Freedom Day Free Flying

27 April in South Africa is Freedom Day, celebrating the anniversary of our first democratic elections 18 years ago.  Seeing that I was on call for the night shift, I had the public holiday available for whatever recreation beckoned.  What better way to celebrate freedom than by flying, unhindered and free as a bird?  Cue hang-gliding montage…

Driving to SLP, just visible above the white car

The wind looked promising for flying at Sir Lowry’s Pass, where the highway from Cape Town exits over the Hottentots-Holland mountains to begin it’s route up the country’s east coast.  SLP ( as it’s colloquially known) offers a few different launch sites for paragliders and hang-gliders, with the main (but most tricky) site being at the viewpoint where the highway crests the ridge at about 450m ASL.  Here the wind is channeled through a gully, past several rock outcrops that have claimed their casualties over the years, and over a small eroded patch of grass barely large enough for one glider at a time.  A well-executed launch and nimble right bank allows one to soar the inevitable lift along the road and rail embankment and nearly guarantees an immediate climb to the ridge-top, where it can be remarkably thermic and long out-and-return runs are possible.  A botched lauch ends at best in an 8-minute glide out beyond the power lines to the landing field at the bottom of the pass; at worse one ends up adding your score in blood to the rocks.  For the more cautious, a friendlier top launch suitable for paragliders is about 15-20 minutes walk away; hang-gliders can carry 5 minutes down to a lower take-off below the highway.  I’m not convinced either of the ‘safe’ options add much real safety by the time you have factored in crossing a multi-lane mountain pass highway on foot…but that’s another subject.

Carrying gliders to the lower launch

Paul (another biwingual who mostly flies HG these days) and I met up in the landing area around midday.  The wind was northerly but going NW, and the forecast good.  We decided to use the bottom takeoff, which given the wind strength at the top was a good call.  The neatly trimmed fynbos on the steep launch has been growing back in force, which makes both rigging and launching a challenge, but after half an hour of toil I was ready to go – Paul, being a gentleman, uttered something to the effect of “Looks good: you can go first.”  It felt a tad silly to don three layers of clothing and then gloves and a pod and then stand there in the sun with little breeze waiting to launch fully expecting a sled glide to the landing field, as the wind seemed to have backed off.

Rigging at the launch area

I waited a few minutes for a promising cycle and then ran hard at the protea bushes a few meters ahead of me.  Bless her: the Sonic scooped me up and wafted into the air with ease.  My vario gave a delighted squeal as I banked left into the bowl and let the bar ease out from takeoff speed, and then settled into a steady beeping.  Climbing!  Within a minute all thoughts of a short flight were erased as we effortlessly left the ridge below and flew out into a good thermal.  I thought I’d test out the air while waiting for Paul to launch, but as I steadily climbed I set a lazy course west towards Gordon’s Bay and settled into the flight.  I could see his glider on the slope…clearly he’s still getting into his harness.

Approaching the end of the ridge, with the Gordon's Bay pump station (a PG launch site) visible on the left)

Despite not being a pre-frontal NW, the wind had a pronounced gradient, and at above 800m ASL on trim speed I found myself going backwards.  Paul’s glider was still on the ground, so I pulled in to a comfortable speed and carried on down to the end of the ridge, about 10km from takeoff.  The view was beautiful: Steenbras Dams and the Kogelberg mountains to my left, the whole of False Bay under puffy clouds to my right.  Flying accelerated along the ridge was tiring, however: the Moyes Sonic is not VG-equipped and maintaining a good speed requires a fair amount of input.  Also, my harness was not locking nicely in a prone position, which meant I had to keep pushing with my legs to stay flat.  Beyond Gordon’s Bay I decided to use some of the height flying out over the sea to the north and then looping back towards the ridge later, thus hopefully staying out of the stronger winds.  By now Paul’s glider was no longer visible, so I presumed he had launched and was chasing me.

Gordon's Bay from the air
Approaching cloudbase with False Bay laid out in front of me
The Helderberg Valley from 1000m ASL

One great thermal near Gordon’s Bay took me back to cloudbase, so I set off on glide straight for SLP.  Along the way Paul and I found each other; he’d been able to fly a lot quicker on his VG-equipped Airborne and had caught up easily.  Without radio comms (his is still in creation) we couldn’t discuss plans.  I thought I’d try a jaunt to the east to the big mountains, not knowing that he’d already been a few kilometers that way and had encountered a strong headwind and turbulence.  I met this with vigour to the east of the pass.  Somewhere in a rowdy thermal, my extra pressure on the kick-stap to maintain prone position snapped the cord, leaving me in a semi-upright high-drag position.  This is not pleasant for flying, adding considerable strain on the arms in the lumpy air.  One particular strap was also pressing into my upper abdomen, and after a few minutes I began to feel a little queasy.  After touching it out for  while I decided that it wasn’t fun anymore and headed down to the landing field.  It was still quite thermic on the ground, turning my landing approach into a dolphinesqe dance of blips and dips.  Paul saw me landing and thought it was due to a rush to get to work, so he came down too, perhaps more gracefully as the clouds moved in and the land cooled off.

