HIGH-FLYING Iain Russell took pride of place on a remarkable day for Borders Gliding Club when he ‘surfed the Cheviot Wave’ to reach a staggering 20,500 feet at the apex of the climb in an epic four-and-a-half-hour flight from Wooler to Dunbar and back.
Sunday, June 26 was a glorious summer day in Northumberland, with temperatures soaring into the 80s. Many people fled to the coast for the cool breezes of the seaside and the beaches. Some plunged into the sea to try belly-boarding, while others may have taken a lesson with the surf-schools at Druridge Bay or Tynemouth; but 20,000 feet above their heads, high in the blue sky, a different kind of surfing adventure was happening.
Normally, the gliders are only allowed to climb to a ceiling of 19,500 feet above Northumberland and only in airspace which is not used by commercial traffic. However, there is a special procedure whereby the Northumbrian ‘wave box’ can be opened by Air Traffic Control to allow gliders to climb to a maximum ceiling of 24,000 feet. The box is a vast volume of airspace that does not conflict with commercial airliners, which use closely controlled air corridors running up the east coast of Northumberland.
On this occasion Scottish Air Traffic control at Prestwick allowed Iain to continue his climb above 19,500 feet but only to an absolute ceiling of 24,000 feet. However, the wave faded just a thousand feet later and his high point for the day was 20,500 feet.
Many pilots reached heights of 10,000-17,500 feet on the official opening of the ‘Wave Season’ for Borders Gliding Club, but Iain, from Biggar, crested the wave, then arrived over Dunbar at 14,000 feet and took the photo, (right), looking back along the Berwickshire coast, then set off homeward to Milfield.
His glider, a 1962 Skylark IV, has a ‘glide-angle’ of 33 to 1, meaning that for every mile of height it gains, it should be able to fly 33 miles horizontally in a straight glide. So when Iain reached Dunbar at more than two miles high, he should have been able to comfortably glide 66 miles in any direction with no trouble. As it was he faced a stiff headwind of 47 knots when he turned around and he lost all of that 14,000 feet getting back to Milfield. He scraped over the boundary with a few hundred feet to spare, but it was a very close-run thing and he almost had to land-out in a farmers field.
The irony is that Iain’s very ancient wooden glider is regarded as a rather ‘sedate old lady’ by many of the ‘hot’ pilots at BGC, many of whom fly the glass-fibre glider equivalent of a Ferrari, or Formula One Honda.
On this occasion, the 19-metre wooden wings of the old lady outflew the high performance glass-ships by a considerable margin but then – as the Ferrari pilots would say – “It was a Skylark sort of day!”
Gliders are towed into the air using a powered tug-aircraft, but when they cast-off, usually at about 2,500 feet, they must find their own ‘lift’ from rising air currents, or they just glide gently back to earth within 15 minutes.
There are two main sources of lift found at most gliding sites throughout the UK: thermals are rising columns of warm air which climb into the colder air above, in the same way as a hot air balloon; all a glider pilot has to do is catch a thermal – usually found beneath fluffy white cumulus clouds – and he or she can soar to three or four thousand feet, or more.
The second form of lift is called ridge lift. It occurs where strong winds blow onto a mountain ridge that blocks their progress; the wind is forced up over the mountainside and if a glider-pilot guides his aircraft into the rising current he can often fly back and forth along the ridge for many hours at a time. The ‘club ridge’ at BGC runs from Yeavering Bell – several miles along the spine of the hills from Hethpool and the Kirknewton Tors – to Goldscleugh at the head of the College Valley.
The third form of lift, which most glider pilots regard as ‘the holy grail’, is mountain wave lift.
This is only found at a few mountain-sites in the UK, and the Cheviot is a famous generator of mountain wave. Borders Gliding Club, in the lee of the Cheviot, is the happy recipient of many visiting glider pilots from clubs to the south, who have no mountains to play with.
The Cheviot Wave is created when a great air current, perhaps ten miles wide and 50 miles long, meets the wall of the hills and is forced upwards. This triggers a ‘standing wave’ downwind of the hills – rather like the stationary waves at the foot of a waterfall.
The first sign of wave is the appearance of beautiful oval or torpedo shaped clouds, called ‘lenticulars’ which form downwind of the hills, often over Wooler, Akeld or Doddington.
These ‘fuzzy spaceships’ are sometimes mistaken for UFOs when seen at great heights; they do not move with the lower clouds but remain stationary for hours and seem to glow from within. These wave-bars mark the summit-crest and are formed when moist air reaches a point where the air is cold enough to form a cloud.
That Sunday morning, the appearance of wave clouds high above Cheviot, Wooler, Akeld and Doddington, sent pilots running to their gliders. It was the start of a great day which confirmed the reputation of Borders Gliding Club as one of the great wave-sites in the UK. One of the first pilots to launch was Iain Russell, who was towed to 3,000 feet above Wooler and soon radioed down to say he had climbed to 10,000 feet and was now ‘going on oxygen’ as legally required.
More club members launched in quick succession and the messages just kept coming down from on high.
Helen Fraser of Morpeth was soon floating around at 13,000 feet above Powburn; Bill Stephen of Sunderland surfed the wave up to 16,000 feet above Duns and Whiteadder – as did Andy Bardgett of Bamburgh, who went on to reach 16,500 feet above Holy Island.
John Richardson of Durham got to 17,500 feet near Coldstream – breathing oxygen for the best part of three hours.
For all the pilots, it was a day they would never forget.
•Anyone who would like to learn how to surf the Cheviot Wave at Borders Gliding Club can visit the website at www.bordersgliding.co.uk; or if you merely want to be taken up on an Air Experience flight for a birthday, that can be arranged also. Visit the website or phone 01668 216 284 – weekends only.