It started on Friday evening, with Jonathan ‘Jono’ Bishop sending out a text message:

I’m charging my batteries… hoping for some collector action1 tomorrow.

Jono is an active Canberra paraglider pilot, whom you may know from this wildlife encounter last year. Most flying days he can be found hiking up the hills to the south of Canberra, with a glider on his back, to launch and share the sky with the local wedge-tailed eagles. But on this day he ventured north of Canberra, to the ridge overlooking Lake George. This is where he, Sam Rybak, and several other XC2 hopefuls agreed to meet, with a tentative plan to try to fly 50km to Bowning Hill.

By the end of the day, Sam had flown 113km3, and Jono a little further at 116km. You can replay their tracklogs on Ayvri.

To me the real highlight though, was going on glide into Boorowa. Sam was just off to my left and a bit below me. The sun was shining on his wing and I think we both just felt like kings. The only thing which maybe could have improved that moment would be to have a big stereo pumping out The Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits. It was beautiful. The dogs were all barking at us from the backyards in town, you could see people swimming in the town pool and then right in the middle of town, bam, a nice strong smooth thermal back up to cloudbase. That was the thermal which would take us to 100km.

Jono on glide. What a view!

An unusual aspect of this flight was that they were able to fly together the whole way. It takes some effort to coordinate, and discipline to stay together for so long, but there are advantages too, such as being able to spread out when searching for lift. Here’s Jono:

It was good fun having someone to fly XC with. I think we worked well together, but I spent most of the time trying to keep up with Sam.

For Sam the flight would be a PB – the first time he’s flown over 100km. Jono achieved a similar feat last year, when he flew 121km from the same site. Sam watched Jono launch first, playing the role of wind dummy4. Collector is a notoriously tricky site to get up at, so there was a very real chance of bombing out5, as several pilots did that day. Jono made a couple of passes along the ridge, slowly losing height. Getting quite low, he managed to find some weak lift in the gully north of launch and, turning figure-eights in it so as not to fly towards the hill, he slowly rose above launch height. Sam saw him climbing and launched to join him.

Eventually their climb consolidated and they took it to 1,600m AMSL6 as it drifted over the forest behind launch. Now they were committed, and started gliding downwind, to the north-west. The next four hours were just your regular XC fare, which is to say that it was no doubt full of spectacular views, alternating moments of awe and excitement, and continuous concentration as they worked to stay above the ground but below airspace, and make forward progress. As they worked their way north-west the airspace stepped up, and they were able to take advantage of the rising cloud base as the day progressed to climb to 2,200m AMSL (1.6km above the ground) as they passed over Boorowa. Eventually the day ran out of thermals, and they landed just after 5pm.

Alex Boiko, after bombing out himself, decided to retrieve drive:

Even though they ended up near good roads, they flew over some wild country. I was as close as possible (probably should have had a 4wd, not the outback on the roads that weren’t on google!) but there was a low save where they might have had 10+km of walking. Without phone signal for either them or me.

Alex caught up with them soon after they landed, providing celebratory beers and of course a lift home. Kudos, Alex!

Along the way they had a low save7 with some added excitement. Here’s Jono:

Got down to 200m AGL8 about 50km into the flight and both thought it was game over, but we got away again. Just as we got away Alex Boiko randomly spotted us from a road below and we could see him chasing us. We were getting pretty low over some dodgy looking farms, the kind with car wrecks and rubbish all over the place and heard some gun shots. We thought someone was shooting at us, so we found a thermal and got the hell out of there.

Communication wasn’t by radio, it would seem?

Had one moment at cloud base9 where we were both yelling at each other trying to decide which way to go.

And another low save:

Sam got so low over Boorowa, all the dogs were barking at him, then we both jagged a nice thermal to cloud base. I got cocky and decided to spear off and tag the Boorowa racecourse turnpoint10, lost a heap of hight and still missed the turnpoint by 300m! Was good fun. Smooth thermals, but hard work and slow going to start with.

Congratulations guys, it looks like there could be a good XC season ahead of us.

