Justin Wills

An internationally renowned pilot, describes a special and very English summer's day  at Walney

It was just before 11.00hrs on an August Saturday when Gillian and I drove on to the airfield at Walney Island , home of the Lakes GC on the Cumbrian coast. The sun was shining as we sniffed the fresh sea air and remarked on the contrast with three hours earlier, when we had hitched up our trailer at Sutton Bank and set out in the thick cloud that was shrouding the North Yorkshire Moors. It had started to rain in the Dales, and this continued unabated as we crossed the Pennine watershed at Garsdale; it was not until we reached the foot of Lake Windermere that we caught a glimpse of blue sky to the west. Clearly we had come to the right place.

Peter Lewis , the club’s CFI, introduced himself and apologised for the slightly odd telephone conversation we had had the evening before. He confessed that he thought my call was a hoax, as the club received so few (notorious) visitors. I explained that my interest had been aroused by his club's article in Sailplane & Gliding and, being nothing if not curious, determined to see for myself how a gliding club could thrive on a windward coast in an area renowned for having the heaviest rainfall in Britain.

The answer began to become clear from the outset. Peter pointed out Black Combe, 15km to the north across a 6km stretch of water, which forms the western escarpment of the Cumbrian Mountains and falls almost 2,000ft into the sea. East of that lies the whole of the Lake District which then merges into the main Pennine chain, whilst on the mainland directly adjacent to the airfield is a ridge line running north-east along the shore of Duddon Bay and rising to over 1,000ft. Thus soaring is possible in almost any wind direction over magnificent country where wave also frequently occurs.

The airfield is at the northern end of the island and occupies almost its full width, with water on three sides. It is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel which is deep enough to allow mooring for quite large vessels but leaves them stranded at low tide, heeling over at uncomfortable angles except for the catamarans, which remain smugly upright. There are three hard runways, an encompassing perimeter track, two enormous hangars in one of which all the club gliders and equipment can be housed, a control tower, clubhouse and even sleeping accommodation. Little wonder that the club is thriving with nearly 20 gliders based on site.

Peter’s enthusiasm was infectious and we rigged my LS-6 in eager anticipation. The sky overhead was clear apart from some scattered cumulus, but to the north and east there was still extensive cloud down on the hilltops, and far upwind there appeared to be some towering shower clouds which could make things difficult later. Clearly we needed to seize the moment.

The club’s Super Cub towed me off into the light north-westerly wind across a long sandy beach whose only occupants were a solitary couple and their dog. Out to sea several gas platforms were visible, and on the western horizon I could just make out the peak of Snaefell on the Isle of Man , nearly 50 miles away. We turned north and I was surprised to find cloud base was only 1,300ft, but thanks to some skilful weaving by the tug we soon climbed above the tops to 2,500ft, where I released.

My initial plan had been to hill soar Black Combe but this now looked very unattractive as its windward face was encased in cloud whose base was too low to allow a glide back to the airfield. I briefly toyed with the idea of hill soaring in cloud using my PalmNAV but reminded myself that there are no old, bold pilots. Instead I decided to fly downwind to the lower ridge north-east of the site, via a detour to the south to avoid the sink behind Black Combe. Here the air was a little drier and cloud base rose to 1,900ft. Circling on my turn and slip I managed to climb slowly to 2,300ft in a ragged cumulus before returning upwind and repeating the process in the next one. I did this four times, but on the last occasion the lift increased to 3kts, and although I kept emerging from different sides of the cloud I continued to make a gain overall until I came out near the top at 5,600ft. Viewed from the outside the cloud revealed itself to have a curious shape, with a narrow trunk like a very tall chimney connecting an ill-defined base with a bulbous sprouting top.

