Hang Glider Pilots Fly Bells Beach to Apollo Bay

This coastal run was first done in 1990. As far as I am aware, only high performance hang gliders have done the run. A small number of experienced pilots have, for some years now, been doing this flight whenever conditions permit. Some have logged an impressive number of successful completions of the flight. But while it is flown repeatedly, the Bells to Apollo Bay run is always a challenge and can never be taken lightly. Not every attempt is successful, and the history of the run includes landings in some undesirable and risky locations. There is one epic story of survival after a landing in the ocean some distance from shore. It’s an adventurous flight, and requires a high level of skill, a high performance hang glider and more than a dash of daring. Paragliders do not have the performance to do this coastal run in a single flight.

The road distance between Bells Beach and Apollo Bay is 85kms. The straight line distance is 78kms or thereabouts, varying according to where in Apollo Bay you land and whether you fly direct track from Bells Beach or take the customary (and seemingly mandatory) short detour via Jan Juc immediately after takeoff. Jan Juc is a short distance east of launch, Apollo Bay is south west from launch. Track distance flown is greater than 78 kms given the deviations left and right of track and the amount of turning required to maintain altitude. A track distance of around 120kms actually flown (the total distance flown over the ground including all the turns and diversions left and right of the direct track maximising lift) is not unusual.

I understand the record time for this flight is 1:15. Flight times around the 2 hour mark are more typical and considerably longer flights are not unusual. But safe completion of the journey with all the challenges it invariably presents, regardless of the time taken, is the real reward.

Rohan Holtkamp is the only person to have done the return trip non-stop. That epic flight was done in March 2018. Rohan, a champion pilot of great experience and knowledge, wrote of this flight:

“Finally did one of my bucket-list flights Tuesday – Bells Beach to Apollo Bay and back! I launched at Bells, flew to Jan Juc then to AB and back to Jan Juc – its 180km coastal soaring flight never done before. A mix of dune soaring, mountain soaring, thermalling, orographic cloud surfing and standing wave lift has to be worked to complete this flight,”

Starting from the Bells Beach (Winki Pop) launch, the flight requires a series of essentially downwind runs interspersed with topping up height on all the headlands where the wind is creating lift. Thermals and other forms of available lift are also used to maintain or gain altitude. The small handful of skilled and experienced pilots familiar with this coastal run know with some precision the minimum height they need on any given day at each such headland to safely leave the lift and head off down wind to the next headland. Relatively reliable locations at which lift can be found in the favoured ESE conditions include Southside (at Bells Beach), Point Addis, Eumeralla cliffs, Point Roadknight (Anglesea), Urquharts Bluff, Aireys Inlet, Eastern View, Moggs Creek (Spion), Lorne (Teddys Lookout), Wye River, Kennett River, Cape Patton, Apollo Bay (Wild Dog Creek). Altitudes in excess of 3000 feet are sometimes achieved, and altitudes below 1000 feet are not uncommon on this route. The most efficient route does not involve closely hugging the coast. Depending on conditions, flights can involve tracking seaward or inland from the coast to find the best lift.

The favoured wind direction for this run is ESE; the wind this day was an easterly. While the easterly had some benefits in terms of good lift and good height gains at some of the earlier east-facing headlands, pilots reported rough air west of Cape Patton for the last 16kms of the flight as the wind direction at their altitude (which had backed around a little from east towards ENE) put some of the route in turbulent air in the lee of the land. Pilots needed good height at Cape Patton before commencing the last section of the flight to Wild Dog Creek.

Orographic cloud can be a significant feature on much of this coastal run. This is cloud which forms as moist air is forced up over rising terrain (the hills along the coast in this case), cooling in the process until it reaches its saturation point and the water vapour condenses forming cloud. While the beginnings of orographic cloud formation were visible on certain parts of the coast this day, it was only a background feature. There are days when orographic cloud can create remarkable flying conditions, and other days when it can terminate an attempt at completing the coastal run.

