Thursday, September 28, 2006

Flying with Kestrels

Tuesday afternoon at Butser Hill, clipped into the harness, with my wing laid out tidily behind me on the grass. Looking westwards out over the Hampshire countryside, watching the cumulus clouds rolling in towards the hill. Each puffy, building cloud represents a thermal, warm air released from ploughed fields baking in the sun. I have already flown once today, a one-minute fiasco that ended with a much-too-fast slope landing and quarter of an hour unpicking my wing from a bush.

There are four of us flying here today, and this is only my second time at Butser. Although this is my local hill I have only recently summoned the courage to join the club. The young guy with long hair - who annoyed everyone by turning up and flying without speaking to anyone - launched a couple of minutes ago and immediately sunk out of sight. This is a narrow ridge with complicated bowls and spurs - it doesn't generate much dynamic lift, you are reliant on thermals for soaring. Last time I was here Shippo, the septuagenarian club coach, tipped me off about the magic tree visible further down the slope from launch - when its leaves start rustling there is probably a thermal on its way up the slope.

Sure enough, the leaves of the magic tree have started frantically waving around, even though it is fairly still up here at launch. I quickly turn to face my wing and arrange my hands with crossed risers. I am nervous of reverse launches - having done lots of winching at Green Dragons I am happier with forward launching. I can feel the wind strengthening on the back of my neck, so I hastily switch the vario on, then pull gently on the risers to inflate the wing. It comes up beautifully with a rushing sound as I take one step towards it, brake gently, then turn and lean forwards in the harness, pushing down the slope as it lifts me into the air. The ground rushes by a few feet below me then drops away as I settle into the seat, then - whoa! - as I approach the hedge I am lifted strongly skywards. Carefully I turn right along the line of the hedge, then follow the contours of the ridge trending away northwards, vario bleeping enthusiastically as I continue to gain height. The landscape is opening up but I am captivated by the sight of a kestrel hovering about 30 feet below me. As I approach his airspace he stoops, and I see him grasping at the grass with outstretched talons, groping for a luckless mouse or shrew, before he gives it up and leaps into the air again.

I make a left turn, trying to keep it flat with some opposite brake, then cruise back down the ridge. Launch looks far below, though it can't be much more than 100ft, and I imagine Pete and Jan are watching me enviously - Pete raises a camera to his face. Ahead to the south I can see clear to the coast around Chichester. There is lots of lift coming off the magic tree, and I turn away from the ridge, trying to make the most of it, then left again into the bowl which funnels the air skyward, pushing me higher as I turn right again for the return trip. And so it goes on for 10 minutes, other flyers joining me in the air to enjoy these moments of grace. Again I watch the kestrel stoop and come away empty-handed. And later a buzzard cruise below me on the opposite tack, only a few feet below. I can see every detail of her mottled plumage and the delicate twists of her tail that control her flight with perfect precision.

Then suddenly it's gone. The warm lifting air has moved on, and I quickly lose height. I decide to try for a top-landing - not something I have managed very often, and come in over launch with lots of ground speed, and the trees approaching quickly. This time I keep my head and as the ground approaches I turn away into wind, keeping the brakes on, and drop gently onto the ground, whooping with exhileration. Back to earth, bound by gravity again, having inhabited - for brief, privileged moments - the realm of the kestrels and buzzards.......

2 comments:

Gavin said...

Very nice post.

I was so enthralled by watching paragliders around Westbury White Horse the other day that I nearly crashed the car as I sped past. You should give it a try - it looks like a spectacular hill to fly around.

Barrie said...

Pete
You continue to be an inspiration, keep writing, as I plod on with my CP through the British weather.
Fly safe
Barrie