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Clouds are unpredictable: friends
and foes. When I am coring quickly, I'm always sizing what's up, wishing
for a window in the sail above me; and a glimpse into the future... ("What
the hay am I getting into?")
When small, comfortable and widely
separated they're like a dream come true. When not they can become a living
My first experience was a lasting
lesson. We were flying Sicamous BC. Famous as a tough, educational
place to learn about cannon ball thermals. Famous for having the world’s
ultimate LZ: Old Town Beach. It
was '79, we were flying Olys and 10 meters and the like and nobody ever
really soared much, especially Sicamous. We just enjoyed the spectacular
scenery and bragged it a little over time. On this day there was a large
cumulus behind launch but from where we were sitting we couldn't really
assess it. We launched off in quick succession, as the first few were soon
ABOVE LAUNCH! [A big deal then.]
I was losing it when I noticed Dianna
Birrell quite a bit above me to the east of launch and sped over under
her. I kind of wondered where everyone else had gone, but I was into my
own air time and didn't care if the cloud was swelling forward in front
of launch. Besides, it was white bottomed and didn't LOOK threatening and
I was desperate for something to string out the flight before the cloud
shut it off. So when I flew into what felt like a cement wall I 360'd around,
shook my head to rattle the cobwebs out, stuffed the bar in and went for
the big penetration.
And boy did I ever. The bar slammed
out of my hands. I found myself pressed against the rear keel and flying
wires while the glider and I powered straight up. It was incredibly powerful
lift. I was way, way out of my league. I grabbed on to the flying wires
and crawled up towards the down tubes. I remember slipping and grabbing
on to my Vario, busting it off and watched in absolute disgust as it spiraled
into the trees below. Just as I got on the control bar again and began
to level out the glider, everything whited out. Oh goodie!
There was no way I was getting out
of that core. Not that I wasn't afraid of the cloud, there was just no
way on God's little green planet that I was going to find out what going
over the falls in this sucker was going to be like. I had no idea how quickly
I was climbing, but even without a vario I knew things were quickly calming
down. Besides... Visibility was really pretty good, meaning I couldn't
see dick, but I could see dick a long way.
Time to exit. Fly towards the light.
All of a sudden I saw a huge pipe of the cloud, maybe 200+ feet in diameter
and a quarter mile long plunged forward as a unit just spitting distance
from my right wing, then stop as dead as it started. Then a minute later
another tube, only this one rotating like a horizontal tornado, cut 90°
across my path. These things were really moving out! They looked transparent
and wispy and yet gave the impression of being as solid as steel all at
the same time. Time to get the hell out of here. No pissing around, this
was really scary stuff. I lucked out and popped out the topside and looked
back to see Ron Martin and his cousin Larry Thompson above the cloud and
way, way back in the toolies behind launch. Nobody had ever been that far
Quit while you are ahead. Leave the
party before it's busted. Land while you can, so I did. Pete Holden came
in a little dense in the head and performed an amazing recovery by planting
his wing tip in the sand and spun around into a perfect 5 point landing.
Dianna came in to that beach completely worn out, standing up erect, arms
hanging limp by her side. Pete and John Huddart screamed at her to flare
and at the last possible moment she grasped the bar and pushed it out enough
to land fairly respectably and sagged to the ground, like the rest of us,
for once, really grateful to be down.
We all accumulate memories over the
years, moments in our flying life that feed our addiction. Usually they
are our own stories. But I have been lucky enough to witness some of my
friends best flights and these, by far and away are some of my best flying
Marshall Antonechuk working the first
thermal I ever saw in '76 off Vernon Mt.
Peter Luke flying a '79 10 Meter 25
miles to Tappen from Moffat Ridge on the worst, drizzliest non day you
ever saw, while very one else flying scratched like hell just to get a
Robin Peterson deliberately scratching
for four hours at tree top level by the Gypsum Rd. LZ below Swansea on
a day when it was easy, really easy to get up... while every one else froze
and burned out in an hour at 14000 ft and cloud base.
Pepe' Lopez at the American Cup in Invermere
on his task winning final from Radium, too exhausted to even hold on to
the down tubes. The glider pitching and yawing for the last 15 Km while
he tried to limber up his legs.
But the one flight I night and day dream
about - the driving force that keeps me flying was a once in a lifetime
flight of Miles Hopkins'.
I had just gotten into flying again
in 1985 after a moment of excess stupidity and had worked up the nerve
to go back to the scene of the crime. Stoney Creek: in the Okanagan Valley.
It can be a super thermal site. Peter Elms discovered it by noticing the
constant turbulence every time he flew his plane over it. He eventually
marked the spot with a bucket of paint and talked a few skeptics into logging
the better part of the mountain and Voila! Magic. Hard to get started up
unless you like it tight into the trees but after a couple of hundred feet
you are truly above and on your way. When the Okanagan Valley stabilizes
out you can almost always see clean cumies over launch. The flying is rowdy
but not crazy until 5ish in the evening when it starts to glass off and
a series of spectacular evening thermals develop some of the cleanest black
bottomed beauties you will ever see.
I was satisfied with a really pleasant
flight but had never been even close to the clouds that day. I landed to
stretch and laze out & watch the show with the boys and a brew in the
LZ.. A few more of the crew bagged it, leaving Milo front stage center.
We watched while he caught a clean one and climbed out towards one breathtakingly
lonely, black bottomed puff ball. Perfect shape, perfect size and perfect
There is kind of a rule at Stoney.
If you get 6000' above you are GONE on a XC slide to just about anywhere.
Drivers can figure it out you have a much better trip planned home than
in some dusty truck. For some strange reason Milo didn't split. He hung
out at about 8 - 9000 ft for a quite a while in the glass off evening air.
Then a little after six he caught a cycle up and quickly screwed up as
the cloud base rose with him to 9 to 10,000'.
What followed is something I’ll remeber
the rest of my life. He worked his way up to the bottom edge of that lonely
cloud and caught a slow smooth ride right up it's leading edge. He'd 360'd
in clean air and then instantly disappear into the wall of the cloud like
a door closing shut behind him. An instant later the glider would burst
from the cloud, banked over tightly with a sheet of the cloud pulled out
by the wing - tracing the glider like a silhouette against the clear summer
sky until he cored back in. Then burst out and in and out and in again
and again. The wisps of cloud hung motionless like a cork screw of mist
tracking his progress up the face. It was absolutely breathtaking. I have
never, ever seen anything like it. I would give anything for a video camera
and an opportunity to go back in time to be able to film that moment.
You could tell that Milo knew that
it was too special to disrupt because he slid out to the side and viewed
his work until it melted away and then threw it out into a celebration
of wingovers into the turf. One of the most memorable moments in my life,
yes, but before I retire from the sport my goal is to experience this flight