Orographic cloud between Apollo Bay and Cape Patton earlier this year.

I was pleased to drive a vehicle from launch at Bells to Apollo Bay for one of the pilots on this day. I had a UHF radio on the channel used by the pilots. It was a very interesting and informative day to follow the pilots by road down the coast to their successful completion of the goal at Wild Dog Creek, Apollo Bay. I have neither the hang glider nor the knowledge and experience necessary to undertake this coastal run.

Pre-flight preparation

Hang glider pilots setting p
Brief pause from setting up the hang gliders, for a belated trophy presentation at Bells Beach.
James is holding aloft the trophy just presented to him by Phil for placing third (B Grade) in the recent Corryong Cup 2022 (inland) hang gliding competition. Phil (light cap) was the competition director. Hughbert (red cap) came fifth in the A Grade group – ahead of James who came 9th in the A grade. I know, it’s confusing. In essence, Hughbert, James and Bruce all did well in the comp.
Phil and Hughbert were the extent of the audience available for this presentation. But what this small crowd lacked in numbers it clearly made up for in enthusiastic (if brief) cheering for James’s achievement.
Hang glider pilots checking the wind on launch
L to R: Bruce, Chook and Phil assessing the wind and conditions generally. This is an important pre-flight ritual. In addition to the wind gauge reading and the sea state, one hat off and one hat being held on are further useful indicators. I can confirm that Chook (a very experienced hang glider pilot who was also driving for some pilots on this day) had a chin strap on his hat.

Left: Bruce setting up his Moyes LiteSpeed.

Bottom right: James setting up his Moyes LitesSpeed and Hughbert setting up his Aeros Kombat.

Launching from the clifftop at Bells Beach

I saw eight pilots take off with Apollo Bay as their destination. Seven of those pilots completed the flight to Apollo Bay. The pilot who landed short did so safely. That makes eight successful flights by my count.

The following photos shows the named pilots taking off (in launch order).

Bruce

Chris watching Bruce’s takeoff after assisting him on the front wires pre-takeoff.
LiteSpeed hang glider in flight
Bruce just after takeoff in his Moyes LiteSpeed turning left towards Jan Juc. This Australian manufactured hang glider of which there are a number of different models has a glide ratio of around 15:1.

Ben

LiteSpeed hang glider launching at Bells Beach
Ben about to leave the ground in his Moyes LiteSpeed.
LiteSpeed hang glider launching at Bells Beach
Turning left to head to Jan Juc for the start of the run towards Apollo Bay.

Rohan

ATOS hang glider about to launch at Bells Beach
A-I-R ATOS. The German made ATOS is highly efficient rigid wing hang glider with a glide ratio of 20:1. It is fitted with air brakes which assist greatly in the approach and landing phases. This was the highest performance hang glider taking off at Bells Beach on this day. (The other hang gliders featured in this post are flex wing gliders).
A-I-R ATOS hang glider launching at Bells Beach
A-I-R ATOS hang glider airborne
An impressive glider by any measure, which performed to its potential in Rohan’s hands.

Phil

Phil taking off in his Moyes LiteSpeed.
Early turn left towards Jan Juc.

Hughbert

Hang glider launching at Bells Beach
Hughbert taking off in his Aeros Kombat.
Hang glider in flight

James

LiteSpeed hang glider launching at Bells Beach
James wasted no time in retracting the ‘undercarriage’ as soon as his Moyes LiteSpeed was airborne.
LiteSpeed hang glider just after launch at Bells Beach

Peter

Peter launching in his Moyes LiteSpeed.

