CROSS COUNTRY FLYING
SETTING THE SCENE
Being a rather small island perched at the north-western edge of Europe and at the receiving end of the Gulf Stream, Ireland’s moist, temperate climate might be good for the complexion but results in a rather challenging cross country environment to say the least. Here, you will not blunder into any 12,000 or 13,000 foot thermals as are sometimes encountered in Spain or are commonplace in Australia. No convergences allowing you cruise at high speed for miles as in South Africa, nor extensive wave systems as are found in New Zealand. Even what mountains we have don’t run in endless straight lines giving ridge/convergence/wave potential as enjoyed for years in the likes of Minden or Fuentemilanos and being explored recently in Scotland. Indeed, speaking of the UK, we have to smile when we hear them moaning about their weather and looking enviously across the water at France. Little do they realise that their cross country days are twice as good and happen three times as often as ours simply because – we dry it out for them!
An exceptional cross country day in Ireland might produce some climbs of 6 knots up to a cloudbase of 6,500’ to 7,200’. Good days – when they happen – would give average climbs of up to 3 knots and cloudbases of 4,000’ to 4,500’. (This last figure is actually convenient as much of the East side of the country is covered by a Dublin CTA which extends down to 4,500’ (and lower closer to Dublin) and a working band any higher would only lead to utter frustration.). ‘Normal’ days might give 2 knot averages up to 3,500’. Post flight analysis of one (elusive – see below) 300k flight a few years ago showed a total average climb rate of 1 knot and a cloudbase throughout of 3,000’! Streeting can sometimes happen which helps if it’s heading your way, but the constant reality is that the operating band is not very high above the ground and miss one or two thermals or run into different weather halfway around a task and you can be in the greenery.
But there are advantages. When the good days happen they are magic. The air is sweet and fresh. No baking in extreme temperatures breathing dust and risking sunstroke, sunburn and heat exhaustion. No dicing with death in severe lightning storms and no being tossed around in rotor. In Ireland the pilot is treated to very enjoyable conditions and is rewarded with a flight over stunningly beautiful countryside. Nowhere else can a pilot see several mountain ranges, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic off the South coast, the river Shannon and Galway Bay all on the same task. If the flight does end in a field, you are never very far from home and even closer to a good cup of tea!
Patience, readiness, skill, grit, determination and a dollop of luck are prerequisites for cross country flying in Ireland. We believe that the 50k distance flight required for the Silver ‘C’ is probably harder to achieve than a 300k flown in Australia. But there have always been pilots among the gliding fraternity for whom that Silver distance flight was merely an appetiser and who subsequently continued to push just to see what they could achieve.
SOME NOTABLE FLIGHTS
During the 1960’s and ‘70’s Dublin Gliding Club operated out of Baldonnel Aerodrome just West of Dublin. The location gave varied soaring conditions. Quite often in South-Easterlies quite good wave could be contacted a short distance away in the foothills of the Dublin/Wicklow mountains. Stanley Dunne recounts a magical flight in wave here & here. Incidentally, in his story, Stanley states that the Irish height record was subsequently taken by an Ulster Gliding Club member at Kerry. Events have moved on since that piece was written and on 20th September 1991 Brian Connolly, a former DGC member, now regretfully deceased, climbed in his ASW15b to 24,000 feet to set a new height gain and absolute altitude record which stands to this day. This flight also took place in Kerry and, as the launch was from Inch beach on the south of the Dingle peninsula and the landing was on Fermoyle beach at the northern side of the peninsula, it was also a pretty unique cross country!
Back at base in Baldonnel, genuine pre-declared cross country attempts were quite often thwarted by sea breezes which could sweep across Dublin city and kill thermal development overhead. This would normally happen, of course, on the better days and the frustrated pilots would have unimpeded views to the West of popping thermals marked by lovely cumulus clouds as far as the eye could see. Occasionally though it did come right and the pilot who was ready to take advantage could get away. One such pilot was Dave Hooper who, on the 3rd April 1966, piloted the club Ka8 to Oranmore in Co. Galway, a flight of 104 miles (c.165k) right across the middle of the country. As Dave’s flight was pre-declared it set new Distance and Goal records, beating the previous record of 90 miles held at the time by Mike Slazenger. Dave’s write up of the flight is here & here. The relevant page of Dave’s logbook is interesting as it shows not only that flight, which was actually his Silver Distance, but also some instructing, ridge soaring, wave flights (including a climb to 7,000’ for his Silver Height), aerotows, pully launching (including one to 4,100’), some aerobatics and an outlanding. Dave was busy then! Have a look at his logbook .
