Going with the wind

Ben Stubbs indulges his Top Gun fantasies as he takes to the skies for some emissions-free flying.

I can hear nothing but the sound of my breath rattling in and out within the cockpit. Silence is bad - it's one of the few things I remember from our briefing.

"It's your aircraft!" Maverick yells to me from the front.

I'm most certainly the Goose of this scenario, though we're pilots wearing Glarefoils, not Aviators. I grab the stick and yank it hard left. The Snowy Mountains on the horizon become a vertical white stripe and my stomach is rearranged by the G-forces as we take the turn. We straighten up and I slip out of my momentary Top Gun fantasy.

I'm in a fibreglass glider above Cooma in the Snowy Mountains experiencing "environmental flying" on a crystal-clear winter morning. My guide and flying partner is the chief flying instructor of the Canberra Gliding Club, Drew McKinnie, who I secretly think of as Maverick during the time we're in the air chasing waves and thermals. While the rest of the aviation world is focused on the disruption caused by an ash cloud from a Chilean volcano, we have the entire sky to ourselves in southern NSW. We have no engine and our maximum speed is about 100 knots (still, a respectable 185km/h), so we aren't worried about the particles from the ash cloud interfering with our glider flight.

Because we have no propeller, we're towed into the air by an old crop-duster, the Piper Pawnee, which drags us through the yellow fields of Monaro with a red rope. Then we're up and over a highway and flying. The glider measures 15 metres from wing tip to wing tip, so McKinnie is careful to check our clearance as we wobble up into the air over gnarled gums and power lines. The Piper banks and pulls us higher, towards the cauliflower clouds. The altimeter spins to 1800 metres, which is 1000 metres above the plains from where we set off.

McKinnie yells at me as we climb, "Whatever you do, don't touch the yellow button - or the red button." I nod and he explains, "The yellow will release us from the tow plane and the red opens the canopy!"

In cross-country or competition flights, glider pilots are fitted with parachutes, though there is no such luxury for us today in our tandem exploration. I keep my hands tucked up under my armpits as we continue to rise above the farmland. The town of Cooma spreads out below us and the cobalt scar of Lake Eucumbene sits just beneath the mountains that are sparkling white on the horizon. McKinnie counts down and presses the yellow button. There is a loud "click" and suddenly it feels like we're floating inside a streamlined bath tub. The Piper veers left with a tail of smoke behind it and we tip right, giving us an unobstructed view of the coils of the Murrumbidgee River.

We go through the moves with our duplicate controls; flying sideways using the rudders and stalling in the air above the sea of gum trees while my co-pilot points our nose up above the horizon to reduce speed. My stomach is on spin cycle, though I relax a little when McKinnie tells me he has been flying gliders since 1970 and has lost count of how many thousand flights he's taken.

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He is one of the elder statesmen of the gliding club based in a paddock outside Cooma. It is a perfect location for unassisted flying, I'm told, "because of the incredible waves".

As we drift towards the dry Bredbo hills, McKinnie explains the phenomenon.

"Imagine water flowing down a stream," he says, curving his hand to illustrate the point. "As it goes over the rocks it arcs up, creating a wave. Wind is the same. As it blows off Mount Kosciuszko and hits the foothills it creates the same sort of effect. These are the waves we chase here."

The conditions are so good for gliders on the Monaro plains that the Canberra Gliding Club runs an eight-day wave camp every September from its Bunyan Airfield for enthusiasts to learn to fly. The high altitude and hilly conditions here harness the wind billowing off Australia's highest mountain range and numerous records have been achieved as a result. The gliders regularly fly above 6000 metres; local pilot Rick Agnew achieved the Australian altitude record in a glider when he reached 10,000 metres here in 1995.

McKinnie instructs me to grab the stick and point us north. I nudge the glider left, dipping us below the horizon accidentally and we throttle through the air at speed. My stomach groans with the increased pressure but McKinnie maintains a calm voice as he tells me to find the horizon again to keep us steady. We level out.

He points out an odd sculpture protruding from the hill below us, like a television antenna. This artwork is known by locals as "Another Blue Poles", a 21-metre metallic structure of blue steel rods that was built in 1978 as a response to the federal government's purchase of the Jackson Pollock painting.

The wind surges past us in the canopy and despite the absence of a motor, it is still noisy as we slalom between the thermals. McKinnie reminds me that when it's quiet you know you're in trouble. "If there's no wind, there's nothing to glide on," he says matter-of-factly.

Part of the appeal for McKinnie, whose father was in the Royal Australian Air Force, is the strategy of the sport. "It's like chess," he says. "You have to think ahead to predict conditions when you don't have an engine and porpoise between the clouds."

McKinnie pushes the stick down to demonstrate his control and we surge ahead at 95 knots. "Gliding is a great leveller," he says. "It's all about being responsible. It's fun if you find a wave or a thermal but you don't want to get carried away and have to ring your wife to pick you up from South Australia!"

A handful of gliders are out today, drifting through the clouds around us. They look like giant, silent eagles scanning the tawny fields for prey.

I watch the altimeter of the glider spin lower as we circle the hills. The cars on the highway glint in the sunshine and McKinnie indicates that we're turning in for landing. Maverick takes control once again and I'm happy to be Goose in the passenger seat.

It feels like the final dip in a roller-coaster as we descend and approach the landing strip. I can see the walking trails on Hangar Hill only metres below us and the flapping yellow windsock at the end of the runway. The wheels skid on the grass and we coast towards the hangar before coming to a stop.

McKinnie presses the red button and releases the canopy. My co-pilot pats me reassuringly - mission accomplished. I stay seated for a moment in the cockpit, appreciating the safe sound of silence.

Ben Stubbs flew courtesy of the Canberra Gliding Club.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The Bunyan Airfield is 12 kilometres north of Cooma on the western side of the Monaro Highway. From Sydney, it is 390 kilometres south, or about 4½ hours' drive. There are regular flights to Cooma from Sydney with Aeropelican.

Staying there

Ellstanmor is an 1875 manor house and bed and breakfast. Rooms cost from $100 a night, including breakfast; see ellstanmor.com.au.

Woodvale is a restored three-bedroom cottage built in 1853, with barbecue facilities and a spacious verandah. Phone 0457 234 099; see woodvalecooma.com.au.

Flying there

Trial instructional flights with the Canberra Gliding Club cost from $150 a session. The joy-flight option costs from $120. A deluxe flight costs from $180.

The Wave Camp will be on September 17-25. Phone the club on 0428 523 994; see canberragliding.org.

More information

There are many spots across the state to enjoy "environmental flying". To find one of 80 gliding clubs in Australia, see nswgliding.org.au. For more on Cooma, see visitcooma.com.au.

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