Below is an article by Barry Oliver outlining his flying routine as it was when we were graced with his presence in the ACT. It gives a great outline of flying during the warmer months. I’ve taken the liberty of adding some footnotes to update the information for 2017.
President ACTHPA 2017
An edited version of this article appeared in Soaring Australia, June 2006
I live in Canberra. Most people that don’t live in Canberra think living in Canberra is sad and unfortunate. I’m glad they think that because then they won’t come here. Most people that live in Canberra don’t want anyone else to come here. They perpetuate the idea that Canberra is crap, which deters others. If you come and live here you will do the same. Maybe they drug the water? Anyway, this story is my attempt to escape the drugs and reveal the truth about my experience as it relates to paragliding (and hang gliding) around Canberra. I’m not writing about the excellent mountain biking, great hiking, good pubs and snow skiing a couple of hours away. Its only about paragliding.
My day usually begins around 4.30am. Not because an external alarm clock goes off beside my bed, but because my internal clock wakes me up. Sometimes it’s annoying particularly if I’ve had a big night the night before.
Irrespective, 4.30am my eyes pop open, nearly same time every day, sometimes with my head throbbing from that ‘bad food’ allergy that coincides with the beer consumption. Anyway, I usually stagger out of the bedroom and check the weather conditions.
I have Weatherzone (http://www.weatherzone.com.au/) set up on my computer and my Weatherzone briefing provides me with quite current observations from about six local Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) weather sites. These include Canberra airport, Tuggeranong, Braidwood, Goulburn, Mt Ginini and Cooma [Nerriga is also a relevant area to monitor]. They give a reasonably good idea of current conditions.1
A check of the BOM forecast, which comes in at around 5.30am adds more information to my somewhat thick head. The final check of two UHF wind-talkers that are positioned at Spring Hill and Pig Hill, two main flying sites around Canberra, provides real-time updates of wind-speeds and directions [the wind talkers are now online, you can find them by clicking on the “wind talkers” section of the ACTHPA website].2
[BOM now have an upgraded system for being able to tell more detail around forecasting and wind direction modeling. Other websites, such at willyweather.com.au, also use BOM models and data to produce an hour by hour forecast. There are also several websites that provide detailed information about specific weather information pertinent to flying. There are free services such as RASP forecasts, and pay websites including xcskies and skysight. Skysight is a newcomer to the market and slightly more expensive compared with xcskies, however it seems to provide some very detailed and surprisingly accurate predictions for the ACT region.]
Armed with 3 years of forecasting experience I develop a plan. This often comprises three choices: Go to Lake George, go to Spring Hill or go to work3. Probably in that order of preference. If a strong easterly seabreeze has come in overnight then Lake George can provide up to 15km of soarable ridge. If the prevailing westerly wind is blowing, then Spring is the most likely spot. If it’s too light or too strong then it’s off to work. All these sites are about 30-40 minutes drive from Canberra.
Lake George is Canberra’s equivalent of coastal soaring, and if the lake fills then I guess it would be coastal soaring4. However the ‘beach’ is the 4-lane Federal highway and landing on it could cause problems for the big trucks that cruise along at 110kph++! For paragliders and hang gliders this is probably equivalent to landing in the sea.
Pilots have flown for over 4 hours at any one time at the Lake in a mix of ridge lift and thermals. It is also possible to take off at Geary’s Gap, fly north in ridge lift, and as the day progresses pick up thermals coming up the numerous venturis and fly cross-country to the west, extending the airtime considerably.
I remember one memorable day when the late Dr Matt took off from Geary’s, skied out and disappeared over the back5. I chased him in the car towards Murrumbateman. Anyway, that’s another story.
Often at the Lake, the seabreeze that provides ideal conditions for hang gliders in the late afternoon has settled down overnight. This provides ideal conditions for paragliders in the early morning. If the wind at Braidwood and Goulbourn are 5-10kts easterly and the Spring Hill wind talker is calling between 15mph and less than 30mph [the talkers now use km/h as a scale], there is a better than good chance that the Lake will be working.
If it’s ‘on’ then the SMS’s begin to go out from my phone [as of 2017 the most common way people organise to fly is through the ACTHPA facebook page]. I have about three or four regular flying mates who, like me are more fowls than owls. If our predictions are favourable we usually meet at the Lake around 7am [in the summer months it isn’t uncommon for pilots to be at the lake by sunrise which can be significantly earlier than 7am].
There are a couple of tricks when flying at the Lake, apart from dodging the Magpies during nesting season.6 The first is to make it across the first venturi, which is just north of launch. Failure at this point means you are heading to the dry Lake bed, as you won’t have enough height to make it back across the venturi and back to the launch. [at the time of this article the main take off location was on the northern side of the highway at a launch we call Geary’s Gap North Lauch, or often just called Geary’s. This launch is currently closed and not accessible to paragliders or hang gliders. We currently use the Geary’s Gap South Launch, often shortened to be called South Launch, see the the ACTHPA website/site guide for more details. Because of the move to South Launch we have an additional challenge heading north, you need to fly over the highway first. Be sure to have enough height to comfortably make the gap prior to attempting this crossing and please be mindful to stay clear of the house on the ridge.]
