Ireland’s First 500km Flight by Kevin Houlihan

My mother always claims that June 22nd is really the longest day. It certainly was for her in 1954 because on that day in that year I, her firstborn, arrived. I'm not sure if she has recovered yet.

June 22nd this year was, for me, the longest day ever – in a glider.  I pedaled my DG808C around Irish skies for seven hours and thirty seven minutes to achieve Ireland's first ever soaring flight of over 500 kilometers. Now that's a sixtieth birthday present!

Banter before the flight

Banter before the flight

In my Walter Mitty moments afterwards I heard the interviewers comments “it was inevitable”, “you had been building towards this”, “ it was always on the cards”. Back in real life however there was no mention on the main news that evening, no fanfare of trumpets, press jostling for position in front of me or a parade through Dublin on an open top bus. As usual, another magnificent gliding achievement totally ignored by the media and passing unnoticed by the general public. No, I was back to earth with a bang and at work as normal the following morning. But I was smiling!

I had indeed been working towards it and it was a box I did hope to tick. I had been flying at various competitions around Europe since my first in 1999. Though I generally got my ass kicked, partaking really upped my game and I would recommend a series of suitable competitions for any pilots interested in improving their cross country skills. I had also been pushing the boundaries in Ireland, flying cross country tasks as often and as far as conditions - and work – allowed. I had completed a number of 300k's but had never declared anything longer.

Last year I decided to stay at home and not do any foreign competition. I was quite nervous about this decision as I doubted if I would meet my self imposed target of 4,500k for the year. I feared being seriously frustrated by year end. As it happened we had one of the best soaring seasons I can remember. I closed it off having done 4652k (FAI rules) including six 300k's. Two of these were flights between the only two gliding clubs left in Ireland, my club, Dublin Gliding Club at Gowran Grange, and the Ulster Gliding Club at Bellarena. These flights were done over two successive days and each had turn points added to make them 300k's. They won me the Inter-club tankard, last awarded almost thirty years earlier, and made me the only pilot to have done the flight twice and in both directions. So by year end I had ticked another box and was actually a very happy camper.

Despite pressure to compete this year in the World Championships in Leszno, of which I have cherished memories, I decided to spend another season at home hoping to tick that very elusive box – an Irish 500k. It had, to my knowledge, only ever been attempted once before, by Alan Sands in 1984. Alan managed 430k in his Nimbus3 which stood as the longest flight ever flown in Ireland. The season started off almost exactly as last year with good soaring conditions for our annual Easter safari during which I managed a 300k among other flights. A poor May was followed by a June with good days initially and then high pressure settled over the country. On mid-summer's day I did my 3rd 300k of the year, this one to OLC rules as an experiment but still pre-declared.

Normally an established high isn't good news in Ireland. We tend to get an inflow of warm, dusty and smoggy air from Europe. An inversion usually occurs at c.3,000 feet and traps it all leading to a low ceiling, poor to impossible visibility and reduced heating. Good enough for sun bathing but not thermalling. This time it was different. There was generally a northerly airflow, with much cooler air, and the daytime temperatures were hitting around 25° C. I had sampled the conditions having flown two 300k's during the week and the 22nd was a Sunday. So it was now or never.

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When I got settled at home on Saturday evening I checked all my usual weather sites and planned three different 500s, two to OLC rules to keep me a bit closer to home with the extra legs allowed and one FAI polygon. I checked everything again the next morning.

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Irlsat22_6The synoptics showed that the high was drifting away to the south west but that there would still be a ridge of high pressure over the country. I had done my first Irish 300k when a finger of high pressure was poked over us so I was happy enough about that. The Valentia tephigram was in good shape. It did show an inversion at about 4,500 feet but if I got good climbs to that level all around the task I would be ok. No fronts approaching, temperatures the same as yesterday, RASPs good. So it was a go. I decided on the polygon, Gowran/ Cahir/ Edgeworthstown/ Fethard/ Gowran for a pre-declared FAI 514k.

