Cross-Country Flying

A month on from when I was first able to gleefully say I was a ‘pilot’, I’d clocked up over 40 flights and 17 hours air-time, and I definitely felt a lot more experienced for it. I needn’t worry about being overly-cocky as the past week had seen my confidence in the air take a big hit after having a fairly scary collapse not far above launch. I knew tensing up every time I hit the slightest ripple in the air wasn’t going to help my skills progress and hoped that, with a few more flights in lightly active air, I’d be able to show myself that I could control the wing in conditions that had previously got the better of me.

Soon enough, things started feeling a bit more natural, and I finally felt comfortable enough to try something that had been nagging me for weeks: a reverse-launch off Mystic. It surprised me just how easy it was, leaving me wishing – as I was whisked into the air before completing my first step forward – that I’d tried it sooner. Now well into April, having missed some of the best flying of the year because I was working every hour I could at the Brewery, I was definitely ready for some soaring again and couldn’t wait for the start of the cross-country course Ted invited me on. Frustratingly, the first few days weren’t quite good enough to make a stab at a cross-country flight, but that probably worked out for the better, as they were unstable enough to help me re-build my confidence in active air, and I still got a few flights that tipped over the hour mark. I had fun trying to do some semi-formation-flying with Bill – an instructor who’s taken some great photos from the air – giving me more practice with my camera in the air as well as finally getting some decent shots of me flying.

Each morning Bill would talk Ben, Charles and I through a plan for the most likely cross-country option for the day ahead, whizzing round Google Earth pointing out routes, thermal trigger points, landing sites, no-landing sites, as well as showing us how to interpret various weather forecasts. Today our likely target was Harrietville – a town 15km along the Great Alpine Road from Bright – and, as we caught a strong climb above Mystic, it was looking like it was going to be the day we’d finally break away from the comfort of our training ground. First, led by Bill, we checked out an alternative route, heading north along the ridge from Mystic, but doubled back in the unrelenting sink and topped up our height over Mystic again. This time Bill headed east across the Wandiligong Valley to the Reliance Ridge, with Ben and I soon following at almost identical altitudes, side-by-side but for a hundred metres or so to maximise our chances of finding lift. Charles followed shortly after, having eeked out a few extra metres height from the thermal we’d all been in.

One of the great experiences in paragliding is the hands-off gliding time: now out of the reliable lift that Mystic offered, all I could do was sit back, tuck my hands in my jacket to warm them up again, and think about just how awesome it was to be floating effortlessly above the stunning valley below. Over Reliance Ridge we got our first climb quite quickly, recovering most of the height we’d lost crossing the valley, continuing south along it. I didn’t envy Charles, who just missed out on the lift that we’d used and had to scratch along the ridge below us, a position that wasn’t nearly as comfortable as where we were. In what must have been a pretty good effort, he kept ‘up’ with us as we soared along the ridge, now reaching the tree-carpeted-bowl that stood, dauntingly, between us and our target. Somehow, all of us struggled to maintain height, never-mind find the lift that we desperately needed to make a crossing of the bowl possible. This was bad enough for Ben, Bill and I, who were high, but for Charles it was the end of the flight and he had to bail out on the road near Smoko.

With so many places where there could be lift, it was frustrating to be almost aimlessly floating around, but finally, after flying over a spot I’d covered a minute earlier, my wing banked and I hooked round into a strong thermal. Bill and Ben headed for the lift, but Ben couldn’t make it with his height and had to follow Charles to the road, while Bill soared past me and we both headed across the bowl. This was a bit daunting, nothing but trees all around me, a ridge that presented its self like a wall in my path, and Bill calling over the radio, slightly concerned at my apparent height. We’d talked about the bowl in the morning, discussing what would be a safe minimum height to start crossing at, and I’d started at almost exactly that, so all I could do was sit back, use some speed-bar to cut through the steady sink and keep an eye on the limited bail-out options I had.

