4 días de onda en Santa Cilia por Jonathan Foster

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I am writing this as an impression of the wonderful wave flights I have had on this, my tenth and by far the best and the most exciting trip to Santa Cilia. It will not be a very technical description, but mostly a copy of the letter I am sending to my wife in England.

Thursday 8th March

A ripple of anticipation from the assembled pilots at the weather briefing at 9 o´clock, an hour earlier than usual. Tightly packed isobars on the chart mean strong North Westerly winds and wave to the south of the Pyrenees. The downside is the strong turbulence below & behind the wave, the dreaded rotor. All launches reported rough tows, but by the time we launched in the Lasham DG 1000, with John Mc Cullough in the back seat, conditions were rather calmer, but it was still rough enough before we entered the smooth wave over the valley at about 7000ft and saw the wave bars on the south side, marked by ragged cloud edges, showing even more clearly from 11,000 ft, when we put on oxygen and topped out at 12,000ft. Lift was steady, but never really strong, and we drifted up and down the valley testing out different places for the best, before pulling airbrakes after an hour to return.

Friday 9th March
Another day with forecast wave, but not so strong winds. Many gliders had launched and scratched around in the morning and early afternoon, but only one had managed to find it or stay up for any length of time and he had to take a very long tow up the Hecho valley to contact it. I launched late, about 3 pm, in the Pegase and Carlos towed me in a loop to the west of the valley & back towards the airfield. About 2000ft above the airfield height and to the west of Punta la Reina the vario needle hit the stop & stayed there. Rapidly pulling off I was in smooth 3 m/s lift straight up to 3000m. Calling Sta Cilia straight away, apparently there was a mad scramble to launch, but no one was able to follow me, so I was a VERY LUCKY MAN. The best lift was over the bend in the road between Punta la Reina & Berdun, a point where both Josef and Serge had said gave good lift. After I landed, a couple of hours later, I was christened Uber Wave Guru by Jim and Gerard, quite undeservedly.
Saturday 10th March. What a day!
The clearest blue visibility you can imagine. The forecast had those same tightly packed isobars of Thursday and the forecast wind was 55 kts Northerly at 10,000 ft, so there was another murmur of excitement from the assembled pilots. Alan Baker in the Grob motorglider had launched early and reported strong rotor and wave, as did two 2 seaters from the Midland Gliding Club. I was due for third launch in the Pegase, but the wind strengthened from the East and we had to change ends to launch 09 and I launched just as the Grob was landing & reporting rotor down to ground level, a great encouragement! Carlos gave me a quick briefing, that it would be extremely rough, but as soon as we broke through to the wave he would call on the radio & immediately turn right. After launching, we did a couple of turns in the valley to gain height, just normally rough. The next five or so minutes were the most testing flying I´ve ever had in a glider. We were both thrown so violently in every direction, up, down, sideways, the same way, opposite ways, banging my head on the canopy, in spite of being nearly suffocated by the straps. It wasn´t frightening, but needed ABSOLUTE concentration to try to stay somewhere behind this bucking and rearing tug. Once or twice I thought of giving up and pulling off, but the thought of failure and of having to endure what we were going through again on the way back made me grit my teeth and hang on. FINALLY, just beyond step 2 we broke through and an anguished call from the brave Carlos to pull off found us in the most stupendous smooth climb, off the clock, with the vario screaming and the mountains disappearing below as though we were in a lift. What a contrast to the tumult we´d just been through! At 4500m I had to pull the airbrakes full open to stop going even higher, and even then we were only staying level. Then I started going crabwise to the East, parallel to the peaks, towards the Ordesa Gorge and gradually the vario slowed down, first to level, then down, and down, and DOWN. So I quickly headed back the way I´d come, hoping to contact the lift again, but still the vario needle stuck on the down stop wherever I tried. And the mountains started to loom above and still the altimeter wound round….. Eventually, to the East of Collorada I hit rotor again at 2800m. But what rotor! The previous one was as childs play in comparison. The buffeting was so violent that at one stage the undercarriage came down and the airbrakes opened by themselves under the g force. I was fighting to gain altitude, gaining a few hundred feet only to lose it again a few seconds later, trying left and right. This must have gone on for 10 to 15 minutes, maybe more, but it seemed an eternity. There was always a Plan B, which was to land in the valley just to the east of Sabinanigo, where there were plenty of large green fields, but there was bound to be turbulence and always a doubt about the surface. There´s always a temptation to stay in the same place if things get difficult and you´re not losing height and hope things will improve, but clearly we were getting nowhere and I was getting weary of the constant battering. There was no way I could get back to the airfield from where I was, but in desperation I headed half as mile that way and slowly, very slowly, as I headed towards that great bulk of Collorada, the ups became more up and the downs became less down, till finally, JOY of JOYS! we broke through to the same incredible lift as the beginning, so within 5 minutes it was way below. Wearily now, back the way we came, but…….OH NO, not again. Exactly the same thing happened to the West of the Canfranc valley and down we went again to the tumult of the rotor at 2400m near Hecho. This time it might have been possible to get back to the airfield, but I could have hit massive sink on the way and the thought of having to undergo the worst of that rotor made me try the same tactic as before and head towards the mountains. The rotor seemed a violent as before, but, with a final bang, which was the battery coming out of its strap, there was the screaming vario and the mountains going below again. Time to head back. To avoid the worst of the rotor we went south over the top at 4500m, having to open the airbrakes again to stop rising, then letting down over the valley with full airbrake and trying to avoid the worst of the turbulence. I had anticipated sink on the downwind and was at 1200m at Somanes, but there was more than 5m sink and just enough room to spare on turning finals, landing in a 20 kt crosswind to a ticking off from Jose Antonio for getting too low and a BIG sigh of relief from me for getting back in one piece and big respect and gratitude to my faithful companion, my Pegase, for bringing me safely home through all the punishment she had to endure. Looking back, I believe my mistake was to fly at my normal 110 – 130 kmh and been blown back into the sink. With the amount of headwind, even 150 kmh wouldn´t have made much progress. It´s a mistake I won´t make again. So ended this most memorable of flights of great highs and lows, literally as well as emotionally, but with a quiet satisfaction at having coped with the most extreme conditions that I, and all the other pilots who flew that day, all with many more years and hours of experience, had ever had to endure. So I was promoted to Uber Uber Wave Guru, maybe more deservedly this time. And the beer tasted especially good that evening!

Sunday March 11th
This was to be another wave day, but with half the wind speed, so a much easier tow up the Aisa valley, but a long one, because the wave length was shorter and nearer the mountains. The lift was about half as strong, steadier and more widespread, as I found tracking east past the battleground of the previous day and discovering another reason for the sink there because of a gap beyond Panticosa where the Spanish mountains stop, so it´s necessary to go towards the French side to avoid the sink. After getting to Ordesa at 4700m, with the same stupendous blue visibility, there was more time to appreciate and photo the glory of the mountains and drift gently back to the west, topping out at 5500m at Hecho. What to do with all this height? Why not head towards Pamplona, way out west? Why not indeed, so, gently rising and falling, but maintaining height for most of the way, past the turquoise lake of Yesa and the row of wind turbines guarding the ridge at its west end, along the green and brown patchwork of the plain, now sinking gently, so turning short of Pamplona and returning the same way to the lake with enough height to detour to see the massive rock pillars of Riglos overlooking the plain stretching all the way to Madrid and beyond. Then back to Santa Cilia in great contentment at the 3 hour flight and the time to enjoy it. In spite of the sun, it was a cold one at that height and even with gloves I got a white finger when my hand was below the cockpit rim which I had to thaw in the sun.

Jonathan Foster
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