By Peter Holloway
Before the advent of modern fibre super sailplanes, it was common practice for cross country pilots to learn about cloud flying. Courses were available here at Southdown and in the 1970s were usually run by Jim Tucker a senior Instructor. He began by teaching the skills required to follow an energy line, which with luck develop into a cloud Street. If it lined up east to west the task was obvious as an out and return to somewhere near Salisbury Cathedral. Thus an Oly 2, with a performance of 1 in 25 at 40kts, could make reasonable progress. The danger, then as now, was the glider coming in your direction on a reciprocal course.
If the cumulus was nicely separated then the problem was the sink between thermals, and if the Olympia wasn't climbing the it was definitely coming down and hence the need for cloud climbing. With a turn and slip, air speed indicator, cosim climb indicator and a piece of wool stuck to the outside canopy it was just possible. In fact Jim Tucker demonstrated how easy it was to slip out of the side, or wallow out of the bottom of the cloud. Staying in the lift was an art demanding skill and concentration. The golden rule being that if things went pear shaped, deploying the air brakes would drop you out of the strongest of cumulus clouds.
Thus with course completed, and brimming with confidence I regularly flew into uncontrolled air space, radioed my position and intention then set about perfecting my cloud flying skills. Then came the day that I got it wrong.
Cloud base was at around 3,500 ft mid morning and I made my radio call over Arundel. The cumulus clouds were nicely spaced out and the day seemed ideal for cloud flying. The underside of the cumulus was perfectly shaped, rather like the underside of a huge mushroom. I held the turn and slip ball dead centre and my ASI on 45kts and the green ball in the cosim tube indicated a 5kt climb. This soon rose to 10kts and the ASI took some holding at 45kts despite increasing back pressure. The little green ball then shot to the top of the tube and my altimeter confirmed that I was climbing at a phenomenal rate. Time plays tricks with the mind in these situations and as climbed through 6,000 ft I lost control of my airspeed. I remembered the drill that when all goes wrong, carefully deploy full air brake. The odd thing was that the Olympia simply wallowed around at 6,000 ft and it seemed an age before I was aware of a bright light, like a torch, lighting up the mist to my left, and I was able to orient myself and shot out of the murk somewhere off the coast near the Isle of Wight. The cumulus had evolved into a huge sea breeze front and it lay between me and the coast.
Feeling cut off, so to speak, is a very unpleasant feeling. The huge lift that I had experienced gave way to alarming sink as I headed for safety. Actually I made it as far as the air strip at Ford, near the open prison. The resident crop duster pilot assured me that I wasn't supposed to land there. But, when you make it back to the coast over the sea a decent looking runway has a magnetic effect on the prepared mind.
Although I have enjoyed many flights under cloud streets and along sea breeze fronts, I have never felt the desire to climb up through a cumulus again. It taught me that the forces operating inside the most innocuous looking clouds can be truly alarming and best left alone.