Interview with Jonathan Bishop

We caught up with Jono after the flight to get some more details.

ACTHPA: Hey guys, congrats on the great flight yesterday. How do you feel about it?

Jono: I have been wanting to fly a solid XC since last season. As you know, it has been a rough year, fires and now COVID. So it was very nice, to get out with a good mate and fly for a few hours in nice conditions.

ACTHPA: How many others were flying? How did they go?

Jono: There were about 10 at launch. We were the first to launch after Al Dickie. Alex Boiko was keen to go fly some km too, but unfortunately he landed before a good cycle came through Collector. Then nobody joined Sam and I during the first climb. Al Dickie was flying, but he didn’t climb with us. I was hoping to get a good gaggle together, but in the end it was just two of us.

ACTHPA: What was the plan for the day?

Jono: In my mind, the plan was pretty simple. Go with the ESE wind, get clear of the airspace (6500’ step) and hopefully get a few pilots over the 40km mark for their PG5 licences.

ACTHPA: How did you choose your route?

Jono: The wind chose the route for us. The first aim was to get clear of the 6500’ airspace step, so we could then fly all the way to cloud base. After that we just went with the wind. There was a moment where Sam speared off to the NE. I don’t know what he was doing there.

ACTHPA: Was it hard to stick together in the air?

Jono: Yes, it wasn’t easy. It could be easy if everyone is prepared to wait around, but you have to keep moving. Sam was probably in a hurry and I wasn’t so much! I had my speed bar set up for a different wing (Niviuk Peak 3) which resulted in only half bar with my legs fully extended. And I do like to fly conservatively, top out my climbs then go on glide. But Sam was happy to leave the scraps behind and keep some speed on. So I spent a bit of time chasing him. It forced me to speed up. I lost sight of him three times, but fortunately I caught up when he got low and had to sniff out the next climb. I tried calling him on the radio a few times when I lost him, but I he was probably working too hard searching for a climb to reply.

ACTHPA: Were you in radio contact the whole time?

Jono: Yes, although we did a bit of yelling too. There was plenty of hooting and hollering going on each time we jagged a climb.

ACTHPA: I notice you both took short detours to the north-east near Gunning and Dalton. What were they about?

Jono: You can’t see the clouds and shadows on a GPS trace and they often dictate where you fly. Just north of Gunning, everything was shaded out except for that area to the north east of town, which also has a few hills. So we ended up there looking for a climb, which we never really found until after Dalton. We were scratching and drifting along in zeroes and it felt like we were stuck at 500m agl. It dragged on, but we didn’t give up. Then eventually we drifted into a good climb and both went straight to cloud base. Once we got there, Sam just speared off to the NE. I don’t know why? I had in my mind that we would keep moving down wind towards the NW. So I got on the radio and I was like “Dude, where are you off to? How about we keep going NW.” And he said something like “OK, I’ll follow you”.

ACTHPA: What were the highlights?

Jono: We were getting really low approaching the 50km mark. We got down to 200m agl and it looked like we were both going to bomb out at 49km. But we worked well together. We spread apart by about 100m to sniff out more area for a climb and kept going down wind. I noticed Sam bob around a bit and just as that happened I hit it too. We found the thermal we needed to keep on going. Just as we were climbing out, Boiko who had been chasing us in his car, randomly spotted us. It was clear we now had 50km in the bag. Boiko got on the radio and said … “keep going lads!”. It was great knowing we had support from the ground.

To me the real highlight though, was going on glide into Boorowa. Sam was just off to my left and a bit below me. The sun was shining on his wing and I think we both just felt like kings. The only thing which maybe could have improved that moment would be to have a big stereo pumping out The Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits. It was beautiful. The dogs were all barking at us from the backyards in town, you could see people swimming in the town pool and then right in the middle of town, bam, a nice strong smooth thermal back up to cloudbase. That was the thermal which would take us to 100km.

ACTHPA: Were there any nervous moments during the flight?