Heading back to SLP

What a great day for flying.  Paul, who has flown HG at the site for many years, reckons it could have been a day to fly further down the coast, across Kogel Bay and all the way to Cape Hangklip.  Something for next time, certainly!  I’ve got some video clips which I’ll try get into a useful format ASAP…and will soon have to replace the sunken GoPro, as this kind of flying is not conducive to one-handed snaps!

The landing field at SLP. How does hang-gliding make you feel? The t-shirt says it all!

Not taking things too seriously

I realised I haven’t posted anything about what I’m currently reading for a long time. Hence, here is a post… with a difference. The ‘serious’ stuff that I’m reading (some paeds anaesthesia from Smith’s and Miller’s; The Naked Pilot by David Beaty, a work on the human factors in aviation safety; and “Come Up and Get Me,” Joe Kittinger’s biography of the early days of the space race) is all fascinating, but I have to admit that a lazy Saturday afternoon does lead me to partake in a guilty pastime: online comics. I’d thought I’d share a couple of my favourites, in case you’ve never met them and are missing out.

Continue reading Not taking things too seriously

SA needs more snow:

So that we can do some of this:

SpeedFlying – France 2012 from bartoszplewa on Vimeo.

For the uninitiated, this is “Speedflying” – a crossover sport that amalgamates downhill skiing and paragliding.  The speedflying wings are very small (down to as little as 8m2, compared to around 26m2 for a normal paraglider) and are designed for speed and stability, with a large chord and narrow wingspan.  The very high wing loading (mass per unit area) combined with this profile means that the wings are very resistant to collapse, but they are also exceptionally responsive and lose dramatic height in turns.

Not all speedflying is done on ski’s: there are wings available for foot launching that have slower take-off and landing speeds, but trimmers allow them to be accelerated for descent.  They tend to be compact and light.  Another advantage is that they can be flown in stronger winds, allowing the hike-up-fly-down philosophy to expand into weather conditions not conducive to normal paragliding off mountain summits.  The big drawback is sink rate and glide angle: these are not cross-country machines.  I’ve flown the brilliant Ozone XT16 a few times, including soaring it at Dasklip Pass in strong winds that would prevented anything else launching.  Awesome.

The new classes of hybrids (somewhere between a speed wing and a paraglider) and miniwings (small wings with a normal paraglider profile) deserve to be watched with great attention by the mountaineering pilots…

We apologise for the interruption in service

Readers will have noted that the blog has been down for a couple of days.  There was a problem with one of the mail accounts on the hosting server being hijacked by a spambot, which resulted in the entire host account being suspended.  Fortunately this has now been resolved.  You can follow @rosshofmeyr on Twitter in case of further problems – I will keep you updated.

Another Hofmeyr Adventure(r)

We Hof’s are fairly well known to be difficult to pin down w for too long: the call of the wild is too strong to resist.  My younger brother Stephen (not to be confused with the singer of the same name) is no exception.  Although he is often to be found tweaking a PC or other gadget for it’s last speck of performance, he’s an accomplished outdoorsman in his own right.  We share a love of mountaineering and the backcountry, and he takes great pleasure in reminding me that he has bested my highest climb (sans aircraft) when he summited Kilimanjaro.

Steve has taken some time off now to lose (or find?) himself in the wilderness, and in searching for a suitable challenge discovered the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA.  The PCT covers more than 2600 miles (4200km) as it traverses wilderness areas right up the west coast of the USA from the border with Mexico to Canada.  It’s more than just a walk in the park; around 300 hikers set out each year to complete the full distance, and only half make it all the way.  Click on the small map image for much more detail.

Pacific Crest Trail Map

Steve is blogging his experiences on the trail whenever he stumbles across a campsite with any form of internet access (much of it written on his Kindle, believe it or not!), which allows a lot of insight into the mindset of the lone thru-hiker.  He’s currently hunkered down in a shared hotel room in a place called Idylwild due to an unexpected 8-inch snowstorm.  Go check it out on

PS – You can subscribe to either of our blogs by entering your email address in the “Subscribe by Email” field on the right-hand-side of the screen – that way, you’ll receive instant notification of new posts to the blog without having to keep checking.  It’s also great for us to see the subscriber list grow and know you’re interested!


Reading my last post, I realised I alluded to the Zee PHG photo without actually publishing it.  Daft.  Here you go:

Brent flying his powered hang-glider with Hout Bay in the background

While the uninitiated might presume this tiny aircraft to be a microlight, it is actually a powered (aka motorized) hang-glider – the wing is a perfectly normal standard hang-glider with which (unlike a microlight) you could run off any handy hill or mountain and have a soaring or thermic flight sans engine or undercarriage.  The undercarriage and engine are designed to be super light-weight, allowing the entire assembly with pilot to fall within the allowable maximum weight for the glider wing.  This means that if flies just like a normal hang-glider, albeit with slightly more drag.  They are designed to allow pilots to take off from a handy spot, fly to the nearest hill or thermic area, turn off the engine and soar.  Yes, you do need a license – first as a hang-glider pilot, and then a power conversion to fly the PHG.  You’ll recall from earlier blog posts that I went off and learnt to do this some time ago, before unexpected circumstances landed a powered paraglider kit in my hands.

