Iain rides crest of mountain wave in ‘sedate old lady’ of a glider

Iain Russel before 20500 ft flight
Iain Russel before 20500 ft flight

FLYERS from the Borders Gliding Club made the most of ideal soaring conditions at the weekend, with one pilot reaching an amazing altitude of 20,500ft on a more than four-hour flight that saw him fly from Wooler to Dunbar and back again, writes Mark Entwistle.

The club’s airfield is at Milfield, near Wooler, and it was on Sunday that gliding conditions were near perfect, with temperatures climbing into the 80s.

The club’s Graham White says that while many Borderers may have made for the coast and possibly a bit of surfing in the glorious summer weather, a rather different kind of surfing was taking place high above their heads.

“Sunday marked the official opening of the ‘Wave Season’ for Borders Gliding Club, when many club members surfed the ‘Cheviot Wave’ at heights ranging from 10,000ft to a staggering 20,500 ft – flying without an engine, for up to four-and-a-half hours,” Graham told TheSouthern this week.

Gliders are towed into the air using a powered tug-aircraft, but when they cast-off, usually at about 2,500ft, they must find their own ‘lift’ from rising air currents, or they just glide gently back to earth within 15 minutes.

One of the most sought-after types of lift, which most glider pilots regard as ‘the holy grail’ – is the Mountain Wave lift and is only found at a few sites in the UK.

One of those sites is the Cheviot, a famous generator of mountain wave, making Milfield airfield a popular destination for gliding enthusiasts from all over the UK.

Graham continued: “The Cheviot Wave is created when a great air current, perhaps 10 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 wave-bars mark the summit-crest of the wave and are formed when moist air reaches a point where the air is cold enough to form a cloud.

“On 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 from Biggar, who was towed to 3,000ft above Wooler and soon radioed down to say he had climbed to 10,000ft 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 13,000ft above Powburn; Bill Stephen of Sunderland surfed the wave up to 16,000ft above Duns and Whiteadder – as did Andy Bardgett of Bamburgh who reached 16,500ft above Holy Island.

John Richardson of Durham got to 17,500ft over Coldstream – breathing oxygen for the best part of three hours.

The ‘flight of the day’, however, went to Iain who climbed in the sparkling sunshine to a staggering height of 20,500ft above Wooler.

Normally, gliders are only allowed to climb to a ceiling of 19,500ft 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 24,000ft.

On this occasion Scottish Air Traffic control at Prestwick allowed Iain to continue his climb above 19,500ft – but only to an absolute ceiling of 24,000ft.

However, the wave faded just 1,000ft later and his high point for the day was 20,500ft.

Iain arrived over Dunbar at a height of 14,000ft.

He then reversed his flight path and returned to Milfield, crossing the airfield boundary to a gentle stop on the grass after four-and-a-half hours in the air.

Mr White added: “The irony is that Iain flies a very ancient wooden glider, a Skylark IV which was built in 1962. It is regarded as a rather ‘sedate old lady’ by many of the ‘hot’ pilots at BGC, many of whom fly the glassfibre 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.”