The Secret Life of a Glider Pilot

Adventures of a female glider pilot in Yorkshire

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Choices, choices

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote anything, so I thought it was time for an update. I’d intended to write about days 3 and 4 of the Northerns, but that was so long ago now that it no longer seems relevant. Better to write about what’s happened recently instead.

I didn’t fly the Kestrel again after the Northerns until a week ago. A combination of the weather and being really busy with work, family and stuff meant that I seemed to miss all of the good days (which have generally been during the week, when I’ve been stuck in the office.) However, last weekend we decided we’d rig and both of us would fly, just to get a circuit in. We’re intending to put her away for the winter so our opportunities to fly her are getting fewer.

We rigged on the Saturday, and just as we put the last bit of tape on, it started to rain. We didn’t even have the covers with us. So we taped up the static ports and the Brunswick tube, and headed off for lunch. Sadly the rain didn’t clear until the early evening, so we went home to get the glider’s covers out of the attic, and left her out for the night.

Sunday dawned looking brighter, but with some low cloud around. Chris and Elliott went swimming, and I hung around at the club in case the weather improved. The clouds lifted around lunchtime so I went and got the Kestrel ready to fly. Andy and Nora gave me a hand to remove the covers, and I lined the glider up at the launchpoint shortly after.

My timing was perfect. Cloudbase was low, but there were reports of weak wave to the north west. I asked Dave, our tuggie for the day to tow me to it if he could. Part of me still expected a sleigh-ride down to the ground, but we were lucky. Dave towed me right into the best part of the lift! (He told me later that the club’s new tug had no vario or VSI, so he’d guessed perfectly at where the lift would be).

The lift was weak, and only in a small area, but it was there. The gaps between the clouds in that area were small, and the clouds were towering Cu and not particularly wave-like. It was quite unnerving climbing in weak wave,m in a small gap with towering Cu both up- and down-wind of where I was climbing. I felt small. But it was beautiful, and thrilling.

Those clouds moved downwind, so I flew further west towards Thirsk to see if I could find better lift upwind. But all I found was sink back down to 2,000 feet above the site. I resigned myself to landing back shortly. But no! The instruments started to indicate weak lift. I turned 90 degrees to the wind, and parallel to those lines of cloud I could see upwind. The lift continued. It was weak – only about 0.5 knots. I felt my way along it until I reached the ‘end’ of the bar. The sky above me was totally blue, so I flew a reciprocal course and found the lift again. I managed to keep going like this for about 45 minutes, then finally I lost it and sank back towards the airfield. The whole flight time was 1:21, the second longest flight of the day by 2 minutes. I had the biggest grin!

Less fun was washing the mud from the underside of the glider, then putting it away and hurting my back in the process. The Kestrel is very heavy!

This weekend (15/16 October) had a good forecast for wave in prospect. We had to hedge our bets on which day to fly as we owed our son some time to do things he liked. Saturday initially looked like the best day, but as the weekend approached, the forecasts changed. On Saturday morning it was clear that we wouldn’t fly until later in the day, so we decided to go do the things with our son.

Sunday’s forecast was mixed again, but we decided that we’d rig. It was a pleasant morning in Thirsk, with blue skies and hazy sunshine. The airfield was a different matter!

After 23 years of gliding at Sutton Bank, I shouldn’t be surprised to see Orographic cloud sitting on the hill when it’s a lovely day elsewhere. But it never fails to catch us out – and we ended up rigging in the fog! “It’ll clear” I said, with my fingers crossed.

It’ll clear… honest!

Lunchtime came and went… and it was still foggy. 1pm came, and the cloud suddenly started to break up. It rapidly lifted and broke up, leaving quite a hazy situation. Several two-seaters ventured into the sky, with me close behind. I asked Jim the tuggie to take me to the wave if he could, and he towed me to a hole west of Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe. There was lift there, but the visibility was truly awful, and I also noticed that the cloud-hole was closing up around me. I dropped the flaps, pulled the airbrakes and dropped 500 feet, back below cloud, just as the hole neatly sealed itself above me. The Kestrel doesn’t yet have any cloud-flying instruments you see; even the turn-and-slip doesn’t work. It makes a lot of noise but doesn’t move at all. I had been in lift, so I might have risked a cloud-climb IF I’d had some working cloud-flying instruments. Another of our experienced pilots did just that… and eventually climbed to 15,000 feet.

