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While flying Macchi jets at RAAF Williamtown, I rented a top-floor apartment on one of the hang-gliding hills in Newcastle. This vantage point allowed me to be fully in tune with the weather conditions. I could see the wind lanes on the water and determine the wind strength and direction. I could even tell the direction and strength of the wind by the sound it made on the different windows in the apartment. Combined with the long-range forecasts I received as part of my day job, and my fellow hang-glider pilot 'Wingover Wayne' who worked in the lighthouse on an adjacent hill, I could anticipate when and where I needed to be with my hang-glider to ensure I got one of my 'three F's for the day' - a good fly. (Another of the F's could be satisfied at a restaurant - a good feed. You can guess the third.)
My glider was kept permanently set-up in my garage, which resulted in my BMW being evicted and consequently suffering terribly from the salt spray that perpetually coated everything on the hill. The benefit, however, was that within five minutes of heading out the door I could be flying. It was the perfect hang-gliding pad.
I woke one morning to the familiar whine of my balcony window caused by the south-easterly wind. It was on! Trouble was, I had to go to work and fly jets. Sometimes the decisions we have to make in life can be so difficult . . .
It is extremely rare for a fighter pilot to pull a sickie. It is usually the other way around. Generally an Executive Officer will see a half-dead corpse in a damp flying suit sitting in the main briefing room in a full-body sweat, trying valiantly to look like he has just got back from a jog. A brief discussion ensues before the pilot is forced to Medical to find out that he's suffering from glandular fever and he's running a temperature of 42 degrees.
On this occasion, however, the wind looked just too good. I rang TVH, who was going to be driving me to work.
'Mate, I'm pulling a sickie and I need you to cover for me. Tell them that I have a cold or something, will you?'
'You're going gliding, aren’t you?' asked TVH straightaway. TVH was also a hang-glider pilot and loved the sport about as much as me.
'Yeah, I am. It looks awesome. It's going to be on all day. Listen, I was leading a maritime strike at ten hundred - can you lead it for me?'
'Yeah, alright. You're a [friendly expletive], mate. Have a good one.'
Shortly after hanging up, I was jumping off the hill with a good supply of water and muesli bars. - It was going to be a long day.
Hang-gliding is definitely an art more than a science. There are no instruments to read - it is all sensory input. Height is judged with eyesight, speed judged with noise and feel, and thermals are found with skin temperature and smell. The honing of these senses, and the judgement of these senses, is what makes a good hang-glider pilot.
On this particular day the south-easterly was bringing rain squalls onshore with associated low cloud. At the base of the low cloud there was a slight temperature increase, due to the latent heat of condensation. Heat is released when the warm, moist, rising air cools and forms clouds. This warmer air then starts to rise more aggressively, leading to a phenomenon that glider pilots call ‘cloud suck’. At 700 metres, over the top of one of Australia's most populous cities, I was experiencing cloud suck in a big way - able to fly out to sea, back to land, over the city and back out to sea. It was like having a motor. I could go anywhere.
My mind occasionally turned to TVH and the maritime strike mission he was leading. The mission called for a four-aircraft formation (four-ship) to conduct multiple low-level attacks against a Navy ship so that the ship's crew could train in anti-aircraft defence. They were fun missions but I really felt that I was having more fun discovering how to exploit this meteorological phenomenon.
Eventually I went back to soaring above the largest cliff in Newcastle, and was perched comfortably at about 200 metres above sea level when I saw TVH and his three wingmen…
Knowing that I would be having a great day hang-gliding, and pissed-off that he had to cover for me, TVH thought he would teach me a lesson. With his four jets in arrow formation, he was racing back from the exercise airspace off the coast of Nowra at 700 kilometres per hour and 75 metres above sea level. I had detected him quite late, due to the effective camouflage scheme of the Macchi, but when I did, I was terrified.
Although I was a good 150 metres above the jets and at no risk of being hit, I was at risk of being flipped over or having my hang-glider fail structurally, due to their jet wash. TVH had brought the jets in close enough that the turbulent air left behind them was going to blow into the cliff and then up the cliff face to where I was perched.
As the wind was climbing at about 500 metres per minute. I had about twenty seconds.
I started a mental clock and attempted to dive and fly out and over the jets to put their wake behind me. But the wind was too strong and I couldn’t make sufficient headway to clear their wake.
After the longest twenty seconds of my life, the wake hit me.
It was like being thrown around in a washing machine with one major difference - this washing machine was 150 metres above sea level. I felt the strap that attached me to the glider become extremely taut and I could envisage it breaking under the strain.
Then my thoughts turned to the glider flipping end over end, or perhaps it would just break up in mid-air and spiral to the ocean, crashing against the rocks below. I always carried a parachute for special occasions just like this, but I was too low to deploy it. I hurled an expletive at TVH, who was by now out of sight - and then I became weightless. [Fairly panicky expletive!]
Weightlessness in a hang-glider is like losing your rudder in a boat or having your steering wheel fall off in a car. Pilots steer hang-gliders by pushing their weight left and right, forwards and back. Without any weight, however, the glider cannot be controlled. I held onto the control bar with cold hands and waited. This was uncharted territory for me and I had no idea how my little ‘sick day’ would end.
I guessed if I ended up in the hospital I would at least pass the scrutiny of my Commanding Officer wondering why I wasn't at work. I might just have to avoid telling him exactly when it occurred - and how my “car” ended up crashing into the rocks on Newcastle beach.
The glider pitched nose-down, past 90 degrees, so all I could see were the rocks, and then the underside of my wing - as I started to fall onto it. This is about as bad as it gets for hang-glider pilots. I continued to fire my expletives in TVH's last known direction and prayed that the glider didn’t tumble.
After what seemed like an eternity, the glider regained airspeed and started to climb out of the dive. Thankfully the climb gave me back my weight and my control - but I was now pointed directly at the cliff, approaching it from the ocean side and beyond the maximum speed my wing was designed for. Smoothly pushing the bar out, I climbed and rolled past the 90-degree point until I was parallel to the beach and upside-down before returning to normal. For those watching below, it looked like an intentional aerobatic display.
- Fortunately for me they couldn’t see inside my boardshorts.
I landed on very shaky legs and did an inspection of the structural parts of my glider, looking for any signs of overstress. It all looked OK, so I continued flying for the rest of the day.
After work, TVH turned up at the take-off site with his glider, bragging about the mission. 'Mate, you missed a good day. Sunk those [expletive] navy pussers in their gin barge. They never stood a chance. Did you see us on return to base?'
'See you?' I yelled. 'You nearly [expletive] killed me! I went totally weightless and almost tumbled straight into the cliff, you [pretty meaty expletive]!
'Yeah, yeah, Serge, whatever you say’, he said, laughing. 'Come on, let’s practise some night formations. I brought some glow sticks so we can tape them to our gliders. Everyone will think they're seeing UFOs.’
And with that, we were off, using our fighter NOCOM signals to change position and put on a hang-gliding night-airshow of military precision.
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