I did a paragliding Pilot certificate course in February 1996 in
Perth WA. Subsequent to gaining my restricted licence I got about an hours
ridge soaring consisting of 2 flights at Shelley Beach on the South Coast
before I went to Europe for an extended holiday. It wasn't an easy decision
to take my Edel Apollo paraglider with me as it's an awkward thing
to lug around on foot or public transport when you already have a pack
full of other essentials like clothes and rock climbing gear. In the end
I decided to take it with me as long as I could get it on the plane for
free. I was signed up to work for an English company running school camps
in France for the first four months, so it wouldn't be too much hassle
to store it even if I didn't get to use it, and the opportunity to fly
in the mountains was too good to miss.
Malaysian airlines let me take the glider free even though it took my luggage to 30 kgs, with an official free allowance of 20kgs. The check in guy had to rest my bags slightly on the edge of the scales just to get it under 30 kgs.
My first priority in London was to deposit my bags at the airport so I could explore unencumbered. In the evening after making contact with my cousin I returned to Heathrow for my bags and was forced to find a way of manoeuvring a 15kg pack and a paraglider on and off the underground, then walk 2km to my cousin's flat.
After providing plenty of amusement for other passengers with my experiments I found that strapping the packs together resulted in a single very heavy and unwieldy pack that I could barely lift off the ground, and could not get onto my back no matter how vigorously I swung it around. Using the shoulder strap of my travel pack combined with the paraglider worn normally was not only unwieldy but very uncomfortable.
Finally I found that wearing my travel pack on my back and the paraglider pack on my front allowed me to walk several hundred metres before my arms went numb, although it still attracted plenty of strange looks from bystanders, who were quite numerous in London even at midnight.
The following day I departed for Llangorse in Wales for a training
course. Here I was camped below a the beautiful high grassy ridge of Myndd
Llangorse for a week. A phone call to a local paragliding school revealed
that the local landowners were less than friendly and would probably phone
the police on seeing a paraglider at that site, if not shoot at them. Considering
my lack of experience and the dubious local legal status of my Australian
licence, I decided I'd have to be content watching the sailplanes and hanggliders
cruising up and down the ridge in perfect soaring conditions. As it turned
out my one day off from the course had weather more like I had been led
to expect from Wales, rainy and squally.
From Llangorse I had a 24hr bus trip to my workplace of Hameau Les Ages, a tiny village near Brive La Galliarde in Correze, central France. The area was quite hilly, but heavily wooded to the point that I couldn't find a clear slope sufficient for even the shortest practice glide. I later found a map indicating flying sites about 50km away, but with only one or two staff owning a car, and only one day a week off, it was impossible to reach them.
After about 2 months I became frustrated with being on the other side of the world and not seeing any more than one tiny village, and quit to go travelling and hopefully do a little flying. My first destination was a farm in Brittany owned by relatives of a friend from the camp. It took 3 days to hitchhike there partly due to a day spent in the wrong place following very large but completely wrong signposts. The first day it rained continuously and heavily, so I looked even more ridiculous than usual, having a garbage bag over the large paraglider pack on my front. I can't really recommend hitching with 2 packs as hitching inevitably involves some walking, especially if you don't speak the language.
At one stage I was sitting by the road with my 2 packs eating some lunch when the Gendarmerie drove past. They then stopped and came back and asked for my papers, which I gave them. I don't speak much French but they managed to communicate that they wanted to know where my companion was, the owner of the second pack. I tried to explain that it was a parapente, without success. I pointed to the little plan view of the wing on the pack's label, with Apollo 24 written on it. They interpreted this as meaning my friend's name was Apollo 24. I had almost resorted to flapping my arms to indicate flying when they gave up and drove away.
When I finally reached Brittany I had achieved walks of up to 10km
carrying my paraglider and pack, and acquired a determination that the
paraglider would carry me somewhere for a change before I went home.
Some weeks later in England I acquired a cheap motor vehicle, largely to avoid walking anywhere with two packs. I had reached the conclusion by now that the only way I would fly was to go out specifically to fly, so I looked through a local magazine, Sports in the Sky, which I had picked up at a newsagent, for a club or school near London.
The only place where the phone was answered by a person was Sussex HG & PG School in Brighton so I headed down there. My departure from Australia had been very rushed and it was only at this stage I realised I really should have got an IPPI card and some overseas insurance. This was difficult to do from England so instead I signed up for an assessment for conversion to a UK club pilot licence.
The UK licence included a couple of things not in my Australian course, mainly PLFs and top landings.
