Hang Gliders and a Falcon Soaring over Coastal Cliffs; Apollo Bay Ocean Swimmers

Humans have long dreamed of flying like a bird. That dream became a reality in the 1960s with the advent of hang gliding.

These photos of two hang gliding friends soaring over coastal cliffs and the shoreline of the Southern Ocean were taken last weekend at a location 240kms south-west of Melbourne Victoria.

These photos can be enjoyed without reading a single word in the captions and paras I have added.

Flaxmans Hill hang gliding notice
These near-identical hang gliders are in the Moyes Litespeed series of high performance gliders. They are made of high-tech materials. The aluminium airframe, fittings and stainless steel cables are manufactured to high aviation standards. Moyes is an Australian designer and manufacturer of hang gliders, and their gliders sell world wide. Moyes gliders in general and the Litespeed series in particular have been very successful in competition flying and record setting.
Flaxmans Hill is an established hang gliding (and paragliding) launch site. The information above is from the Australian Site Guide published and maintained by the sport’s peak body (the Sport Aviation Federation of Australia) to which the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has delegated the administration and general oversight of hang gliding and paragliding (and a few other forms of recreational flying).
The circle with the arrows allows you to slide the dividing line up and down to see one image at a time. Put the cursor on the circle and hold the touch pad or left mouse button down while you slide the circle up and down.
Surf and rip at Flaxmans Hill
Looking south-west from the take off site. Notice the green rip in the centre of the image. Also note how far out to sea the whitewater extends. This would not be a good spot for a swim in a wetsuit, much less in a hang gliding harness hooked into a hang glider. The image shows that the cliff top curves over gently. This curved profile allows air flowing straight in from the sea (a south-west wind in the case of this site) to rise gently when it reaches the land and to smoothly follow the curve of the land. Such air maintains its laminar flow, which is a smooth flow.
This contrasts with airflow over a cliff with a vertical face for its full height and horizontal terrain at 90° to the cliff face commencing abruptly at the cliff edge. In this case the smooth incoming air hitting the cliff will create turbulent eddies for some distance directly behind the cliff edge. Such air is not suitable for flying. Taking off in a hang glider at such a cliff is a demanding task because of the rough air immediately behind the cliff edge.
But Flaxmans Hill provides smooth air flow over all the terrain and vegetation shown in the photo as well as over the flat paddock 150m or so in from the cliff edge which hang glider pilots use as a ‘top landing’ area. The only other landing option is on the beach below the cliffs, which can be very narrow depending on the tide and swell. This of course involves a walk up a steep track carrying the glider packed up for roof rack transport. A few kms away from this launch site are cliffs which generate lift in onshore winds, but which have only large breaking waves and rocks at their base.
Hang check before hang glider takeoff at Flaxmans Hill
Bruce is in his harness attached to the Litespeed, and his whole weight is being taken by the hang straps connecting his harness to the hang glider. This is called a hang check.
Over the history of hang gliding some pilots have taken off holding on to the uprights without having hooked in (hooking in is the process of securing the carabiner which connects the hang loops attached to the glider (one primary, one backup) to the attachment loop on the harness). With only a very few exceptions, this has proved to be a fatal oversight. Most people are simply not strong enough to hang from the base bar by only their hands, with an unwieldy harness adding to their weight, for long enough to glide to a safe landing below. Control of the hang glider while hanging from the base bar is close to an impossibility. The apparent weight supported by the hands in this circumstance will increase if the glider turns or if the nose of the glider is raised (whether such a manoeuvre is pilot initiated or ‘uncommanded’).
The modern practice has long been to hook the harness in to the glider as part of the assembly process. Then the pilot simply climbs in to the harness when he is ready to fly. This replaced the troublesome alternative practice of assembling the glider, and the pilot donning the harness without hooking it into the glider. To fly the pilot had to hook in, pick up the glider, run and takeoff. The first of these steps was sometimes forgotten. A hang check is still a critical final check before takeoff.
After Bruce’s hang check, the glider was lifted over the low cable fence and walked to a spot where the vegetation was not too thick. A very short takeoff run followed.
Soaring coastal cliffs in a hang glider at Flaxmans Hill
Bruce safely airborne and soaring in the lift band three or four hundred feet above the elevation of his takeoff point. There was good lift at this time.
Soaring coastal cliffs in a hang glider at Flaxmans Hill
Bruce soaring back and forth in front of the launch site. The minimum wind strength required by a hang glider to maintain good height at a site such as this is around 11 or 12 knots. But a steady 15-20 knot wind (without lulls) would be preferred by most pilots. The ocean surface can provide accurate information to the observant pilot as to wind speed and direction by the presence and features of whitecaps and other water surface conditions. Experienced coastal pilots can quite accurately assess the wind at sea level in the flyable wind speed range using the state of the ocean surface. Of course at 30 knots and above, most pilots would have their feet on the ground, not in their harness 1000 feet above the sea. As has often been said, you are better off on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.
The Flaxmans Hill site guide above contains a specific warning about light winds and winds likely to drop off. Bruce and Phil watched the wind and the sea carefully for an hour or more before launching, as the wind was varying between periods of good soaring strength and periods where it was too light to maintain takeoff height. There were also occasional rain showers visible out to sea under some of the more substantial clouds. Rain on the wing can adversely change the performance characteristics of the wing on the Litespeed (and indeed most gliders).
Because of the clear preference for a top landing, the aim was to delay takeoff until the wind was blowing consistently at a strength that would enable the hang gliders to climb and maintain an altitude of at least 380 feet, (200 feet above launch elevation which was 180 feet), possibly rounded out in flight to 400 feet to be conservative. If the wind began to drop during flight, the plan was to immediately commence manoeuvring for a top landing before descending below 200 feet above launch height.

