 hours to complete using GPS tracklogs to calculate individual scores. Hang-Gliding shares the same flying techniques as Gliding and Paragliding, namely that of finding air that is going up faster than you are sinking through it in order to stay airborne. This can be in thermic, ridge lift or mountain waves, but the principles are the same. It is incredibly satisfying to not only stay airborne for long periods, but also to then navigate around a course and make goal. It can also be very frustrating when things don’t go your way and you end up watching scores of gliders go above your head and into goal!
I drove down to Laragne in my fully loaded car, with three pilots, three lots of bags and three gliders on the roof rack. It was a bit of a hike, but sharing the journey with two other friends made it bearable. I hoped to get at least one practice day as I hadn’t flown that area since 92’, but alas the weather didn’t want to play ball. The first day of the competition was also cancelled due to strong winds and so we had to wait yet another day before the first task could be set.

Day 1 – The morning met briefing pointed us to a site called Aspes, 30km to the North of Laragne, which favoured the forecast wind direction. Unfortunately when we arrived there the actual wind there was too strong and favoured the other mountain called Chabre, back at Laragne, so back we went. The launch area at Chabre is spectacular and stands at around 4000’ AMSL, with the ridge extending to the west for 20km. Both side of the mountain can be flown, but the south side is the best launch for thermic days. The north launch is a little more breath-taking to fly from and begins with short patch of grass and then a 500’ vertical drop down to a steep slope to the valley floor. With half the day already lost, a short 80km task was set around the local area, although this was still going to be a challenge due to the strong winds. I managed to get most of the way around the course, but then got low after crossing a valley and trying to punch back into wind towards the last turn point. I landed at around the 46km mark but fortunately for me only 5 people made goal and many others landing near me, so I didn’t lose too many points.

Day 2 – We went back up to the south side of Chabre, although the forecast conditions weren’t great with cloud base expected to only reach 6000’ AMSL. A short 70km task was set and this time it turned out to be a much better day that expected, improving as the day went on with over half of the pilots getting to goal, including myself. I managed to get a reasonably fast run and finished 12th on the day, but as this was the first goal flight for me in 10 years I was still very happy with my performance.
Day 3 – The weather forecast was the best so far, with the promise of good racing conditions and strong thermals. The Meet Director set a 130km task and the launch window opened on the south take off just before 1pm, unfortunately, due to an accident at the launch site, the day had to be cancelled to allow emergency services to attend the two pilots involved. Thankfully Hang-Gliding accidents are now very rare, but despite everyone’s best efforts they can still happen. Although one of the pilots was relatively uninjured, the other was more seriously hurt and required hospital treatment, but is now back in a UK hospital and recovering well.

Day 4 – Another windy day saw a 92km task set up to Aspes and then back against the southerly headwind. Making progress into a strong headwind is always tricky as it reduces your glide performance considerably, sometimes even by half. This caught many people out and the long glide back into wind from Aspes forced many of the pilots to land on their way back upwind. I managed to get to almost 10,000’ AMSL at Aspes which helped me to get forward, but then still wasn’t high enough to take the shortest route to the next turn point. I had to go a long way off course and work my way along several ridges before I was able to jump forward to the turn point. It was slow going and cost me at least an extra hour around the course. After four and a half hours in the air I was the last one flying and managed to get around the last turn point and set off for goal, but I ran out of time as the GPS tracklog window closed at 7pm. As my distance score was only calculated until 7pm, any flying after that didn’t count, so I chose to wind off height and land in a nice empty field by a farm, 7km short of goal. Thankfully the farmer was very friendly and we managed to communicate a little, despite my poor French and his lack of English! This still put me 8th on the day and brought my aim of making the top 10 just that little bit little closer.

Day 5 – A 90 km task around the local valley was set, with the pilots able to choose one of two start times to suit the conditions. I elected to take the first start as I was in a good position early on, which turned out to be a good decision. The conditions just kept getting better throughout the day and at one point I climbed from 4000’ to over 10,000’ in little over 5 minutes in a beautifully smooth thermal, averaging over a thousand feet per minute in the climb! I easily completed the course in two and a half hours, but wasn’t as fast as I would have liked and finished 14th on the day.

Day 6 – Unfortunately the last day was cancelled due to unfavourable wind conditions at launch and so there were only 4 scoring days. The competition was won by Carl Wallbank who is once again British Champion, with Grant Crossingham in second and Gordon Rigg third. I achieved my aim of making the top 10 by finishing in 10th, but I also had a fantastic time racing around some breath-taking scenery in France. I’d like to thank my Squadron for allowing me to attend and the RAFHPA, the RAF Sports Lottery and Station PEd flt for their financial support.

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