Freeflight Jason Smiths 88 Kms XC

Jason Smiths 88 Kms XC
9th of May 2009
xc paragliding

Saturday morning. 9th May 09.

Didn’t think today was going to work. It was a 50/50 decision whether to go to Newhaven, Sussex, for a bit of coastal soaring or up the Milk hill, Wiltshire. With a bit of help from my friends I was convinced that there would be too much west for the cliffs so drove inland.

Think I made the right choice.

Very strong on Milk at 9.30am. Not a happy looking sky either; grey above with dark, scruffy looking cumulus everywhere, rainfall in the distance. I’m thinking about giving up. Not that it stopped everyone. I’m surprised to see 3 pilots in the air at nearby Rybury hill. They didn’t have much penetration over an area well known area of rotor right behind the ridge. That sort of flying isn’t for me; I’m quite fond of walking and breathing and such but I didn’t stand on that particular hill top and assess the situation for myself so I won’t judge them. After an hour’s procrastination the front that was causing the bulk of the problem passes and the wind starts to drop. We walk around to nearby site of White Horse; its a little bit shallower, so a little less compression and we settle in for some proper assessment, made difficult by the fact that another pilot rocks up, lays out and takes off. But as I said value my health so I just watch for a bit and flick through the local air charts. After 30 minutes the wind was now varying between 6 and 15mph, with the sky opening up and the appearance of rounded, flat bottomed cumulus beginning to form streets, stretching north east. I gird my loins for some active air, checked that I was happy with my gear and launch.

Into a booming thermal.

With little airspeed the wing was knocked instantly behind me. So I’m off the break, a touch of bar and I’ve penetrated. The air’s rough but I’m mentally prepared for it. Varying brake pressure to keep the pitching steady, increasing weightshift and break to get a decent angle of bank, I feel around for the edges of the thermal and watch the countryside fall away.

My flight plan is a simple one. Track north east with the wind. Towns and villages are plentiful for quite some distance and the direction should take me around the corner of Brize Norton airspace with a comfortably large margin for error. After the corner airspace opens out, along with my options. I would like to clock up at least 10 km. This will allow me to regain my lead over another pilot I’ve become quite competitive with on the national XC league. But at the back of my mind I’m thinking about another goal; Oxford. A very challenging 60km away. I’m a novice pilot. 60km would be a big deal for me.

The initial climb takes me to 3000ft AMSL where I push out to my next goal, the town of Marlborough. Sink all the way! I soon clear the town but I had lost half my height, I was in a big patch of blue sky and upcoming village of Mildenhall looked to be my landing zone. (but I’ve flown over 10km so I’ve regained my lead and I’m happy! Gliding over fields and crop landed I eyed up some parkland and planned my approach. And then my vario beeps. And beeps again. I’m passing over a field of rape with 200ft to spare but I couldn’t resist a quick poke around and low over the

downwind side of the field I blundered straight into a core that rocketed me back upwards, this time past 4000ft.

There’s something really satisfying about a low save, the relief you feel when you are finally established back in a thermal, watching the ground details shrink away.

As I top out I check my position against my flight plan, make a small correction to account for drift towards restricted airspace and took a breather to enjoy the view as I make another transition aimed to skirt south of Abingdon. Not much lift but I’m still in the air so I’m content. Until the ground gets very low again. But another low save, this time triggered by the village roofs of Upper Lambourn, restores my sense of wellbeing. I’m still climbing when I finally clear Brize Norton, topping out at 4400ft; cloudbase. The wind wants to take me towards Oxford city. After checking the air map I happy to oblige, thinking that I might actually make goal.

The cloud street I’ve been loosely following is starting to die out though, the clouds are becoming paler, wispier, translucent in places. I decide to take a chance and traverse a blue gap to an adjacent street that appears to be still going strong. Hands up, legs and arms in to lower form drag, on the bar to maximise speed through the sink. Off I go. Still have reasonable height as I close in on Oxford. The city is a powerful source of thermals, maybe a little too strong for my personal comfort level so I trade safety for height and skirt round the southern edge.

And I’ve done it! I’m there. I can see down into the usual inner city turmoil; I can imagine the noise, the crowds, the traffic and fumes. Then I look around. Its not too cold for once, its quiet and serene. I consciously relax my muscles. I realise now just how tense my body has been thorough the flight. I know I’m going to be aching in the morning. I see a light aircraft below me and I know I seeing things that most people never will.

And what’s more, I’m still maintaining my height. I can’t waste this. I have to keep going.

A new goal suggests itself; Milton Keynes. The route there is open to me and I know that the location is in excess of 100km from my start point. So off I go, looking for other sources and triggers of lift, trying to relate them in my head to cloud formations I’m looking at, trying to compare their relative merits. But lift is becoming harder to find. I noticed it earlier but my head was saturated with other issues at the time and I haven’t noticed that the widespread cirrus has thickened noticeably. I ride one final thermal, picked up as I cross the M40, but it peters out at 800ft. I know the game is up. Now it’s about scraping those few extra kilometres by maximising my glide and deciding where I’m going to set down.

I choice a village up ahead, a place called Quainton in Buckinghamshire. I know I probably wouldn’t make the next village along and I don’t want to land in the middle of nowhere. As I look over Quainton I see lots of grassy fields free from obvious sources of turbulence and clear of power lines and obstacles. I think I can even make out a rail track and tiny station. And somewhere down there there’s probably a pub. What more does a pilot need?


A couple of lazy turns to gauge wind direction and speed over the ground, a smooth approach and a gentle touchdown onto what are surprisingly wobbly legs.

The GPS says 88km. A very big personal best

Oh, I’ve a very happy boy.

The beer has never tasted so good.

Wish I’d been wearing some sun cream though…

Jason Smith