Times when I flew like a bird

My eyes have been turned skywards for as long as I can remember.

As a young boy I had a a flock of pigeons which would wheel around the house and the neighbourhood , and at night sleep in absolute luxury in the imposing loft my grandfather and I built for them. It had no doors that closed, and the individual rooms had more comfort than a pigeon needed. There was a lot of breeding. Some of the adult birds would land on my arm at my bidding. That I could strike such a bargain with a free-flying bird always seemed wonderful to me.

I read books about aeroplanes as fast as I could find them. I read all the Biggles books (still in my library). I built model aeroplanes, some flew and some were just to look at. I made kites of all sorts. I experimented with diamond kites, square kites, box kites, multiple kites on the one string, and cardboard propellers made out of rectangular Jaffa packets which once the kite string was threaded through a hole in the middle, would spin their way heavenwards up the string until they reached the kite.

I recall a black and white picture buried deep in a volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica of the cockpit of a 1950s passenger aircraft flying over some vast ocean on an international flight in the dead of night. The pilot, co-pilot and engineer had short haircuts, were smartly dressed and seemed relaxed but focussed in the dim light of the cockpit. The glow from the walls of instruments surrounding them cast them in shadow as much as light. The cockpit seemed like a cosy small scale version of the vast dome of starlit night sky outside the cockpit. By attention to the details of that cockpit they were flying high in the night sky between hemispheres on the globe. As a boy with a bike and a dog, who went fishing, built billy carts, kept pigeons and guinea pigs and read a lot, this seemed wonderful and audacious and remarkable.

I wanted to fly. As a boy still of single-figure years, I accompanied my parents to Essendon Airport to farewell someone. We stood on the open air upper deck of the old terminal as the aircraft warmed up the engines after the doors had been closed and the passenger stairs wheeled back. It was a large turbo prop, probably a Vickers Viscount or a Lockheed Electra. It then started taxying and turned directly away from us. The turbine engines even at taxying settings made an excitingly loud and substantial noise that I could feel as well as hear. I still recall the powerful, warm and heady blast of avtur (turbine engine fuel) fumes that enveloped us for a short time. For some reason the experience thrilled me. This huge complicated machine was about to leave the earth and fly high and far. The crew might not have had their photo in an encyclopaedia, but I recognised it as the same deal.

As a teenager, when I had a job as a xmas postman on a red pushbike, I prepared for the weeks in the sun by going to the Geelong library and borrowing a book on clouds. I studied the book and as I delivered the xmas mail around various suburbs, I began to learn that there were classifications beyond white and fluffy. A lifelong fascination with the weather was under way.

I had my first flying lesson on 5 October 1968 at Grovedale Airport (now a fully developed housing estate). My logbook records the lesson as ‘air experience and effects of controls’. The flight was in a Cessna 150 registered VH-KUM, and lasted for an hour and 25 minutes. Its paint job was white and faded maroon. The instructor was Aub Coote. At that stage, I could only afford a lesson a fortnight ($14.50/hr dual). My last flight as pilot in command of a fixed wing aircraft was on 12 April 2012 (the final leg of a flight from Melbourne to Darwin). I flew a total of 2720 hours in powered aircraft in the intervening years.

I obtained a commercial pilot licence, and a grade 1 instructor rating. I was endorsed on light twin engine aircraft, and held an aerobatics rating. I was also qualified to fly at night. I sent a lot of people first solo, saw a lot of Australia from the air, and experienced weather up close and in all its glory. I realised many of my flying dreams and aspirations in those years. Flying stretched my mind, uplifted my spirits and took me on adventures that are a rich library of memories into which I delve when I wish to be pleasantly lost in my own thoughts.

I also flew sailplanes for a year or two. The highlight of the gliding was a 50km out and back solo flight from Tocumwal to Jerilderie, soaring effortlessly and pretty much in straight lines under lines of sizeable cumulus clouds.

Soaring solo around cloud base (in an LS4) above the big paddocks north of Tocumwal.

But such matters are not the central subject of this post. It was not until my feet left the ground while I was attached to a hang glider, in December 1978, that I realised it was actually possible to fly like a bird. This post shares a few of my experiences over the years as a hang glider pilot. Circumstances dictated that there were times when I was not in a position to hang glide. Despite such gaps, I kept being drawn back to it. But I remain an inexperienced hang glider pilot. That said, the joy and great satisfaction I have experienced being airborne with the wind in my face cannot be measured in hours and minutes. Hang gliding remains one of the best things I have done in my life. Of all the forms of flying I have undertaken, hang gliding remains the purest and most intense form. It’s the flying that is closest to what a soaring bird does. I consider myself privileged to have been born into the era which coincided with the advent of the hang glider.