Soaring coastal cliffs in a hang glider at Flaxmans Hill
Good height despite whitecaps being few and far between.
Soaring coastal cliffs in a hang glider at Flaxmans Hill
Another solid rip visible in the white water in the centre of this image..
Hang gliders soaring in blue sky with clouds

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .

The first stanza of the sonnet ‘High Flight’ written by John Gillespie Magee Jr at the age of 19. He was a Spitfire pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Litespeed soaring
Litespeeds soaring
Bruce flying behind Phil.
Phil in his Moyes Litespeed
Phil doing a pass over launch.
Phil in his Moyes Litespeed
Bruce soaring in his Litespeed
Brown Falcon
A brown falcon.
This raptor is found right throughout the Australian mainland and Tasmania.
Hang glider and falcon soaring near each other
Phil flying above and behind a brown falcon that was hovering in the 15 knot south-westerly wind, maintaining a perfectly stationary position over a point (presumably over some prey) on the ground. This is quite an aerodynamic feat as the wind, while flowing relatively smoothly, was still constantly changing speed and possibly even direction by small amounts. These changes required the falcon to change its flying speed and direction constantly to hold its position so perfectly. It does this by continual movement of its wings and parts of its wings (not always symmetrically either), as well as its tail. Its task is to fly at the exact speed of the wind at all times so that he is neither flying forward nor being blowing back. That is, it needed to maintain a groundspeed of exactly zero. Raptors (and some other birds) do this with apparent ease. A hang glider can hover using the same technique – pointing into wind and adjusting its airspeed until it equals the windspeed, which will give it a groundspeed of zero. But the extreme accuracy of the raptor in this task cannot be matched by a pilot in a hang glider. Just out of interest, a powered aeroplane can also ‘hover’ using the same method, but nowhere near as well as a bird.
Hang glider and falcon soaring near each other
Bruce flying above and behind the hovering geostationary brown falcon.

Phil’s landing approach

Hang glider and clouds
Phil was descending towards his launch+200′ reference height as the wind eased a little, so he commenced his approach to top land. When this was taken my back was to the sea, and Phil had flown downwind inland then done a 180° turn so he could land in the landing paddock. He was flying into wind when this was taken as he commenced his descent to land. The photo shows his harness has been unzipped and he is more or less upright now with his legs hanging down, rather than lying prone in the harness as he had been from just after takeoff until his landing approach commenced. The landing paddock was far enough back from the edge of the cliff that the wind was blowing horizontally and no longer providing any lift so Phil was able to glide and descend to the landing point.
Hang glider landing
Just before touchdown. You can see that Phil has changed his grip point from the base bar to the uprights. This gives good control when hanging with legs out of the harness and is also the position required to give sufficient range of movement (forward) for the final flare just before the moment of touchdown. Once near the ground, as the speed bleeds off, a point is reached before the wing stalls where the pilot pushes straight out on the uprights which raises the nose of the glider and puts the wing in a high drag no-lift position for landing. When the glider is flared as described, its forward motion basically stops and the pilot is gently lowered to a no-step full stop landing – if all has been timed well. If not, a few running steps may be required before coming to a full stop.
Hang gliding flaring on landing
Just after the full flare touchdown. Note that Phil’s arms are extended and that the nose of the glider is higher than in the previous pictures.