I spent another 30 minutes or so flying around in the weak lift and sink, gradually losing height until I joined several gliders on the ridge. But the ridge wasn’t working very well, and the visibility was so awful that I decided to land shortly after.

So… guess I need to get a decent cloud-flying instrument sorted ASAP. There goes another £2K or so! The choice at the moment seems to revolve around the LX suite of instruments, but do I go for an S80, an S100 or LX8080. Choices, choices indeed!




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Days 1 and 2 at the Northerns

Well, what a year it’s been for the Northern Regionals. Or at least, what a year for me!

At the start of the week, I had the grand total of 8 hours of flying experience in the Kestrel 19. After 4 days (so far), I’ve tripled that, and also done nearly 750km in the glider. Compared to the last few years, the weather has been great, and has given us 4 flying days, with the possibility of one more tomorrow. Here’s the story so far:

Day 1: 393Km Distance Handicapped Task (DHT) (scoring distance 356Km).

Not having flown any competitions in several years, I’m new to the concept of Distance Handicapped Tasks. For those who are also unfamiliar with these, basically, a maximum task distance is set, but the size of the ‘barrel’ around the turnpoint varies with the glider’s handicap. So the glider with the largest handicap, in this case, 111, has to go to within 0.5km of the turnpoint. The glider with the lowest handicap (85), can turn much further from the TP. I have a mid-range handicap in the Kestrel 19 (102) so my barrel was set at 4.8km from the TP. These makes it a much more even playing-field than standard tasks, giving everyone a chance of getting around, and making it a true race.

Day 1 was forecast to be a really good day, so they set us a task which covered a good distance, and consisted of a yo-yo around Yorkshire – over the Humber estuary and into Lincolnshire, twice.

Conditions were really excellent. A sea-breeze front near the first turn point gave some of us a boost, and we raced down to Kirton-in-Lindsey. My best climb was a 6 knot average, to just under 6000 feet AMSL. The Kestrel and I were really romping along – what a fabulous machine!

With conditions being so good, everyone else was romping along too. The fastest pilots, Graham Bambrook and G Dale in the Duo Discus, went around at 103 kph. I came 14th out of 22, with a speed of 80.4 kph – very fast for me, but not fast enough! That was the fastest and furthest XC flight I’ve ever done, and it was magic!

Day 2: 205 Km DHT (scoring distance 188.2 Km)

Day 2 was not forecast to be as good as Day 1, and with a strengthening wind through the day. Again it was a ‘cat’s cradle’ around Yorkshire, dipping into Lincolnshire to visit Burton-upon-Stather. Once we got out there, the conditions were quite good – better than expected – with good climbs to around 5,500 feet to be found over the Wolds. I took a route up and down the Wolds on legs 2 and 3, despite it being well off-track on leg 2, but the clouds looked better over there, and I found some good climbs as a reward.

The last leg back from Pickering was a different story. The wind at flying height had increased to 22 knots, and the last leg was directly into wind, with the Hambleton Hills directly on track to Sutton Bank. The area between Pickering and Sutton Bank is a notorious sink-hole – it suffers from being in the lee of the Hambleton Hills, and so there is a lot of downward-going air. Combined with the strength of the wind, it made it very difficult for some gliders (including me) to get back.

I was struggling into wind, taking slow climbs which again and again caused me to be blown several Kms back towards Pickering with every climb. Slowly, even those climb-rates dropped off, but I thought I could see some wave-type clouds ahead, so I headed towards those. Around Kirbymoorside, those ceased, and the sky ahead went almost completely blue. The glide back to Sutton looked very flat, and the LX7007 and Oudie agreed that I was below glide. I joined an LS8 in a weak thermal, which he abandoned, and he set off towards Sutton. I knew he had a superior glide performance to me, so I stayed in the thermal, which promptly died!