The age-old dream of humans to fly like a bird did not become a practical reality until the coming of the hang glider. Interestingly, any hang glider pilot transported back to early Roman or Greek times could build a safe and flyable hang glider with materials available in those eras. The dream was present then, but not the knowledge.

The 5 minute video below, which consists of highlights from a summer of hang gliding in 2000/2001, captures something of the satisfaction, the adventure, the beauty and the sheer joy of flying a hang glider. (The editing quality will reveal why I have persisted with the still photo rather than the moving image).

The video shows the following: taking off from Mt Buffalo; approach and landing at the old Goal Paddock in Bright; taking off from Mystic (also known as Bright Hill); approach and landing at the landing paddock in the northern end of the Wandiligong valley just south of Bright, after flying from Mystic; taking off from Moggs Creek, just west of Aireys Inlet on the Great Ocean Road; taking off from Marriners Lookout at Apollo Bay and landing in a paddock between the hills and the beach. In all clips, I am flying the Airborne Fun 190.

The balance of the photos and captions document a few highlights of my modest hang gliding journey from sand dune to cloud base, for those interested.

The photos are old and many have not fared well in the transformation from a print on photographic paper to a digital image. But I have included the photos in this account because I think they capture something of the early era of hang gliding, which by this stage is long gone and already fading from the memory of those who participated in it.

Teaching myself to fly the Wings Ranger on the Eyre Peninsula (South Australia) in the late 1970s

December 1978, feet off the ground at the dunes near Coffin Bay, South Australia. I was learning to fly by trial and error in the Wings Ranger which I bought from Chris Cowley. There were a few Pt Lincoln locals who were also teaching themselves to hang glide. I started by walking into wind on the beach, then jogging a little to feel the glider lighten without actually lifting me off the ground. Then I did the same thing from lower part of the dunes, moving progressively further up. From the top of the dune, I was getting airborne at a height definitely higher than I was prepared to fall. Minor left and right turns were made in these short flights, and of course every such flight involved a landing. I got a lot of practice at takeoffs and landings. These little flights were exhilarating. But it was solid work carrying the glider back to the top of the dune.
Once takeoffs and landings from the sand dune were occurring without incident and without my heart in my mouth, I progressed to higher hills and coastal cliffs. The hang harness I used for some time was very basic (see next photo), consisting of a triangle of canvas, with leg loops and a hang line sewn on. The hang line attached to the hang glider with a carabiner. There was a light strap which did up with a two ring belt fastener across my chest. Blood supply to the legs was cut off at times, and my potential for contributing to the perpetuation of the species was also significantly at risk. More than a few flights were cut short by the need to land with one leg rapidly going off line and causing pain.

Flying with a bit more altitude gave me more time to practice turns. Reflecting the primitive state of the sport back then, when a rating system was introduced one of the earlier competencies required to be demonstrated was the 360° turn in front of a hill (one to the left and one to the right). So it was that we eagerly counted, discussed and recorded our 180° and 360° turns as our skill levels and confidence improved, even though such turns were often elliptical and rarely level, at least at first.

I recall that I developed doubts about the strength and suitability of the rope from which I was suspended. It was plastic looking and multiply braided – it looked like cast-off nautical line of some sort. Without tension on it, the braiding used to spring back to a loose position. It looked more like rope when under tension. It did’t look new. But rather than discard it, I went to a hardware store and bought some multi strand steel wire, which they kindly turned into a loop with a swage using a swaging tool they had. A small expense for a very worthy cause. This was my backup hang loop. It never had to bear my weight, but I felt more secure with it there.

Close up of the harness in use in the photos before and after this one. Seems to have all the necessary elements: two leg loops, a loop for each arm, a strap across the chest and a rope to hang it all from, all held together with a triangle of canvas.

