Close Encounters Of The Soaring Kind

Summary: A small collection of interesting air-to-air encounters while flying sailplanes. Quite a motley collection, and possibly more interesting for those who have never flown in a soaring aircraft such as a sailplane or hang-glider. Just an enjoyable read, rather than informative.

Perhaps this isn't the most important soaring article ever written, however it should prove to be an interesting little read! Join me as I recollect some memorable aerial encounters during my years of soaring flight.

A few things here to raise the eyebrows of pilot and non-pilot alike.

Rough Encounter With A Thermal Core

Glider pilots of all types are familiar with 'thermals', those columns or sometimes bubbles of rising air that are warmer than the surrounding air. In central Australia, where I learnt to fly in the 70's, the summer thermals were often very strong. The thermal core, just a few meters across, would sometimes suck dust from the ground up to high altitudes.

Anyway, I was on a training flight with my instructor and we spotted some tell-tale dust some distance away. We lost no time in flying towards and then entering that thermal. What happened next took us by surprise, as we flew directly through the core. WHAM! The old Blanik L13 bucked skywards. A split second later, the huge upwards acceleration stopped, and every bit of dust and debris in the cockpit hit the top of the perspex canopy and then rained down on us again. We just grinned! Needless to say, it turned out to be a great thermal!

Magical Encounter With A Cumulus Rim

This next encounter is commonplace for many many soaring pilots, but it's a magical moment the first time you experience it. Again flying the Blanik L13, but solo on this occasion. It was a good soaring day, and I remember looking upwards as I spiraled up under a large cumulus cloud.

Maintaining the climb for as long as I dared, the great gray cavern got bigger and bigger overhead. I noticed the horizon had disappeared, in all directions. The air was deliciously cool. Here I was in the slightly concave underbelly of a healthily growing cumulus cloud. A whisp of grey shot past me to my right. Mmm, flying through scraps of cloud now, better get out of here, and fast. I pushed the nose way down, accelerating the Blanik up to a noisy 80 knots (150 kph) or so, before punching out into the brilliant sunshine that lay beyond the rim.

Very Close Encounter With A Lunch Bag

To be precise, a small brown paper bag. I just decided it would be fun to attempt to hit a small object in midair. A sort of flying accuracy test! With 1000 meters (3000 feet) or so in hand, out went my empty lunch bag, through the clear vision panel of the canopy. Then, I flew straight for a while to put some distance between the Bocian 2-seater I was flying and the bag.

By now, the bag was gently floating down through the air, losing altitude at a similar rate to the glider. Heaving the old Bocian onto one wing tip, I wheeled around tightly, turning back to look for the bag. It wasn't hard to spot. As it got closer, I had to make some very quick last-second adjustments on the controls to get close to the bag. Missed the first time. But after a few tries, FWOPPP there it was, pinned across the open air-vent flap! It really made my day. After landing, the bag was still jammed in the vent, and there's a photo to prove it...

First Encounter With A Hang Glider

At several thousand feet, I spotted a hang glider thermalling upwards several kilometers away. Naturally, I went over to join him, but curiosity was compelling me just as much as the prospect of a climb!

Sliding under the hang-glider, maybe 300 feet below it, I then spent too much time trying to gawk at it and not enough time concentrating on my own climb in the thermal.

Seeing he was out-climbing me, I left the thermal after a few minutes to avoid further embarrassment, hehe. But it was an interesting experience, watching such a minimal aircraft in flight. I could clearly see the pilot enthusiastically shifting his weight around, guiding the craft into the strongest regions of lift.

First Encounter With A Hawk

The first air-to-air encounter with a soaring bird is another rather special experience for a soaring pilot. For me, it happened during a ridge-soaring flight on the small range of hills near Lochiel, in South Australia. Heading towards the southern end of the range, I noticed a large bird, also doing a spot of ridge flying. On having a closer look it turned out to be an average-sized hawk of some kind.

Determined to get an even closer look, I turned away from the ridge and approached the bird from behind, flying as slowly as safely possible. Wings outstretched, the hawk appeared almost motionless as it flew directly into the light westerly breeze. As my glider drew alongside, the creature twisted its neck to get a good look at me too. Two beady hawk eyes summed up the giant white bird which dared to share it's territory, for just a moment. My flying speed was far greater than the hawk's, so I soon left it behind. I never saw it again, but the memory certainly lingered!


Hope you enjoyed my little collection of soaring encounters! These are just a tiny sample of the unique experiences to be had as a gliding pilot, whether that be in a paraglider, hang-glider or sailplane. Check out some of my other articles to find out more about those other soaring sports.

If you decide to publish the above article online, please do the right thing by including my bio. Just cut-and-paste the text below, placing it immediately after the article text. The bio contains a link back to this website. Thanks!

Word count: 911

First Published: 3 Jan 2007

Copyright © Tim Parish, all rights reserved.


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