Thursday, 11 July 2013

Wednesday 10th July 2013 "Balls as Earrings"

Wednesday 10th July 2013 

"Balls as Earrings"
Briefing today had every chance of becoming lively. With Andy’s “stop task” score calculated by taking his height and estimated glide angle at the time of the mis-communication, there was the possibility that other pilots could protest if he had an unfair advantage. In fact, as it transpired, Andy maintained his 9th place so there was not too much to complain about. It was never going to be easy for the organisers but to be fair they have tried their best to sort it out as fairly and amicably as possible. Who knows what might have been…

Patrick Chopard - the man to beat
The main issues being discussed was why a task for one class can be canned on safety grounds, while the task for another can remain active when on the same course line. Joel Favre explained the local meteorological conditions  - at the end of the day, these guys live and breathe this terrain and know it like the back of their hand. If they say it’s dangerous, I am more than happy to go along with their view.
Today the forecast was pretty similar to yesterdays with the high possibility of CuNims developing over the massif and spreading up towards the lake. With no further to do, we were dispatched to La Forclaz take off. 

Under the watchful eye of the Gendarme
At launch I grabbed the harnesses and reserved a rigging spot for the boys. Some flex wing pilots were still trying to rig in the rigid area, but at least now were responding to requests to move back – well, most of them. As gliders were rigged, there was a lot of talk about the developing sky. It was definitely going to be an issue today.
Military PG
The task set was over a course that cris-crossed the lake and down the Semnoz ridge, basically creating first a small then a large triangle, with goal field at Doussard. As soon as the launch window was open Luke launched, again quickly followed by Neil and Andy, with Neil marking a good climb out in the front of take off. Soon the sky was filled with wings – a spectacular sight when set against the backdrop of the mountains and skyline. Andy was the first to enter the start cylinder, literally seconds after the gate opened (hopefully his GPS times are accurate). From the communications I was receiving there were good climbs to be had – not surprising with the sky looking so active.

Already behind launch the sun was being partially blocked by a growing cloud. Luke radioed that the cloud was beginning to tower. Relaying the message to Richard (Deputy Safety Director) I was told that they had weather spotters on a couple of mountains including Semnoz and were already aware of it. It was not causing any problems at the moment…

With the Rigid Team all active on task, I headed off back down the mountain, reassured from the radio comms that they were making good progress, especially Andy who once again seemed to have the bit between his teeth. I gave a lift to one of the more senior competition helpers who took great delight in telling me how a driver had been killed recently on the mountain road by accidentally reversing over the edge… And with that thought we continued our descent.

Bomber and Skywalker
Back at base, I was about to get set up with laptop to catch up on emails and work when the phone bleeped. “Neil cocked up. Near Luke’s LZ. Landed on top of pass in TP3. N 5.46.411 E 006.07.777. Balls. Balls. Balls.” 

Yep, balls. A drive up the windy “Tour de France” route again. Back in the truck and off to pick up an obviously fed up pilot. Luckily knowing the route and location I was with him very quickly and with the well-drilled derig procedure we were soon driving back down Saint Jorioz before heading on south down the west side of the lake to Doussard.
Bomber going radical

With Andy and Luke still flying, my concern was now redirected to the weather. Clouds were building to the South, East and West, and there were now rumblings of thunder. As Luke flew back towards the lake from the West, he was obviously becoming concerned, and rightly so, about the sky.
“The sky looks bad. Has the task been stopped?”
“No, task is active. Task is active”.
Andy was now approaching the last turn point and about to make a final glide in to goal. He was going to make it. Nice work Andy, especially after yesterdays debacle.
Luke’s concern was now being reflected in his voice. Listening to his requests for information, his voice was getting noticeable higher. A difficult situation – of course it is every pilot’s responsibility to keep safe, but as a relatively young pilot, Luke’s experience of big mountain flying is still limited. Assessing whether or not conditions are too dangerous is difficult. 

“Gliding towards la Forclaz – there is a huge cloud above it. Can you confirm the task is active?”
Having heard the word “stop” being used on the safety channel, I phoned through to Richard to get clarification of the task status. Only Task 1 and 2 were stopped. 5 was still active.
“Andy and Luke, the task is still active. The task is still active”.
“OK, this is Luke gliding towards lightening….” The pitch in his voice was now even higher. Neil and I were also getting worried for him. Andy was on finals and with his experience was less of a concern. But still a worry.
“Luke, if you think it is too dangerous make your self safe, but the task is still active”.
“I have a 35km wind, and very bad turbulence up here”.
Enough already. The trees by the side of the lake were now being blown over in a strong, gusty wind. Very dangerous conditions for anyone trying to land.  Phoning through to Richard again I called a danger level of 3 (the highest available in the agreed procedure) and Richard immediately stopped the task.

“Team GB – all task are a STOP STOP STOP. All tasks are STOP STOP STOP. Land immediately”.
With Luke acknowledging the message, and Andy presumably already down, that was the last of the radio communications.

The next forty minutes were not pleasant. At all. As a Team Manager you feel very responsible for “your” pilots. Well I do, and talking to the other Team Leaders or Retrieve Drivers later in the evening, so does everyone else. Losing contact with Luke and Andy at the time of increased danger worried both me and Neil. Deciding not to try and second guess where Luke would fly, we based ourselves on the side of the main road by the side of the lake, giving us quick access to go wherever he landed. A gaggle of flex wing gliders were making approaches to the field next to the road. With power lines, a lake, a main road and with trees on the upwinside, it was not going to be easy bringing a glider down safely.

Dave "Balls as Earrings" May
 I recognised Aussie Dave Mays glider executing fast banked turns over the base leg of the field, obviously flying at speed to maintain full control in turbulence. If I hadn’t known what a tough time he was having, it would have been a spectacular display. But Dave’s mind must have been in mega-focus mode, basically fighting for a safe landing. Fight or flight. Very intense. With a fast turn in to wind he looked like he was on a roller coaster before finally and skilfully bringing the glider to a stop. The only comment he made afterwards was:
“I had balls as earrings during that landing!” Just about sums it up.

So where was Luke? No radio, no text message, not answering mobile. Come on boys, give us a clue. The longer the wait, the more the worry. Without dwelling on all the possible outcomes, you cannot help but think of what might have gone wrong…
Still no response to telephone calls. And then the phone rang.
“Hi Ben, Andy here with Luke in Doussard”.
“Thank goodness. How long have you guys been in?”
“Quite some time…”
I had been nearly 45 minutes since the task was stopped. A long time to be waiting.
With a mixture of relief that the boys were safe, and annoyance that they had not called in immediately Neil and I returned to Doussard. In seeing the boys at the bar I made it very clear that as a team there is a responsibility to let everyone know that you are safe immediately, especially after events like today. No-one likes being told what to do, but this is a serious part of flying. As a pilot your actions do have repercussions for other people. As Andy put it “There is no “I” in team”. Enough said. Move on.
A couple of beers later and were off to get supper at a local bar. Pizza, burgers and beer. Andy and Luke had flown really well today and Neil had made some adjustments to improve his glider. A challenging day, but a good day, with lessons learned by everyone.

Oh, and watch this space for the launch of a new trike...

Laurent Thevenot with his new collapsible trike

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