One special day

One Special Day

I came across this strange shoehorn a few days ago, in an old suitcase that I was going to throw away. It has a very long handle with a weird dog’s head in plastic and a loop for hanging it up. It must have being lying in my cupboard forgotten for many years. I would never have bought such a thing. I am not even sure how it could be used unless for donning riding boots. I have never ridden a horse or worn such boots.

I could not remember how I got the thing but I suddenly recalled the occasion. It was the Premier of South Australia, Steele Hall, who gave me this shoehorn with a handshake and a smile. I had been competing in the South Australian Gliding Championships. I had to check through my logbook to find the date in October 1971.

My family always say I moved us all to Australia in 1968 because I knew the gliding conditions were better there than in England, where I had learned to fly years before. They were only partly right. I had been looking for a new job as a change from London University where I had been teaching. Some possibilities for the change were ruled out for other reasons but I admit, I did not apply for any posts in regions where there was no possibility of soaring. I was lucky to find what I wanted in Adelaide.

The South Australian State Championship was based at Whitwarta Airfield, about 90 kilometres (56 miles) north of the city. The contest was scheduled for a full eight days but I was teaching in the midweek period so only two or at most three weekend flights would be scored. I was flying my Kestrel sailplane, which I had imported from Germany two years before.

Flying the Kestrel over Waikerie

When I took delivery of this glass-fibre plastic glider, it was the best available in the seventeen metre class. Everyone was very impressed. We counted the number of levers, knobs and switches. Ordinary gliders had control stick and rudder pedals, air brakes, a knob to pull to release the towline, safety harness and three basic instruments. The Kestrel had these but also speed flaps, a special landing flap, a tail braking parachute, space also for the pilot to have his personal chute, a retracting wheel with brake, water ballast tanks, a self-centring trimmer, and some luxuries: rudder pedals adjustable for different length of leg, reclining seat back with inflatable cushions under the knees and a very effective ventilation system. I had also fitted some special items; gyro instruments, radio, barograph, oxygen breathing apparatus and, for the competition, other necessities like a small camera mounted on the left for taking photographs to confirm I had flown round designated turning points, maps, water bottle and lunch pack, altogether about thirty items to be attended to and checked off on the list before hooking on for the launch.

The Kestrel cockpit

Two years was in those days a long time in aerodynamics and sailplane structures. By now there were several more advanced gliders than the Kestrel, with some brilliant pilots including two members of the Australian International Team, among the thirty assembled ready for launching at Whitwarta.

The task, I thought, was daunting for this October day. Contest task setters have a tricky job. They have to make things difficult enough to challenge the best pilots, but not so impossible that no one can score at all. There is a minimum distance that must be exceeded by a large proportion of the competitors. If too few achieve the minimum distance the day is declared no contest. No one scores anything; a waste of time and effort for all. On the other hand, a task that is so easy that even novices can do well yields a narrow spread of scores at the end, too small to distinguish the good flights from the not so good.

This day at Whitwarta began with a grey, dead looking sky and a strong, west-south- westerly wind. I would not have been surprised if the organisers had cancelled flying altogether but they called us together for briefing as usual at 10 a.m. The meteorologist predicted a day that would improve when, and if, the cloud cover broke up allowing the ground to warm. In the afternoon there ought to be some thermals. Launching would be postponed for a couple of hours, by which time it might be possible to race round a 220 kilometre triangle from Whitwarta first north eastwards about 85 kilometres to Mount Bryan township north of Burra, then 65 km south to the tiny hamlet of Point Pass, finally home 70 km to Whitwarta to cross the finishing line. Each turn point must be photographed to prove correct rounding.

Gloomily I thought 200 km was about the minimum anyone would ever set in a competition. That the distance was so small suggested that the task setters felt it was doubtful if anyone would get round. Some of us might reach Mt Bryan because the wind would help us in that direction. Even a few weak thermals would drift us along the right way as we circled. But after taking our photographs on rounding the turn, the track was across the wind all the way to Point Pass. That would be hard going. If anyone did get so far a real struggle could be expected to get home against the strong westerly. Most of the competitors would land out somewhere in fields scattered all over the Southern Flinders Ranges.

I did not fill up the ballast tanks. On a day with weak thermals the extra weight would be a nuisance although for the flights against the wind, some extra airspeed would be useful. I did not expect to reach Point Pass anyway.