[Since this article several wedgetail eagles have nested on the Lake George ridge. These have limited how far north and south we can travel unmolested. Some hang gliders and paragliders have been able to pass by where the eagles nest using various strategies such as flying out from the ridge at their nesting location. However, other gliders have ended up with battle scars and a long walk back to car].
If you make it across the first venturi then it’s reasonably easy going until you get to the first ‘rest-stop’. As I mentioned before, in between the ridge and the Lake bed is the main Federal Highway from Canberra to Sydney. Along the 15kms of highway, which skirts the Lake, there are two ‘rest-stops’ for vehicles. These are about 1/3 of the way along the Lake.
Just after the first rest stop there is another venturi and it’s easy to get flushed out at this point. Heading into the venturi isn’t a good idea as escape routes between the large gum trees provide little opportunity for lift and you need enough height to get across the Highway [there is a resident eagle here].
If you make it past the first rest stop you are most surely able to make it to the second rest stop about 11km from launch. After the first rest stop the ridge increases in height often providing better lift. After the second rest stop the ridge drops down somewhat and good conditions are required to make it to the Madew winery, about 15km from launch.
If conditions are excellent, then it is possible to continue towards Collector and make it to a northern launch site at Collector.7 Making it to the Collector launch is quite unusual and most pilots are happy to fly the main ridge before the Madew Winery. Of course, most pilots make a special attempt to reach the winery as there is always a smile and a coffee or a wine. Para and hang glider pilots are always welcome. Landing around the winery isn’t too hard just be extra vigilant about the power lines.
A normal flight from Geary’s to the second rest stop and back is about an hour or so. On your return, you can easily top land or fly down to the bed of the Lake and walk along to a carpark at the bottom of launch to be picked up, or even walk back up to launch. The walk back to launch takes about 20 minutes [ these days you first need to cross the highway if you want to top land].
If conditions are good and you have good height as you come back to Geary’s then it is possible on your return, to get across the Highway as it leaves the Lake, and head south towards Bungendore. There are at least two big gaps to get across, if you attempt it you will need a lot of height to be successful [there are 2 resident eagles at the first venturi to the south of South Launch, these are known to be aggressive and have put holes in multiple wings. Unfortunately due to the topography you’re often low around their nest]. If you aren’t there’s always the option of flying out into the lake bed. This is much better than coastal soaring where flying directly out to sea is…well daunting. It isn’t often that paragliding pilots head south. They are generally happy to do the trip north and back.
If you launch at Geary’s before 8.30am then thermals are few and far between [as above we now use South Launch, but the description here also applied there too]. After 8.30am thermals, particularly in summer, often come across the Lake making the launch at Geary’s unpredictable. The launch is not very high above the Lake and with the Highway in between it does not make for an enjoyable experience, if you misjudge your takeoff and get sinking air. Sinking air means dodging between the trucks a real possibility [On the South Launch you don’t need to cross the highway, however there is barbed wire fence to clear].
If conditions at Geary’s [now South Launch] are too strong, then there’s no real option other than to go to work or mow the lawn. If the easterly is too strong early in the morning but settles down later, the thermals are likely to begin to come up the face at Geary’s making it unsuitable. One option is to head north to the Collector launch. This has considerably more height allowing better access to thermals but there’s a trade-off. If it is too strong at Geary’s then it’s likely to be too strong, at the higher, Collector launch [the opposite can also be true, there are times where the conditions are nice at the South Launch and there isn’t enough wind at Collector, especially later in the day after the thermals start working]. Again, for me, work rears its ugly head.
The only reason to head to Collector is if it’s too light at Geary’s and it’s shaping up to be an unstable day. The turnaround time at Collector is about 40mins so available time must be factored into the equation.
In addition to this, the prevailing wind in Canberra and surrounding area is west, so generally the easterly sea-breeze comes in during the afternoon or evening and blows through the night and early morning and then swings back west during the day.
If the conditions in the morning are light east or light west then the main option is Spring Hill. If it’s a light westerly in the early morning then generally there’s a good chance it will be blown out at Spring by lunchtime. This is because the prevailing westerly is likely to pick up during the morning, so if it is blowing west early then it is most likely to get stronger before easing off as the seabreeze pushes in during the afternoon and evening. Checking the wind strength at Mt Ginini (a high mountain to the west of Canberra in the Brindabella ranges) gives some indication of this. If it is strong at Mt Ginini then there’s a good chance it will come in stronger, often quite quickly at Spring [BOM and many of the weather forecasting sites are good at predicting if a seabreeze will hit or not. However, they are sometimes wrong and they are less reliable at predicting when a seabreeze will hit. Be sure to monitor your local environment for warning signs, and monitor the observations from the region (especially Nerriga, Goulburn and Braidwood). Getting stuck in the air when a seabreeze comes through can be extremely dangerous in a paraglider and can lead to serious injury or death].
