27 April 2008

First XC flights

Yesterday I flew my first cross-country (XC) flight this season. In Finland, that is. Saturday, quite a few pilots gathered for the first day of flying at the Hyvinkää airfield. After noon the conditions became clearly thermic when a couple of pilots managed to stay up. I launched a bit before 2PM and after boating around a bit decided that conditions were good enough to try to get away.

Hyvinkää airfield is within the Helsinki main airport zone. This means that one can fly away only in northerly directions, and initially one has to adhere to a 4000 feet ceiling. So with a prevailing north-westerly wind, like yesterday, strong thermals that are not to far spaced apart are required.

And strong those thermals were! More interestingly there were long lines of strong lift. Once I decided to start my glide north, I expected to fly into strong sink but instead I just kept going up! The lift line didn't last forever but the next thermal wasn't far away. One more glide later I was out of the restricted airspace and could go higher. I never went higher than 2200 m and that was still over 300 m below cloudbase. Up there it was freezing though, so after some two and a half hours I started to feel cold and decided to look for a nice place to land. I noticed a large gas-station next to one of the national roads, which looked like an excellent place. Easy to arrange the retrieve and a possibility to get some warm food! So after a bit over 3 hours I was on the ground again, some 63 km from the airfield (see track).

Meanwhile Vesku and Samuli did fly approx. 50 km to a field some 25 km south from me. Our good pilot-friend Jony came to fetch us all, thanks! And the day was finished in style with a sauna in the middle of some forest, as our club had organised its annual meeting there. We missed the actual meeting, but were in time for the sauna and drinks!

23 April 2008

Excellent April

After a couple of days with exceptional good flying weather in early April, we now have another very good week.
Friday we had a good afternoon and evening for towing our paraglider students. On Saturday I went to Jämi where it was too windy in the afternoon but in the evening we could open the season there too. I practiced hanggliding for a change; I keep my good old Airwave Klassic (picture above) there at Jämi. In the evening we enjoyed of course a sauna, together with the sky jumpers of the Tampereen Laskuvarjokerho. Their pilot was kind enough to share his hotel room with us, thanks!

Sunday we woke up to a sunny sky again and started to tow in the morning. It was calmer now but with clear signs of thermal activity. I did a hanggliding flight first and already could stay up for a while. A little later I took my son up for a paragliding tandem flight and we quickly went up to 1100m. Where it was freezing cold of course! But the views were nice and I was considering flying cross-country but then realized that we were not prepared for that. No wallet, no phone, no water and not enough clothing. So after boating around for half an hour we searched for some sink and then flew down, landed and warmed up ourselves again.
Later spent another half hour flying the, now weaker, thermals with my hangglider. Once back home had another sauna to truly warm up again, and surely had no trouble falling asleep.

Meanwhile some other pilots enjoyed very good conditions at Kiikala airfield. Below a picture by Kimmo who was at Kiikala for the first time and was up for several hours!

And the good weather has continued all through this week. This weather is so rare in April, perhaps that's why so far not sufficiently many of us have been able to escape the ground suck and get to an airfield. Friday seems to be our next possibility...

16 April 2008

Practice, practice, practice

Today afternoon went to our local "bunny hill" here in Helsinki. The morning rain was gone and the winds were easterly. Moreover the overcast blocked thermals, which in this place is good as it is turbulent enough without those.
This Malminkartano hill is a former dump of construction waste that has been landscaped. It is now an entry in the "our own town" series of the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. The picture above with our Heimo launching on the main south-east slope made it into the printed paper last week.

Anyway, it is a good but challenging place to practice paragliding skills. Unless conditions are very calm the winds are almost always erratic. But the windsocks are very good, and there are 8 of them! There also isn't that much place to launch and in stronger winds it is easy to get blown over the top. Luckily that is not disastrous, the small bushes will catch you. Unfortunately the front, east, slope is rather forested nowadays. Still 5 years ago it was quite normal to launch straight east, you would easily fly over the then small trees. Within a couple of years the east slope will be "no-go".

After this winter with little flying I like all the practice one can get. Non-pilots, and new students, are always amazed at how much we practice ground handling, and on small hills like this. But every paraglider pilot knows that regular practice makes a huge difference. You get better at launching, so you can launch in less-than-perfect conditions, safely. You also get more precise in controlling the glider, which helps in light conditions, small thermals, tricky landings, etc. Above all practice gives confidence, of the good kind. Unjustified over-confidence is the enemy of safety, but true confidence makes you fly more, and fly more enjoyably. So we practice.

Over the last 5 years or so I've tried to be a bit systematic when practicing. I feel it helps, and makes sense, to make things deliberately more difficult at times; but in safe settings. Things like deliberately launching, or landing, in cross-winds even when there is room to head straight into the wind. So that when I am in situation where there is not such room I know what to expect and what to do. I also like to practice "low-saves", i.e. catching a thermal ever lower and see if I can still get up. And then go down again and try lower. Of course only when this is possible and doesn't impose an extra risk. At most of our airstrips here in Finland there is a house thermal next to the strip, so then there is plenty of place to land in case it doesn't work out.

Today the wind was mainly north-east-east and I did a lot of ground handling at the top. In 2 hours I only managed, and dared, to make two actual launches and flights. It required good technique and accurate timing, only after quite some practice I got it figured out. And I've been there many, many times before. What I did was to inflate a bit below the top on the east slope. As I could not really launch there, I backed up backwards and then steered to the right (south) all the time walking slowly with the glider inflated. Once I was on the south side of the stairs, and facing south-east-east I ran forward now with a cross wind of almost 90 degrees and launched. Once clear from the hill I could turn north, back to the slope side and into the wind. And today it was easy to get a bit above the hill again. But it was rough with the wind from this northerly direction, and that did not make it all that easy to stay high. Moving out front as usual only placed oneself into more turbulence, it was best to stay a bit closer to the hill and land on the bottom of the slope. Two hours busy and (only) 2 flights of perhaps 5 minutes each, but lots of fun. And good practice.

05 April 2008

The season is open!

Yesterday morning co-instructors Rami and Arto and myself had gathered most of our paragliding students at Nummela airfield. Very early in the year for us to be at an airfield. After an usual warm and sunny week practically all snow was gone and the field was dry. Only 2 weeks ago we were towing from the frozen lakes!
The prediction was for sunny and calm weather and we hoped to please all students with many flights. Once we started there was a bit more wind than we'd expected but not too bad. And up till noon we towed all students several times. Just when we were all getting hungry some students clearly floated in some thermal bubbles and stayed up for short periods. Likewise the erratic winds at our start indicated increasing thermal activity. Rami decided to check out the weather and stayed up easily. Then Arto towed me up and there were thermals everywhere. In fact surprisingly strong ones. In no time I hit the local airspace ceiling of 2500 MSL.
It was very easy to see the thick air laying above the greater Helsinki region. The air quality in recent days has been very poor, due to road dust (from the use of studded tires), fine soot (from fields burning in neighboring Russia) and pollen.
I glided a bit around the airfield and always found new thermals, at best a consistent 4 m/s up, with peaks of 5 m/s. As usual in spring the thermals were small and stingy, with strong sink adjacent to the thermals in narrow bands. After some 45 minutes I was really hungry and decided to go down. The lower 100 m above the airfield were quite turbulent now, and my rock ' roll in the landing approach convinced our students that we could not tow them now.
An hour later we instructors did some more flying and there was still plenty of thermal activity. But now with stronger winds and weaker thermals, so much more drifting.
After 3 pm I had to leave but Rami reported that later the winds calmed down and they continued to tow students, in the end some 50 flights were made.