This south-west facing coastal soaring site was known as Silly Point (on the south west coast of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia). We top landed behind this takeoff spot. The Ranger had flexible plastic battens which did not give form to the wing as the later fixed shape aluminium battens did. It needed a pretty good breeze to fly in coastal lift. We often flew in wind measured at 25 or even 30 knots. The stainless steel plates under the king post to which the hang strap was attached offered a choice of three holes – the forward hole was for very strong winds, and the rear two holes were for strong winds. This primitive device allowed the pilot to change the centre of gravity of the glider – useful to ensure ‘penetration’ (positive forward groundspeed) in strong winds.
An inland site we flew on the Eyre Peninsula. It had enough elevation to cop the full blast of the westerlies. This photo shows how little the flexible plastic battens did for wing shape. As the grass, the onlookers and the sail show, this was a very windy day. We were waiting for the wind to abate to at most 30 knots. But before that happened, the bowing upright visible in the photo snapped with the force of the load on the wing. We always carried spare uprights, as they were a consumable for those teaching themselves to hang glide. Note that the base bar has no wheels or skids. Modern gliders, especially for beginners, are all equipped with wheels for landings that are less than perfect. If I blew a landing on the Ranger, I would often bend an upright (which was straightened and put back in service) or broken and replaced. At that stage I either didn’t know, or didn’t fully understand, that the force of the wind goes up as the square of the factor of its increase: a 20 knot wind has 16 times more force than a 5 knot wind. Or, without numbers, as wind speed increases, the power you feel increases exponentially.
As my confidence with takeoffs, landings and gentle turns grew, I sought higher and higher takeoff sites. This is Mount Greenly, not far north of Coffin Bay on the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia. I had many flights from this 650 foot rocky ridge which was parallel to the coast and facing directly into the westerlies coming across the Great Australian Bight. That’s me airborne in the Ranger. Access to this takeoff site was to bush bash up the full 650 feet of the eastern face of this ridge, with the hang glider on one shoulder.
The view from Mt Greenly. As with most sports that involve equipment, I find the rituals satisfying and not to be rushed. This includes setting up and packing up. I am shown here sorting out the various cables, tangs, nuts and bolts as a prelude to raising the glider on the A frame, and attaching the wires from the A frame corners to the nose (the very front end of the keel). That was the moment when the jumble of sail, cables, aluminium and other bits and pieces became a flying machine. The Great Australian Bight is the backdrop in this image. Because of the elevation of this site, we didn’t want too much wind in evidence on the water as it was stronger up higher. The surface of the sea provides a very accurate way of assessing wind strength and direction from above. The ever present risk of strong wind on such a site, especially for a glider such as the Ranger which didn’t have a great top speed, was getting blown over the back of the ridge. That is, with the pilot’s weight fully forward (max throttle), the glider was pointing forwards but going backwards. Rough and possibly unflyable air awaited over the back in the lee of the hill.
Jack Langmead loved Mount Greenly. Dear, faithful Jack. He was smart, and a constant companion. He was also very fit. I did a lot of running in those days in that beautiful part of the world. But never without Jack (I don’t recall ever having him on lead in Pt Lincoln). I often did a few laps in the middle of some runs in the shark nets at the Pt Lincoln jetty. Jack would dive in after me (more of a belly whacker actually). He usually caught up with me after half a lap or so, and would try to climb on to me. This involved scratching and general inconvenience. So we developed a routine: after half a lap I would look over my shoulder and check that Jack was in fact closing on me, then I’d duck dive before he got to me, swim back under him and surface and keep swimming to where I’d started. He’d take enough time looking around for me after I went underwater that I’d get a good lead for the return half lap before he started following me again. Repeat for as many laps as required. I don’t think he enjoyed the swims like he enjoyed the running. I believe he saw it more as a rescue mission.
I was mighty pleased to have this new apron harness in which I could fly prone, with my feet on the rung which I would release after holding it near the base bar for takeoff. That’s Chris Cowley ‘wiring’ me off. The wire man’s job is to hold the front wires very lightly, ready to grip them firmly if a gust threatens to raise the nose suddenly and upend the glider. The pilot positions the nose in a level or slightly lower position for takeoff, keeping the wings level laterally. When the glider was settled in the right attitude, and felt stable, Chris would confirm that he had no pressure on the wires. If he was applying a strong downward force, then of course when he let the wires go the nose would pop and the glider could well flip over on its back. I would then say ‘Clear’, and he’d immediately take his fingers off the wires and duck down and to the side quickly. ‘Clear’ meant I was ready for takeoff and that I should be expected to takeoff without delay. Immediately after takeoff I’d stay in the hang position (body vertical, legs dangling) until speed and attitude etc were all sorted. This didn’t take long. Then as soon I was established in clear air with height, I would drop the stirrup connected to the bottom of the harness by the ropes visible in the photo, then position my feet on the stirrup as I lay down on the apron harness. The ropes were now taut, my legs were fully extended and I was lying prone. The glider and pilot performed a lot better in this low drag position than with the pilot vertical. It was prone flying that truly felt like flying like a bird. While the pilot can see the base bar, unless you look up or sideways, the glider is virtually out of sight. There is no other view like it.
Jack Langmead asking himself once again, ‘Why does he always bring me all the way up here only to disappear into the sky like this?’ Jack would monitor my flight as shown, then when I landed or sometimes just a bit before, he would head off down the mountain over the rocks and through the dense scrub, generally arriving at my feet with a panting smile before I had even had time to remove my harness and helmet. I enjoyed Jack’s company on our hang gliding trips. It’s a wonder he never got bitten by a snake there. We saw a few on this mountain.
Contemplating recycling this cray-pot component found on the beach. Test run of doffing to see if it had potential as a hat for my noggin (which compared to some pinheads, has a substantial circumference). It didn’t.

