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1200 km in Scotland

As published in Sailplane & Gliding (August - September 2007)

John Williams reports on the longest flight ever flown in the United Kingdom - all in wave within the borders of Scotland.

1200km in Scotland
1200km in Scotland

For a few years now we've been exploring the potential of Scottish wave to go further and faster than before. After Richard and Neville Allcoat extended the last leg of a "Portmoak milk-run" 500K flight to finish at Rufforth for 750km in their DG-500 in 1997 there have been more recent wave 750s (Jack Steven, Roy Wilson, Kevin Hook and myself).

A little bit of competitive spirit, great gliders, better weather information (especially satpics) and airspace that's getting more difficult but still usable have given us a priceless opportunity to do things that have never been done before. Is there any other sport where old f***s in their fifties can open up new records?

Trying to fit big tasks into Scotland has driven us to explore new territory. The far west of Mull at Bunessan did that for 750km tasks in northerly wave, but the country just isn't wide enough to fit in the legs of more than 250km that are needed for a four-leg 1000km. The only option is to use the full length of the country and go all the way to the north coast. Studying westerly wave patterns suggested that Cape Wrath was usually too cloudy to be a good turnpoint and John O'Groats too far from upwind hills - so the village of Tongue with its prominent causeway part way between the two fitted the bill well.

When it turned out to be possible to reach last November (We are all still pioneers, S & G February-March 2007, p26) we sensed the possibility of a double out-and-return on the right day when daylight hours were longer. Colin Hamilton proposed new waypoints at Achnabourin (ACN - east and a fraction north of Tongue, now the most northerly on the UK list) and Glenfarg (GFG - just north of Portmoak) deliberately designed so that GFG-TOG-Loch Venachar (LVE)-ACN-GFG came out at 1003km.

During the first few days of April this year we watched as a big lozenge-shaped anticyclone built over central England, leaving a freshening westerly over Scotland on Easter Sunday. With the newly-created waypoints and that task so recently thought out there could only be one declaration to make.

A self-launch at 07.15hrs led straight into weak wave near GFG. Not a classic sky, but enough wisps and gaps to encourage a start at 07.29 and to tiptoe towards the mountains. I'd mentally adjusted to it being a long day - maybe I'd need to stop and climb high to cross difficult clouded-over areas - although the forecast had also hinted of a weak front approaching later in the day, so maybe speed would matter too.

At Pitlochry it was evident that just to the west of track it was almost eight octas while to the east it was blue. The workable energy line was right up the edge of the Class F advisory route between Glasgow and Inverness, so I did what the AIP recommends and informed Scottish of my presence in the area. Having a transponder helped. What didn't help was my asking if I should stay on ATC frequency and getting an "affirm" as a reply. There ended almost all the useful sharing of soaring info between gliders for nearly the whole day - a mistake I don't intend to repeat.

As I approached Feshiebridge I could begin to see stacked upper system lenticulars in the distance - a long way off but enough to create hope that conditions near Tongue might be good if I could get across the Great Glen. A well-defined gap just south of Inverness provided 10,000ft; and by Lairg there was a smile on my face from being gently sucked up into the first layers of that upper system. The lenticulars arched themselves along the contours of Loch Shin and led steadily beyond Tongue - justifying an overshoot of the TP by some 15km to get in sector without leaving lift.

A panorama of the wild coastline and wonderfully turbulent seascape off an aptly names Cape Wrath from 12,000ft was the bonus. Not the quickest first leg at 97km/h - but still it was only five past ten.

Thoughts now turned to the problem of getting to Lock Venachar, some 250km to the south. That would demand pushing to the south-west, but in that direction lay ever-increasing cloud cover. Thin veils of upper system moisture helped the decision-making by revealing a line that took me to 15,000ft over the Cromarty Firth, high enough to cross an amorphous bank of medium cloud which was obscuring Loch Ness and eventually (after losing 5,000ft) reached the next visible gaps near Dalwhinnie, where the lost height was restored.

