Hang gliding over the Great Ocean Road coast

Spion Kop, a few kms west of Aireys Inlet on the Great Ocean Road (in Victoria, Australia), is a well established launch site for hang gliders and paragliders. It is located at the low end of a ridge (160 feet above sea level) near where Moggs Creek flows across the beach into the sea. It’s a site with something for pilots of all levels of ability. Wind blowing in from over the sea rises when it strikes a coastal ridge such as this. It is that rising air which allows hang gliders, paragliders and sailplanes to soar without engines. It also of course allows birds to soar without flapping their wings.

A handful of experienced pilots with high performance hang gliders regularly tackle the coastal run (with a great record of success) from Bells Beach to Apollo Bay whenever conditions are right. But when conditions are not quite right for that run, they may fly shorter runs such as Spion to Lorne and back. They utilise ridge lift in favourable winds, and also gain lift from thermals which sometimes occur in suitable conditions and locations along this coast. In simple terms, a thermal is column of air which rises because it is warmer than the air surrounding it.

For others, simply getting airborne in this beautiful location and cruising up and down the 6 or 7km stretch of coast between Aireys Inlet lighthouse and Eastern View (the next point west of Aireys Inlet), or perhaps even just the 2-3km ridge on which the launch site is located, is what keeps them coming back to this place.

In still air a hang glider can take off from a hill and descend at around 200 feet per minute to a landing below. It is fully controllable in such a flight. If wind is blowing up the face of the hill at say 400 feet per minute a hang glider can take off from the hill and still descend through the rising air at around 200 fpm. But because the parcel of air through which it is descending is rising at 400 fpm the glider will gain height at the rate of 200 fpm until it reaches the top of the lift band above the hill. To express this without numbers, a hang glider is always descending through the parcel of air in which it is flying. But if that parcel of air is rising at a higher rate than the hang glider is descending, the hang glider will gain height relative to the ground.

The following photos were taken on two separate flights at Spion, a week apart, in November 2021. Each flight was just over an hour in duration. I am a low time hang glider pilot flying an Airborne Fun 190 beginners’/recreational hang glider. This is the fourth hang glider I have owned.

Over 5,000 individual readers from around the world (60 different countries) have visited my blog so far this year. Most of them would not know anything about hang gliding. I have written this post with these readers in mind.

Spion. Hang gliders. Great Ocean Road
Looking west from the launch site setup area. Eastern View is at the end of the beach. Artificial turf covering quite an area allows many pilots to set up their gliders at the same time. Securing a setup spot in the lee of the bushes is always a bonus. The power lines visible top right are a consideration for all pilots flying here. There have been a few incidents and issues over the years in relation to these wires. As a result, pilots wishing to fly from this site must undergo an induction process which addresses safety issues and other features relevant to flying at this site. This system seems to be working well.
The beach in front of Spion hang gliding launch site.
The point of takeoff at Spion. This site faces south, and can be safely flown in winds between SSW and SSE. The orange telltale on the left indicates that the wind at this moment was ‘off to the right’ ie SSW. Wind lanes on the sea also show the wind direction clearly. The wind progressively backed around during the day to almost a straight southerly. What constitutes safely flyable wind strength varies according to whether the pilot is flying a paraglider or a hang glider, the performance characteristics of the glider, and the nature and extent of the pilot’s experience. In general terms, paragliders are flown in lighter winds, and hang gliders can fly in stronger winds (especially high performance hang gliders). That said, most pilots would be content with a steady 15 knot southerly at this site.
Fun 190 set up and ready to fly at Spion hang gliding site.
My Airborne Fun 190 fully assembled and pre-flight checked. Note the RC glider in the air. The operator landed his model before any hang gliders took off, as required by law.