Approaching the ridge only a few hundred metres above it, Bill, who’d lost some height to join me and make sure I was flying safely, guided me round the edge of the ridge, avoiding the highest part, giving the most impressive opening view of a village I’d never even been to before. Gliding round the ridge, so low that we were almost in shade from the late-afternoon sun, the ridge fell away and opened up a stunning view of Harrietville, basking in the last of the day’s light. Now safely on glide to the landing site, I grabbed my camera, not wanting to miss the chance to capture the beauty of discovering a new place from the air.

The tension of the last 10 minutes gave way to relief, and the realisation that I’d made it: my first cross-country flight. There was a moment, as I followed Bill down to land, where I was a wee bit nervous again as the field had a small burn on one side, cows on the other, and power lines running along another edge, but following Bill’s lead and doing some S-turns to lose some height, I made it. Two hours ago, I’d jumped off and floated away from the comfort of my training hill: now I was over 10 miles away in a village I’d never seen before, watching the setting sun cast its last golden rays over the mountains that surrounded me. If ever there was a way to explore the world, this was it.

Back to Backpacking

May: winter is definitely on it’s way, the soaring days are few and far between, I’ve quit my brewery job, and the hostel is closing up so Greg and Leanne can have a holiday in a few weeks. It’s time to ease myself back into backpacking, but it’s been so long, I’ve had the same bed in the same room, with the same cosy lounge, kitchen and verandah for so long that Bright really feels like home. It’s Saturday, 1st May and I’ve already pushed back my departure date from Wednesday to Friday, then upon hearing today would be a good flying day and that Kieran Schultz was coming down, finally Saturday.

We head up to Mystic, I’ve had 2 runs up this hill committed to thinking they would be my last, but I can’t quite get away. The wind is strong, almost too strong, but that’s fine: it’ll be a slightly more demanding flight than what I’m used to, and I’ll get to practise my reverse-launch technique again. In the air, the ridge-lift is good and I manage to float down towards the paddock then crawl right back over launch a couple of times until, just before an hour’s airtime, I can’t maintain height any longer and finish off what might, again, be my last flight in Bright, taking a moment to sit back and soak in the beauty of the Wandiligong valley from the air one last time. We end up hanging around with Ted and Bret as they take this month’s would-be pilot out to Reeds for their first bit of ground-handling, and it seems like a good idea to get as much practice at my forward launches as possible as they’ve been a bit shakey. Once the wind has died down we get one last sled run from Mystic – this one spent not trying to fly, just sitting back, hands stretched out, taking in every last second of the smooth glide down to the paddock, and then it was done: I was really finished flying in Bright.

Bright is the first place in Australia that’s made me sad to leave as I’ve made a few friends here who I honestly hope I’ll see again, not that I’m forgetting some people from before Bright who I plan to meet up with back in Europe too. So after running round town saying farewell to a few folks, I was really, really, leaving Bright, heading to Kieran’s parents’ place for tea and a night’s sleep. Originally, I was going to try to be in Sydney on Sunday but then opted for an overnight train, getting me there on Monday morning, giving us time to check out a flying site near Gundowring in the Kiewa Valley and Kieran’s local team playing in Albury.

The train to Sydney stopped a lot more often than I expected for an overnight service, but then it wasn’t a sleeper and only one of two trains through that day so I guess it had to. Anyway, 8 sleep-deprived hours later (partly my own fault for now having a laptop with wireless internet) I was back in Sydney, and being familiar with the trains and buses made getting to Bondi a breeze. A couple of days of doing basically nothing followed, and I was pretty much OK with that. With 3 months left in Australia, and 46 days work to knock off before being eligible I was starting to feel a bit more pressure to get a farm job so I idly checked out the government website, noticing a tractor driving job: just the kind of job I’d been wanting all year, seeing as I’m not just lazy but can actually drive a tractor.

Even though the job had only been posted that day, I didn’t fancy my chances as I called the recruitment agency, but they told me to send over a CV so I enthusiastically obliged. Next morning, having heard nothing (I had sent the CV not long before COB though) I called to check up on the job and was told to expect a call from the farmer: great. Daryl, the farmer, called back and checked what experience I had and, although I was lacking in the way of mechanical or welding experience, he seemed happy to take me on.