I was now well above all the other clouds nearby, so clearly this was the best opportunity I was likely to get, but what to do next? My vague plan from the outset had been to explore the local area and, if feasible, fly back to Sutton Bank, although this had hitherto seemed hopelessly optimistic. One possibility now lay 20km to the north, where a very active-looking line of clouds stretched away downwind to the north-east. However, the combination of widespread showers underneath a cloud base which was below much of the surrounding terrain, and the extensive cloud flying that would be necessary with no margin for error, led me instinctively to turn away. Curiously, two days later I experienced a sudden failure of my trusty turn and slip (which is my only gyro instrument) whilst climbing in a burgeoning cu-nim over York; extricating myself from that cloud was quite complicated enough without worrying about terrain clearance.

Instead, I turned downwind across Morecambe Bay and along the Lancashire coast, heading for the Ribble Valley 45kms away and easily in range thanks to the 17kt tailwind. Here the lower hills and better landing fields should provide a safer route inland. I drifted along above the cloud tops admiring the contrast between the pale blue sea and the vivid green of the freshly washed fields near the coast.

Pendle Hill and the other windward slopes east of Lancaster remained invisible due to cloud, but near the gliding club at Chipping I climbed 500ft in an isolated turret and from 3,000ft I could see the factory chimney to the east near Clitheroe where cloud base was a respectable 2,800ft.

Now a new problem arose in the form of controlled airspace. South-east would take me under the Manchester TMA, whose base was uncomfortably low in relation to the 1,500ft terrain. Due east would take me into Leeds/Bradford airspace: whilst the system for flying in such areas can work reasonably well when one can give reliable predictions of one’s four-dimensional position, my experience in difficult conditions when this is not possible is that the situation becomes very frustrating for both the glider pilot and the air traffic controller.

Therefore, I decided to head north-east towards Skipton, despite this track leading me under a large area of spreadout downwind of the shower line I had earlier elected to avoid. It was a slow crosswind struggle until I surmounted the final Pennine ridge with 300ft to spare and reached the edge of better conditions near Pateley Bridge . A rather hesitant thermal from 900ft got me high enough to reach Dishforth where a Twin Astir was climbing at 6kts.

The sky ahead now looked magnificent, and I was able to dolphin under clouds at 5,000ft until I arrived over the coast north of Whitby. The wind was much lighter here, and although there were no obvious clouds marking a sea breeze convergence, one clearly existed at lower levels as I could see a yacht taking full advantage of the onshore breeze as she sailed north towards Middlesbrough close hauled.

Ten kilometres offshore was another bank of clouds, which I investigated but could only find zero sink. I guessed that the lift would be above the base resulting from circulation within the cloud now that it was cut off from any lower source of energy. I wondered if this applied to the lines of cumulus one sometimes sees in the middle of oceans.

Below me I observed a bulk freighter heading north-east, perhaps to collect another load of iron from Narvik for the steel mills at Scunthorpe . The coastline here was quite rugged, with steep slate grey cliffs rising directly out of the North Sea , which was a much darker blue than the Irish Sea . I headed back towards Sutton Bank across the moors, noticing how the fields in the surrounding valleys looked like probing green fingers amongst the higher areas of pink and brown heather.

I landed, and a member kindly towed me back to a parking spot near the clubhouse. I walked to the edge of the escarpment and looked out across the Vale of York. Conditions made it look possible to fly far to the west, even perhaps back to Walney Island given a good cloud climb. But I wanted tea, not heroics, and Gillian must be well on her way by now. Sure enough, exactly when I expected her, I spotted the trailer driving briskly up the road from Thirsk, overtaking all the slower traffic to reach me exactly eleven hours after we had set out that morning.

So what made this day so special? A number of things, of course, but above all the chain of delightful surprises: the marvellous metamorphosis of the weather, which arose not so much from a clearance as from drying out in situ; the enormous enthusiasm and friendliness of everyone we met at the Lakes club; the vivid beauty of the varied landscapes and seascapes; and the flight itself which, though neither far nor fast, provided a string of intriguing decisions. For the two of us, who spend much of our time abroad, it seemed uniquely English, wonderfully civilised, and extraordinarily nice.

Article and pictures courtesy of Justin Wills, Sailplane & Gliding 2002 , Map by Jon Hall HRA.   Read about Justin's father Philip Wills


Back to      Welcome Page         Members Only