Wednesday had been forecast as a good day for a while. Rasp was showing tantalisingly red all over the Highlands. The usual social media channels where whipping into a frenzy of excitement and people were speculating on what might be possible and where they would go.
I was certainly in need of some distraction on two counts. Bren and his critical condition, where news continues to come through on his slow but steady stabilisation and recovery and the incessant political 'spin' surrounding the election.
Living in Fort William and being the only paraglider pilot in the area, I am increasingly drawn to seeking company on flying days and I felt this need acutely in light of Bren's recent accident. However the reality of achieving this is often challenging. Do I head north and east to meet up with the Aberdeen crowd or do I head south to join the Glasgow/Stirling/Edinburgh crowd? On this occasion I determined to be on the front foot and suggested we actively sought to come together to share the day.
The morning dawned with a sky far less encouraging than predicted and the inevitable last minute prevarication on where we should meet. Sometimes getting people together in our sport is like herding cats!
In the end a reasonable consensus converged on Balquidder and the Mor 84 café. There is good parking there and wifi if needed for last minute communication or update. Bob Matthews had already contacted the local farmer informing him that we might be heading up the hill and would endeavour to disturb the sheep as little as possible. The weaker amongst us tried to push for an easier walk up the hill above Lochearnhead but failed. Balquidder works reliably but the walk is brutal!
There was a good banter on the walk up with suggestions that we might launch from where the first person collapsed, mixed with 'there's a lot of west in the wind maybe we should have gone to Aberfoyle after all'. It must have been an interesting introduction to Scottish flying for Kevin from Canada! We duly spread ourselves over the hill with me claiming the 'pensioner' card "that's high enough for me, if we can't get up from here then the day is not working anyway", while the younger legs carried on a few more hundred metres.
I settled into the routine of preparation, setting up the harness, laying out the glider, checking radio, vario, phone. The sky looked too cloudy, we sat patiently, chatting and planning and planning ambitiously. Despite a distinctly 'off to the west feel' we convinced ourselves that it would in fact be more or less southerly once we got up and so we aimed for somewhere north of Aviemore.
It took a while but the clouds gradually broke, blue sky increased and one by one we launched. Even after twenty eight years I am still in awe of being able to thermal up from launch and get established in an environment we were not made to be in. As everyone climbed out the boys from Aberfoyle, Tim, Bob G and Trias, cruised in. Game on!
My first glide saw me setting off with Tom and Bob M towards Glen Ogle and our amusingly named hill 'Burger Van'. I recollected that it was on Burger Van four years ago on my first time getting back into flying after a few years absence due to work and family pursuits that I saw Bren. I had met him several years previously and his warm smile and comment "good to see an old timer back on the hill" made me feel I was being welcomed back into 'the family'. I stayed with Tom hunting a climb near Kilin and we agreed to head a little east over Ben Lawers before straightening north. I got a small strong core directly over the summit of Ben Lawers, close enough to see the faces of walkers celebrating another Munro. I lost Tom at this point but soon linked up with Paolo coming in from the west along Glen Lyon. We climbed out together and on over Schiehallion, my first time flying over this iconic peak. I was captivated by the patterns of water, islands and reeds looking down on Dunalastair Reservoir when Paolo came on the radio 'glider coming in to join us Tony'. Sure enough as I looked round there was Paolo and a sail plane thermalling up together.
By this time the sky was looking fabulous with encouraging clouds stretching northeast over the A9 and the Cairngorms beyond and I could just make out where Aviemore would be fifty kilometres ahead. I lost Paolo and once again found myself gliding alone. But not really alone as there was regular chatter on the radio and I had just heard from Tom that he was east of Schiehallion and heading north. Decision time for me at this point! Do I stick to the safe option of the A9 or blank out the 'what if I land' thoughts if I headed into the wild landscape ahead. Something inside me couldn't quite commit to the really 'deep line', so I took a compromise towards Loch an Dùin, rationalising that I might be able to glide out to the A9 if needed or only face a walk of about ten kilometres. Was Bren looking after me even from his bed in Grenoble?
My internal chatter started in earnest, 'come on Tony commit to the sky ahead, you know how to thermal, trust your self, ignore the ground, fly smoothly'. Magic moments followed as I climbed up the side of a cloud and flirted in and out of the whispies. I then spotted a glider way ahead of me slowly circling above the peak of An Dùn. At that point all sensible flying went out of the window! I had wanted above all else today to fly in the company of friends and other pilots. 'Who was this ahead'? 'I must catch them up'. I stuffed full bar on and focused on the sliver of the wing I could see about five kilometres ahead. I chased on over An Dùn straightening north a bit eventually getting close towards Newtonmore. I didn't recognise the wing and there was no response from the radio. I got low, he got high and I drifted on towards Aviemore. I made a mistake at this point staying too much in the middle of the valley and should have either gone to the hills to my west or to the clouds to my east and soon landed just short of Aviemore.
As I packed up I saw Tom high overhead cruising toward Aviemore and Adrian battling over Geal-charn Mòr. I have had moments in fields before looking up at gliders flying overhead and experienced some most uncharitable thoughts toward fellow aviators. Not this time for some reason. I had had a great flight, flown in the company of friends over wonderful scenery and landed safely. I was content.
Yes I was disappointed I had landed when there was still much flying to be had under a great looking sky but I was happy.
As the adventure of getting back to my car unfolded so too did the success of the day reveal itself. I met Matt in Aviemore station who was tracking flights of the day and what a day it turned out to be. The camaraderie of flying also showed itself with Matt buying me a train ticket to Dunlekd and Stephen picking me up in Crief having already collected Bob M and Graham.
The mystery pilot I failed to stay with over Newtonmore turned out to be Tim B who went on to land in Nairn having taken off from Aberfoyle, recording the longest flight within Scotland to date, eclipsing Bren's previous record. Tom, Adrian, Tim J, Paolo and Trias all flew well over one hundred kilometres and along with many others recorded personal bests. This is most probably the best flying day seen in the history of Scottish flying by pilots living in Scotland taking off and landing in Scotland.
The blatant missing ingredient was that Bren was not flying with us!
The day goes to you my friend for without your inspiration, wisdom, guidance and support many of us would not be flying like we did today.