You may have noticed the plaster on my right arm. On 6 September 1979, at a cliff site north of this point, I had my first flight at this site, and also my first flight with my new prone harness. I had never used such a harness before. How hard could it be? Modern wisdom might say too many new things at once. The trouble with learning by trial and error is that the errors are expensive. Anyway, I crashed into the cliff (I stopped where I hit, on the sloping top part of the cliff, not the sheer vertical lower part with rocks and waves below it). Analysis with the benefit of hindsight suggests the causes included: the wind dropping out a bit without me noticing until after I was below cliff-top height; me trying to scratch back at slow speed to a spot where a gap had been eroded in the cliff edge which I (over-optimistically!) thought might be used for a landing; my assessment of airspeed in the newly prone position was inadequate; I allowed the glider to get too slow in my earnestness to keep flying below cliff top height to somewhere better to land than rocks and surf; the glider stalled, dropped a wing and turned into the cliff. I pushed out on the base bar while heading straight back at the cliff and completed a 180° descending ‘turn’ (not a controlled turn as that wing had stalled), but hit the cliff with the base bar and my knuckles at an angle of bank which matched the angle of the sloping (but still steep) upper section of the cliff.

An upright broke, the base bar was bent, and even though a bit dazed, I was able to sit on the rocky slope, my legs under the edge of the sail of the collapsed glide nodding my head ineffectually as my nose bled profusely all over my hitherto pristine sail. I remember thinking I had ruined my sail. I wasn’t in any great pain. I knew I had done a bit of damage to myself and was quite groggy. My orbit was fractured in three places, my zygoma (cheekbone) suffered a depressed fracture, my nose was broken, my top jaw was broken in two places, my right arm was broken and my knuckles were scraped and I lost a thumbnail (jammed between the base bar and rocks when I hit). Other than that, all good. Luckily Liz (a nurse) was on duty at the Pt Lincoln hospital when I arrived in casualty. Her exact words upon seeing me were, “What have you done to yourself you duffer?” I ended up (thanks to an Adelaide oral maxillofacial surgeon, NOT thanks to the Pt Lincoln medicos who identified only soft tissue damage – they missed every broken bone!) with my upper and lower jaws wired together for a month and living through a straw, and with my broken arm in a cast. I came good pretty quickly once the jaws were unwired.

Everyone I flew with back then had a significant flying incident. Some of us got hurt more than others. Some died. This is to be expected I suppose given we had no real guidance or knowledge. Many hang glider pilots back then came from surfing or sailing backgrounds. Sea level is a better height at which to make an error than 1000 feet above the ground (or even at more than 15 feet above the ground). Around the time of my accident there was a year when 5 pilots died in Australia. The sport is now highly organised and closely regulated. There are licences, training course, and sanctions for those who choose to fly unsafely. Glider design and pilot training have brought the accident rate right back. The collective experience of successive generations of hang glider pilots has been passed on and applied and has seen the sport mature and become acceptably safe.
L to R: VH-AMO (Cessna 170), Theo Modra, Chris Cowley and Larry Jones. Theo owned a farm out the back of Pt Lincoln, and also owned Thistle Island, at the foot of Spencer Gulf. Theo flew between these properties in his vintage Cessna 170 (a single engine tail dragger). When he learned that there was interest in hang gliding in the lift on the north facing bowl of Thistle Island (see next photo) when the winds were from the north, he had the perfect solution to transporting the gliders over there – strap them on the side of his aeroplane. I flew the rest of the crew over in a Cessna 172. Theo said old AMO pulled to the left a bit but was fine. The hang gliding was also successful. The spirit of aviators is to be admired.
Thistle Island at the foot of Spencer Gulf. There was a whalers’ cottage on the island (the only residence back then) which we often hired for wonderful long weekends on this remote island. I’d pilot a light aircraft to get passengers to and from the island. That’s Wedge Island on the horizon.

Progressing to inland flying (foot launches)

Looking down on Bright Hill, or Mystic as it came to be called. I was flying a Moyes Mars 170 which I bought in March 1990 (after doing a ‘refresher’ course – which in fact was my first and only course – with Steve Ruffels at Bright).
Looking straight down at launch on Bright Hill (also known as Mystic). I had taken off there, and climbed well above launch height in one of the thermals which can reliably be found to the left or right of launch. These thermals were known by local pilots as Markus and Emily.