Watching the LS8, he turned towards the start of the south ridge, near Ampleforth. He was about 3 Km away from me now, about 300 feet below, and gliding out. He didn’t look to be sinking any more, so I followed. However, for me at least, it was too late.

I hoped to find some lift along the south ridge, but it was still in the effect of the sinking air. Gradually my heigh decreased, and I began to look at the field-landing options. I spotted a group of large fields near Oswaldkirk – some ploughed, some recently cut – so I kept them in mind in case I needed to turn back. I carried on gliding towards Sutton, looking out into the valley to see if there were any suitable fields on the journey towards Sutton. If there were, I’d have risked carrying on, in the hope of finding some lift on the south ridge. Could I make it back?
However I couldn’t see anything in the valley-bottom that looked landable between my position and Byland Abbey. I should also say that I regularly cycle round there, and I am well aware that the terrain is unfriendly for gliders in some places! I called the club at 10Km out but said that I may be forced to land out.

Less than 2 minutes later, having found no further lift whatsoever, I made the decision to return to the group of fields I’d seen, which thanks to the wind, were just behind me. I selected what I thought to be the best of the three – a recently-cut field, directly into wind, with an upslope and a low hedge at the near end. There was a tractor in it with a tanker on the back, so I landed well clear of him! (Turns out, he was muck-spreading, ready to plough the field in to match its neighbours!)

The landing was uneventful but short thanks to the upslope, the headwind and the hard stalks of Barley straw which were about 8 inches long. The field was enormous – big enough to land a Lancaster bomber into – but I estimate that I stopped 40 metres from the hedge at the approach end! So I had a long walk up the field to the gate to wait for my crew!

Still, that was my first field-landing in the Kestrel, which is always a good one to get over with!

Needless to say, having landed 7 Km away from Sutton Bank, I didn’t score well that day – placing 19th. Hey ho, I wasn’t the only one to land out, and that’s the way it goes sometimes! I was glad to get the glider down safely, and not to have taken unecessary risks by trying to get closer to Sutton.

More coming soon!

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Gliding in the rain

This weekend was another fun one! It was ‘my’ day for the Kestrel on Saturday, and I thought that I would try a small cross-country flight. The weather forecast wasn’t all that great, predicting showers by early-to-mid afternoon, so I decided not to go too far. My hubby suggested Pontefract – Pocklington might be a good one – at least I’d be in range of a few airfields if I got caught out by the showers.

It was very soarable when I took off, and I immediately climbed to cloud-base. It looked good down towards Pontefract, so I set off straight away. The clouds took me in the direction of York to start with, which was good, because that would give me the ability to land at Linton-on-Ouse or Rufforth if it started to rain. Around Easingwold, I noticed the club’s Discus below me, turning in what was apparently a thermal. I went to see… but found nothing there, so I just kept the wings level and carried on. The Discus pilot (possibly up-and-coming pilot Mark Newburn) might have been slightly miffed… I remember when I was new to cross-country, and I’d be climbing in a weak thermal, and then a ‘big-wing’ would just cruise straight over the top of me, and not stop to climb! But I suppose that’s what a bit of XC experience gives you.

I carried on towards York, finding lift under most of the clouds, but not stopping under many as I was managing to stay high. The air I was flying through was favourable, with the Oudie reporting an average L/D of 65:1 at 60 knots.

As I approached Rufforth, I noticed that a big blue hole was forming out to the south-west; right where I was intending to go, and with Pontefract in the middle. I had enough height to get there, but I wouldn’t have enough height to glide back from the turning-point without finding another climb. I hung about for a few minutes, trying to see if anything was forming in the middle of the blue hole. Nothing was happening.