Nonetheless, I formulated a cunning plan. If I did get to the first turn and had some height in hand I would use it in a way that might not occur to my competitors. I had walked over the ground south of Burra some months earlier. I had some years of training in geology and could recognise a breached anticline when I saw one.

At the appointed time launching began.  We were towed up in rapid succession by the team of four or five Piper Pawnee and Cub tug planes. It took about an hour to get everyone into the air, a launch every two minutes or so. It turned out that there were feeble thermals under the darker spots in the cloud cover, so no one had to land immediately after being launched to demand a ‘re light’.

It was not allowed to start on track until all the gliders were flying, to ensure that no one would sneak away early. Once the start line was open, pilots began to cross, their time being taken by observers on the ground.

Starting was itself a tactical exercise. To cross the line legally, we had to be below 1000 metres above ground. This was checked by observers with a simple sighting apparatus. The trick was to get well above 1000 metres behind the line, then dive to pick up speed and shoot through the gate below the invisible bar, pulling up afterwards to regain some of the height lost and continue on track. If you did everything right, you might save a few minutes in the race which would make a difference to the score. It was foolhardy in the dive to exceed the nominal airspeed limit, indicate by a red line on the ASI, but people did it sometimes. I never heard of a glider breaking up at such a moment but it could happen. On this ‘scratchy’ day nobody got as high as 1000 metres in any case, before starting.

There is no false modesty in gliding. If someone finds a good thermal, other pilots see them and fly that way to join them. Any pilot who started too early would mark exactly where the first strong thermal could be found. The others would whizz through the gate to join in, saving minutes. If they didn’t see anyone climbing out there on track they would hang back until they spotted someone doing better. Only then they would make an observed start. Even so, to wait too long could leave one all alone with no one in sight and no guarantee of finding any help at all.

Glider pilots follow soaring birds, too. Very often eagles mark thermals for us, but not on this day..

Once out on track there is a tendency in a contest of this kind for the gliders to gather in groups or, in the jargon, ‘gaggles’, circling and climbing, everyone watching everyone else and using the others to show where the lift is best. Flying in large gaggles can be dangerous, with ten or twenty gliders, even more sometimes, all going round and round trying to climb faster. There is always a risk of mid air collisions, so watching everyone all the time is essential. Everyone is required to circle in the same direction, which helps a little.

It was a struggle to reach Mt Bryan. On the way there, a few people came down, one two seater I saw was perched very awkwardly on top of a hill. Most of the rest scratched along successfully and took the vital photos.

Leaving the top of the thermal the gaggle was in, I put my plan into operation.

South of Burra, the northern Mt Lofty ranges divide into a series of ridges, rather like the fingers of a hand spreading in slightly different directions but all aligned roughly north to south. The gaggle set off along the direct course to Point Pass, hoping for more thermals. I let them go, turned off track and glided by myself directly south, across wind, leaving Burra away on my left. I put the speed up a little, sacrificing some height, aiming for the start of one of the ridge fingers. If I could get there still airborne, I believed I would not need to worry about thermals. The ridge itself would deflect the wind upwards and I would be able to soar along the range for a good distance, although not directly to Point Pass.

The air seemed lifeless and I was descending steadily. If I had misjudged things badly I would have to land, far from home. I picked out suitable landing places as I went along, losing height all the time, making as sure as I could that the Kestrel was trimmed exactly, leaving it to manage itself with the least possible clumsy human interference.

There was, and is, one finger of the spread hand that is longer than the others. The one I was aiming for is a ‘hogs back’ ridge called the Tothill Range, about forty kilometres long facing the west wind for its entire length.

As I drew closer I began to doubt my judgment, for the slope at its northern end was insignificant, a shallow rumple in the fabric of the earth, the sort of hump one would be able to walk up hardly needing to take deep breaths. I flew on, sinking, seeing on the right ahead a gently sloping pasture for a possible, indeed probable, landing. The ridge approached, slowly it seemed, the ground rising under me as I came lower and lower. I arrived level with the insignificant crest. I was hoping that the wind blowing over this gentle feature would rise fast enough for it to cancel out the sinking rate of the glider. If not I had just sufficient height left to turn into the breeze and touch down. My hand was on the undercarriage lever. I edged closer to the slope.