Task and actual route

That task, as well as netting me the Goal Record, was the cornerstone of a brilliant plan. I would get to the field early, and be ready to launch as soon as thermal strengths and cloud bases made it feasible to stay up. With a tail wind of sorts, I would drift over the start line, head down the first leg expecting to be initially slow but to get going as conditions improved. Then I would blast up and down the second and third legs in cloud streets, take a couple of climbs on the leg home and soon find myself on final glide. I would be back by 5:30, maybe 6pm at the latest, de-bug, de-rig, trailer home and be ready to go out for dinner at 7.00 which my wife had booked for my birthday. Simple.

 

I was rigged, watered, task declared on all devices and ready to launch at 11:15. I intended to wait for reports from gliders already airborne. I couldn't contain myself and launched at 11:28. I crossed the start line 10 minutes later under a 3,100' cloud base. Bear in mind that Gowran Grange airfield is 490' asl so I had less than 2,600' over ground. Initially the brilliant plan worked brilliantly. I was slow! After an hour I was off track south of Kilkenny airfield, a straight line distance of 81k, and was trying to dig myself out of a hole. Around then I had my first pee and I now suspect that the brilliant plan went out with the pee bag.

 

I didn't realize this immediately. On the contrary, I got a decent climb followed by two more better ones. These had me at almost 4,000' approaching the first turn point, happy to be breathing slightly thinner air. Up to that point I had only poked my head above 3,000' briefly on occasion. Now I was ready for the two big, fast legs. I fell straight into another hole. A save from 2,000' gave me some comfort and a couple of decent climbs followed to lull me into thinking that there was still a plan.

An hour after rounding Cahir I was only halfway up the second leg. 77k. Not good. I had to start talking to myself. I tried logic at first, delivered in a calm, encouraging manner. There was still plenty of time. The sky was still working. And so on. Looking ahead though, I faced a couple of situations, one immediate and one developing. The immediate one was that the Slieve Blooms had put themselves in my way. They've done this before and I don't like them. It's one of three areas of high ground in Ireland that seem to always mess up the air even on benign days. In my plan I would be blasting over them in my cloud street. Except I wasn't in a cloud street and they were growing as I approached them.

 

I temporarily went to plan B, turned 110 degrees off track to a good looking cloud with the intention of climbing up and going around them. It worked and I was rewarded with a 2.8 meter average climb to 4,200 feet. I hadn't climbed that quickly since the launch! I got around the corner and a couple more climbs had me over Tullamore. Parked. The developing situation had developed. I was 48k from Edgeworthstown and the sky had filled in. That 2.8 meter average was to be the strongest climb of the day. Now I was dumping my water.

Plan C. Stay alive. I went into limp mode. I twisted, turned, retreated and went sideways in an effort to grasp any scrap of lift available. I managed to creep forward but could have walked it quicker. I got totally stuck 16k from the turn point. At one point I thought I'd still be there for my next birthday. The conversations were no longer soothing. Rebellious thoughts of abandoning the task, encouraged by a better looking sky towards home, had to be ruthlessly dealt with. I finally zigzagged my way into the sector, turned south and found it had got worse. The coach left and a psychologist took over. I reminded myself of various similar situations where I had managed to stay alive and one or two where I had even won a day in competitions. I replayed those flights in my mind as I searched desperately for signs of wispies against a grey background and used them to get a few feet here and there. I went over bogs, villages and farmers making hay. At one stage I could smell a fry and used that! I knew that there was no hope if I got low and used every ounce of my skill and experience to stay as high as possible. Two hours after leaving Tullamore I was back over it, still in trouble, still warding off evil thoughts.

But now there were lighter patches appearing on the ground. I went for them. Overhead the air was buoyant and and I was able to make progress and sometimes even go up. The lighter patches became sunny patches and approaching the east of the Slieve Blooms heading south I breached 4,000 feet for the first time in nearly three hours. Then I got a 'how's it going' text from my wife and remembered the dinner plans. Pilots can sometimes find themselves in critical situations. This was one. To buy time I texted back the one word, 'Slow'.