To do the assessment required soarable conditions, which unfortunately took about 4 days to materialise. SHG&PG were good to me and only charged me the one day assessment fee even though it took much longer. Whilst waiting I got in lots of short hops and ground handling practice on the excellent training sites at Muggery Bottom and Bedingham. These sites were grazed grassy bowls, where you could take off or land almost anywhere, the main hazard being cows in the landing field which were so accustomed to paragliders that they would not get out of your way, you had to go around them.
All this was good practice for me, my course in WA having consisted almost entirely of being towed up to about 1000ft behind a ute and gliding down again into a large sheep paddock a couple of kilometres long. Once the main components of the course were covered in this manner we had to get our required number of forward and reverse foot launches. The only available sites were a medium sized hillside covered in football sized rocks with a few dead trees near the bottom, and a very small site with the launch taking you off a 2m granite cliff. From there a straight glide would land you in a 3m deep drainage ditch, thus necessitating a turn right after launch and a crosswind landing if, like me, you weren't good enough to turn back into the wind in time.
Early one morning the conditions came on and I finally got my soaring
flight and top landings in. After that I did a theory test and I got my
UK licence. I spent the next few days at devils dyke scratching
about in occasional bits of lift and getting lots of side landing practice
when I inevitably fell out of them. I had been in Brighton a couple of
weeks now and it felt like time to move on. Although the friendliness and
hospitality of the local pilots was great, the flying conditions weren't,
and I wanted to see more of Britain. I stopped in at Devil's Dyke in the
morning on my way out though, and was rewarded with my best flights so
far. I only did 2 flights of 15 minutes or so, but I came down when I wanted
to, to reasonable top landings, and was able to travel some distance down
the ridge. I even got my first thermal, S turning up to about 50m above
the ridge where I did my first 360 in lift. I actually didn't realise it
had been a thermal until afterwards, I just thought of it as a particularly
good bit of ridge lift.
I proceeded to travel around Britain and Ireland for a month or so but didn't fly again, the closest I got was cycling up Hellvellyn, in the Lake district, on a perfect flying day, watching paragliders and wishing I hadn't left mine in Southport. Excellent mountain bike ride though.
In September I headed for the French Alps, my first stop was in Annecy to visit a friend I met in England. My first day there it was too windy to fly, and the Monte Carlo rally had closed the roads to the main site. The next day I drove up to the obvious dual paraglider launches early but no one was around. I wandered up to look at the hangglider ramps and was about to leave when two van loads of paragliders drove past. I followed and found it was a local school. I thought if they were sending learners off it should be OK for me, and I managed to arrange a lift up with them.
This would be my first alpine launch and was appropriately scary. The launch site was a small clearing hacked out of pine forest on the mountainside above the lake. A piece of astroturf was laid out to take off from. After half an hours watching I decide to attempt to join the queue, which I still hadn't quite figured out and hope I didn't offend anyone.
My forward launch came off nicely and I soon found myself gliding quietly above Lac Annecy. The landing field, which I had never seen, was at the far end of the lake and I didn't know how easily I'd make it so it was a fairly boring flight. The landing field, on the other hand was a little too interesting, being very small and having one or more of trees, powerlines, and roads on each side, the approach being over two quite tall trees. Somehow I made it in OK. After landing I noticed a lot of the students landing in the much larger Hangglider landing field across the road.
My next stop was Chamonix, where I got as far as finding a landing field and a takeoff before deciding it was all too scary for me. I still only had about 2 hours post licence flying time. I decided to book into a thermalling course with local instructor and English expatriate Dennis Trott. I spent the week before the course enjoying the perfect flying weather by rock climbing and walking.
At the start of the course I brought out my gear for inspection, and discovered that a Fun2fly harness (the same brand as mine) had recently failed and killed someone. Mine looked OK so I carried on. My gear is very low budget, 2nd hand 1992 Edel Apollo, $1000, 2nd hand fun2fly harness, $250, bike helmet, no vario, no reserve.
The other pilots on the course all had much more flying experience than my 5 hours but I found my many hours of ground handling useful. We flew from Plaine Joux, just down the valley from Chamonix, and a bit safer and less crowded and with road access to the launch. Some instruction and practice of forward launches with reference to the small steep, one chance, launch sites in the Alps, led into our first flights. For the first flights we were told to just fly our own way so Dennis could get an idea of our level of flying to get a baseline for instruction. We had been given some theory on local thermal conditions though, mainly that they tend to follow the mountainside up, so we should stay close to the hillside.
Plaine Joux is not as dramatic as the Brevent site in Chamonix but
the take off is still 800m above landing, and at the foot of 1000m cliffs.