Bruce’s landing approach

Hang glider and clouds
Bruce turning on to his final approach path.
Hang glider and clouds
Gear down, hands on the uprights and descending.
Hang glider flaring for landing
Getting ready to flare just before touchdown. Wings nicely level.

Other flyers in the area

Brown falcon
Brown falcon.
Brown falcon
Brown falcon.
L: Wedge-tailed eagle R: Wedge-tailed eagle and brown falcon
I have included these photos to show the relative size of the wedge-tailed eagle compared to the brown falcon. They were not quite as close to each other as the second photo makes it look.
Australian shelduck aka mountain duck
The surprise sighting of the day for me. I have never seen this bird before, or if I have, I did not see its remarkable colours or know what it was. It’s an Australian native bird known as the Australian shelduck. It’s also known as the mountain duck and its final aka is the chestnut-breasted shelduck. I quite like ‘mountain duck.’ The vivid tan on the breast and neck, the striking white inner leading edges of the wings in front of the British racing green inner trailing edges – an excellent colour scheme. Then there are the black tips and tail, and the stylish white ring around the neck. To cap it all off, this is a male. How am I suddenly expert enough to share this with you? Well, the females all have a white ring around each eye and the males don’t. I have known this fact for some minutes now.
Australian shelduck aka mountain duck
Top to bottom: male, female. These pairs were doing circuits starting at what appeared to be a nesting area on nearby cliffs. They would fly out over the water, back towards the cliffs, along the beach parallel to the cliffs, then suddenly climb and do a landing on the cliff. This was done repeatedly. I had no idea Australia had a native duck that looked like this. Nor did I know that any duck flew around coastal cliffs and the ocean just like like seabirds such as crested terns, Cape Barren geese, Pacific gulls, silver gulls, cormorants etc.
Australian shelduck aka mountain duck
Top to bottom: male, female. I will confess that when I was looking for an adequate photo of a pair, I noticed that in every photo of two ducks together, one appeared to have his eyes shut, while blinking I presumed. So I kept scrolling through the series of duck pair photos, without success, looking for one where both had their eyes open. Upon resorting to a little reading in my trusty bird books I discovered that in each photo of a pair I was looking at a male and a female, and the overwhelming probability was that each bird had both eyes open at all times during flight! I had mistaken the absence of a white ring around the eyes for eyes temporarily closed. As for my blinking theory, it appears birds don’t even blink as we do, but have something called a nictitating translucent membrane which slides backwards and forwards. Who knew?

In the landing paddock

The landing paddock with hang gliders and pilots
Bruce on the left and Phil in the landing paddock, with gliders parked so the wind can’t get under the nose and flip the glider.
In the landing paddock after landing hang gliders
There always seems to be a lot more to talk between pilots in the landing paddock after landing than on launch before takeoff.
Hang gliders in the landing paddock
Gliders being broken down, with care being taken to do so in a way which prevents damage to the wing fabric, airframe and cables during transport on car racks. Phil (on the right) is packing battens away. These battens are individually formed to the exact aerofoil profile required at the various points on the wing. They are inserted into pockets from the trailing edge of the wing. These aluminium battens give the wing a permanent aerofoil shape. Early hang gliders did not all have formed battens such as these and relied on the reduced air pressure above the wing in flight to inflate the wing which was sewn to achieve an aerofoil shape when this occurred. The modern way is superior!

Just assembling this on my front lawn brought back some wonderful memories

Fun 190 hang glider on my front lawn
I bought this new in 1999. It is the fourth hang glider I have owned. I last flew it at Apollo Bay on 9 January 2009. After watching the boys fly at Flaxmans Hill a few days ago I just thought I’d set my glider up on the front lawn and see what sort of condition it was in. It actually looked to be in pretty good nick. (The wing fabric is slack because the battens are not inserted).

In an earlier post on this blog I describe a few highlights from the years when I flew like a bird.

