The perils of cloud flying  

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About this article
Richard Butterworth gives a personal account of a frightening paraglide through a cumulus cloud.

Pilot profile
Expert. Richard's flown many big XCs and is an international competition pilot.
He won the British Paragliding Cup in 2010. Ranked 13 in the 2015 PWC

19 May 2010
Original post
- Derbyshire Soaring Club forum

30 Dec 2015
Added to Knowledge Base

I thought I'd tell you about my cloud experience on Saturday whilst flying the Mynd.

Me, Pat Dower and Cris Miles had left the hill just after 11:00, (much too early as it turned out, looking at flights that were done later). I found myself on my own thermalling near Wenlock edge. Cloud base was at about 3800', and my climb took me up the windward side of a small developing cloud.

At about 4100' (300 'above base) wispy bits of cloud started to form below and around me, I still had reasonable visibility but it felt like I could be engulfed at any moment. Instead of flying up wind away from the cloud, and then going round it I decided to fly downwind through the cloud with the intention of popping out the other side a few minutes later. This seemed like a reasonable plan as the cloud had not looked very big as I had climbed up to it.

Cumulus clouds

I had not been in the cloud long when I started to climb, This was a nice smooth 4-5 m/s, so I started to 360 with the idea of gaining a bit of altitude before flying out the front of the cloud. At 5000' I thought that was probably enough altitude and so straigthened up to glide downwind. I continued to go up, the lift strengthened and then the vario went ballistic. It was off scale and I was going up at over 12m/s. This was not quite going to plan any more.

I considered doing a spiral, but this would have kept me in the same area of sky that was going up like a rocket and I was already at least 1500' above base. A long way to spiral whilst in strong lift. I also considered big ears but this would have had little impact considering the speed I was going up and by now the glider was looking a little damp, so not a good idea I thought.

So I stuck to plan A and carried on flying downwind.

The speed of climb waxed and waned but I kept going up. At one point I noticed it had started snowing and then saw ice forming on the pod. When I looked up, ice had started forming on the lines, glider, everywhere.

At just over 6600' the lift petered out and I thought I was going to get spat out the top as it had got a lot brighter and there was a definite blue tinge to the cloud above me. I found this rather encouraging because at least if I was near to the top of the cloud it was not going to suck me any higher. By now the ice was getting quite thick, particularly on the lines.

Then all hell broke loose, the glider was pitching and rolling all over the place, I took a big collapse on the right and then another on the left. This is very disconcerting because without a visual reference its very difficult to know exactly where the glider is compared to the horizon, this coupled with the fact it is now full of ice and I have no idea how this will effect handling meant I was now seriously worried. I spent a horrible couple of minutes just trying to keep the glider flying and took about 5 collapses in total, then it all calmed down a bit.

I continued to fly downwind, and bobbed up and down as I hit bits of sink and then lift and the odd snotty bit (although nothing like I had just experienced). Trying to navigate on a compass bearing is not that easy in cloud, if I hit a rough bit and spent a bit of time looking at the glider when I looked back at the compass I was always off course. regularly by 90degrees and a few times by 180degrees.

At one point the glider pitched forward and I tried to brake it, but the brakes were stuck, I looked to find that the pully was encased in ice with the line frozen to it. It took a very aggressive yank to free them.

Then quite suddenly I popped out the front of the cloud. What a relief. I had spent about 20-25 mins inside it. The views were fantasic I was nearly 3000' above cloud base. I looked back at the cloud and it was quite a lot larger than when I had entered it, but not huge just a regular cumulus.

As I lost altitude the ice started to melt, water was running down the brake lines into my gloves (as if my hands weren't cold enough), down the risers and down the speed system. Everything was still wet through when I landed and I had to dry the glider out the day after.

So cu nims are definitely not to be dallied with, but in future I will be a bit more cautious of rather inoccuous, white fluffy, friendly looking cumulus.

I may get a slating for this, but hey ho, do your worst.

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