En Route

A-I-R ATOS hang glider in flight
Rohan passing over Point Roadknight with plenty of height and flying in a straight line at high groundspeed (downwind) when I took this photo. Rohan arrived at Wild Dog Creek higher, faster and first by a good margin. The glimpses I had of the ATOS from the Great Ocean Road were brief – I never once saw it turning, although obviously Rohan did did some turns en route to maximise altitude. I had trouble keeping up on the road, and Rohan (and the other six) landed before I reached Apollo Bay.
Aeros Kombat hang glider in flight
Hughbert at a good altitude as he flew over Eastern View. This is a significantly cropped section of a photo taken with the telephoto lens at full stretch.
Aeros Kombat hang glider in flight
Hughbert looking very streamlined over Eastern View.
Moyes LiteSpeed hang glider in flight
Bruce above Teddys Lookout (Lorne). I was at Georges Creek when I took this shot. Bruce had plenty of altitude (telephoto lens used).
Air to air photo of hang glider
Photo taken by Hughbert Alexander.
James heading west from Lorne.
Hang glider flying towards Wye River and Kennett River
Photo taken by Hughbert Alexander.
James (closest) and Bruce (middle right) nearing Wye River, with Kennett River on the next point around. Light orographic cloud forming over the hills.
Hang glider approaching Wye River
Photo taken by Hughbert Alexander.
Bruce heading towards Wye River with good height.
Flying over the coastal Otway Ranges in a hang glider
Photo taken by Hughbert Alexander.
Bruce after leaving Teddys Lookout near Lorne for points west, in order: Wye River, Kennett River, Cape Patton and the final destination, Wild Dog Creek at Apollo Bay. Orographic cloud forming over some of the higher ridges on the coastal hills.
Hang glider pilot selfie in flight
Photo taken by Hughbert Alexander.
Hughbert cruising at 2200 feet above sea level over the Great Ocean Road, somewhere near Kennett River. As is evident from this photo, this inhospitable section of coast offers very little in the way of safe landing locations for hang gliders.

Arrival at Wild Dog Creek, Apollo Bay

Hang gliders parked at Wild Dog Creek
The hang glider parking area at Wild Dog Creek, Apollo Bay. All seven gliders were parked as shown by the time I arrived in Bruce’s vehicle.
Hang glider pilots talking after long flight
L to R: Hughbert, Phil, Bruce and James. iPhones play an interesting role during such flights, as there is a popular app which provides much if not all the data required during flight. Without the app a number of instruments would be required to provide the same data. The recorded data is is a complete log of each flight.

Hughbert Alexander – gun pilot and good bloke. The five best photos in this blog post were taken by Hughbert Alexander during his flight. He generously consented to me publishing them here. Thanks Hughbert.

Jubilant hang glider pilots after long flight
L to R: James, Bruce, Hughbert and Phil. The boys take a while to settle down after an epic flight.
Dining with the entire crew on two outside tables at Spiro’s fish and chip shop in the main street of Apollo Bay was a fitting end to a great day.
Seven hang glider pilots who just flew from Bells Beach to Apollo Bay
L to R: Bruce, Ben. James, Hughbert, Rohan, Rob (aka Chook – driver on this day), Phil and Peter.
Rohan had the fastest time in his ATOS of 1:40.
But every pilot I spoke to was elated at the challenges he had just met and the flight he had just completed.
A crew of experienced and adventurous flyers.

This was Ben’s first completion of the Bells Beach to Apollo Bay coastal run. Radio contact between pilots during flight enabled sharing of critical information as to conditions (including potentially conflicting low flying light aircraft traffic along the coast), and also allowed the provision of occasional advice and encouragement to Ben during the flight.

Later in the day after the above seven had flown, an eighth hang glider pilot, Mark Willy, also successfully completed the coastal run.

11 thoughts on “Hang Glider Pilots Fly Bells Beach to Apollo Bay

  1. As always but, even more so because it’s about hang gliding and our chums, a superbly written and awesome article John. I’m keen to fly with you again, soon! Hughbert

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic story John ,,and yes ,a jolly good bunch of blokes I have come to meet over the last couple of years …one day ,maybe I can be part of that coastalrun crew..

    Liked by 1 person

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