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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 nightmare.

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 back before.

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 memories.

  1. Marshall Antonechuk working the first thermal I ever saw in '76 off Vernon Mt.
  2. 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 sleigh ride.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 density.

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 1st hand!

Fred Wilson

Jan 5 2013   Top Top