Monday, September 04, 2006

Spitfire Dreaming...

Today started off relatively cool in temperature. I thought about flying from where I parked the caravan last night, but it would really have meant taking off from the road. This morning conditions were perfect with a light cool easterly blowing and about 6 octas of cloud cover keeping the sun at bay. I almost did, but the thought of a road train coming over the nearest crest just as I swung my legs out of the harness bothered me. If I at least had someone around to film my stupidity that would be a bonus, but no one wants to die in vain ;-)
Speaking of death, I heard in a pub tonight that Steve Erwin is no longer with us, apparently after spending his whole life baiting any dangerous living thing to try and kill him and being repeatedly saved by his deep understanding for animals (and bloody quick reflexes) he died whilst swimming after an allergic reaction to a sting ray gave him a heart attack. Now come on, if you really believe that someone is pulling the strings, you must also believe they think stuff like this is funny.

So anyway I kept driving, Bungles everywhere and other regular hills. I swear the wedgies are over a meter and a half tall when they stand at the side of the road. Forget huskies and snow, why hasn't someone figured out a way to pull a hang glider with large birds of prey. Mush Mush ha ha.

I repeatedly passed small helicopters at roadhouses and the like, but no large cleared areas that I could use to fly from.

A couple of hundred KMs out of Darwin I saw a sign indicating an abandoned WW2 airfield coming up on the left. It also said "Unserviced & Unmaintained Road" , being quick on the brakes and in the mood for a challenge I took the small gravel road. It got narrower which was not good, but then became mostly bitumen and potholes which was just fine. After a few KMs and just as I was starting to think about looking for a place to turn around I glimpsed a clearing through the scrub.

And Oh my God what a clearing, 5143 by 100 feet and black gravelled. There was no sign of any aviation activity, no refuelling drums or tyre marks or anything. The sign said it has remained unused since abandoned in 1940something.

It was just before 12 when I arrived, it was 36'C and really really really thermic. Every 10 mins a freight train comes rushing through sweeping thousands of leaves up into the air. The prevailing wind was a light left to right across the strip, but mostly it was causing the thermals to drift from left to right down the runway.
Not Dusties in the NT, but perhaps Leavies. Whatever you want to call them they still howl through and make you run for your glider when you hear them coming.

So I was assessing the situation, on the plus side I had a huge length of runway to take-off and land on, the negative there was that it was not into wind. It was really thermic, but then it is only winter/spring here and I love an angry 10,000ft day in WA so why not the NT? I figured that I fly at the height of summer in more southern latitudes so surely the northern latitudes could not be any worse? Then of course there is the last resort of rational thinking, suppose I lived right here, I would have to fly and get used to it. Then there was the lack of CDMA coverage, distance from the nearest main road, or any people at all. I guess if I really believed that I was not capable of doing this and surviving I would not be doing this, I like a bit of adventure but I am not suicidal.

So with all this in mind I set up the fun and the power harness. Twice I had to drop everything and run for the fun when the wind went tail as a cycle came through, just like anywhere else when its thermic. I got myself all set-up and put my sony camera on the centre of the runway to record my take-off and hopefully my landing.

I will upload the video to youtube shortly, if I can figure out how to edit this post I will also put the relevant photos in here as well, but failing that they will all be on Flikr soon.

As I already knew, it is hard to take-off and land in a crosswind, its easy to stay straight when you have speed but near trim the fun wants to turn left, no biggie though.
I took off in as close to Nil as I could get just after a cycle came through, initially I climbed well to about 75ft and then I hit big sink and just kept ploughing along in big sink with a zero rate of climb. As I watched the end of the runway coming up I really wanted more height before being forced to turn downwind to stay within glide of the strip. Just seconds before I was forced to turn anyway I hit something and it was all I could do to keep the nose down and stop the high wing from lifting any higher. As luck would have it I was in a huge thermal, wow if only you could climb at 1800ft/min without help from a thermal. Around 2000ft I shut down the motor and braked the prop and just enjoyed thermalling the fun. I was wondering how long it would take me to get to cloudbase when I looked down and saw that I had drifted a long way from the strip and I was getting blown down wind fast. This was the single most scary moment today, about 20 secs later I was calm again as the motor started on the first pull. Full power got me back over the airstrip at about 6000ft. Then it was time to shut off the motor and have some fun, a few gentle wingovers between thermals and some sightseeing. Sadly my canon camera did not record the first part of my flight, I was recording clips and photos like crazy until I noticed it just had card error on the screen. Autopilot on and I took the time to remove and re-insert the card and then it worked as well as it usually does.
I had initially wanted to make the most of the huge runway by leaving the prop braked and doing a low level high speed pass over the waiting sony. However when I got to that magic spot where it was time to pull the bar in and dive I found another powerful thermal right under me, I did some S turns to stay in position, neither gaining height or moving forward. It was rougher close to the ground and I was starting to come close to not enjoying this part, so I unbraked the prop and held the bar back as close to my feet as I could. I love the sound of the prop free wheeling behind you, I also love the immense drag it creates that enables you to just fall out of the sky on demand, it really is like having flaps or spoilers or a drogue shoot.
Anyway the landing was perfect, I was going to go over the camera with the prop braked horizontally originally but the spinning prop and a little help from the crosswind meant I veered left slightly.
In the end I flat packed the fun, it just seemed to get more and more thermic with faster and more vicious Leafies coming though. At one point one popped out of the trees upwind about 50M away and coming right for me, I just had time to unclip the nose wires and luff lines and dive onto the top of the sail, this was the last time today that my heart was racing, but as usual I got away with it.

I am in a caravan park in Darwin now, typing this.

I am reminded of the view from up high, trees, mountains, valleys, creeks, crocodile country. It was scary enough for me and I fly slow and can land in really small spaces if I have to, what must it have been like for the poor bomber pilots flying underpowered heaps during the second world war? No wonder there was such a high death by accident rate, you just could not be expected to survive a crash if you could not make the runway for any reason.

I'd love to be able to say that a Spitfire was the last thing to crash land at the strip and that I found it and I have the propeller and one of the wheels in my caravan as a souvenir, it would be a damn lie of course.

There are about 30 of these airfields scattered all over the area, I wonder how many I will be able to fly from?

Here is that video:

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