Dave’s distance record stood for two years when Stanley Dunne took it over with a free distance flight of 126 miles (c.205k) from Baldonnel to Little Island, Co. Cork. He really didn’t have any choice about landing then and there as the next stop would have been the Azores! The flight was done in his K6, ‘Custard & Mustard’ as it was nicknamed and took 5¾ hours. Dave Hooper’s goal record stood for 14 years. In fact these are the distance and goal records from Baldonnel.
A NEW HOME
Between 1979 and 1980 Dublin Gliding Club moved to Gowran Grange airfield, 4k south of Naas in Co. Kildare. One of the first out of the traps was Dan Begley who managed 250k of a declared 300k triangle in his Phoebus C on the 24th August 1980 to take the distance record. The following year, 26th April ’81 to be precise, Mark Wilkinson completed a flight from the Ulster Gliding Club’s base at Bellarena to the new site. This was a straight line distance of 217k, and, being declared, took the goal record. If you’ll pardon the pun, Mark marked the occasion by commissioning and presenting the Cross Border Tankard, a perpetual award for any flight done between the two clubs. Two more ‘Wilkinson Tankard’ flights were done in 1984, one by Alan Sands and one by Jimmy Weston. Both were UGC members (Jimmy still is). Alan’s was notable in that it started when, on the last day of a visit to Gowran Grange, he found himself at 16,000’ in wave over Blessington Lakes. He decided that it would be easier, and obviously more fun, if he glided home rather than land, de-rig and go by road. A volunteer – the rather notorious Bob Rodwell – agreed to get his car and empty trailer home and Alan set off. He cruised his brand new Nimbus 3 all the way without stopping and the flight was handled by Dublin, Shannon and then Scottish ATC. A controller enquired as to how many were on board and was astonished by Alan’s reply ‘just the one, it’s a glider’! Alan arrived over Bellarena with 5,000’ to spare. His story is here. These were the only 3 inter-club flights to have been done for almost 30 years, but below you will see that the situation has been changed – and with style!
The new site at Gowran Grange seemed to have one advantage over Baldonnel in that sea breeze was less of an issue with the Wicklow mountains acting as a barrier. Though the relocation, the recession raging at the time, and tug outages all took their toll on the membership , looking back there seemed to be a distinct enthusiasm for cross country flying among those who remained. Pilots like Ronnie Kilkenny, Brian Douglas and Kevin Houlihan vied for custody of the borrowed ‘club’ Oly2b for Silver Distance attempts, often to the annoyance of its then owner, Victor Deasy, who wouldn’t get to fly his own glider. Likewise, Eddie Sheil, Larry Kelly, Jim Milton, Wally Gahan, and Brendan McQuaile were attempting and eventually achieving their Silver distances in their syndicate K6cr (and their heights, two of them doing Silver heights one after the other in the same glider in the same thermal over the field one day). Paul Finlay and Ciaran Sinclair rounded off the Silver Distances for that decade, both of their flights on the 6th August 1990.
THE ELUSIVE 300k
More experienced pilots like Ian Hood, Colm Curley, John Dent, Gerry Browner and Ken Reynolds were also trying longer tasks, now closed circuit out and returns or triangles as had become the norm. Dan Begley was one of the more ambitious and declared a number of 300k triangles. He followed his 250k of 1980 with flights of 256k in ’83 and 284k in ’85 pushing out his own distance record. Cecily Begley managed 220k in ’84 and 265k in ’85, also in the Phoebus and also 300k attempts. Dan and Cecily moved on to an ASW17 and in it Dan managed 272k of another declared 300k in 1993. Graham Liddy, in an Astir, also made 300k attempts on suitable days. Unfortunately none of their 300k attempts were successful.