The corner of the instrument visible on the right is my Sjostrom Variometer – an instrument which measures altitude with a readout, and vertical speed with a numerical value and an aural signal. The vario beeps with increasing pitch and frequency as you encounter lift, and makes a low pitched sound when you are in sink or otherwise descending. Thermalling can be done without a vario but it is more efficient, especially in light thermal conditions, with such an instrument.

The instrument mounted on the aluminium rod to the left is my basic but effective airspeed indicator. There is a ram air inlet facing forward, and the red horizontal disc in the plastic tube rises and falls in direct proportion to the mass airflow (airspeed). It is calibrated in mph, being from the USA. Surprisingly it was accurate enough to be useful. But a pilot should not rely on an airspeed indicator for safe flight. Slow speed in particular should be sensed by the feel of the controls and the airflow over the pilot and the wing.

Coastal flying involves almost exclusively flying in ridge lift created by onshore winds of sufficient strength. Accordingly, coastal flyers get comfortable with ground handling and with taking off and landing in winds of reasonable strength. What we considered reasonable in the Wings Ranger days would now be considered too strong. We often flew in wind measured at a steady 30 knots (with the hang loop attach point on the front hole!). In the modern era, most coastal flying takes place in the 12-20 knot range, perhaps a bit stronger in high performance gliders.

Inland flyers on the other hand sometimes fly in ridge lift, but more often fly in thermal lift. So takeoffs inland are often in lighter winds than would sustain flight by ridge lift. The aim is to get airborne, quickly find a thermal, circle and climb then head off cross country. So inland flyers are comfortable with and proficient at light wind takeoffs. Taking off in light winds means that before the takeoff run starts the glider doesn’t generate lift and tauten the hang strap by the sail rising while just standing there (as usually happens with coastal flying), and the need to run while keeping the glider level and the nose down (to avoid it ‘popping’ and stalling the glider on takeoff) to build up airspeed is a critical skill. It was widely recognised back in the early days that coastal flyers needed a bit of practice and guidance to perfect their light wind takeoffs. They also needed to learn how to recognise a thermal, and how to climb in thermal lift.
As the sport evolved, so did the instruments available to pilots. L to R: Brauniger vario (incorporating altitude, vertical speed and airspeed readouts); airspeed sensor feeding the vario; GPS for cross country navigation and distance recording.
Buckland Ridge, between Bright and Myrtleford. In southerly winds of suitable strength, this arc of ridge provided very reliable ridge lift. It is also a premium site from which to thermal. Many happy flights from here, even though the drive in was a bit hard on the vehicles.

This upright is on my Enterprise Wings Combat 152 which I purchased from Alan Beavis in November 1992. Note the black plastic wheel fitted to the base bar. In the event of an inland landing in light or nil wind, if the pilot did not pull off the perfect full flare no-step landing with the glider not touching the ground until he lowered it gently, such a wheel either side of the base bar would allow the forward momentum of the glider contacting the ground to be dissipated over a landing roll of a metre or two. Such wheels have saved many a base bar (and probably uprights too).
It can be a pointless matter of pride for some pilots not to have wheels on the base bar (as they no doubt add marginally to drag in flight and to some, suggest inexperience). I’m not bothered by such appearances. With the exception of the Ranger, my gliders have all had some sort of wheels on the base bar.
A flight from Mt Emu in my Moyes Mars 170 in November 1992. I was testing a new camera set up. I had my Nikon DSLR mounted on the cross bar with a counter-balancing lead weight on the opposite cross bar. I operated the shutter with a pneumatically operated shutter release via a connecting tube cunningly wound around the RH upright. Certainly better resolution and focus than previous efforts. A pity I was in a Mars 170, and obviously bombing out when this well focussed photo was taken. That pudding bowl helmet was bought by mail order from the USA not long after I bought the Ranger.
The old Goal Paddock at Bright, Victoria. It was so named because it served as the goal paddock in the world hang gliding championship held in the Bright area in 1988. The video in this post shows me doing a final approach over the line of trees immediately to the viewer’s left of the brown paddock.
The Enterprise Wings Combat 152 in a landing paddock at Bright. When looking at this photo I can smell the air and the vegetation of those wonderful valleys, and I fondly recall the convivial company of other pilots at the end of a day as we packed up in the landing paddock.
The Moyes pod harness, ICOM CB radio, emergency parachute packed in the chest compartment of the harness and hang glider packing pieces lying around. The pickup ritual is never annoying. It is often protracted if other pilots are doing the same thing, by talk of the flights just completed.
Georgie trying out the new pod harness. Note the marine buoys on the base bar – they act as makeshift wheels and are often used in training. They work.
Jess and Georgie were there to meet me after I landed at the Goal Paddock in Bright.
There’s no place like cloud base.

