Thermal Crossings Blog update #2:

Published March 19, 2016

“Summit” to coast: How I flew 98.6 km, powered only by the elements

IMAGE: Arriving over Conil de la Frontera, literally running out of land to fly over…

I arrived in Algodonales on the 4th of March, and after a few days of unflyable strong winds, the forecasts finally showed the arrival of a possible weather window. I started to get excited about the possibility of going on my first cross country of the season.

How high would I go? How far would I fly? Where would I land? How would I get back? The adventure of it all still amazes me.

The strong north winds made Montellano the best bet. The site is a small hill surrounded by flats. But don’t let the small size fool you. After two attempts (which were both +60 km flights), I finally flew what I consider to be my first 100 km–setting a new personal best in the process.

To fly that far without an engine, I harnessed rising columns of air called thermals, and climbed 6344 metres in just over 3h–sometimes at rates of 4 metres a second! At that rate, I could climb the height of Everest in 37 minutes…

I think it’s important to highlight that this is my first time in the region, and I have practically no experience flying in the flats. Yet I still managed to fly a line that placed me 6th on XC contest’s leaderboard for the longest flights made from Montellano.

In this VIP update, you’ll learn exactly what went into making this dream flight a reality.

Have a plan A

The night before my first flight from Montellano, I wanted to know the site’s potential. Thanks to modern technology, this type of research can now be done online. I visited xcontest.org (global flight log database) and used their worldwide flight search feature to find all the recorded flights made from the site. I then segmented the track logs by distance and opened up a few of the biggies.

With 2–3 flights now loaded in my browser, I downloaded their IGC files and created a private 3d visualisation using Doarama. This helps me better memorize key features of the flight. With a better understanding of what was possible and an idea of what the wind would do, I set the following goal.

IMAGE: Wind forecast on the left, flight route plan on the right.

1st Flight (what makes you think I enjoyed getting lost…)

Pivot from plan A to the plan that works

IMAGE: High over the flats behind Montellano

The first two flights had me land in the fields between Paterna and Alcalá de los Gazules. Looking back, I don’t think I really believed that I could actually fly to the coast. But as I was hitchhiking home the second day I found out that a local pilot called Nacho had pulled it off.

Knowing that someone had reached the coast on the same day, from the same takeoff, flying a line that was practically identical to mine, inspired me to take the challenge seriously.

When I got back home later that evening, I decided to analyze Nacho’s flight track in search of answers.

>What was his secret?

>What was I doing wrong?

>What do I need to do differently?

The first part of the flight was pretty easy. Climb up. Observe the sky. Point the wing at developing clouds. And wait for the beep beep beep. But there was a crux as you get closer to the coast… and it looked like getting low was going to be unavoidable.

The aha moment came when I saw how low Nacho had got during a part of the flight where I was much higher. But somehow he was able to climb out while I ended up on the ground.

After looking at his track log again, I noticed that when he was low he would fly from one obvious thermal trigger to another. Seems logical, right? But it’s something that I wasn’t doing very well.

Every time I would get 1000 m off the deck I would scout landing options. That wasn’t the problem. The problem is that I would focus too much on these landing fields, instead of searching for the next thermal.

If I were going to extend the next flight to the coast, I would need to learn how to scout landing options, but then be able to switch back to “thermal-hunting-mode”.

I was over the moon to find out that the weather would provide another window.

A new personal best retold

IMAGE: Cruising at cloud base with my Delight 2 and Ikuma

I arrived to take off and patiently watched the sky for a few minutes. The wind had more of an east influence than previous days. I don’t remember thinking too much about reaching the coast while on take off. I may have joked about it with locals, but as I geared up, I was focused on two objectives.

  1. Get up high as quickly as possible
  2. Stay high as long as possible

During the first thermal I found myself drifting behind the hill a little too low. Normally I’d use my speed bar to push back out to the front of the hill, but because I had two solid days practice with drifty thermals, and because I had another pilot (Max) with me in the same thermal, I decided to stay with the lift.