The Astir was sold and a Vega replaced it. Denis O’Hogan, Martin McHugo and Paul Finlay set off in it quite often. Wally Gahan found himself in the syndicate after a reshuffle and the other syndicate partners found Wally in the Vega most times they went to fly it! Any hint of a good day would have Wally ‘pushing across the map’ as he would say. His comrade in arms quite often was Kevin Houlihan who had bought into the Phoebus in the mid ‘80’s and moved on to fly an LS3/17 for most of the ‘90’s. Together they planned and flew quite a few cross countries. As the Vega was sold and Wally faded from the scene other gliders were bought and other pilots were doing their Silver distances and then setting off on larger tasks. Bruno Ramseyer in his Discus C largely took over from Wally and frequently set off with Kevin. Brian Connolly Snr. & Jnr. maximised their ASW15b. Joe Walsh, initially in his Zugvogel and then in an ASW20, Peter Denman in his DG200, Dan & Cecily Begley and Denis O’Hogan in their ASW17, Martin McHugo in another DG200 and Caroline Jacob in the LS3 were among the more active cross country pilots at the time.
Most tasks, however, were 100k triangles with possibly a trip to Kilkenny and back on good days to give 144k or maybe a 150k or 160k triangle for variety. To quote from ‘Fixing the Trace’ by Peter Denman …’’by and large tasks flown rarely achieved or even aspired to distances of 200k or more. There was a feeling that 300 kilometers was not a realistic target in Ireland. Flights of 300k had been achieved on a few occasions by members of the Ulster Gliding Club, starting with a straight glide down the country to Cork. Such a task had never been possible from the DGC sites, as a 300k straight flight could not fit on the island: perhaps this set another sort of glass ceiling. It was not until September 3rd, 2000 that the first – and so far only – 300k task from a DGC site was flown, when Kevin Houlihan completed a quadrilateral task in his LS3-17. Kevin had been foremost in pushing the limits of cross-country flying during the 1990’s, using whatever conditions were available around Gowran and also flying abroad. The 302 km task took him from Gowran to Tullow, then Mullingar, Kilkenny, and back to Gowran.’’
OTHER IRISH 300kms
To set the record straight and to bring things up to date, it should be noted that Kevin’s flight (IGC), (jpeg) was indeed the first 300k from a DGC site – by a DGC member. There had been previous 300kms flown from Gowran Grange by UGC members, Jimmy Weston and Alan Sands during a very productive training week with soaring guru John Williamson in June 1984. Alan had also completed a 300k in the Republic out of Kilkenny on the 25th June 1975 for his Diamond Goal. Kevin’s 300k was actually the 4th from a DGC site and the 5th done in the Republic. Also, it can no longer be claimed that Kevin’s flight is ‘so far the only’ 300k task from a DGC site – even by DGC members – as Kevin himself has flown others since. But he remains to date the only DGC member ever to have flown a 300k anywhere in Ireland.
Since Irish 300kms are such a rarity, for a complete overview we have to look also at those done by UGC members. An Irish 300k chart is here. Some interesting facts emerge. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s not a very long chart, less flights than would be done on a single good day in the UK. About two thirds of these have now been done by Kevin, Jimmy adding another seven with the remainder by 5 other pilots – ever. The second is that since IGC rules changed to allow up to 3 turn-points in a task most have been polygons (butterflies or yo-yo’s as they are called, depending on where the turn-points are). These shapes make it easier to plan a task which fits the country, avoids airspace and has less risk of running into different weather half way around. Thirdly, Kevin and Jimmy each have claims to fame in that Kevin is the only pilot to have completed multiple predeclared 300ks in the same year with hat-tricks and double hat-tricks in some years, while Jimmy has completed a 300k in Ireland in every decade since the ‘70’s and has done most every type of task. On the 5th & 6th April 2013, Kevin set a new record in that he completed an inter-club flight on two successive days with turnpoints added to make each of them 300k flights. He’s the only pilot to have done the flight in both directions and, after nearly 30 years, has won the Wilkinson Tankard twice in as many days!
PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES
Not content to rest on his laurels, Kevin started clocking up the kilometers again as soon as the 2014 soaring season started. He added another 300k flight to his tally during the annual DGC Easter safari to Bellarena and two more, among other tasks, to give him yet another hat-trick of 300s by mid-summer’s day. Then the next day, the 22nd of June 2014, history was made. Kevin completed a task from Gowran Grange, to Cahir, Edgeworthstown, Fethard and back to Gowan Grange, a declared FAI distance of 514k and an OLC measured 540k, to pull off the very first – and so far only 🙂 – Irish 500k. On his birthday! What a present. As well as the control stick in his glider, his hand is now firmly clenched on the National Distance and Goal records.
So despite the famous damp climate of this little rock, there are always a handfull of pilots involved in cross country flying. They do their best, have fun – and sometimes even pull off something spectacular. Why don’t you plan on joining them, even for a holiday?