Jono: No. Although we did hear some gun shots at one point and thought perhaps a redneck farmer was shooting us down. In terms of the conditions, it was really smooth flying. Textbook smooth thermals. Dream conditions.

ACTHPA: How was the journey home?

Jono: The retrieve was awesome. Boiko picked up some cold beer as he passed through Boorowa. He was right there when we landed, with cold beers. Best retrieve ever.

ACTHPA: What was it about the forecast that made you think it would be a good day?

Jono: The old guys at Bright say that the best XC days from Mystic are the SE days. I think that is also true here in Canberra. Looking at the forecast on Friday, I could see a weak cold front, which was due to pass through the area on Friday evening, which was forecast to bring a southerly air mass up to the Canberra region on Saturday morning (the day of the flight). With a cool and moist air mass in the region providing instability in the lower levels and a high pressure system still approaching, the wind in the area was forecast to calm down at around mid-day and go more SE. I thought it looked like the right recipe for a good XC day from Collector. And it turned out to be nice flying conditions. There were Cu’s with a base of around 2200m and a light SE wind throughout.

“This was the chart for the day. You can see the weak front which when through Friday night bringing the cool southerly air up for us.”

ACTHPA: How long have you been flying? And how many hours?

Jono: I’ve been flying various aircraft since 1996. I initially learnt to fly sailplanes and I’ve been flying aeroplanes for a living since 2006. If you tallied up all of my flying, I would have about 4000 hours. I didn’t get into paragliding properly until 2015. With a paraglider, I’ve logged 400 hours and 900 flights.

ACTHPA: You seem to do a lot of hike-and-fly. How does that compare with this style of flying?

Jono: The way I see it, hike and fly encompasses all styles of paragliding. Hike and fly can be anything from hiking up your local hill to do a sleddy back to the car, or it can be hike up and go XC. Yesterday I hiked to a random launch and flew 70km. Sometimes I like to hike and fly acro. Unfortunately the acro gear is very heavy. With hike and fly you get the added adventure of hiking to the launch. But the real beauty of hike and fly is that it opens up countless possibilities for places to fly. In reality you can physically fly off pretty much anything, provided you can get your wing up and clear the terrain and obstacles. I would love to see SAFA and the clubs work more with the national parks to enable us to fly more freely throughout the fantastic areas (not sites!) that are on offer here in Australia.

ACTHPA: What wing, harness, and gear were you flying with?

Jono: Ozone Delta 3 and Neo Stay Up harness with a light weight reserve. My instruments consist of my phone (using XC Track), LeGPSBip vario and Garmin In-Reach mini. I always have the In-Reach tracking going. I recommend everybody get an In-Reach and do the same. It was the In-Reach which enabled Alex Boiko to follow us and efficiently retrieve us both. I took a radio on this flight. If I’m flying alone I don’t bring a radio.

ACTHPA: I notice you almost tagged the Boorowa turnpoint. What happened there?

Jono: Yes. I noticed it was a turnpoint challenge waypoint, so I started to cruise over to tag it, but halfway there I realised Sam was climbing out and the thermal was developing into a big Cu and casting a big shadow. I didn’t want to get left behind for the sake of one turnpoint, so I went back to the thermal and tried to catch up with Sam.

  1. This refers to the Collector launch↩︎

  2. XC is an abbreviation of Cross-Country.↩︎

  3. These distances are measured via three turnpoints, a common way of measuring which allows some course deviation but doesn’t give you extra distance for every twist and turn that you take.↩︎

  4. A wind dummy, or wind technician, is someone who launches first, searching for thermals when there aren’t yet any obvious signs of them, such as other gliders or birds climbing↩︎

  5. Bombing out is landing without finding a thermal, a very disappointing outcome.↩︎

  6. AMSL stands for Above Mean Sea Level↩︎

  7. A low save is when you find a climb just in the nick of time, right above the ground.↩︎

  8. AGL stands for Above Ground Level↩︎

  9. Cloud base is literally at the base of a cloud. A wonderful place to be.↩︎

  10. This refers to a turnpoint in the ACTHPA Turnpoint Challenge↩︎