UPDATED: This time of the year (late August through to October) is one of the best for soaring flights along the Cape Peninsula and surrounding mountains. As the frontal systems make their march to the south for the summer, the cold fronts lessen in intensity, with more more moderate prefrontal north-westerlies and lingering postfrontal conditions. The air is cold and moist but the sun begins to reappear, leading to beautifully smooth soaring interspersed with the promise of good instability and thermal flying. It is certainly the ‘high’ season for the Cape pilot’s classic route: Signal Hill/Lion’s Head across to Table Mountain, southerly along the Twelve Apostles, and then back for sundowners or onwards into the lesser-flown for the brave (and those with dedicated retrieve drivers!). For many years this route was more frequented by the hang-glider pilots with their better glide and speed range (the NW can exhibit a strong wind gradient as one climbs), but as paraglider technology has improved it is now achievable by pilots on almost any wing. Come along on a tour, illustrated with my photos from today…
To date, only two people had ever done it: a powered paraglider flight around Cape Point, the “Fairest Cape of them all”, the Cape of Good Hope: the Cape of Storms. Today, that number was doubled. The Flying Ant (one of the original two) escorted Neil and I in a gentle, cold but perfectly smooth north-westernly on the flight down the peninsula to the very south-western tip of Africa. It’s a long way – the entire tip forms Cape Point National Park, meaning we have to launch north of the boundary and then fly at least 2500ft and offshore all the way – and the weather has to be perfect, but the incredible sights make it all worthwhile. A detailed story and many more photographs to follow, but here are some to whet your appetite:
It’s been quite a while since the flying that generated this footage, but I finally set aside a rainy Saturday and cut together a rough montage. The story can be found in the blog archive, so I won’t repeat it here. In essence: some magic crack-of-doom flying in the middle of summer, when the sun rises early enough for me to get a flip in before I have to be at the hospital. Not many better ways to start the day. Watch it on high quality if you can or come round and see it in 1080p HD at my place over a cup of coffee!
I went on a lovely post-call aerial meander today. While I caught up on sleep during the morning the wind turned light north-west; cold sea air began to replace the more boisterous south-easter and most of the PPG fraternity were congregated at Dolphin Beach. I joined the crowd around three o’clock and was airborne shortly thereafter with a vague plan to join a group flying up to Melkbosstrand along the coast. Unfortunately, a stubborn pressure-knot in my lines forced a quick circuit back to the field to sort it out, so I ended up chasing after them on full bar and open trims, idly watching the surfers below. By the time I caught up they had passed Big Bay and encountered a bank of sea fog just making landfall. The group turned back.
My natural wanderlust extends to airborne endeavours, and I knew that I’d be frustrated flying around Dolphin Beach until the mist arrived there and shut things down completely, so I decided to fly over to Blouberg Hill and survey the options from there. The hill peaks at about 700ft and features some old military ramparts, which are now being converted into nature reserve accommodation. I used some ridge lift on the NW side for a free ride to the top and examined the options. The sea fog looked as if it was thinning out to the north, and experience has taught me that while the sun shines if rarely makes much progress inland. I’d already discovered (to my surprise) that there was very little turbulence over the hill. I decided to venture a little further into the farmlands, make a big loop to which ever side felt good, and try my luck later with the fog at the beach – there are always plenty of landing options elsewhere for a PPG.
Great PPG flying on the West Coast today. We met at Grotto Bay and flew north along the coastline to Yzerfontein – 30km of almost uninhabited and deserted beach, with the occasional wild ostrich for company. After an extended coffee break at Yzerfontein to assess what the wind was doing (a NE land breeze meeting the forecast NW sea breeze) the general consensus was to head back to Grotto rather than chancing a flight to Langebaan. Fortunately, help was at hand in the form of Dave, who offered to drive my Pajero as a support vehicle, and so I invited him to drive it all the way to Blouberg, said goodbye to the others at Grotto Bay and flew the whole stretch back in one go – more than 70km cross-country flight if you allow the small detour around the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station restricted airspace which I had to make.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 🙂
Apologies to people reading this who are not paraglider or hang-glider pilots… it may not make much sense (but then again, does your life make sense if you’re not a free-flying pilot? Think about it…)
I was blessed with an actual day off today, and even more fortuitously one on which my wife is stuck in the hospital on call, so I could fly without any smidgen of guilt. After consulting the wind gods (aka windfinder, windgurur, xcskies etc) I elected to head for Llandudno (aka Little Lion’s Head) so that any and all non-Sport rated pilots could join in. Not wanting to miss the window of opportunity, come 09h00 this morning I was comfortably ensconced at a coffee shop on the Camp’s Bay beachfront, and soon thereafter joined by Niel Marx and his beau, Tessa. Due to the entire lack of atmospheric air velocity, we breakfasted in style, interrupted only by calls from Gavin Ashwell and Ian Cowie seeking advice regarding our movements, and a surprise encounter with Ant Allen in his pink-and-white cycling tights. (Fortunately I am a medical professional and was not too perturbed by this sight.)