I assessed the situation. To the east looked promising. I was confident I could get home if I turned now and I would be in time for dinner. But I'd been through torture and survived and the day was developing again. If I could get around the final turn point I could probably still make it to the better stuff to the east and get home but much later than planned. I tested the water with a text '8?' and continued as I waited for an answer. I find in life that decisions often make themselves. That happened as I got further south to the point where I was going to be late whether or not I rounded Fethard. So it was a no-brainer.

The going was easier but not a certainty. Some good climbs. 4,400', the highest so far, then a dizzying 4,700' north of Fethard. Rounding the turn point was dodgy and I was down to 2,800'. The psychologist cleared his throat. It looked excellent now further up the final leg and a couple more climbs and I should be able to reach the good stuff. I got back to 4,000' and moved on a bit. Little climbs, little glides. One more and I would be passing Alan's previous record.

Barograph Trace

Then it happened. Passing Kilkenny I intercepted the old plan. Almost exactly where I had left it. I contacted a good street. This should have been happening hours earlier but it was welcome nonetheless. I ran along it pulling up to a 4,800 cloud base. I jumped sideways into another one and was soon 55k out. I was conscious of the northeastern airflow and that it can sometimes augment a sea breeze on hot days and drag the front well inland. I turned to run a street to the north. This was off course but was getting me diagonally closer to home and keeping me high. I did not want to blow it at this stage and aimed to be 1,000' over glide passing Athy.

One small climb after Athy gave me the margin I wanted, which was just as well as I glided the last 33k through still blue air. I wasn't bothered about racing finishes and carried the surplus with me to cross the finish line 1,200 feet over ground. Fellow member, Tom Deane, drove up to meet me and helped me de-rig on the runway, all other club flying long since finished! My wife came to collect me. We abandoned my car and trailer at the airfield and we were sitting down to eat at 8.00pm!

Finals under a blue empty sky

Finals under a blue empty sky

Mixed emotions afterwards. Happy I had done it, of course. Chuffed actually. But disappointed, frustrated and a bit embarrassed that it had taken so long. The next day, I put the same turn points into 'Maps' and was rather surprised to find that it would have taken me about an hour longer to drive the same route - without any holdups. Then a look at the satellite picture showed me exactly what I had been up against. Just like the Silver and Gold distances, now that I know that I can do it, and in fact did it on a day that turned to worms in the middle, I plan on having another go on a good day to do it at a proper speed. Wait a minute. I've done over 100 kph in Ireland and I've now flown for over seven and a half hours in Ireland. Hmmm. I feel a brilliant plan coming on!!

KH

KH

Kevin Houlihan.
©11/07/14

  8 comments for “Ireland’s First 500km Flight by Kevin Houlihan

  1. Gerard Robertson
    July 12, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Kevin, you confirm the reputation of the Irish as good story tellers: this will be of help to me when summer finally arrives in the southern hemisphere. Congratulations and thanks for the telling of it.

  2. dan
    July 15, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Very good article and Congratulations on your flight. I felt like I was in the cockpit. I’ve only been up in a glider once and now look forward to doing it again. Not for 7 hours though!

  3. Cip
    July 15, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Brilliatly achieved and told. I feel more to come. Forty shades of Green from 4800! What you be like in warmer skies. Congratulations.

  4. Fran Mc Loughlin
    July 16, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Brilliantly told, sucks you in as if you were there,can’t wait for the next episode .Well done, a great achievement on a relatively small island that is called Ireland.

  5. July 16, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    well done kevin as clint eastwood said youve had your five ar you feeling luckey punk

  6. July 16, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    good job. rate it #1

  7. Ballast
    July 17, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    About time too. If anyone deserved to do it, or could, it was you. (Now if only you’d done it in an Oly….).

  8. Kevin Houlihan
    July 18, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks all for you comments and votes. Ballast, great to hear from you. Now that I’ve been around and put signposts up, it’ll be really easy for you to do in an Oly, especially if you get the conditions I did!

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