Takeoff

Pilot in hang glider walking to takeoff position
The hang gliding equivalent of an aircraft taxying to the active runway. At this point I am hooked in (but yet to do my final pre-takeoff hang check) and carrying the glider through some bumpy air in the lee of the bushes and the ridge. My glider has a wingspan of 33.1 feet (10.1m) requiring care in manoeuvring around other gliders and the bushes. My friend Bruce (a very experienced hang glider pilot) is assisting me in keeping the wings level and the nose down by holding the front rigging wires. If the wind is gusty it is sometimes useful to also have someone (another pilot preferably) on one of the side wires. On this day my left side wire was in the capable hands of another friend, Rob, who is also a very experienced hang glider pilot.
Commencement of short takeoff run for hang glider pilot
The all important hang check involves the front wire person holding the glider level while I assume the prone position with all my weight taken by the hang loops to which my harness is connected with a carabiner. The carabiner is checked to ensure it is locked, and the hang loops are confirmed as hanging straight and not twisted. Once that is done, I pick up the glider and move forward closer to the edge of the ridge. Once the wings are level and the nose is where I want it, those holding the wires have no pressure on their hands at all. When ready to go I say ‘clear’ and the wire men let go the wires and quickly get out of the way of the glider. With a 15 knot wind blowing in my face on this occasion, one or two steps forward while keeping the nose down and the wings level was all that was required to become airborne in a very short distance. The takeoff run commences with the ‘sword’ grip on the A frame uprights as shown here, and the pilot then transitions to the ‘dagger grip’ shown in the next photo. Once safely airborne the pilot’s hands move to the base bar where they stay for the rest of the flight until the landing approach.
Hang glider just airborne.
Once safely airborne I will move my hands to the base bar.
Hang glider climbing after launch at Spion
A variation on having both hands on the uprights is to have one hand there, and the other on the base bar. If there are a few bumps in the air this grip is used to retain optimal control of the glider in the pitch and roll axes. As soon as the glider is established in flight the grip is changed to both hands on the base bar. This is where they stay until the approach and landing, when once again the uprights, or one upright and the base bar are used. In strong winds, a takeoff can be performed with both hands on the base bar from the start of the takeoff run.
This brief video clip shows the takeoff. A turn left or right after takeoff is fine at this site, but in lighter conditions I turn right as the ridge is descending in that direction. This means that even if I only maintain level flight initially, I have increasing clearance above terrain. The usual experience in good winds is that the glider climbs from the moment my feet leave the ground until, after successive passes back and forth along the ridge, I climb to the top of the wave of rising air above the ridge. The video shows that even after a short pass to the right, on the return to the east when I pass abeam the launch site I have already climbed well above my launch elevation of 160 feet above sea level.

Takeoff in a stronger wind

Hang glider takeoff in strong lift at Spion
Unlike the conditions for the launch described above, on this day the wind was stronger. This picture shows Bruce (who had been holding my front wires) applying the usual caution of ducking a little and exiting rapidly to the side to avoid being struck by my side wires during the takeoff run. But my instant climb meant I was well clear of him when I flew past him.
This video shows my takeoff in stronger wind. I turn left after takeoff as the lift is strong and I am climbing very quickly. Just after takeoff I put my hands in neoprene mitts permanently on the base bar to keep my hands warm. I also assume the prone position quickly by ‘retracting the undercarriage’ (putting my feet and legs inside the pod). Shortly after that I zip up the pod so I am streamlined and warm. These steps also reduce drag which allows the glider to fly more efficiently.

Soaring the ridge and gaining altitude

This short video clip shows a few moments of cruising along the ridge in the lift band after two or three passes during which I climbed steadily to this height. If you have the sound on you will hear the gentle noise of the air in the rigging and across the wings as the glider passes through the air. It remains a steady noise while I maintain a steady airspeed. The green patch of artificial turf on the launch site is visible in the lower right of the image. I was around 500 feet above sea level at this point.
Ridge soaring in hang glider along Great Ocean Road near Spion
This is an early pass just after takeoff as I head east towards the Aireys Inlet lighthouse, gaining good lift as the wind blew steadily up this ridge. I turned left to be closer to the ridge as this pass continued, to optimise my climb rate.
Hang glider soaring ridge and approach settlement of Moggs Creek
This is a pass (heading west back towards launch) at low level not long after takeoff. I am still below ridge height and climbing.
Hang glider turning over Great Ocean Road
This image shows the glider comfortably established at altitude well above the houses on the ridge line. I did a couple of 360 degree turns left and right just because I could. The hang glider is very responsive to control inputs throughout the normal range of flying speeds (weight shift left and right and backwards and forwards).
Hang glider soaring above lower hang glider doing the same at Spion
I am at an altitude of around 600 feet in this shot, keeping an eye on traffic below me. There are clear give way and overtaking rules in the air, some of which are specific to ridge soaring.
Moggs Creek and hang glider launch site Spion from the air
More activity on the launch site (bottom right in the image) than when I took off.
Hang glider turning near Moggs Creek
Hang glider hovering and pilot looking out over Bass Strait
A good idea for a photo which I think I improved on when flying at the same spot a week later. (See final photo in this blog). What a view of Bass Strait. The dark irregular shapes on the water are cloud shadows. Some solid rips are clearly visible in the shorebreak.
Hang glider turning towards Aireys Inlet over Great Ocean Road
Aireys Inlet lighthouse on the point in the distance. The primary dunes (covered in vegetation) between the road and the beach can be soared for their full length in the right winds. Paragliders often soar the lower dunes. It can become a bit crowded down there for my liking when hang gliders and paragliders are flying in opposite directions at low level in the narrow and shallow lift band.
Two hang gliders going in opposite directions near Spion
Observing traffic to my left. Where gliders are approaching each other head on, the hang glider with its right wing to the ridge has right of way. But we had very comfortable lateral clearance between us on this occasion.