I was at an altitude of 7,500′ at this point, flying fast in an attempt to descend and stay out of the cloud. The lift was strong under the cloud, especially close to cloud base. It was very hot on Bright Hill where I took off, but quite cool at this altitude. Thermalling up this high in such conditions is a great pleasure. I always carried water in a camelback strapped to my back. The tube to my mouth was routed via my harness straps. One benefit of flying high was that water would condense on the exposed length of tube between camelback and mouth, which in the constant airflow would refrigerate the water in that part of the tube. So I always had at least a couple of mouthfuls of beautiful chilled water to drink, before getting to the lukewarm water.

Tow launches in the flatlands

I did my hang gliding ground-tow endorsement in a paddock near Yarrawonga in March 1994. The towing vehicle was an old Valiant with a payout winch attached to the tower. As still air was good for tow training, we had the gliders assembled by not long after dawn. I like the translucent pastels on the wings of the gliders (my Combat 152 is the far glider) as they were backlit by the morning sun.
The procedures established for ground towing in the modern era of hang gliding work well. Aircraft pilot style procedural phrases and acknowledgments are used. The pilot stands holding the glider, and when he signals the tow to commence, the pilot waits a moment while the tension on the line builds a little, then walks a step or so then then runs forward. The feet are not on the ground for long. The pilot releases at a time of his choosing. A broken tow rope or premature release from some other cause is always a consideration. Similarly, the glider developing a turn one way or the other can quickly lead to a lock-out (steepening turn ending in impact with the ground) if the tow release is not quickly operated. Generally, I released around 800 feet or so, maybe a bit earlier if I flew through a good thermal. The plan then was to circle gently back towards the launch end of the paddock in case a thermal wasn’t found. But at most paddocks in Australia in summer, after about 11am, there will be thermals.
Waiting at sunset for a pickup after a X-country flight of over 20kms.
In December 1994 I attended a week long cross country tour at Birchip organised by Rohan Holtkamp (a gliding instructor who runs a very successful and well regarded hang gliding school from his property at Beaufort in Victoria). The paddocks around Birchip are huge, the sun is hot and the thermals are strong and plentiful. We were all accommodated in the Birchip Pub. Tow launches here were done using a trolley on wheels. The pilot starts the takeoff in a prone position, and upon releasing the trolley is immediately airborne and remains in the prone position as the glider clubs away quite steeply. This system works very well.

The lines visible over the base bar are, L to R: the tow line release line (red); the tow bridle (connecting my harness to the tow line); and the VB cord (which allows me to alter the camber of the wing in flight to improve the glide ratio and maximum speed as required. The VB line pulls the cross bars back along the keel, tightening the sail and turning it into a higher performance wing. VB stands for variable billow. VG is an alternative term for the same thing, and stands for variable geometry.
Late afternoon flight from the tow paddock out of Birchip. Start of a 16km glide to the north from Culgoa, augmented by a few late in the day thermals. VB was full on for the entire glide. It is released for final approach and landing, as the glider is more responsive in roll and can fly slower with the VB off.
This was the dry and dusty stubble paddock (16kms north of Culgoa) in which I landed on another day during the cross country tour after a 25km flight from the launch paddock. I radioed my intended landing position to the retrieve crew on descent before I got too low for the line of sight CB to work. The air was so still late on this hot afternoon, that dust raised by my boots tended to stay just hanging in the air before slowly settling or dispersing. The waiting was totally quiet and very peaceful. I felt great.

A couple of days after this flight I flew my PB X-country distance being 38kms from the launch paddock to a paddock south of Wycheproof. The flight was done in a gusty nor’westerly, under an overcast sky of high cloud. I released at 900′ AGL, climbed to 3500′, had a low save from 1300′, then climbed to 6550 over Dumosa in powerful thermals in unstable pre-frontal air. It was a lengthy and relaxing final glide to my landing, if a little bumpy at times as it neared the ground. . I waited for the retrieve crew stretched out on the dusty stubble in the shade of the Combat, head on the harness and camelback tube in mouth, rehydrating with luke-warm water. I remember feeling very satisfied.

Flying from Mount Buffalo

Flying a hang glider from Mt Buffalo warrants its own sub-heading. This takeoff ramp ends with a sheer drop of about 2000 feet to bush and rocks below. The ramp is 3200 AGL. As the site guide says, there is no room for mistakes here.

