Manx Paragliding TT 2006

Four intrepid paraglider pilots; myself, Gary Cooper and Tom Kane from the Dunstable Hang gliding and Paragliding Club and Keith Wood from Sussex set off from Milton Keynes by car on Friday lunch time.  The traffic on the M6 from where the toll road ended was terrible; turning what should have been a three-hour drive into just over 4 hours to Liverpool.  Upon arrival, we abandoned the car in an NCP car park and just managed to catch the ferry and cross as foot passengers to Douglas,the capital of the 33 by 11 mile Isle of Man.

Held on the weekend of the 15th/16th of July on the Isle of Man, the Manx Paragliding TT consisted of three tasks.

The weather was hot, sunny and inverted.   Not ideal for flying cross country.  However, Chris Dawes of Airways Airsports managed to set some interesting tasks.

All three started at the highest peak on the island, Snaefell at 2036ft. 

All the transport was provided by the Isle of Man Club and we were picked up both mornings outside the hotel by coach, taken to the bottom of Snaefell where we caught the electric tram to the top.  The other end of the day was taken care of with equal efficiency with retrieve from the designated landing fields by the coach for the first two tasks and the local club members running around in their 4x4s for the third task.  I hadn’t even got my glider into its bag before a rather nice BMW X5 appeared at the roadside to pick me up!

Saturday and Task One

This was like a mini XAlps.  The distance was about 8km but with the conditions on the day, it was impossible to fly the whole way.  So it was a combination of both flying and hiking.  And to make matters more difficult, there was a touch and go target at the start and a spot landing target at the finish.  10% extra points were awarded for each target with multiple attempts allowed for the first one.  The touch and go involved launching from the hill anywhere above a target which consisted of a thick blue rope laid in a circle with what I would guess to have been an approximate radius of 3 or 4 metres.  We had to land in the circle and then either fly or walk out whilst keeping the wing flying.

Now if all that is not difficult enough, what about considering some tactics?  For example:  If you fail the first touch and go, how many times is it worth walking back up the hill to have another go before you have used up 10% of the points you would have won if you had given up and just got on with the rest of the task?  Or, upon examination of the course, weather conditions and what is likely to happen as the day progresses; would it be advantageous to set off early and do loads of hiking or just wait to see if the flying conditions improve so as to reduce the hiking thus travelling further and faster with less effort by flying?

One of the good aspects of this type of task is that it is achievable by just about everyone, irrespective of flying skill, performance level of glider, weather or level of thermal activity.

The touch and go target was in a really awkward spot.  Right on a small edge.  And fickle conditions made it very difficult (well, for me anyway).  Tom managed it on the second attempt.  Keith Wood also managed it after just a few attempts.  Gary managed to hurt his knee in a series of events involving some ground handling and going to the rescue of someone else who was getting a good dragging which unfortunately put him out of the game for the weekend.   And some others simply didn’t bother with it at all and immediately flew across the first gap to try and make up points with a good time.  I’ve just got a new glider that I’m getting used to.  It’s a Nova Tycoon, which has much longer lines and swings much further than my previous Nova Aeron.  I found the touch and go very difficult and only managed to do it on the 9th attempt.  I was obsessed.  I was going to get it, no matter how many attempts it was going to take.  This in the end ironically turned out to my advantage.  I was the second from last leaving the hill to fly across the first valley.  But as I had left it so late, the conditions had improved considerably.  I only had a short carry up to do before I could take off again.  I flew all the way to the finish over the top of quite a few who had left earlier but had as a result ended up deep in the next valley with much longer, painstaking walk ups.

The main lesson for this day for me though came at the end of the task.  Full of elation and ego artificially puffed as I flew over the other stranded pilots, I made one of the most basic of errors on my approach to the landing field.  I misjudged the wind strength and set up my approach downwind of the target.  With tremendous relief, I only just managed to squeak in to the right field, never mind be in with a chance of hitting the target.  SET UP YOUR LANDING APPROACH UP WIND OF THE TARGET!  I’ll remember next time for sure!