The take off overlooks a spectacular S-bend in the elevated motorway up
the valley, with Mount Blanc rising behind. The take off itself is a quite
large flat gravel area, wide enough for four paragliders to be laid out
side by side on the flat section. At the end of the flat area is something
like an embankment sloping down steeply at about 30 degrees. Below this
is a gap in the trees which is just big enough to let you not run into
the trees, but just small enough to make you think you will hit them, just
for an instant, on every take off.
The lift was not very strong but I managed to progress from 10 minutes to 15minutes duration over three flights, and got a couple of 360s in, although probably in the wrong places. The more experienced pilots on the course with varios managed at least double that. Other pilots at the site were even able to gain height.
Most of the slopes we were flying over were thickly covered in pine forest. I was trying to stay close to the slope to get the thermals, which meant if I found one it was always a close decision as to whether there was room for a 360. At least once I'm sure I went between treetops rather than over them.
The course followed a similar pattern over the next couple of days, with about 3 glides down each day in gentle thermic conditions. The formal instruction was minimal, we were merely encouraged to tighten up our turns and keep practicing. Whilst my flights didn't get a lot longer, I started to feel I was contributing to the duration rather than relying on luck.
On one flight I managed to borrow a vario, which was very interesting. In the situation where we were flying, low and below ridge height it was relatively easy to judge if you were going up or down by looking sideways, but the vario still gave a better indication, and a quicker response when you stop climbing. The biggest surprise for me though was the usefulness of the sink alarm, which often went off when I had thought I was doing all right.
Just before my flight with borrowed vario, "it's brand new, if you damage it you're buying it", I got to see what happens when you mess up a take off at Plaine Joux. The sloping part of the take off looked too steep to run down without a paraglider supporting you, and I had been wondering whether serious injury would result from a non-inflation. A Japanese pilot was able to enlighten me. He charged flat out off the edge without so much as a glance at his canopy, which hadn't inflated, and proceeded to tumble down the embankment in a cloud of dust. It was reassuring to see he was not injured, but it didn't make me any less nervous about the shiny new vario strapped to my harness.
After 3 days the weather turned bad, and as I was running out of time in Europe I headed off. My plan was to head south to Verdon via Grenoble and perhaps do some climbing, but I heard the Coupe Icare was on in St Hilaire du Touvet, near Grenoble, that weekend so I started by going there instead.
The village of St Hilaire is quite small and nearly at the limit of my map scale so I was a little worried about finding it. I needn't have worried though, its location was given away by the hundred or so paragliders and hanggliders circling above it. I arrived on the Friday before the weekend festival, in good flying conditions, and with free access to the trade fair. After a quick scout around I lugged my glider down to the official launch site and attempted to join the queue.
The launch is an excellent very large area of artificial turf with just the right slope; it needs to be good to get some of the fancy dress entries off the ground. The only problem on this occasion was that with gliders laid out 3 across and 4 deep it was hard to know where to start. You seemed to have to either set your glider up in front of someone or set up at the back with little prospect of ever getting a clear launch. After watching for some time and detecting no pattern to the launch order I eventually just ran on and grabbed a vacant spot.
Naturally as soon as I was clipped in the gust from someone else's launch flipped my carefully laid out glider over. Finally I got an opening and ran. It wasn't my best launch ever. When I checked the glider over my head, the middle of the leading edge looked a little bit tucked, but I was fed up with waiting at this stage so I just ran harder, trusting in the scrub at the end of the launch to catch me if it all went wrong. Fortunately it popped out nicely by the end of the launch and I glided off nicely. The launch takes you off a sheer limestone cliff a few hundred metres high, with waterfalls dropping off it at intervals. I flew up and down it a few times enjoying the view without really gaining or losing height, before trying to cut across the large gully the funicular railway runs up. This was a mistake as I sank like a stone over the gully, putting me out of comfortable reach of the cliff. I decided to head for the landing field now rather than test my glide ratio over the forested foot slopes later.
The landing was interesting due to a lot more traffic than I was used to, in the air and on the ground, and I ended up landing a bit away from the tents to make sure I didn't hit anyone. By the time I talked to some English pilots in the landing field and made my way to the funicular railway it was close to the last run of the day and I ended up never joining the thronging mass thermalling above the town.
I saw some movies Friday night as part of the festival, the best being a short film of the previous year's festival. The following morning dawned foggy and set the tone for the rest of the festival. A couple of good pilots on advanced wings were managing to scratch around and stay up just below launch but I could see I wouldn't and spent most of the day in the trade display instead, looking at gear I couldn't afford.