Times when I flew like a bird

Ocean Swimmers at Apollo Bay

Fishermen's coop at Apollo Bay
Four wetsuited local ocean swimmers in the shallows getting ready for a swim. They are part of a larger informal group of long term ocean swimmers (mostly women) who swim all year round in the ocean at Apollo Bay. They are an intrepid crew and very good ocean swimmers.
This is the southern corner of Apollo Bay, where the beach ends at the harbour wall near the fishermen’s co-op building. This little beach is know to locals as Mothers’ Beach because in most wind and sea conditions it is quite protected and safe for children. But there are days when this is not so, and a well known rip flows out to sea beside one of the harbour walls.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay
Heading north away from the quiet waters where the swim started. There were four swimmers (all women) who chose their usual line just seaward of the breaking waves. There was a moderate westerly wind blowing on this day, with occasional periods of sustained stronger winds. The rock wall with the beacon is on the eastern side of the entrance to the Apollo Bay harbour.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay
Different strokes for different folks. Backstroke and freestyle on display here.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay, in swell
The ocean swimmer’s equivalent of a chat over the lane ropes with a fellow swimmer in a pool. Beyond that, there are no similarities.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay, in swell
These ocean swimmers usually head off in a group, but do not swim on each other’s heels. In fact they quickly separate and can spread out over hundreds of metres on a longer swim. When there is a turn point in the swim, they often regroup there for a chat, then head off again on their respective solo swims. Although the group swim can be a series of solo swims conducted at the same time in the same bay, there is usually a head count at the end to ensure all made it back to dry land. Then this group that resolutely resists being organised or defined (or even named) as a group, goes for a group coffee and convivial chat. These are always high spirited and enjoyable gatherings as the reliable post-cold-water-swim feeling of wellbeing kicks in and feeling returns to fingers and faces.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay
The four swimmers heading north past the lookout with a bit of swell standing up over the sandbar. This was a morning swim and I was standing on the lookout on the beach dunes. So at this point my camera was pointing straight towards the direction of the climbing sun when it shone between clouds. With bright sunlight and the wind putting a bit of texture on the water, the ocean took on the appearance of what one of my ocean swimming friends poetically called ‘liquid silver’.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay
This was the halfway turn point in the swim. After a brief chat while treading water as the swimmers briefly regrouped, they headed south back to where they started. More often than not, the return swim (going south) will have a following current.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay with Cape Patton in the distance
Our liquid-silver expanse of ocean with Cape Patton in the distance. The four swimmers are on their way south for the return trip.
Ocean swimmers in swell at Apollo Bay
The wind had come up at this point as a band of cloud which wasn’t quite a squall line blew through. The chop on the water became more pronounced. The lines of swell were building a little. It’s very exhilarating to be swimming parallel to the lines of green swell as they roll under you lifting then lowering you as you stroke on. On the peak of such a wave is a good time to have a look around if you want to check where any of the other swimmers are – you can’t see far when in the troughs between waves like these.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay
A bit further south on the return leg, the wind came up and the sea was choppier The swell had also built a little as indicated by the performance of the white water blowing off the shore-break in the foreground. With an offshore wind, the surface of the water is least affected (calmest) close to shore, and the further offshore you go the choppier it gets. The whitecaps in the distance indicate much choppier water some distance out than closer to shore where the swimmers were.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay with swell
About three quarters of the way back to the starting point – the wind and swell further increased. That green wave in the distance which appears to be threatening to break is near the harbour mouth. A wave like this often looms there when there is moderate swell, and subsides as it travels over the dredged deeper water just outside the harbour mouth. Such a wave will continue towards shore, rising again as it crosses the bay and eventually breaking as it reaches shallower sand banks and the shore. Bigger swell will of course break near the harbour mouth and right across the bay on occasions. Surfers ride this wave in big swell.
Ocean swimmers at Apollo Bay in light choppy conditions
Choppy conditions with constant swell lines at this point abeam the harbour mouth. The four swimmers don’t have far to go from here. Once in the corner where they started the swim, they stood around in the shallows as they got out of their wetsuits before leaving the water. They do this in all seasons. This is one of the social parts of swimming – getting in and out of the water, as well as getting changed either side of the swim. Talking while swimming is difficult, but the company of another swimmer in the water is nonetheless always appreciated.
Solo ocean swimmer at Apollo Bay in swell
This is another one of the regular ocean swimmers who commenced her swim as the four women in the photos above finished theirs. There is no starter’s gun for these ocean swimmers. Many ocean swims are solo swims with a group. Some, like this one, are simply solo swims.
Solo ocean swimmer at Apollo Bay in swell
As this swimmer headed north the swell was bigger than when the four other swimmers were at this point. This image captures a moment in ocean swimming, when the swimmer feels that the swell is increasing in frequency and size and stops to look seaward to assess what is coming and whether swimming directly out to sea for a short distance would be the way to stay in the green water. There is no drama with diving under breaking waves, but constant green water is more relaxing when swimming a bit of distance. The distance from shore of most of these daily swims is whatever gives comfortable separation from breaking waves in the shore-break or over the sandbars. On a given day that distance can vary significantly as swell size and direction vary.
Solo ocean swimmer at Apollo Bay in swell
The swimmer just cleared this wave before it broke. Nicely done. These waves would have looked bigger from the swimmer’s perspective at sea level than they appear in the photo or to the naked eye from the shore.
Solo ocean swimmer at Apollo Bay in swell
Heading out a little to deeper water to stay in the green water.
A beautiful sight for any ocean swimmer as you crest a wave swimming out towards the horizon – clean green water and lines of moderate swell as far as you can see, with a few white caps in the distance and a bit of texture on the water closer to shore – all of which remind you constantly that you are so privileged to be swimming free in this corner of the ocean waters that cover 70% of the earth. (It is this number that my wetsuit manufacturer BlueSeventy has incorporated into its brand name).
Solo ocean swimmer at Apollo Bay in swell
Only 150m or so to go. Good solo swim. I know this swimmer enjoyed it thoroughly.