Sunday Morning, Task Two:

Very similar conditions to yesterday.  Strongly inverted and very little wind.  Chris Dawes was however quietly confident that the inversion might break in the afternoon.

Task Two was a very simple Duration and Spot Landing.  A Top to Bottom in other words.  A marshal on launch recorded everyone’s name and time as they took off whilst another was supposed to record the name and time of landing.  The durations varied from about 3 to 7 minutes.  I was quite pleased with what my Flytec 5020 had recorded as 5 minutes and 30 seconds.  I was to find out later however much to my great annoyance that the launch marshal, in spite of asking my name and me giving it as I launched, failed to record it!

Sunday Afternoon, Task Three:

Task Three was Open Distance and by far my favourite.  This almost seemed to be more a task of stamina, attrition and pot luck rather than flying skill.  Although I’d like to think there was some skill involved.  The inversion was breaking as Chris Dawes had hoped albeit a little later than he would have liked.  Cumulus had started popping off the tops of the peaks and it looked as though a thin street might be forming in the direction that we had flown and trekked yesterday.  The main lift indicators were seagulls. The wind was almost non-existent and soaring, although just possible for the gulls was impossible for us Earth dwellers.  But very weak thermals were occasionally coming through.  One moment the gulls would be one side of the hill and the next, they would be on the other.  Sometimes, they would even circle around the whole circumference of the top of the hill but rarely above the tops of the aerials.  But just occasionally, they would all congregate together and start to climb.  Slowly, carefully and keeping quite flat until they broke through the inversion and together in a neat column would climb to the clouds and then disappear onwards to wherever they were going. To make matters even more difficult, this didn’t always happen in the same place.  But as the afternoon progressed a pattern developed and I decided to settle on the side of the hill with the most activity.

Pilots were walking backward and forwards from one side to the other.  The sun was beating down and it was hot. They had been leaping from the hill like lemmings, driven off by frustration, heat or being constantly nibbled at by the pesky midges.  Whilst sitting on the grass with my glider laid out behind me there was a constant, really loud hum which sounded like a swarm of bees.  I couldn’t see anything obvious but was told that it was the midges in the grass all around us. 

A lot of pilots had given up all hope of climbing out and had headed down the longest valley in an attempt to score with the longest Top To Bottom.  As the Window Close time grew nearer, the frequency of lemming leaping increased.  Keith Wood, having finally had enough of being eaten alive threw himself into the air and found some lift.  He worked it hard and actually climbed to maybe 100′ above the top of the hill and then went on a glide.  A few others noticed where he had found the start of his climb and again threw themselves in that direction.  There were a number of valiant attempts but most ended up in or near the landing field we had used earlier that day for Task 2.  Then Tom had a go.  He looked so low but came back and started climbing again.  Working really hard.  Gaining, losing, gaining and losing.  The excitement of watching was tremendous.  Yes, he’s going to do it!  Then Oh no, he’s losing it again, then yes! He’s climbing again!  The tension was terrible.  It was just then, as Tom finally succumbed to the inevitable lack of lift that I noticed a solitary seagull doing something that I hadn’t seen any of the others do all day.  All the others had been circling level, flat and slowly.  This one was up on a wing tip.  Almost vertical, turning incredibly tightly and going up like a rocket.  Well that was it.  Alpine launch, run like blazes, shout at the glider to try and overcome its reluctance to get into the air and I’m away.

Well, the rest is history really.  After an initial struggle, I climbed to base.  Followed the peaks and clouds until I ran out of Island.  It was only 9.4km.  But still only about 500m short of the Island record!  I was the only one to climb out and won the task.

Unfortunately, because the marshal failed to record my name on the second task, I scored zero for it and came fourth overall.  I could well have won the whole competition if it hadn’t been for that!  Well, maybe next year . . . .

My thanks go to The Manx Paragliding Club for so efficiently organising a really good flying weekend in spite of the almost unflyable conditions!  And to Chris Dawes for setting some imaginative and achievable tasks, again given the difficult conditions.  And finally, I hope that by the time Gary reads this, his knee is well on its way back to normal and we’ll be seeing him back in the air again!