Tibenham to Truro in an old Olympia 2b
by Rob Lockett.
Flicking through the ancient pages of my Olympia 2b’s glider logbook it appears that in the 1950’s and 1960’s pilots were duty bound to crash following any kind of winch launch failure or other eventuality, no matter how minor. Several times this practice led to BRL’s fuselage being damaged, resulting in lengthy repairs and even lengthier work reports. The work report for the most extensive fuselage repair reads, “fuselage frames 2 through to 5 purchased new from Elliott’s of Newbury, and new keel fitted”. Vic Ginn who had carried out the repair had then amusingly scrawled “four weeks work!” in biro at the bottom of the work report to highlight the extent of his labours.
Looking through the logged flights for ‘BRL’ brings less amusement. Only numerous short circuits and the very occasional bronze or silver leg are recorded for the first 40 years of BRL’s life. Matters improved slightly in the 1990’s when Matt Cook flew 100km in her and in 2009 I had flown 230km during the VGC International Rally at Achmer in Germany. Now that she was 54 years of age it was time she went somewhere, and it needed to be 300km+ if it were to count as a proper cross-country.
For many years me and my mate Gilbo had day-dreamed of flying an old fashioned downwind dash to Devon or Cornwall in a Spring north-easterly wind, perhaps for 300km in my Oly and 500km in his Skylark 3. The Stansted zone makes this difficult from my home club at Wormingford on the Essex & Suffolk border as it requires battling into the north-easterly wind, so it would be best to launch from Tibenham in Norfolk.
I had the Easter week off work, it was perishing cold and there was sleet and snow, but the north-easterly set up and blew for a whole week. The first Saturday and Sunday were spent fitting GPS-Nav to the Olympia outside in the falling snow, but the weather looked hopeful every day from Monday through to Friday. I missed out on Tuesday as this was forecast to be a less good day, but turned out to be a very good day. On the Wednesday me and Gilbo both trailered to Tibenham, but the day was duff, so we trailered back home to Colchester. Thursday had been forecast to be the best day of the week, but turned out duff with grey clag and snow so me and Gee went to Bletchley Park to look at Enigma machines, Colossus and stuff.
At 10pm on Thursday night I was on the phone to Tibenham’s Clubhouse interrupting their Poker Night (soz!) to make special arrangements for a morning aerotow before club flying started – thank you very much to the dozen people that I pestered on the phone that night and especially to Brian K for tugging and to John R-K for helping Gee with the trailer.
Friday, the last chance of the week dawned with thick grey clag and spots of rain at home in Colchester. At 7 am the forecast showed clag south-east of a line from about Bury St Edmunds to Luton, essentially along the line of track from Tibenham to Devon and Cornwall. Looking at the grey cloudy sky I was despondent, but Gransden’s weather camera showed sunshine at Cambridge so off again to Tibenham!
The clag began to clear north of the A14 and by Diss there was blue sky. Arriving early at Tibenham nobody was about to help me and Gee rig the Oly, except for some Scouts struggling to rig their tents in the 20+ knot wind. They managed a good job of helping rig the Oly and I then jogged off with the Oly to the main runway – I must get some tow-out gear!
I declared Tibenham to North Hill for 353 km. If I could at least make say Glastonbury on the Somerset levels then 300km would be in the bag. If things went better than expected then Brentor for roughly 400km might be on. If I could climb at Brentor and fly on then perhaps I could better Bill Bedford’s Olympia 2 flight of 413km in 1951, which I understood was the furthest ever flown in the UK by an Oly 2.
It was now about 11.20am and there were small cumulus to the west, but overhead and east the sky was totally blue, the wind was off the sea at 20 to 25 knots and it looked unsoarable locally. I aerotowed upwind of the airfield to 3000’ not even reaching Long Stratton as the headwind was so strong. On tow I felt only turbulence and no thermals, but passing back over Tibenham’s runway intersection I took a few turns in weak lift before deciding, ‘to hell with it’, and setting off downwind. Gliding down to 1800’ I luckily found a blue thermal which topped out at 3000’. No going back now, so on to the only small cumulus in reach. I reckoned I would get to it at about 1200’. Unfortunately, I hit heavy sink on the way and the cumulus decayed giving only sink. At 1000’ the next cloud was 3 miles further on and out of reach, so without any better ideas I headed for it anyway. About a mile from the cloud at 500’ I had the jammiest save encountering a rough new thermal bubble in the blue. Gusty and rough in the windy conditions the Oly tipped and surged but there was a positive vario average. The cockpit work-load-o-meter was bending the needle as I needed to select another field every two thermal turns due to the drift in the strong of the wind. Fortunately, it was East Anglia in April when many fields are landable. At 800’ I lost the climb, straightened up downwind toward the cloud and after ½ a mile found another good bubble to 1200’ where I was able to manoeuvre to the edge of the cloud and very happily got Hoovered up.
Now that any early season cob-webs had been blown well and truly out of the dv panel it was time to set off properly off on track. Well, almost on track. I much under-estimated the effect that the 20 degree of crosswind component in the 25 knot wind would have, particularly when my airspeed was only about 40 knots. This resulted in getting downwind of track near Bury St Edmunds. Fortunately I found a fantastic climb to 5,500’ and pushed back upwind and back on track, promising myself not to make that critical mistake again. Approaching Gransden the sky was poor and I took it steady at 2000’ resolving to take a few hundred feet climb in anything that was going up at 1 knot or more. This came to pass climbing to about 2,500’ and then on track again. Well, Einstein said that it is surprising how humans often make the same mistake time and time again – yup, downwind of track again, partly due to the wind having gone more northerly, and having to push back upwind and on track again.
