30 Jun 06

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Bridgie's World of Cockups

Climbing at the tete de Lucy
Our last flying day of the holiday was going to be a good one - J&J were planning big tasks to the north and it would be my final chance to get to the Matterhorn, so I set off early, following my normal route into the Ecrins. Cloudbase wasn't that great - it was below the summit of Pelvoux - but further north near Plampinet I found blue thermals to 13,000ft, which was good enough to carry on.

I guess it was at the col d'Etache that I made my first mistake: never, ever follow gliders that 'look like they know what they're doing'. The sky in the Maurienne looked very different to all the other occasions I had been there before - the only high cumulus was well over the Vanoise and not on the ridges to the south of the Modane valley. Still, I crossed over to the north of Solliere and, like the other gliders, failed to find much of use.

Mistake number two: If you've followed three other gliders that 'might know what they are doing', don't leave them! I returned to the point of my last thermal, but as I dropped through 10,000ft I realised that I would not reconnect with the lift and, despite trying all the likely hotspots I could see, I slid slowly down the side of the valley. 

Passing the col d'Etache

I was resigned to a landing at Solliere (4200ft asl) when, as I dropped to 5500ft, I found some lift near my last chance hotspot, a bare sheet of sun-facing rock just to the south-west of the airfield. At last, I was climbing again, albeit slowly. I had been here before, many years ago, and had managed to get away, although I had to wait an hour or so for the thermal to come along.

Well, I was not so lucky this time. It was about an hour before I reached 8000ft, but the thermal refused to go any higher, forcing me to make a number of sorties to other likely thermal sources while giving myself enough height to get back to the hotspot.

My logger file tells me I spent about 2 hours 15 minutes doing this before I saw another glider, an ASH 25 that flew past me at about my own height. I was completely out of ideas by now, so I followed the ASH for want of anything more constructive to do. Picture the scene: I am hot, thirsty and very aware that in one hour I was supposed to be back at base, over 100km away, to meet some Kiwi friends and to prepare for the next day's departure for England; I was following this ASH, when up pops a propeller and it wanders off. Ftmpch!!! That was the last straw; time was getting on, so I opened the brakes and landed.  

Solliere Airfield

The circuit was interesting, but not a problem. Downwind was left-hand for RW 20, hard against the east side of the valley. The strip sloped downhill to the south, but with a 20-knot wind coming the other way I easily managed to stop near the hangar one-third of the way down its length, rolling off onto the hardstanding to keep the runway clear.

I must say, once I recovered my senses I was able to appreciate what a super airfield Solliere is - they have really high mountains there.

I made a quick call to Ariane at base to let her and the club know I was ok. After a few minutes we had secured the services of a tug from St Crepin to pick me up. On being quizzed by the tuggie over the phone as to the conditions on the strip, I discovered that the magic words are '15 knots steady straight up runway 20' (the tuggies might not come out otherwise).

While waiting for the tug to arrive a nice Italian family came up to the glider and, as one of them spoke English, I briefed him on how to hold a wing during an aerotow (just support the wing, don't push forward, don't hold back, take two steps and let go, you know the form). We saw the tug arrive, sportingly landing downwind and uphill to minimise his turnround time. The tuggie, Patrick, gave the same aerotow briefing to Luigi and I repeated it yet again just to make sure.

You can guess what happened - yes, mistake number three: after briefing the wingtip man, tell him to walk away and not come near the glider under any circumstances. I failed to do this, which is why, two seconds after all-out, I was pointing 20 degrees off track heading for the hangar. Just as I was about to release, the wing was snatched from Luigi's grasp and I now had to deal with a glider that was rolling and yawing in a most novel fashion as it was being accelerated down the slope. I must confess that I temporarily forgot the advice and guidance kindly provided by the BGA for just this circumstance, and relied on a shed-load of gliding hours to get me straight and level (kids - don't try this at home). Order was restored within seconds, and all I had to do was hope that the rope wouldn't break before we had climbed a couple of hundred feet.

The trip home was terrific. I had never been through the col d'Etroit so low and the views of this wilderness were unforgettable. Sadly, as I was hanging on the end of a 50-metre rope over very hostile terrain I decided against setting up the camera for more dramatic photographs. Patrick dragged me to 12.500ft at the tete d'Amont which left me well above glide to get through the pas de la Cavale and home for last landings at 8:00pm.

In summary, I was intensely disappointed that I had got myself in that situation in the first place. And yet, this flight will be the most memorable of the holiday. Life's like that...

Homeward Bound