Meanwhile, the clouds to the north and east were looking darker and thicker by the minute. I decided to abandon Pontefract and head towards Pocklington, where the clouds still looked good. There was some good lift on the way, but as I got towards Pock, the showers started. Climbing at Pock, the rain started to hit the glider, but there was still good lift to be had on the edge of the showers, so I decided that discretion was the better part of valour – I really didn’t need a field landing today – and turned for home. Now there were several showers in the 40Km between me at Sutton Bank, and I was flying almost directly into wind, so progress felt really slow. I headed towards the upwind edge of the showers standing between me and Sutton Bank, and found quite reliable, strong lift there each time. In fact, when I levelled the wings near the top of each climb, I found the lift was so strong that I was being sucked into the bottom of the cloud. I had to fly fast (90 knots+) to avoid being enveloped… I was still going up at 4 knots, even at that speed!

20 Km away from SUT. The showers don’t look too bad here… but they got worse!

I took one last climb near Stillington to 4,200 feet, with 15Km to go, into wind, and with several lines of showers directly on track. As soon as I levelled the wings and flew north, the glider started to get wet. I’ve been told that Kestrels do not fly well in the rain, so I decided to fly fast, knowing that I had plenty of height, so as to spend less time in the worst of the rain and the sink. Sutton Bank was sitting at a good angle, and I was confident that I’d get in. However, the shower soon had its effect, and we began to lose height rapidly. Flying through sink of 4 – 6 knots, at 80 – 85 knots in the Kestrel, we were sinking like a brick. Sutton Bank began to rise up the canopy, and the glide angle looked less good. But I still believed I would make it… just. At 8 Km out, I called the club to let them know that I was approaching from the south at high speed. At 5 Km out, I was beginning to wonder if I’d make it! At 3km out, I’d left the last shower behind and slowed down. I now knew I’d make it, but I didn’t have any height remaining for a circuit. I’d have to go straight onto approach and land. I checked the circuit and landing areas were clear, then called the club to let them know my intentions. Very shortly after, the glider rolled to a halt, safe on the ground. Phew!

Well that was intense, and exciting! It just goes to show how – in unstable weather conditions – you can very quickly go from having a nice time in sunny skies, to having to fly through rain to get home safely. But that’s gliding! And that’s another reason why I love it!


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Choirs and Kestrels

On Thursday, we returned from a few days camping near Ullswater, in the English Lake District. We had a good week, with some mixed weather, but what was fascinating was the fact that we were almost always in a wave slot. That gave us some damp mornings, but by the afternoon it was gloriously sunny and we could see wall-to-wall wave bars. Of course, that made us determined to go and seek some wave when we got home!

Friday was our first opportunity to do so, but the weather didn’t co-operate! We found it was too windy to risk rigging such a big glider as the Kestrel, so instead we spent the day doing some ‘fettling’ – cleaning, polishing, and installing software and firmware updates for the instruments. It was a day well-spent – all of the instruments are now up to date and working properly.

Saturday was set to be a bit frenetic – Chris wanted to fly, but I had a go and sing at a wedding with my choir. So we got up early and rigged the Kestrel. We very nearly had a couple of disasters with it – she nearly fell out of her belly-dolly as we pulled her out of the trailer. THEN the lifting rigging aid for the wing almost fell over one of the wings in it, as we were on rough ground. Having such a big wing fall over would not be funny! We had a very stressful hour!

As soon as she was rigged, I went home and changed, and went to the wedding to sing. It went really well, the choir sounded fantastic and the Bride looked gorgeous. The choir’s rendition of Bruno Mars’ ‘Just the way you are’  – requested specially by the Bride and Groom – also went well and the couple were delighted. I left in rather a hurry after the wedding, as I wanted to get back to the glider!

I arrived back at the club to find Chris was still in the air. But he landed within 15 minutes of my arrival, so it was my turn to fly. A quick change of seating-position, installation of the ballast, and I was ready to fly!

The weather wasn’t great, but I managed an hour in the variable thermal conditions.

Sunday was much more relaxed. We’d left the Kestrel out overnight, in her PJs, so I went straight to the club and got her ready to fly. The weather was showery, with a low cloud-base, so I decided that lunch would be a good idea before flying. And it turned out to be the right decision! As I towed the glider to the launch-point, the last shower went through, and I had to dry the wings off. By that point, the clouds out to the west were looking very soarable – perhaps a little too much – and more showers threatened. The sky was full of so much energy, but the showers, and the forecast thunderstorms held off. The soaring conditions were a bit hit-and-miss, but if you hit a good one, you could expect an average climb rate of 8 – 10 knots. It was just fantastic!