So here I am, finally blogging in the present, on a train to Moree, having, partly out of hunger, but mainly out of boredom, already eaten a steak pie and roast-pork dinner only 2 ½ hours into an 8 ½ hour journey watching my first taste of new Australian countryside rush past my window for the first time in 3 months. Really this title is a bit misdirecting: if this job works out I’ll have moved from one long-term location to another with only a few days in between where I’ve been ‘backpacking’.

Checking out Gundowring

May 2, 2010, with a free day before I headed to Sydney, Kieran Schultz and I headed to a flying site that William Oates had told Kieran about, knowing only that it was somewhere near Gundowring. A quick bit of google-ing while driving through the Kiewa Valley gave us a location, and some helpful directions, apparently written by the kind owner of the property where the site was located. A directory of flying sites hinted that the road was suitable for 2wd vehicles, but I wouldn’t take a car I cared about the condition of up the hill: rain has cut some deep channels into the steep and winding road, making it almost, but not quite beyond the reach of Kieran’s car.

At the top there is plenty space to park and some bits of astro-turf-style matting dotted around the west-facing slope. The launch is a small bowl-shape, seemingly making it suitable for launching into a range of NNW-SSW winds, although, without further exploration of the site, I’d say it’s better suited for the north-end of that spectrum of wind directions. For Kieran, on his restricted licence, and I, just on my intermediate rating, it was our first time at a site without any instructors, and our first time at a site that we’d received no briefing on, so it was quite cool to be there, assessing the conditions, hazards, landing options, and launch options ourselves. After a while of observing the wind, which was a fairly consistent 4 knots with steady but very light cycles coming through, I was happy to launch, but then I wasn’t the one launching, and didn’t have the adrenaline, invoked by the prospect of jumping off into the unknown, running through me.

There are a couple of trees down the slope from launch that, if it were quite sinky, might need avoiding, and we mulled over the possibility of that happening for a while, deciding that the steady wind up the face should afford a fairly bouyant launch. A rough flight plan was discussed on your first launch without an instructor present I think being absolutely sure that you’ll launch ok and just have a good glide is way more important than getting big ideas of ridge-soaring down the valley or soaring in your head, so Kieran wasn’t too bothered about making plans other than to land in a flat paddock near the road where we’d entered the property.

Opting for a forward launch from just below the top lip of the bowl, Kieran was off, although he had to take a few extra light steps before the slope of the hill was enough to fall away from his feet. The glide out from launch was so buoyant the trees below launch paled into insignificance and I wondered if he’d find any lift before taking his car back down the hill. Not finding anything significant, Kieran glided down to one of the paddocks south of the road entering the property, making a last minute turn as a nice looking field suddenly sharpened up to reveal a carpet of thistles.

With some more wind there’s probably some ridge-soaring potential on the range that extends north of the launch. We noticed cumulus over the range across the valley to the west of us, but not a lot over the range we’d flown off.

Finding My Flying Feet and Learning to Soar

Balancing Act

After what was nothing short of an amazing introduction to paragliding on Saturday, we quickly got into the routine of driving up hills and running off them. Sunday morning was spent at the Pines – a site near Myrtleford that was good when the wind turned southerly – and for the afternoon, and all of Monday, we had the legendary ‘Old’ Bill deliver the course theory to us. Bill – who is, in fact, old enough to justify his name – falls into the category of one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, sitting alongside legends such as Mr Anderson, my history teacher. With a history of captaining ships in the merchant navy to flying sail-planes, he backed up almost every piece of theory with a comical anecdote that made digesting the fairly dry aviation theory so much easier.


Tuesday saw us back at the Pines, where I was still having trouble running out my launches, converting the last metre of descent into forward motion to save my now quite sore feet, which was a worry. Also bad habits were creeping into my launch technique, resulting in me launching my wing into a tree, luckily with no harm to the wing or me. We made a return to Mystic on Wednesday – after the very short descent from the top of the hill at pines, the flagship launch site felt perilously high again – and on my third flight, I finally got up the courage to land myself.