I recall when I first started flying around Bright, I visited this ramp with a view to assessing whether it was for me. I concluded that it was not. I would be content flying off other hills with less critical takeoffs. I would leave Buffalo to others without any qualms. But after regularly flying in this area for a few years and after having flown well above Mt Buffalo on quite a few occasions, I began to view this launch as a good clear launch at which I could use the same technique that was serving me well on all the other launches in the area, with the safety of immediate significant height above terrain after takeoff, enormous thermal potential in every direction, and a wealth of options even if just just gliding down from this height.

On 8 January 1993 Mark Verhayden, an experienced local pilot and instructor, agreed to supervise my first launch here. We went early one still morning, before the thermals kicked off. It all went well, as did all my subsequent launches from Buffalo. After some regular inland flying, height is good and feels safe. My thoughts about standing on this ramp ready for takeoff had become all positives – I’ll be airborne quickly, I’ll be high quickly. My only thoughts on launch here are flying thoughts. I still paid very close attention to the conditions, I would not use this site in conditions which had any question mark over them, and I never needed reminding about the need for focus on preparation and takeoff here.
Lizzie relaxing on the Mt Buffalo launch ramp
A small telltale is visible on the front left of the ramp. In summer, there is also one on the other side. It is very important for a pilot hooked in and standing on that rear section of the ramp sloping back, to know what the wind is doing on and near the ramp for a safe takeoff here. This involves appreciating the big picture – from which direction is the general weather pattern producing winds? – and the micrometeorological picture – what is the wind in my face doing, what is the wind doing at the left of the ramp, the right of the ramp and beyond the ramp? Such trees as I can see in the vicinity, what are they indicating as to thermal activity? The hang gliders that took off before me, what did they encounter?

The scale of Mt Buffalo can produce some interesting wind behavior. For example, a light wind up the face of launch, apparently from the north, can in fact be caused by a steady gradient wind from the south blowing over the back of the mountain. That apparent light northerly can be caused by the rotor effect of the southerly going overhead at height in the opposite direction. While the moment of takeoff might be OK in such conditions, flight shortly thereafter could well be turbulent in what is actually the LEE side of the mountain. Knowing the big picture matters.
Overlying the Buffalo gorge on another occasion with a few thousand feet of clearance. The Buffalo Chalet is in the centre of the frame.
Preparing the glider for takeoff. That’s the glider’s nose cone on the bush. It wraps around the very front of the glider, making it streamlined. We were not as close to the edge here as it looks.
Mark acting as my wireman. I do recall thinking that a harness for Mark and some sort and a secure line to an anchor point might not have been overkill. The ramp is quite steep, and the first step off it is a big one. The nose of the glider must be lower than for a launch from a gentler slope without a 2000 foot drop after a short takeoff run. This is to prevent it lifting and slowing the glider during the takeoff run, with the risk of a stall, wing drop and turn back into the rock face immediately past the end of the ramp. Good airspeed as you leave the ramp is required. My first takeoff shown here was safe, but on subsequent takeoffs I kept the nose even lower.
I was airborne in about half the length of the ramp. That’s Mark out of the way beside the ramp making sure my side wires clear his head. The nose at this point was a bit higher than is ideal.
Seems I got the nose back to a better angle by this point.
The video at the top of this post opens with a takeoff from Mt Buffalo. The position of the nose during that takeoff is where I like it for this site.
Manoeuvring in the gorge to see if by some chance there was a thermal at that hour of the day. There wasn’t.
Setting heading for Porepunkah airstrip, over that heavily timbered ridge on the right. A smooth nil wind landing there completed the flight. A great start to the day.

Flying at Rainbow Beach, and off the Remarkables in New Zealand

I camped with a group of pilots (including Hughbert Alexander) at the foot of the dunes on Teewah, north of Noosa in Qld. I hired a Moyes Ventura (floater) from a local for the week. This flight was at Rainbow Beach, a north facing site. The takeoff was from the Carlo Sandblow, a gap in the dunes with a gentle slope on its higher part which is just steeper than a hang glider’s glide angle.
Geoff Dossetor kindly arranged for me to borrow a Combat 152 (same model as mine) for a memorable, cold and smooth flight in very good lift off the Remarkables, near Queenstown in the south island of New Zealand. Geoff , a champion pilot, ran a tandem hang gliding business from Queenstown. Geoff took off shortly after wiring me off and flew with me. This flight was on 28 July 1994. We took off just below the snow line. We were only 2-3kms from Queenstown airport, large passenger aircraft operate. Separation procedures were in place.
Smooth, cold air. The glassiest winter lift I have ever flown in. We landed on lush green grass in winter shadows in a valley just south of the mountain where we took off.

