High Performance Glider

A Day Out in the Alps

By Flt Lt Nick Smith

Every year the RAF Gliding and Soaring Association runs Expedition Sky-Hi to Sisteron in the French Alps. The site provides safe flying locally and access to the high Alps on a frequent basis. One day in particular stood out for me this year.

Beautiful Fling Conditions The weather briefing is good, actually it’s better than that. Locally there should be Valley Breeze conditions with high clouds and, further to the North, near the town of Briancon and the Glacier de la Vanoise, conditions are forecast to be excellent (this turned out to be rather an understatement).

Allocated the Ventus2cT, a new high performance glider, I’m first to launch at about 1100 hrs, releasing low on the local ridge. It is working well and I soon dominate the ridge, catching a strong thermal from the peak. Using the mountains and ridges as stepping stones I push north, climbing briefly on mountains that I know well then across the valley towards the Ecrin Massif. I have a tough time below the peak weaving in and out of the ridges and spurs until I realise that the local wind has become easterly and I climb onto the Route Royale, one of the local pilots’ favoured routes north. The high jagged peaks slip below me as I cruise between 9000 and 11000 feet to the Maurienne Valley, with the town of Modane nestled in the bottom. The valley is deep and quite forbidding when you’re low down but from my altitude the other side is easily within reach. I’ve never crossed it before, even with an alpine instructor but I know the escape routes and landing airfields in the area so I’m quite comfortable for the moment.

High above the Alps Running across, it all seems too easy, a brief climb back to 12000 feet and off we head for the next mountain. Suddenly the speed drops by 10 knots and the instruments tell me I’m dropping like a stone; I’ve got to do something or the ground will just come up and meet me so it’s flaps into negative, nose down and dive for a ridgeline in the sun that’s sure to work. It only takes a minute or 2 to get there but now we’re in among the mountains at 9000 feet and in need of a climb; so much for an easy day out!

In among the craggy peaks The climb is there and, back up with the high clouds, I start to think more tactically: the cloud is lining up in streets over the high ground; the computer says the wind at altitude is now 25 knots from the east and the sun is breaking through onto the ground. All this says follow the windward ridgelines and benefit from the strong steady lift. Cruising just above the Glacier de Vanoise and on to the Grande Casse I am looking down on Courchevalle ski resort and can see Mont Blanc far ahead; the view is just out of this world and a real privilege to experience. Slightly concerned about hypoxia, having been above 10000 feet for a while I reassure myself that I’m thinking straight by programming the next waypoint into the glide computer (that’s hard enough on the ground, so I’m sure I’m fine). The ridgeline representing the French/Italian border looks inviting so a dive across the valley takes me within striking distance of the head of the Val d’Isere with its expensive resorts and grand hotels. I make a fast run out then look back to where I’ve come from!

I’m content though the ground ahead looks forbidding and scary; that’s what the map is for, with escape routes and range rings to airfields. But, when you turn around and the closest mountain you recognise by sight is away on the horizon, discretion overcomes valour. Bravely turning around, I maintain my height and head for the top of the Maurienne Valley. There I meet 2 other members of the expedition coming the other way; they continue onwards to the Mont Blanc Massif.

Returning across to the home territory of mountains I know near Briancon, I find that conditions have improved further still. Gliders ware calling altitudes of 15000 feet with superb thermals to match. There is plenty of time for a tour of the beautiful Glacier Blanc before running low back through the Ecrin Massif and home to Sisteron.

While there have been many, many contenders for the title of my best day out in gliding, I think that, for sheer beauty, awe and a great sense of achievement, today has to take the biscuit.

Nick Smith Flt Lt Nick Smith

Bannerdown Gliding Club RAFGSA  www.bannerdown.co.uk

All images provided by Cloudrider Photography  www.cloudrider.co.uk

The RAF Sports Board supports the RAFGSA by assisting with expeditions and providing funding for purchasing gliders.

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