Up until this point, as I came in on my final approach the instructor on the ground would tell me exactly when to flare – or pull my brakes as hard as could in other words – the glider, so it would pitch back and land as softly as possible, but it’s very hard, even as a skilled observer, to judge exactly when to call the flare over the radio, as not only do you not experience the landing air conditions first hand, but also have to judge how long the pupil will take to respond to your call, so my landings tended to be harder than they needed to be. All these hard landings and sore feet had me genuinely worried that I might be doing some damage and had me doubting whether I’d be able to keep up with the sport if I couldn’t land safely, but as soon as I started judging the flare myself, my landings turned into something of an art and I finally felt comfortable with the sport.

Ground Handling

It’s quite scary to think that, up until this point, I was committed to an intensive and costly course based on having enjoyed flying a sail-plane a few times and admiring the photography of a para-motor pilot from Inverness, so it was more than a minor relief to finally, confidently say I was loving what I was doing.


At lunch that day, the other Bill (Bright has a serious problem with everyone having the same name) took me for a tandem flight which turned into my first ever thermalling experience, and took the course to a whole new level of amazement. Just a minute off the launch, Bill steered us into the first thermal that took us hundreds of metres above launch, just far enough for me to be thankful that he’d told me to wear a coat, and for the next forty minutes we cruised above Mystic, the Wandiligong Valley, and Reliance Ridge. It was also my first time taking a camera with me – I wasn’t quite bold enough to take my 50d this time, but still, my 350d doesn’t exactly fall into the dispensable category, especially with a 10-20mm lens bolted to the front of it – so most of the flight was spend glued to it, savouring my first experience of unrestricted aerial photography.

Got my head (and feet) in the clouds

Thursday saw me really getting into the flying, emulating yesterday’s tandem flight with a 40 minute solo flight of my own: my first time above launch on my own. I’d spent most of the day before that, seething as I watched my unfortunate flight timing miss all the thermals that were then so clearly marked out by the other students circling and rocketing skywards in. Friday, although not as unstable as Thursday, saw me starting to feel the lift and maintain height in thermals on my own. Saturday was bitter-sweet: our last day of flying and I didn’t catch any good thermals, but I did get to see Al (short for Albania, as none of us could pronounce his real name), a rather big guy who seemed to sink out of the sky on every flight, finally catch a thermal and experience what we’d been raving about for days: the smile on his face was priceless.


Sunday was exam day: multiple choice can only be so hard, unless the questions are worded stupidly, so even though I got 98% I still contested the 2 frustratingly vague questions that cost me my geeky ace-crown. Then it was time to say goodbye to Kieran, Kieren, Brad and Al and say goodbye to paragliding for a while to deal with the pressures of the real world. But wait, I’m a backpacker with no job, nor schedule, so for me it was only the beginning of my flying career in Bright…

Today, I Learn to Fly

Saturday, 13th February 2010

Above it all

This was it: the day I was going to learn how to throw myself off a hill and soar into the clouds. Ted picked me up in time for the 8.30 start at the school and we met the other 4 guys who were also in for 9 days of awesomeness. Before we could get down to the serious business of matching the right size wings to the right pupils, there was the small issue of sorting out what we would each be called, seeing as 3 of the 5 of us were called Kieran. For once in my life I didn’t bother promoting my nickname, so I got to keep my real name, or to keep things clear(ish) when talking on the radios, I was ‘Kieran-that-is-Kieran’. After doing the usual signing our lives away to the school and the HGFA, we hit the road, heading to the Reeds training slope.

First Impressions

The training hill is sloped just enough to let us charge down it, as we are launching, but without dropping away from us so much that we end up suspended in the air high enough that we could do much harm if we pulled a control too hard. Bill, one of the instructors, showed us the forward launch technique then we got hooked into harnesses and tried it ourselves. Forward launching is the easiest way to launch: basically just run forward and the wing that’s attached behind you is thrust into the air and flies forward above your head, much like what a kite would do if you faced away from it and ran forward. The trick then is to balance running speed and brake pressure on the wing to keep it from overtaking you, or falling back down behind you. My first attempt looked good: wing up above me nicely, running down the hill, then for some reason I stopped running so fast and the wing mercilessly overtook me, leaving nothing for me to do but nose-dive into the ground with such determination that I became an instant contender for the bloopers video compilation.