6 thoughts on “Hang Gliders and a Falcon Soaring over Coastal Cliffs; Apollo Bay Ocean Swimmers

  1. Nice work John, you’d be most welcome to return to hang gliding! Nice to see the wing on the front lawn. The photo of the ducks ought to be on the wall? Reminds me of grandma’s house, those ducks. Great shots. I’ll forward this to Phil and Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry boys, but you’re far outshone by a mere duck!
    We saw the shelduck when we were at Kalbarri many years ago and its close relative the Burdekin in the Yellow Waters but I’ve never seen them in the Otways
    Wonderful shots that beautifully depict that subtle difference between male and female.
    Thank you once again John. As always your photos brighten up my day.
    Cheers. Richard

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Richard. I’m very pleased to hear the photos brightened up your day. The shelducks certainly have an eye-catching colour scheme. And by the way, well done on having known about them for years. But the Litespeed, whether on the ground ready for flight or flying high, is also a thing of great beauty to my eye.


  3. Hi John.

    This post was a veritable smorgasbord. I had to check whether I’d unwittingly been diverted onto another post.

    I’ve filed your droll remark “This would not be a good spot for a swim in a wetsuit” under “Flaxmans Hill”. I’m not surprised at all by the care and skill you observed in the gliders’ set up phase. For the uninitiated, how long would it take between pulling up in the car park and take off? You’ve captured their magic in words and images.

    Thank you too for the introduction to High Flight. I was diverted to read the entirety of his captivating poem and thereupon read his tragic story. An Icarus variation.

    I chuckled when I got to you pulling the toy out of the toy box. I love the inner child in you.


  4. Hi Hunto,

    If conditions were obviously flyable and consistent, the time between pulling up in the car and feet leaving the ground in the hang glider could be as little as 20 minutes or so. The Litespeed is more complicated to assemble than my Fun 190 and so the task takes a little longer. Every hang glider must of course be assembled very carefully before flight, and given a thorough pre-flight check as well. The pilot must also do a hang-check to double check that his harness is clipped on to the hang straps. Then there is the matter of attaching a few instruments to the A-frame (altimeter/variometer, airspeed indicator, perhaps a GPS or even a GoPro). Most pilots also carry a UHF radio in flight.

    But nothing in aviation has ever benefited from being rushed, except perhaps when Chuck Yaeger first broke the sound barrier in level flight in 1947.

    An unhurried, methodical and uninterrupted assembly and pre-flight inspection is an essential prerequisite for a safe flight.

    When conditions are variable, the time between completion of glider assembly etc and takeoff can be hours. This activity is sometimes referred to as hang waiting. At Flaxman’s Hill the wind was varying in strength for quite some time, and at one point there was a sprinkle or two as a light shower passed nearby. Eventually the conditions were just right and so the pilots took off. It is not unheard of to set up a glider with optimism, only to pack it up hours later without having left the ground because conditions were not suitable for flight.

    ‘High Flight’ is a moving poem, and all the more so when you know the circumstances in which it was written, as you now do.

    Don’t you worry about the toy box Hunto! Endless fun on offer when that door slides up.


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