Soaring Safari

by admin - Posted on 2004-02-17

In early February, while Benson airport slept under a layer of snow, I had the rare pleasure of flying an ASH-25 in hot South Africa for a week with Dick Bradley, the country’s seven-times national soaring champion.

Soaring Safari, Dick’s operation, is outside the town of Bloemfontein, a four-hour drive south from Johannesburg. Located on a high plateau (airport elevation 4,500 feet), with average daytime temperatures around 100º F, thermals can go to 18,000 feet. Conditions were excellent, and we were able to fly every day. The group was quite international, with pilots from England, Austria, Finland, and Denmark the week I was there, their first ever American. Our day started with a 9:00 a.m. detailed weather briefing, after which the day’s tasks were set on the computer, based on the expected weather development. We flew 300-400-500 km polygons. In November-December when the clouds develop earlier in the day, 750-1,000 km tasks are common. They have an excellent fleet of high-performance gliders, and run a very professional, safe operation.

Several months earlier I was lucky to be able to reserve the ASH-25, with Dick himself in the back seat. The experience of flying a 25m wingspan (82 feet) high-performance (57:1 glide ratio) heavy glider was awesome. The controls felt heavy – thermaling at low altitudes was hot and physical. The time lag between applying the controls and the plane reacting was noticeable, but the overall sensation was most satisfying.

Between 11:00 and 12:00, when the first cumes popped, we got towed to 1,500 feet AGL and were able to climb to about 10,000 feet MSL, the typical forenoon cloud base. Most days we loitered around the airport for a while, waiting for the other gliders to be launched before we set out on the day’s task more or less together. By mid-afternoon the cloud base was typically above 15,000 feet and we could complete our tasks with circling less than 25% of the time. Overdevelopment with scattered thunderstorms was common later in the day, and the energy at the edge of the clouds was impressive, giving us many fast, straight glides. One day we had clear blue skies and strong thermals, but mostly there were lots of dust devils and pretty fat clouds to guide us to lifts.

Interestingly, the very first day, while our flight computer told us that we were on a safe final glide for home, we hit a huge area of 10-knot sink, and watched in frustration as the clearly visible airport got higher and higher above our horizon. We landed out nine miles from home base in a friendly farmer’s harvested wheat field. Our chase crew got there quickly, and I had my first experience of disassembling a large four-wing section glider in a field. The locals loved it, posing for pictures. It was the highlight of their Sunday afternoon, and the farmer invited us all for a beer.

In conclusion, the nine hours flying to Amsterdam with 10 more hours to Johannesburg was a pain, but once there I felt it was well worth it. Even with the weak dollar, the glider rental, food and lodging were surprisingly reasonable, not to mention the very good and inexpensive South African wines.

I learned a lot, and met some great people. By the way, checking my log, I discovered that in this one week I had three times more “stick time” than all last season at Benson’s.

Written by Erwin Kelen
February 17, 2004