At around 1400 m the thermal weakened and became hard to core. Max, fed up with the broken thermal, left and headed down wind. I decided to stay put and see what the air was doing ahead by watching him. I felt like he was losing too much altitude too quickly, so I began planning a different line.

As I approached 1700 m, I noticed some condensation happening a few kilometers east. I quickly pushed against the cross wind in an effort to get underneath the developing cloud. This decision paid off and within a few minutes, I was at cloud base with lots of options.

By this point, I had noticed some consistent cloud development down range, but there was a BIG cloudless blue sky between me and next lot of cumulus. I pointed the wing in that direction and crossed my fingers.

The line turned out to be really lifty and after covering some good ground without losing too much altitude, I flew straight into the core of blue thermal that beamed me to +2100 m. I used the height to glide further west in an effort to join some pilots I saw climbing just south of Arcos de la Frontera.

I lost around 1300 m jumping to the western line, and after spotting some safe landing zones in case I didn’t find lift, I made an effort to focus on climbing the hell out of there. After fighting with some broken lift and drifting a kilometer down range without losing or gaining any altitude, I noticed some circling hawks to my right and I joined their thermal to cloud base. At this point, I could see the beach closer than ever, so I gave myself a few motivating words before going on glide.

After making good use of another thermal, I ended up flying through some sink and got low, about 500m off the deck. Still confident that I could get back up, I spotted a waste management station up ahead and thought it would possibly act as a trigger for any hot air coming off some dark fields between me and the station. The fields delivered and I found myself climbing in a smooth 0.5m/s thermal. A few hundred metres higher and the lift became a little stronger, but at 1300 m the lift stopped… Luckily, though, a little further south I flew straight into a much stronger thermal that beamed me once again to cloud base, high enough to reach Conil de la Frontera on glide.

Here’s that moment when I realised that I’d make it.

Yeah, I got wet

There was an extremely strong west wind at the coast, which had me creeping forward at 6 km/h while trying to land… on full speed bar! There were two beaches, separated by a 100 m strip of sea. I obviously wanted to land on the right side which was closer to the city, but with such a low ground speed I was worried I would end up in the water between both beaches, so I ended up flying downwind to land on the left side further away from the town.

A few metres above the ground I came off the speed bar and landed while flying backwards. I brought the wing down but the wind was so strong that I was getting dragged up the beach. I saw a man fishing and called for help. He ran over and asked if I needed help lifting up the glider again… I nervously said no, while still fighting to keep a solid footing. I’m trying to pack it up, I replied, and instructed the man to collect the paraglider however he could. It was a bit of a show.

When I was all packed I called Nacho to ask about retrieval. He gave me the number of another pilot who also made it to the coast a little further East. After a quick call, I knew that If I could get back to the town soon I’d have a ride back home, so I asked a passing couple how was the quickest way to get back into town. They told me that if I didn’t want to walk for many kilometres to cross the water, that the 100m strip of sea separating both beaches was only knee deep. It turned out to me mid thigh deep and a big wave got me soaked from the waist down. But it didn’t matter. I had just flown from a tiny hill all the way to the beach. It would take a lot more than wet pants to wipe the smile off my face.

Thanks again for your support,

View my flight visualisation with #Doarama

Flight Stats:

Start time: 13:44 (UTC+1)

Duration: 3:21

Max altitude: 2135

Distance covered: 116 km

Free distance: 98.7 km

Max climb: 4m/s

Max sink: 7.6m/s

AVG speed 29.81 km/h

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A bit about me: I’m Rhys! I’m a 28-year-old adventure addict from England. In 2017 I crossed the Pyrenees, powered by the elements…rock’n a high performance paraglider. I turned the project into the most interactive adventure of it’s kind. Here’s a sneak peak into day-9, where we flew for 7 hours, covering more than 137km in-flight. The project began as a crowdfunding.

Follow me on Twitter at @AgileExistence

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