Cloud Flying!

David Ashcroft - 18/01/2006

Playing with giants?

"Shit happens"

No matter what your thoughts are about flying in clouds, it can easily happen unless you avoid them like the plague. This is just my opinion and technical advice to be happy with close interaction with these cotton wool monsters. After all, haven’t we got it back to front, surely the real danger is the terra firma, where we scratch cliffs and waga over take-off with less concern. Avoiding flying close to clouds altogether handicaps your flying potential and misses out on an entirely different experience to flying. I can’t find the words to express the child like fun of having a soft body to fly along the side of that can appear so solid and yet you can trail through it with half your wing, or the suspense of a prolonged white-out navigating diligently by compass and GPS. Sorry, getting a little carried away there!

I have entered cloud deliberately to gain additional height I might need to make a crossing, and have been accidentally sandwiched when passing between two cumuli. One memorable view was when I briefly popped out above the blanket of status that lay like soft pastry covering every fell and valley.

I have many tails and memories but this wasn’t what this brief letter was about. Let’s talk shop instead. Please don’t say that ‘it will never happen to me’ or ‘I know the theory and will use it when I have to’. Get knowledgeable, get skilled, and get familiar. Touching Cloudbase suggests ‘B’ line stalling your canopy initially to exit cloud. Rather slow, but more importantly you will remain in the area of lift and if you were soaring in front of the hill then you will soon be descending backwards into the compression etc. In the lakes you are typically flying into wind in front of a 2-3000 ft hill. If you were being elevated to cloudbase in this situation, it would be a good idea to big ears (unfortunately this slows most canopies down) and if you are at a safe height you may then put on the speed bar (conveniently accessible Gin or similar design) to push forward up wind of the cloud. Just in case you may accidentally enter cloud check you direction is correct and take a reading off your compass. If possible keep an eye on the position of the sun or a bright ground feature to follow, but if it all goes completely white, monitor that compass. Note – while pointing yourself with the compass study the GPS bearing for your real direction of flight and progress. It’s very important to keep a level head. If flying on a windy day, any slight disorientation and you may have been flying briefly at 55 + km/hr down wind and over the hill into compression and other things. The GPS needs to be left on the page displaying the compass. Half charged batteries on launch might wimp out at altitude and in damp air. Solar varios can be useless beneath and in clouds. I’m told GPS’s can lose their signal but have never had it happen yet. If the fell tops are in cloud then you must be particularly astute and get out of there. Note that some terrain is very magnetic. Also, you may not be heading in the direction your feet are pointing due to varying and sometimes significant drift in your ‘soup of the day’ (hence the advantage of having a GPS).
So what if you’re not up wind of a hill and flying safely on an XC. When you’re cranking it in, destination ‘cloudbase’, study the neighbouring clouds to plan your next few moves while you are low enough to have a view. Set off before you get into cloud and you should leave the lift. You could ‘big ears’, ‘B’ line stall or spiral dive briefly so as not to disqualify you XC league claim. I am an avid believer in practicing (at height) descent techniques, in particular spiral dives. They are dizzy things to get used to, but eventually you can work up to 40 down, i.e. 4000 ft/min. The second reason for being familiar with strong spiral dives is for the day your ‘safe’ glider goes 70% asymmetric and accelerates the opposite direction straight into a severe spiral dive 100-200 ft above the ground. Believe me, this happens. At this point in time you would like to react instinctively and steer you way out of the dive immediately and away from the hill damping, the forthcoming surge and dive.

Back to clouds. The good thing about hanging 5+ metres beneath a canopy is if you lose track of where the horizontal is, especially if not having a smooth flight, then just stop putting input into wing and hold your hands up for a moment or two and just damp excessive dives. Vertigo, not having a horizon, can set in quickly if the ride is bumpy - just watch the instruments, there little else to look at! You may not think as clearly with your head in the clouds and I’ve tried to discuss some useful points to remember. Another trick to keep in mind is when you’re confronted with a spinning compass. The rising air can spiral significantly, and with no focal point so will you. When you see that needle, or sphere, spinning just turn after it assertively in the same direction as the needle is rotating until you catch up with it quickly and settle on you intended bearing.
Do you know, I think I’ve exhausted ‘cloud flying’ and hope to see you just outside one soon. Bag some spectrums.

Dangerous Dave.

PS. The CAA stipulates that when flying Category F or G air space you must, not enter cloud, have 5 km visual meteorological conditions and maintain a visual of the ground. Above 3000 ft you can’t go near a cloud. Thought I’d better mention that.


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