Biggleswade went by, then Woburn, and then Bletchley popped up on the GPS but I couldn’t eyeball Bletchley Park. The sky had overdeveloped a bit and I tried climb after climb passing Aylesbury and Abingdon. I could only manage 3 knots when the sky looked like there should be 5 knots. Approaching Wantage at 1800’ I didn’t know where to head. The White Horse Hills looked tempting, but I didn’t fancy 500’agl again. Wantage was in sun but upwind of track and there was ragged cumulus downwind of track. I tried several cells of the ragged cloud before drifting over the high ground and climbed at a couple of knots never finding a strong climb.
Above the hills the TM6 crystal radio picked up the pilots of the EB28 at the other end of the glider performance spectrum battling into wind around a closed circuit task and it sounded like they were having a tough time so I felt a bit better about my inability to climb well.
At Avebury conditions improved and I climbed to 5,500’. This was the furthest south-west I’d ever flown and looking down to see several of the White Horses all at once was a nice moment. Conditions were excellent and I ran for about 40km maintaining 5000’ with barely a turn to Frome. Passing the Somerset levels conditions softened as expected, but I was high and 300km was now completed. Past Yeovilton and Chard I took a few climbs south of North Hill with the airfield in site. The day was now weakening and the clouds were a long way apart, but I wanted to push on, hopefully to Brent Tor. There were a few clouds a little too far north, and a few a little too south. I opted for the southern route as I thought the push to the north with headwind component would be too slow. Flying on toward Exeter I arrived at 2500’ above Exeter’s atz looking down at a dozen parked airliners. Although I was several hundred feet clear of their zone it still gave me a rebellious feeling – a bit like the feeling one gets driving down the dual carriage way drinking a small bottle of beer but knowing that one is well under the drink drive limit.
Next, Dartmoor loomed up over the nose and there had clearly been an inadequate level of pre-flight planning. I’d presumed that Dartmoor was about 700’ asl but what lay ahead definitely looked like proper hills, the map confirming that the hills are about 1600’asl. Looking down at mile after mile of thick heather my mind filled with visions of 3-day glider salvages with tractors, flat-bed farm trailers and lots of rope and whinging environmentalists. I would probably have enough height to marginally glide clear to the far side of Dartmoor near Tavistock, but not with any safety margin. Fortunately, ahead and about ¾ of the way across I could see a small village (Princetown) with a cluster of cultivated fields that were probably landable. Well, there are no certainties and the combination of two probablies was enough to set off across. Tracking over the higher peaks to the south of the Danger Area I eventually contacted a reasonable climb near the top of the 2317’ mast at Princetown and was pleased to climb. Struggling to unfold my map any further west, I eventually gave in and just tore a lump off. This was a bit of a shame as the map was brand new! – I’d originally shoved a second map in the cockpit pre-folded for Devon and Cornwall but had lobbed it back out shortly before take-off as it was in the way and I didn’t expect to get past North Hill. Never mind!
Clear of Dartmoor it was now about 5.45pm and the sun was low in the sky. I was able to run high under isolated cumulus along the south coast, just a few miles inshore. Passing the beautiful bays of Polperro and Fowey looking at the cliffs and beaches in the setting sun, sat in an old wooden glider, was a really magical experience. Nearing St Austell the cumulus was out over the bay, so I climbed over the sea drifting away from land in the north-east wind. The climb got ragged near the top and I set off back in land and then toward Truro. The complex of creeks in Falmouth bay lay ahead and the huge ship moored a long way inland up one of the deep creeks was a very strange unusual site to see. Now 6.30pm and the sky was almost dead. I took a few turns in the last thermal which decayed at about 1700’ before gliding the last few miles south-west for distance . No lift from the last couple of potential thermal triggers and at 700’ I turned back to land in a recently cut field, the vast majority of the fields being too steep, or full of crop or sheep. The landing went well in the stony field, the old Oly rolled to a halt and I climbed out and stood in the beautiful rolling Cornish countryside. I’d landed at Gare Farm near the head of the Fal Estuary between the village of Tregony and Truro.
Time to check on my trusty Garmin 12 GPS how far me and the Oly had gone from Tibenham. The answer, 266 nautical miles. “Hmm, that’s further than I expected and looks close on 500km!”, I thought. Changing the Garmin set-up to kilometres and 493km popped up on the screen – Aaaargh!!! So close!!!! Well, my buddies with task analysis software reckon it’s 496km from cast off from aerotow to my furthest point, but still not quite 500km. I’m very pleased as it was one of my very most memorable flights, and to my knowledge is the furthest an Oly 2 has flown in the UK. It handicaps up to 800km too, so I doubt I’ll ever fly that far again on handicap!
The farmer was really helpful and the Oly had a nice night picketed in the field listening to the sheep and rook chorus. I took a taxi ride to a nearby travel lodge, and by about 9pm Gee arrived safe and sound with the trailer (fanks Gee!). The next day we leisurely de-rigged in the sun and called in at Brent Tor, their great selection of wooden gliders out soaring on Dartmoor. Hmm”, I thought, “this is a great place to start in a south-westerly using a wooden glider for a 400km flight to Tibenham!”
Rob Lockett, Essex & Suffolk GC. Download a PDF of the S&G article here