I was in a bad mood in the morning. I felt like I was flying badly, and it was annoying me. I had flown half the distance of the others in the car on the previous two days out. I wasn't bitter, I'd actually enjoyed helping in the retrieve car and stopping off for cups of tea with Annie more than the flying (Tuesday was very weak and slow going), but I just got caught in a bit of negativity come Wednesday morning. Mark told me it was in my head and to let it go. It's mad how much of a difference that made: It really helped. I think I was just a bit more keyed up than usual as I'd had big big hopes for this week, which amazing coincided with school holidays so meant I could fly all of it. The forecasts were just stunning, the first 5 star days of the year. But Tuesday turned out to be pretty rubbish - at least going southwest from Wiltshire. Luke showed me the BGA's gliding ladder for the day, with some pilots flying 800 km tasks up and down the middle of the country, so that proved to me, along with the baltic temperatures first thing Wednesday morning, that maybe the air was going to be as special as suggested.
Lee Bligh runs a really slick tow operation, and after sorting our tow licenses with him in 2015 we did some 75 km triangles out of his place, so we knew it had good potential. With Mike Cavanagh and Julian Robinson completing 100 km+ declared circuits in the Scottish hills, and having seen Mark do 100 km out and returns down south I knew it would be possible in the flats too. Roger Turner and Jim Mallinson were up for it, while young Luke 'skywalker' Nicol took a bit of convincing, as he'd never even tried a triangle before. Mark wanted to just have a nice fly and wasn't bothered how far, while Seb, who'd just flown in from Switzerland the night before, wanted to go much bigger!
I played around with my Oudie and set us a route to take us down over Lyneham airfield which I know absolutely kicks off, then down past Devizes, and then along the Pewsey Vale. The idea was that the southerly slopes of the Marlborough downs (Milk Hill, Golden Ball etc) would provide a nice thermal trigger highway along the second leg. We'd then turn back and fly over Swindon hopefully to get some nice lifty air on the way back.
We started launching at about 11:15 and Seb and Luke hooked into the first climb. Then a random dog walker starter strolling straight across the tow field, stopping for a good gaze up about 5 metres from our line. We waited, I swore a bit, and then once he was clear I got launched into the good air, and soon we were away. Jim wasn't so lucky, gliding under and not connecting, and Mark and Roger got away on the next cycle. This would prove crucial, as the day started to shut down after 4 pm meaning a later start meant it'd be much harder to make it round in time.
Seb and Luke were in a different league down to the first leg, climbing better than me, pushing on with more confidence, and soon they were two dots in the distance. I got low before Devizes, swore some more, then something in me just broke, and all the tension and expectation released like a really loud fart. I mean for fuck's sake sometimes I just can't work out what the fuck is going on and then you hit a 3-up and it's like Jesus fucking christ that is much more like it, and I'm enjoying life again. I then stumbled into a seagull and an extremely rancid waft of pig shit that I stayed with at around 4 m/s all the way to base. Suddenly I was tagging the first turnpoint and back with Seb and Luke. I thought, yep, this whole thing could be on…
There was a bit of easterly headwind but with the clouds just lined up like marshmallows waiting to be eaten we cracked on quickly on. We crossed Harry Bloxham on his Enzo 2, who'd climbed out of the milk massif below us. Sometimes Seb or I would get a better line, but Luke usually left the climbs earliest. He later told me that he's used to a more aggressive style of flying as that's how hang gliding works - if you're in a 4 up and it goes down to a 2 up, you just pull speed and push on in the hope of finding the next 4 up. He's only been flying five years, is very used to amazing performance, and has a very intuitive ability to find lift. Meanwhile I'm used to gliding like a stone on a hankerchief and expecting to be flaring five minutes from leaving base on each glide. More cautious.
Seb pushed full bar to catch Luke, while I was pretty maxed out on adrenaline on half to 3/4 bar, and with very numb cold fingers I didn't have much feel on the rear risers. So, they got away from me again. After the second turnpoint, it was time to turn for home. 3 pm, and how far to go? 38 km? You've got to be kidding me! Beyond Swindon, huge sheets of cirrus and stratus were being drawn over the land like a pair of curtains signalling the end of the show. It wasn't looking good. We took about four climbs to do 15 km, then eventually got to Swindon. Good air saw us up to our highest point, all topping out together at around 6200 ft before we set off towards South Cerney lakes. At 13:1, there was no way we were going to make it. But some sun wad breaking through to the east of the A419, and with Seb far left, me centre, and Luke far right, I was hopeful of one of us finding something.
It was a weak, inconsistent thing over some rape fields that we spent 20 minutes or so wheeling about in just trying to stay up, around 1500 ft up. Goal at the airfield still looked a long, long way away, but as a smidge more sun broke out, we gained a few hundred feet. With the GPS showing a glide of 9:1 and nil wind, Seb went into PWC mode, pushing on for final glide. He was looking good, then started dropping fast. "Guys, its pretty sinky back here" he called on the radio. Luke and I hung back in what was an improving core, not wanting to lose our near 5 hours of effort on not making it, and watched Seb successfully float in with 200 ft or so to spare. A couple of minutes later, the climb increased to 2 m/s and we were shouting with joy and pumping the air with our fists. We were definitely, definitely going to make it as well. 5 minutes later we crossed the line into the field to celebrate with Annie, Ali and a load of guys doing their day 1 low flights.
Half an hour later we saw two gliders way way in the distance. In total shade, Roger touched down about 5 km short. Mark battled on and on, climbing in absolutely nothing, but the day had totally shut down, and it wasn't to be. Like a shot-up WW2 bomber with its last engine failing, he slipped from view behind the trees only a kilometre or two away. Properly gutting to watch.
Thanks to Lee, Dave and Nik for the tows, and Annie for driving. Thanks Seb and Luke for completely schooling me. Its really exciting to see how much better the new generation of pilots are going. And thanks Mark for sorting my head out in the morning. Flying is never a solo effort, we always rely on each other in some way, but this really felt like a team achievement, and so much better for it.