Aha! The variometer was showing zero. I was not descending! Perhaps twenty feet above the ground, I flew on, a few hundred metres distance more, a few more and still I was neither climbing nor descending, the slope under my left wing. Southward the ridge was more pronounced. The vital needle crept up to indicate a climb, more and more. I was gaining height. The valley below and ahead was opening gloriously, giving me a view to the south for a great distance. I could see the Porter Lagoon at Black Springs, and slightly to the east, the small, dried up Apoinga lake where the ridge I was using was pierced by a wide gap. I paused here briefly to use the slope lift to the maximum, turning to and fro in the narrow region of rising air. I was looking down at a large sheep station with the name Koonoona in large white capitals on its roof. Someone down there was working, but I could not see what they were dong and, as I floated silently above, climbing, they did not glance up to see me.

I reached 2000 feet and remembering that I was in a race, swept away across the gap and continued beyond. Quite possibly some other competitor had seen me break away from the gaggle and was following to take advantage of anything I found. The lift from the wind on the slope was so strong now that I could confidently put the speed up, descending to a few feet above the top of the ridge with the airspeed approaching100 knots without sacrifice of height.

Far ahead there was a flicker of movement on the extreme crest of the ridge. As I came nearer, I saw it was a motorcyclist rough riding on the narrow dirt track along the hogsback. I caught up and overtook him easily. I doubt if he saw me, busy concentrating on keeping his balance. Far away, ahead, I could see sunshine breaking through the clouds. The weather man had been right! Could I ever reach the sun?

I continued at high speed, noting on the map the small settlements in the valley as I passed. Ahead was a tall, red and white radio mast on the summit, marking the point where the imaginary fingernail would grow. I reached it and faced another decision. Point Pass now was away to my left. I knew I had enough height to reach it, with the wind helping me, and I would be able to take my photograph. Then I must turn completely around and, if possible, make headway back against the wind, which now would be a hindrance, to make as much distance as I could on the track to Whitwarta. Every kilometre would count.

My photo in the camera safely, I put the speed up to penetrate the breeze and get back, if I could, to the windward slope. I was well below the top of the radio mast when I got there, but immediately found the slope lift again and soared upwards, making a series of steep S turns, looking back where I had come from to see if anyone else had followed. No other glider was in sight. Now I rejoiced that the land to the east was in sunlight, and there in front of me was a growing cumulus cloud. I continued the S turns, climbing until I was well clear of the radio mast and still climbing. Speed up again, I dashed for the cloud, felt the expected upward surge and now I could circle properly in the thermal, the variometer needle well up and in no time, it seemed, I was near to the base of the cumulus. Better still, when I left this cloud to head for Whitwarta, there was another cloud waiting and beyond that another, aligned in what we call a cloud street along which I could run without any more circling, in lift nearly all the way. This is called ‘dolphin soaring’, diving to gain speed and get through bad air, pulling up to waffle slowly, lingering and climbing in the lift, diving again to cross the next gap, and so on.

My little hand-held glide calculator, a sort of circular slide rule, showed that even against the wind I ought now be able to reach the airfield in a final glide without more thermals. As I continued, the cloud street helped me. I was losing no height. I would have a good margin of altitude even if I let the speed build up to seventy, then eighty, then a hundred knots. I could see the white salt of the Diamond Lake, adjacent to the gliding field. Still I was losing no height; I had far more altitude than I could use. I burned some of it off by putting up the airspeed more. Ten kilometres out, I called the finish line. There was no reply. I called again at five k, and still no reply. I discovered later that I had caught the observers unprepared; they had to rush out to their observation post to see me cross and take the time. The airfield was clear. There were no gliders or other aircraft flying and nobody preparing to take off. The airspeed indicator needle was trembling on the red line as I crossed the airfield boundary about ten feet off the ground, used the excess speed to climb triumphantly back to about four hundred feet, put the wheel down, ran through the landing drill, touched down on the strip directly into wind and rolled to a happy standstill.

Nobody else got home at all. One other pilot nearly reached Point Pass, landing short of the turn. The others had, like me, resorted to slope soaring when the thermals were not working for them. They chose the wrong, short fingers to run along, and when they came off the end of their ridges, they had nowhere to go but down.

I had won the day with a very modest average speed of about 80 km/h. In a gliding race, vast penalties are incurred by failing to complete the prescribed course. My winning margin of points was so large that after a couple more contest days in which I did reasonably well, I was declared State Champion for 1971.

The competitions ended on 15th October. There was a little closing ceremony and a prize giving by the State Premier.

I received an inscribed certificate, a fine bronze medallion and a silver cup to be held for a year.

Then Steele Hall gave me the shoehorn. Why a shoehorn? That remains a mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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