Seeing as thunderstorms had been forecast and the sky was so full of wet-looking Cumulus, I decided not to go too far from the airfield. Northallerton was as far as I went (not far at all). But it was nice to get to know the Kestrel a bit more.

Coming in to land, I tried a new technique. A friend had sent us an article about the Kestrel, written many years ago by a well-known pilot called Derek Piggott. He’d flown Kestrels for a large number of hours, and had written down some advice about flying and landing them.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Kestrel has two flap levers. One operates the ‘cruise flaps’ which are used in normal flight. The other operates the ‘landing flaps’ which pull the inboard flaps down to 35 degrees to improve the rate of descent on landing. Derek Piggott’s advice was to engage stage 1 of the landing flaps on downwind, and then to put the cruise flaps into full-negative. This makes the glider feel a bit more draggy, and increases the sink rate a little. The rest of the circuit is flown as normal, until the final approach, when stage 2 landing flap is engaged. Cruise flaps still in full-negative. Airbrakes are then used to control the final descent. Once the glider is on the ground, the landing flaps are put away, meaning that the whole wing is then in negative flap – the idea being that it stays on the ground!
Both Chris and I tried this technique, and found that it significantly improves the approach and landing. The glider feels very stable coming down the final approach, and putting the cruise flaps in negative means that you can maintain good roll-control throughout – and at Sutton Bank this is important. So thank you Mr Piggott, that was sound advice.

I’m now feeling a bit more comfortable with the Kestrel – though never complacent – and I think we will have some wonderful flights over the next few years!

Still wearing my make-up from the wedding. I don’t normally fly whilst wearing make-up!

View from the cockpit -shame about the forward canopy hoop.


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<Start of Ramble>

Since my post a few days ago, a few people have asked about my ‘nerves’ when flying, and have related it to their own experiences.

I thought it important to define what I mean by ‘nerves’. I don’t mean trembling, or nail-biting, or thinking ‘Argh, I’m going to die’. No.

What I mean is that, at times – especially when doing something new – I feel a slight apprehension, a nervous anticipation of what is to come. And that I think, is healthy, and normal. Being a woman, I have absolutely no problem with admitting I sometimes am slightly nervous before a flight.  There’s no bravado in refusing to admit it, or to accept it.

Instead, I use it to strengthen myself; to give myself a mental edge when I need it. And I certainly don’t let it stop me from enjoying my sport, which I love more than anything (well, almost anything) in the world.

Go forth and glide, and never let fear stop you!

</ End of Ramble>



Adventures with a grand old lady

On Saturday I was finally able to fly the Kestrel for the first time. We sorted out some lead ballast for me to sit on, temporarily*, and I took her out for a soaring flight.

Whenever I fly a new type of glider for the first time, I’m always nervous. There are all sorts of things that I think about, such as; will I be able to reach everything/use all of the controls, what will it feel like to fly (will it be heavy on the controls), what will it be like taking off, and coming into land, will I make a good job of the landing, etc. Things like reaching the controls are able to be sorted out on the ground, but there are some things that you can only find out once in the air. Plus, it’s over 3 years since I last flew a flapped glider (the LS6). Still, I think nerves are healthy – it prevents you from becoming too blasé – and makes you more alert when you need it. Nerves are good and should never stop you doing something you enjoy.

I pulled the glider around to the launch point and strapped in. The cockpit is surprisingly comfy – which for me as a petite person is unusual – and everything was easily within reach. 2 inches of Dynafoam separated me from the temporary 13Kg ballast weight behind my back. With that amount of Dynafoam, I could also see over the instrument panel, even with the tail on the ground. All good.