CommittedAfter lunch it was time to fly, thankfully not solo just yet though. Up at Mystic launch, Adam – the instructor who was going to take me for my tandem flight – unpacked the wing we were about to fly the 400m down to the landing paddock, while I took measure of fairly sizeable drop in front of me and felt excitement give way to adrenaline and nerves. Even though my part in the launch was simple – when told to run, run, and don’t stop, not even when you think you’re in the air, until told to – I was still weighing up the chance of me not running right, tripping us both up and rolling down the rock-strewn hill-side. Now strapped into the harness which was in turn attached to the paraglider and my instructor’s harness, I was standing on launch, looking straight out over Bright below, eyes fixed on my target, waiting for the call…and go! Leaning forward into a run, I took one step, two steps, maybe a third, then I was just running in the air, and before I knew it Adam was telling me to get comfortable in the seat of the harness. It had taken 5 seconds to go from standing like a turkey on launch to floating through the air, wind blowing past my ears, totally at ease with the fact my instructor and I were suspended from a glorified piece of tent by a few dozen bits of string each about a millimetre thick.
Rock & Roll

The conditions were calm and stable, meaning we had roughly 5 minutes in the air as we glided along the ridge extending towards the landing area. Adam passed the controls over and let me steer the wing, bringing it over the paddock and flying a figure-of-eight formation to loose height over the downwind end of the field, before we came down, fairly gently, in the middle of the paddock. Before any of us had time to reflect on what we’d just done, Ted came over and coyly asked ‘now do you want to do that on your own?!’, and in a moment of blind courage we all said ‘hell yeah!’.

Base viewBack up at launch, the fact that I’d just successfully flown down from here did nothing to calm my nerves, as this time it was all on me: nobody to launch, and nobody to fall back if it went wrong. Glider unpacked, rolled out, lines untangled and checked, harness strapped in, checked and re-checked, harness attached to glider, brakes and risers in hand, and I was ready, watching the wind streamers down the slope, waiting for the wind to blow steadily up the face of the launch, and then Ted came across the radio Run! And I was off. Leaning forward I felt the wing rising up behind me, a little crooked but I could still hear Ted repeatedly saying run so I kept going, then run, run, release and I released the risers, but now the wing felt as though it was overtaking me – not a good scenario – Ted was now a little more insistent RUN!, but I could feel the wing struggling to stay aloft now that I’d let it get ahead of me, and I hesitated to run further down the slope, although I already felt that at this point I was in for a rough tumble down the hill if the wing didn’t fly. Ted, seeing that things were past the point of a safe first-take off came through the radio ok, ok, abort, pull down hard on both brakes, but I was now at the edge of the astro-turf launch and entering the steeper, rough part of the slope. Doing as I was told, I pulled the brakes down past my waist – theoretically stalling the glider so it would fall behind me – but instead of stopping, the glider filled with life, lifting me just off my feet so only my toes could vainly try to gain some purchase on the ground that was fast falling away from me. For a second, I looked at the ground, down the rough slope, over the hundreds of pine trees that I was heading for, dangling in suspense, not falling, but not quite flying, as I was still choking the wing’s desire to fly with the brakes. Ted called through brakes up, and then I was flying, not struggling down the hill with a half inflated balloon tied to my back, but actually flying.
On FinalIt took a few seconds to digest what had just happened, as I dangled in the running position in my harness, watching the ground now steadily falling away from me and the air beginning to rush past my face. After that I was a robot, Ted may as well have been holding a radio-controlled joystick as I followed each of his commands – get comfortable in your harness, a little more brakes, turn right 40 degrees, keep that heading – but after a minute, I was flying out over the spur of Emily ridge, taking a few seconds to enjoy the view – Wandiligong valley to the right; Bright to the left – now being guided down by Adam in the landing paddock. The rest was fairly simple, although coming in to land, the nerves edged up a little, and I found myself not running out the landing and having quite sore feet because of it.

The timings of the troop-carrier’s runs up the hill meant that Kip and I got the chance of a second solo flight before the light faded, and thankfully that launch went a lot more smoothly than the first, although the landing was just as heavy as the first. The 3 Kierans all ended up staying at the hostel, and high from our day’s achievements, we headed to the Bright Brewery for a celebratory pint.