Looking down the Cape Peninsula from 3000ft - click for enlargement

This was the first time we’ve flown the PHG and PPG together, and although we didn’t do formal tests we made a number of observations.  Launching the Zee in zero wind was an absolute breeze (hur hur), with the machine accelerating smoothly across the beach on its big bubble wheels.  By comparison, I took three sweaty attempts to get the PPG airborne: no-wind takeoff in deep sand with a paraglider and 30+kg of kit on your back is a challenge.  Once in the air, the paraglider (I fly a MacPara Eden 4 Powered with a PAP125 engine and on this occasion a 125cm carbon prop) seemed to climb more rapidly, or at least at a steeper angle.  Cruising speed was identical at trim, with the PPG a little faster on cruise with the trims open.  Both aircraft felt the rotor turbulence behind the big peaks; I had one 60% asymmetric collapse and Brent described a few significant bumps, but I think he had more confidence in his rigid wing.  I could lose height very rapidly by putting the paraglider into a spiral, but lack the hang-glider’s ability to accellerate into a steep descent in a straight line.  Landing the PPG in a limited space is of course  very easy; by the time we returned there was a 10 knot wind blowing, and I was able to make a precision landing a few meters from the car, whereas the Zee needed a bit more space and rollout.

Considering flying to Rio for tea?

For about 1h20 flying time, including several climbs from low level up to 3000ft, we used 5.5 litres of fuel (petrol) for the PPG and 8 litres for the PHG.  We didn’t have anyone specific to assess the relative noise, but onlookers who I spoke to said they couldn’t hear either aircraft from the moment we climbed out over the bay until we were setting up for landing – good news for environmental and noise-abatement reasons.  Grins on the pilot’s faces were equally wide, and the post-flight beer/cider at Dune’s Restaurant 50m from landing tasted equally good!

What’s the verdict?  We need to fly more 🙂

Whale Shark Aerial Photos

Yowzer…I loaded the same pictures from my last post onto Facebook last night, and the response has been phenomenal.  Imagine my surprise when I get a forwarded forwarded forwarded email from the surf community including my picture as evidence of a huge shark terrorising the surfers at Noordhoek!  Well, lads and lasses, a big shark it was, but the terror is misplaced: you can’t see it well on the Facebook photo, but it’s a gentle giant – a Whale Shark.  That makes it much more special than “just another” Great White (something I prefer to see from the air than the water, unless I’m on the bottom with a regulator in my mouth), as a sighting of a Whale Shark in the Atlantic is rare.  Wikipedia will tell you all about them and their tropical/subtropical range – seldom south of 30 degrees – but I was very tickled to learn that the species was first described when one was harpooned in Table Bay.  Yay for African science, bummer for environmental consciousness.

A couple of pictures from the flight:

Kommetjie from the air
3000ft on the powered paraglider, working on my sunburn
Lots of surfers in the water at Noordhoek
Whale Shark and surfers


There’s been some bruhaha about the species and size of the shark, so I referred it to our guru, Johan Anderson, of Wings and Whalesharks fame.  Johan flies all sorts of things (and is the man behind the Zee PHG pictured above), but one particular project of his is flying a microlight in the Seychelles for whale shark research and spotting program.  He confirms that it is indeed a whale shark (not a great white) and not quite the 7m monster suggested by some sources.  As whale sharks grow to around 12m, this is a smallish specimen.  For comparison, I’ve cropped together (at precisely the same scale) the shark and surfers, so that you can decide for yourselves.

Whale shark and surfers cropped to the same scale

What a great sighting, and a lovely flight.

Heading back to Hout Bay at 3500ft to avoid the turbulence from the mountains

UPDATE:  This just in – get the story from the surfer’s seaside perspective on the Wavescape website, as well as some expert opinion from more shark experts.  Compelling reading…I can imagine the guys in the water had a good tachycardia.


Very special sighting

Short story (longer one to follow): I was joined this morning by a fellow powered hang-glider pilot for a sortie from Hout Bay, on the western coast of the Cape Peninsula. Due to my current lack of a PHG, I was flying my PPG while he took to the sky in a Zee PHG trike of South African construction (more on that in a later post). We flew high most of the time to avoid some turbulence from the low-level south-easter, but not too high to notice this in the water near some surfers and kayakers off Long Beach, Noordhoek:

What lies beneath

Closer inspection reveals it to be a small (large = 12m!) Whale Shark – a very rare find in the cold Atlantic.

According to an expert I consulted, it is exceptional to spot a whale shark anywhere on the West Coast, and the specimens that are found are usually dead. One theory is that they drift around in warm eddies of the Mozambique Current and then become “lost” and die when the warm water dissipates. I think they are like my mother, and only dive in warm water.