Sunday, the day of the costume competitions brought even worse weather, with considerable rain and only a couple of brief gaps in the cloud all day. A couple of hanggliders got off through small gaps but none of the paragliders so it was a bit disappointing, I was glad at this stage I'd been able to drop in on my way past rather than making a big journey just for the Coupe Icare. As it was it was a highlight of my trip despite the disappointing finale. The rain had also washed out the Bol D'Or 24hr motorcycle race held nearby the same weekend, and I passed a lot of sodden motorcyclists on my down to Laragne that afternoon.
I had heard good things about Laragne and it was on my way so I stayed at the caravan park there on Sunday night. The caravan park owner put me onto some Germans staying there who could speak English and I ended up following them to St Vincent Les Forts the next day, apparently the only site in the region that works during the Mistrale wind, which was prevailing at that time. Conditions didn't look great initially, but by about midday were great. The thermals were very consistent and there was possibly a little ridge lift as well. In any case it was possible to fly up and down the limestone cliff line by the town without losing a lot of height and it was easy to gain height if you made a little effort to stay in the thermals. Ruins of a round tower and a citadel on the ridge seemed to provide good trigger points and the experience of spiralling up above the tower with a view straight down past the crumbling beams within it was a highlight of my trip. Probably even worth all the previous hassle of lugging a paraglider around with me. At one stage I managed to climb over 250m above the take off. After an hour and a half of flying fatigue and cold hands persuaded me to come down for a slightly bumpy top landing.
After landing I watched the next pilot come in dangerously close to the powerlines at the back of the field. When he landed his wing hit the lines as it deflated behind him, bumping the powerlines into each other and creating a spectacular shower of sparks with lots of loud scary noises. Both pilot and wing escaped without injury, although I suspect he may have blacked out the town, which can't be a good thing for future paragliders at the site.
From St Vincent I headed off for a rapid two week tour of as many countries as possible before leaving for Canada. I didn't expect to get any paragliding done in this period, but kept my eyes open for opportunities. One presented itself near Fussen in Bavaria. I was intending to have a look at a famous castle in the area, (Schlob Neuschwanstein I think) but was put off by the 7 dollars they wanted just to park near it.
I had noticed a cablecar and some hanggliders back down the road a bit so I thought I'd spend my money on a lift ticket instead of parking and see if I could fly over the castle.
The take-off at the top of the Tegelberg was a wooden hangglider ramp, perched above jagged limestone cliffs, the scariest take-off I had attempted so far. I stood and watched others take off for quite a long time. There was a big queue of hanggliders, mostly being held up by a few paragliders. The paragliders were having great difficulty. There was quite a strong breeze about 45 degrees off the ramp and 3 of 4 got blown off the side of the ramp before they were quite ready to go. Fortunately their gliders were close enough overhead that they just dropped a foot or so before flying forward, gently swaying from side to side. This wasn't particularly confidence inspiring to watch, but I'd just seen a lot of really bad launches in St Hilaire and I felt I could cope with the take off, having many more ground handling hours than flying, and 70 successful take offs to my pathetic 7.5 hrs flying time.
I spoke to a German pilot, Robert, who was also standing watching and he said he thought it was a bit strong for him. I also found out he was planning to visit Perth in 1997, and gave him some contact numbers. Eventually I decided to at least try to take off as the wind didn't seem overly strong to me and those who had taken off seemed to fly OK.
Once my glider was laid out I found that despite a good breeze at
the front of the ramp, there wasn't enough wind at the back of the ramp
to even build a wall. A helping hand from a bystander to lift the leading
edge got me started, and I managed a quite reasonable take off. The wind
turned out to be stronger than I thought and I was penetrating slowly enough
to want my feet on the speed system just in case. The air was very rough
also, mimicking the jagged limestone spires of the hillside below, and
I decided I didn't want to hang around in case things got worse. I ended
up flying straight out from take off until the air smoothed out, taking
my first aerial photos (of the castle and my feet), then playing about
with speed system and big ears before landing in perfectly calm conditions
by the car park 900m below take off.
The photos came out really well despite being taken very hurriedly, with one hand on the brakes. It was a good flight despite only being about 6 minutes duration. The scenery was great and I was pleased that my confidence increased to the point where I could fly a new site in less than perfect conditions. Before leaving WA I was almost too scared to fly familiar sites in excellent conditions without someone to tell me it was OK to launch.
The Tegelberg was the last flight of my trip. I got my glider to Canada for free courtesy of the airport scales breaking just as I got to the front of the queue, but when I got there the snows had started and the keener local pilots were heading for Bright in Australia for the winter. Baggage allowance for flights out of North America are two bags up to 60lbs each so no excess baggage charges there.
In hindsight I'm glad I took my paraglider overseas with me, and
I had some great experiences, but in future I'll make sure I don't have
to walk so far with it.
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