Flying at Apollo Bay

In October 1999 I had my first flight of the new Airborne Fun 190 from Marriners Lookout at Apollo Bay. The harbour can be seen in the distance. The large set of wheels are on the buggy I use to wheel the hang glider up to this launch.
I can’t recall ever taking off from Marriners Lookout without an audience. It’s a beautiful and popular spot. Regrettably it’s no longer practically available for hang gliders, since a wire fence was erected across the takeoff run.
Wheeling around above Marriners Lookout after takeoff, in a mixture of light ridge lift and big soft thermals.
Good height over launch. There is a hang glider parked on launch. That shiny black object is one of two neoprene mitts fixed to the base bar, to keep the hands warm in longer flights. In the cold onshore winds blowing in from the Southern Ocean, these mitts are gold after an hour or so of flying.
Lizzie was my retrieve driver for my Apollo Bay flying. I’d radio her and identify a location and time for my landing so there was no waiting after she arrived with the old Volvo wagon.
Landing on the beach in front of the servo at Apollo Bay.
Peter Batchelor on a day of low stratus, light winds and sea mist, bringing his EF5 down over the eucalypts below Marriners Lookout for a landing on the grass. This was a very innovative hang glider designed, built and sold by Ewan Fagan. They never took the world by storm but owners loved them and by all reports they flew very well. This is one of many hang gliders owned by Peter.
Fiona, highly experienced hang glider pilot and paraglider pilot (and instructor for both) at Apollo Bay, waiting for cloud to lift for her student paraglider pilots to fly.
Doing up the helmet ready for launch on Marriners Lookout. The carbon fibre helmet which replaced the more primitive red pudding bowl helmet shown in photos above. I don’t wear a full face helmet hang gliding, even though many if not most pilots seem to. The reason is that the oral maxillofacial surgeon who fixed up my facial fractures in 1979, commented that the force of the impact that caused those injuries, had I been wearing a full face helmet, might well have broken my neck.
Apollo Bay. I now spend much of my time in this town.
Flying the Fun 190 in light ridge lift near Moggs Creek on the west coast.

I have not flown my hang glider since the fence was put up at Marriners Lookout. But on racks in my garage at Apollo Bay, there is a Wings Ranger, an Enterprise Wings Combat 152 and an Airborne Fun 190, a Moyes pod harness, a carbon fibre helmet, a couple of CB radios, a Brauniger vario and a flying suit. There is some faint prospect of another takeoff site at Apollo Bay becoming available……

9 thoughts on “Times when I flew like a bird

    1. Kind of you to say so Hughbert.

      I do hope you put pen to paper at some stage to share the facts (and photos) of highlights from your wonderful hang gliding career to date with the rest of us. If your busy life doesn’t permit the full story to be told at the moment, then at least have a crack at a detailed account of your history of coastal runs from Bells Beach to Apollo Bay, including some of the adventures of those who frequently did that run with you. I’d love to read a turn by turn account of such flights.


  1. Wow! What a great read, long but very interesting and informative for a non-flyer. You kept me captivated and I read the lot. Your photos are awesome too, even the old ones, they provide a great insight into the history of the sport. Interesting the reason you don’t wear a full face helmet, your life probably saved by breaking your face! I ride mountain bikes and wear a full face helmet because I want to keep my teeth. You have me reconsidering. I know this is an older post, but glad I found it. Thanks for the effort.


    1. Given your interests as they appear from your blog Tone, I am glad you found your way to this post. It records a thread of my flying history which created many great memories for me. As for helmet issues, I suspect that operating speeds (and hence impact speeds in the case of an accident) for hang gliders and mountain bikes are in a similar range.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suspect a hang-glider would be faster, however take-offs and landings would be the riskiest part of flying? Generally there’s always plenty of things to hit careening down a rocky trail, let’s hope both of us have had our last incident 😀


      2. Yes, any operation close to the ground is relatively riskier than flying at altitude. But of course mid-air collisions and dangerous weather (most notably, weather associated with well developed cumulonimbus clouds) while flying well above the ground are also hazards to keep in mind. Modern high performance hang gliders are tested to speeds of over 54 kts (100kph) which is probably a speed rarely if ever experienced on a mountain bike. But my recreational glider stalls at 9 knots (17kph), has a trim speed of 12 knots (22kph), a best glide speed of around 18 knots (33kph), and the fastest I have ever been able to fly it in a steepish descent is 29 knots (53kph). It is certified to fly safely at higher speeds, but it has a number of design features which mean that the maximum speed it could safely withstand is not attainable in normal flight. So my glider speeds perhaps more closely approximate typical MTB speeds.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes, your speeds quite surprising for me, I thought it would be faster. I watched on one of your videos where you got into dirty air from another glider at altitude, you seemed to expect the turbulence and handled it better than me watching on my laptop 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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