Come 10h15 we decided that the skies had decided to shift from nothing to light NE, and therefore the progression to N then NW could be expected. We embarked for Llandudno, leaving a car at the bottom, and headed up to launch. Gavin planned to meet us there, but Ian and Ant elected to aim for a PPG flight at Soetwater (near Kommetjie) instead.
The short and pleasant stroll to take-off at LLH behind us, we found a strong breeze (perhaps 25km/h) at the mast, and after briefing Niel I suggested we move to the traditional takeoff, where it was a little lighter. The wind was now a steady N. I launched and climbed easily, spotting Gavin on his way to the takeoff. Niel launched and was soon searing easily, but aloft it was evident that the expected NW wind gradient was in force, and he (sensibly, on a 1/1-2) elected to stay well in front of the mountain. Gavin was soon climbing, too.
Due to my chronic itchyfootitis, I felt the compulsion to cross to Karbonkelberg, where the high north-facing cliffs promise easy lift to the wandering pilot. Before long I was kicking my heels above 950m of clear winter air, watching Niel and Gavin fly out to land at Llandudno beach. Both felt that their penetration was poor; I was in less compressed air (further from the Apostles) and still quite comfortable off speed-bar. Trying to jump back to Little Lion’s Head, however, was not easy: I lost 250m for little real progress and scuttled back to the lift at Karbonkelberg.
Clearly the very northerly wind precluded a run down the Apostles, so I was left with a choice: try hard to get back onto LLH, perhaps landing at Sandy Bay in the process (hardly a hardship unless the old-and-wrinkly brigade was out in force), or try something I’d been itching to do for a long time: go over the back into Hout Bay and fly further south. A quick radio call to Niel/Tessa confirmed that they were willing to drive chase (Tessa does really like driving the Pajero), and so Plan B went into action. I plunged into the best lift over Karbonkelberg on half bar and climbed up to 950m ASL before slipping round the corner into Hout Bay (see the panoramic picture – click on the image for much more detail).
The ride across the valley was swift and beautifully smooth, losing less than 200m altitude, and soon I could climb out again on the western flank of Constantiaberg. From 900m again I set off over Hout Bay itself, giving Noordehoek Peak a very wide berth (to avoid eagle disturbance) and aiming directly for Chapman’s Peak.
Arriving at over 700m, I didn’t find much lift, and so put the northerly at my back and headed for Kommetjie. I had a vague hope of getting onto Slangkop and from there to Misty Cliffs, but although I went overhead Kommetjie at 300m ASL this wasn’t enough height to get lift again, so I landed near the main road… about 500m short of bettering Abe Meyer’s distance record (who narrowly beat Ant Allen… it’s a cut-throat world in the South Peninsula). Interestingly, if you look at the paths of my two last XC flights in the area (starting quite close but heading in opposite directions), both are almost exactly 22km. Curious.
In any case, Tessa and Niel (bless them) were hot on my trail, and by taking a quick minibus ride I met them in Noordehoek. (“Vyf Rand Vishoek toe, Meneer!” “Wat as ek net Noordehoek toe wil ry?” “Net vyf Rand dan, Meneer!”). Along the way I was cussed properly by every PG pilot who phoned to hear how the wind was (Not mentioning names: you know who you are). It was by now blown out at LLH, but a light shone in the windy darkness: Adam West (chairman of the HG club, for those not in the know) called and was enlivened to hear that the NW had appeared, and was headed to Signal Hill. We deciede to go check it out.
Needless to say, wonderful flying was had at Sigs (several tandems also in attendance) before the wind backed off and left nothing else to do but raise glasses to a great day down at Mouille Point. I still think I owe T&N more beers, but more is nog ‘n dag.