With all checks done, the aerotow rope was attached. The last of my nerves disappeared as the rope went tight; my focus was completely on the aerotow. As we picked up speed, I moved the flaps back from full negative position to zero, and the Kestrel leapt into the air. The climb-out was uneventful; the Kestrel was well-behaved and very stable. Coming off tow at just above 2,200 feet, I turned hard into a thermal and found I needed to apply a lot more rudder than I was used to! The Kestrel has 19 metre wings and a relatively short fuselage, combined with a small rudder, so ‘boot-fulls’ of rudder are needed to initiate a turn. But once turning, oh wow! Those shiny wings, so long and flexible, bend fantastically! You get a great view down the wing in the turn!

I soared for a while, but the thermals were small, narrow and broken, and the condition in the sky were cycling rapidly. I soon found myself in a blue hole, and lost enough height that I had to join the circuit to land. So now was time to conquer the last issue I had… landing.

The Kestrel has two sets of controls for the flaps. The first is the ‘ordinary’ flaps, which you use in normal flight, and which range from -2 (full negative/fast flight) to +2 (full positive/thermalling) with 5 positions in total. The second set of flaps is for approach and landing. This is operated using a second, small handle mounted below the instrument panel. First stage is about 25 degrees, and second stage is a massive 35 degrees of flap, hanging down off the back of the wing like a massive brake. The only problem is that the second set of flaps are heavy to operate, and with flying loads on them, they took all of my strength to deploy. However, once deployed and with airbrakes out, we rapidly descended to the ground.

Rounding out was fine, and after a nice float, we were on the ground. I immediately moved the first set of flaps forward to full-negative, to keep the glider on the ground, and we rolled to a halt. First flight done, phew.

I decided to have a second flight a little later, as the conditions looked better and I needed another launch and landing ‘under my belt’. Again, the second launch was uneventful, the glider being a sweet-mannered machine, and we soared around for 90 minutes this time. I was a bit more adventurous this time, trying a few mushes, stalls and other manoeuvres. I noticed that she tends to drop a wing in the stall, but that she gives plenty of warning before that point is reached. Fairly significant pre-stall buffeting occurs at about 38 knots, with the stall at 36 knots. Recovery is instant as soon as the back-pressure on the stick is released.

Landing the second time wasn’t as good as the first. Coming down the final approach, I pulled on the second-stage flap lever, and could get it into +1, but couldn’t get it to lock into +2. I think I was actually pulling too hard and had gone past the notch! I decided to just go with +1 and full airbrake, and we descended. As I’d been messing with the flaps, the speed had increased past 60 knots – too fast in the Kestrel. As I rounded out, we floated on and on, and after touching down eventually, still a little too fast, the Kestrel bounced back into the air. Three bounces later, I managed to get her settled onto the ground, and to move the first-stage flaps to full-negative, to keep her there! So a lesson to be learned there – do not allow the speed to increase past 60 on a light-wind day at Sutton Bank!

So, now to go sort some things out – not least to go and do some weight training so I don’t struggle with the flaps next time! There are a number of things we need to do to the glider and the instruments before I fly her in the Northern Regionals next month, so we’re going to be very busy for the next few weeks!


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A new chapter

This weekend, my hubby and I finally bought another glider together. We are sooo excited!

It’s been over 3 years since we sold the LS6, a glider which we’ve missed very much, and we felt it was the right time to buy another. Luckily, a very handsome Kestrel 19 came along as we started to look, so we snapped her up before anyone else could. It’s a good job too, as we heard from its owner that there had been at least a couple of other pilots who wanted her too – but we got there first!

G-KESY arrived on Saturday, and Chris took her for the first flight. Here’s a photo of my hubby looking unusually happy, ready for his first flight in her.

I didn’t get to fly her this weekend. I have an (ahem) ballast issue – currently I don’t weigh enough for the minimum cockpit weight, even with a parachute. So I have the option of either a) eating LOTS of cake, or b) installing some lead into the nose. I think I’ll go with b) personally, for the sake of my figure!

We’re going to try to get something sorted this week, so next weekend, I hope to have a photo of her with me in the cockpit, and a tale to tell. In the meantime, here’s a photo showing her very shiny wings.

She was made in 1974, by the way, so she’s older than I am. But just look at those wings!