The other trick for Spring Hill is that there is often a big inversion layer. This means that although the wind-talker which is at launch may be calling perfect conditions (15-18mph), these conditions are sometimes right at the top of the ridge. Below the ridge line the colder air is still and without lift. Good for sled rides, but not much else. The quickest sled ride I’ve done here is a little over 2 minutes!
As the day heats up, the westerly generally increases, the inversion lifts and mixes with the westerly. The possibility for nice soaring increases. This of course gives way to often very strong thermic conditions. Although many hours of flying are possible at Spring Hill the cross country potential is limited due to airspace restrictions over the back. However, there have been numerous epic cross country flights from this site towards Yass to the west and back towards Lake George to the north. The most airtime I’ve achieved ridge soaring and thermalling at Spring Hill in any one flight is about 4.5hours.
Generally, the XC flights have happened in very light conditions, which have allowed the pilots to push west, or north west, where airspace restrictions are less onerous.
If the conditions have remained easterly during the day and are unstable then Geary’s is ruled out due to the low launch ASL. There are two other flying possibilities. Either head north to Collector, as mentioned before or head back to Canberra and to Pig Hill. Pig Hill is on the north western end of the Brindabella Ranges. This site is mainly thermic although some amazing soaring flights have been obtained from here when the sea breeze has arrived in the afternoon. Quite often it has lost a lot of its force by the time it reaches Pig Hill and the lift can be extraordinary as the ground that has heated up during the day warms the approaching cooler easterly seabreeze. There have been many cases where I’ve nearly reached 4,500 feet (airspace) solely on ridge lift from the afternoon sea-breeze [Pig Hill is typically not flown in a true seabreeze, this site has very little opportunity for using ridge lift and is generally advised as a thermic only site]. Flying out towards flat paddocks in continuous lift is quite an experience. However, Pig Hill is renowned for its cross country thermal possibilities. The cross country potential is either south down the range or north west towards Wee Jasper. Directly over the back is challenging due to tiger country but there are some landing options at Dingo Dell, which is a property a few k’s over the back.
So now its 6am, I have to make the choice: Geary’s Gap, Spring Hill or work. Let us assume a worst-case scenario- work. In my office at the Australian National University I have a UHF radio as well as all the weather facilities the internet has to offer. Most Canberra based pilots have similar resources.
I get to work and trigger the wind-talker at Spring and Pig Hills. Oh dear, it’s coming ‘on’ at Spring. A 30min drive and I’m at Spring Hill ready to launch.
Currently there is a proposal to build a wind farm at Spring Hill, it would be a shame and a big loss to free flight if this goes ahead. Spring Hill is a westerly site and the thermals that come up the face at Spring can be evil. On an unstable day its is not a site for the weak of heart. Major collapses and significant losses of height have been experienced here. On the other hand many pilots have had very enjoyable and memorable experiences flying at Spring Hill during the ‘right’ conditions.
Flying in Canberra really sucks, and I haven’t even mentioned the ‘other’ sites!
If you ever come to Canberra, bring you wing- our sites cater for paragliders and well as hang gliders- but don’t drink the water!
If you do come for a visit don’t forget to make the appropriate arrangements with the local association (http://www.hgfa.asn.au/~acthpa/) or a local instructor. The sites are extremely valuable, some have locked gates and the landowners are often very sensitive about people on their soil. There are also airspace restrictions and other site specific matters that you must be advised of to make your flight as enjoyable and as safe as possible.
Weatherzone membership is free and I’ve found that the briefings are sometimes a little more current than the hourly weather observations from BOM.↩︎
A third wind-talker is being installed at Lake George, the third main flying site around Canberra.↩︎
Pig Hill isn’t a soaring site so it doesn’t ‘work’ early morning.↩︎
Lake George has been dry on the western side for the past 10 years. The recent rains have provided some water but this has remained on the eastern side. Whether it fills in again soon is anyone’s guess.↩︎
Dr Matthew Davey (affectionately known as Average Man) was tragically killed on 2 April 2005 in the Australian Navy Sea King crash on the Indonesian Island of Nias. At the time, he was actively engaged in military service and deployed from the HMAS Kinimbla to provide much needed medical assistance to the people of Nias following severe earthquakes. The Australian Paragliding Centre has established the Dr Matthew Davey Memorial Trophy in memory of Average Man.↩︎
There are also resident Wedge-tailed eagles that we fly with. Although none have ever caused me any concern, I have heard stories…particularly during nesting season. ↩︎
North of the Madew winery there are quite a few powerlines. Be very careful at all times but extra vigilant up the north end of the Lake. Around Geary’s there is one powerline at the first rest-stop but it is below tree height and doesn’t cause any problems. There is also a set of lines south of Geary’s but these have balloons on them and are easier to see.↩︎