With very few visible gaps it was time to throttle back, preserve height and make ground upwind. A ramped area of cloud north of Crianlarich helped me stay in the clear long enough to dive downwind, clip the Loch Venachar sector and get back to a promising energy line at Loch Tay at 7,800ft. that was the first 500km done in a little over four hours. No shortage of daylight then, but where was that forecast frontal feature? I had a steady run north to Inverness with ATC apparently now getting used to my meanderings up the advisory route and I became almost immune to the regular R/T activity. I did take heed, though, when a power pilot called to inform ATC that the turbulence and mountain wave influence seemed stronger than forecast. I couldn't resist replying that I was climbing above the Black Isle at more than 1,100 feet per minute. That climb was really well placed and worth reaching 16,000ft in, as the view ahead looked most uncertain.

For the next 100km or so it seemed like progress really slowed. Energy lines became much less distinct, headwind increased and cloud seemed to be informing in front of me faster than I could penetrate even with 95kts on the ASI. Yet I yielded to the curse of "upwinditis" and almost turned Tongue again before turning downwind through heavy sink to cut the Achnabourin sector, where mercifully there was still a gap to show an exit route to the south. I'd just made it ahead of that little insignificant line on the forecast chart - in reality a nasty mass of building cloud cover - I think that even half an hour later the task might have been impossible: 750kms done in just over six hours and a good looking sky on track. Maybe my luck really was in. Beyond (and out over) the Moray Firth there were beautifully developed upper-system lenticulars - Easterton and Aboyne pilots should be revelling in those. Heading for the same Black Isle hotspot I'd used going north I found 5kts to 17,500ft. Then Bruce Cooper came on frequency to tell ATC that he was crossing the advisory and I was bemused to hear them warn him of another glider at FL170 near Inverness - it is really weird to be talked about in the third person and not feel at liberty to pass on useful gliding info direct - oh, to be back on a real gliding frequency. With a tailwind component and plenty of height it took me only 32 minutes to get from Inverness to Perth, a distance of some 130km. At least the speed cameras on the A9 don't point upwards…

After 7hrs 36m the declared task was done, and that last blast had brought the overall average speed up to 132kn/h. It was still just after 3pm local time and Bishop Hill was working - should I land?

I tried to remember how much further south I'd have to go to extend Russell Cheetham's UK three-turnpoint distance record - was it about 20km? If so, Edinburgh airspace was in the way. Still I would regret it forever if I didn't give it a go - there aren't many times in life when an opportunity like this one presents itself. So I climbed on the ridge - found a bit of weak wave and turned downwind towards the Firth of Forth - the wide part - but clear of the TMA. Even if I had to land out near the south coast of the estuary that ought to be enough to claim the distance record. Then a pleasant surprise: there was usable wave out over the sea from 4,500ft - no excuses for turning back then. Berwickshire had faint lines of lift and much cloud - so how far should I continue?

Conflicting voices swapped places every minute in a tired and adrenaline-doped brain. Keep going - you could maybe reach Sutton Bank fro 1,250km. Stop right now - you only need to nick one tiny piece of airspace and you'll blow the whole flight - haven't you done enough - and isn't your North of England half-mil map still in the car? In the end I compromised, calculating that Jedburgh should be just through the 1,100km mark. I still had a chance of soaring home and that would leave the whole flight within Scotland. Somehow that seemed like the right thing to do.

The return home needed work to find energy lines - all seemed to be weakening and wanting to cut straight through the TMA  - but with some relief I re-crossed the Forth and punched through the strong turbulence to land back at Portmoak after some ten and a half hours in the air and more than 1,200km of soaring flight.

It was a hell of a day. Not the very best wave day, I think, but outstanding for me because I got lucky when I needed it and never had to wait for lift until I desperately needed it. I've never been able to say that about a long flight before - maybe someday it can happen again when I have more maps, a toothbrush and a cross-border visa with me.