Soaring in strong lift over 1000 feet above sea level

Flying high over Spion in a hang glider
On the second of the two flights the subject of this post, after only a handful of passes back and forth after takeoff I was over 1000 feet above sea level. I maintained that altitude for a short time then the wind and lift backed off just a little and the rest of my hour in the air was spent between 400′ and 700′ above sea level. Concealed from the camera in this shot is my altimeter and vertical speed indicator (the variometer, or ‘vario’) strapped to the base bar directly in front of me. That instrument also accurately displays my airspeed.

Airspeed and wind noise

Turn the sound up to watch this clip. It shows me briefly pulling in the base bar (which moves my weight forward) to lower the nose which increases my airspeed. The change in the sound of the glider passing through the air as it flies faster or slow can be heard on this clip. I can hear something similar when I am flying and more reliably I can feel even minor changes in airspeed in the wind on my face. This is very reliable airspeed information. My early days of hang gliding were without any instruments at all. One of the reasons why I wear an open face helmet is to allow me to clearly hear the sound of changes in airspeed, as well as to sense such changes through the wind on my face.

Video of flying through another hang glider’s wake turbulence

This video shows clearly the effect on a hang glider of passing through the wake turbulence behind another hang glider. Wake turbulence is created when a wing creating lift (and drag) passes through air. The turbulent air is left behind the wing where it sinks a little and dissipates quite quickly. The video shows another glider heading west out from the ridge, while I am heading east closer to the ridge. I elect to turn after we have passed each other. Just before I complete my turn to fall in behind him to go in the same direction, I encounter his wake turbulence and in rapid succession my glider is rolled a little to the right, then to the left then to the right again. I make minor corrections in roll to keep the wings level and pull the nose down a little to maintain good airspeed and control. Such encounters with wake turbulence are not uncommon when flying in reasonably close proximity to other hang gliders. They are usually predictable and generally create only temporary minor attitude changes which are of short duration and easily countered. And yes, I was aware of and made allowance for the third hang glider which was flying above my altitude and approaching me from my left at a safe distance.

Landing location on the beach near the creek

Hang glider after landing on beach at Moggs Creek
After a glorious hour soaring this coastal ridge, I landed gently on the beach at less than walking speed with a single step, near where Moggs Creek crosses the beach. That was followed by a walk up the hill to collect my car.
Hang glider parked on the beach near Moggs Creek
The launch site is close to where I landed. The telltale and and sea conditions are still signalling ideal wind conditions. The surface of the water changes in obvious and subtle ways as wind direction and strength change. So flying at a coastal site means the pilot by simply keeping an eye on the ocean close to shore and further out to sea, has notice of imminent changes in wind direction and speed before they actually reach the coast.
Hang glider on beach at Moggs Creek
The view from Moggs Creek around to Eastern View.
Hang glider packed up on beach at Moggs Creek near Spion
Glider all packed and ready for the car racks and the trip home. That such a beautiful flying machine could be dismantled and stored in this scruffy old bag somehow seems improbable.

Flight data

On the left is data (from my most recent flight at Spion) collected by an app on my iPhone. Top right is the route download from my Garmin GPS watch which I use for swimming. It also has a running mode which I used to record a plan view of the exact route I flew. This was a bit of an experiment The colours in the GPS watch download show relative speed (red is fastest, green is slowest). On bottom right, a big improvement on the Garmin sports watch is this 3D download of my track colour coded to show the range of my altitudes at which I conducted the flight. This was produced by the aforementioned app on my iPhone, with the route being manually transferred to Google Earth after the flight. The purple line is where I was briefly 1000 feet or so above sea level, and red is the lowest I flew which was when I landed on the beach at sea level near the Fairhaven SLSC. (The incoming tide was rapidly shrinking the landing area near Moggs Creek and so I used a wider section of beach near the surf club). Note the shadow of the 3D track on the terrain. None of this data recording is even faintly necessary for my flying enjoyment. But it is fun to play with between actual flights.

A commanding view of Bass Strait

Panoramic view over Bass Strait from hovering hang glider
What’s it like to hang glide?
It’s like this.

8 thoughts on “Hang gliding over the Great Ocean Road coast

  1. Great post! I’ve never hang-glided but it’s always intrigued me. You’ve written this well for someone like me, it looks like an awesome experience. Greetings from Tasmania – just across that “river” 😉

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for having a look, I read most of your motorbiking tips post too – some great words of wisdom. You’re having quite a life, thanks for the insights into your experiences. I’ll be back for more!

        Liked by 1 person

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