Sunday, February 28, 2010

At the Cootamundra Camp

I managed a short visit to my club’s Christmas Camp at Cootamundra (western NSW) between Christmas and New Year. My mother lives in Cootamundra, a town of about five and a half thousand people some 375 km from Sydney, and each year I try to visit her, meaning I can get at least a few days flying if the camp dates coincide.

Cootamundra’s a pretty good place to fly and one of the greatest attractions is the lack of airspace restrictions, giving Southern Cross pilots a chance to get higher than the 4,500 feet limit close to Camden.

I have suffered from a bit of a Cootamundra curse the last couple of years, either turning up to find I can’t fly, or having the club cancel the first week of the camp due to a shortage of instructors, or tow pilots, so I approached the upcoming camp with some trepidation. I hadn’t been flying at Camden for a long time, so suddenly appearing for 2 days of a 2 week camp was always going to be a bit iffy, and I made an effort to get out to the Camden airfield on the weekend before the camp, to help de-rig gliders and pack them in their trailers.

After that it was off to Cootamundra a few days later. I was feeling pretty positive – there was a two-seater (the club’s DG-1000) and an instructor slated to be there. The weather forecast was good too. On the drive, as we got closer to Cootamundra, the sky looked fantastic. Great high cloud streets and warm conditions. I was pumped, but after checking into the motel and jumping into the pool with the girls, I noticed a distinct absence of gliders and tow planes in the air in these perfect conditions.

A quick trip to the field confirmed that bad weather in Sydney had prevented the tow plane from flying out, but it was expected that night. There were a lot of frustrated pilots in Cootamundra looking for things to do (there ain’t much to do in Cootamundra).

Next morning however, the Pawnee was there and the weather forecast was good. Not as good as the day before, but definitely flyable. However, for me to get a flight in the two-seater, I had to wait for all the area checks (short flights with the instructor to confirm skills and provide some orientation for solo pilots who hadn’t flown at Cootamundra before) to be completed. I pitched in helping to get gliders ready and launching and retrieving but by the end of a hot and exhausting day I still hadn’t had a flight. Frustrating for me and the other student there, particularly as the last area check flight went from intended to be 10 minutes to more than an hour and a half – apparently in response to a radio call someone on the ground had told the instructor that the two-seater wasn’t needed. The camp is primarily for experienced fliers rather than students, but still it was galling to see the only two-seater and instructor go off on a cross-country for the rest of the day.

The next day was another hot and blue and my last day at the camp. The other club members had big plans for the day – completing Silver C time, doing a 300 or a 500 and there was a lot of preparation for flying. I attended the briefing and in view of my heavy ground workload the day before, I was given the morning off with the expectation that the other student would get the first two-seater ride, and be back mid-afternoon and I would get the second chance at some cross-country.

Of course, with the Cootamundra curse, it didn’t pan out that way. I toddled back to the field after lunch to see how things were going. The whole fleet was still out, so people were getting some decent flights. I took over radio and documentation duties and waited. And waited.

There was a little excitement as gliders started to come back, particularly when a gear collapse on a single-seater blocked the strip until it could be lifted up and the gear lowered for pushing off, but the main emotion was an increasing realisation that I probably wouldn’t get to fly that day. In no time at all, it was 5.00pm, with that sense of the ending day, most of the aircraft were back, with the exception of the DG-1000 and I resigned myself to another failed Cootamundra year.

Finally, at almost 6.00 pm the DG lands. I am there to help retrieve it when the duty pilot and instructor offer me the chance for a last flight (the hangar flight) for the DG. To accept, I had to run the full length of the Cootamundra strip, get to the clubhouse, grab my logbook, hat and camera and then run back to the aircraft (probably 2km round trip), get strapped in and run through my checks in the dying of the day. I was out of breath and flustered when I got back to the glider and I had to force myself to calm down and be thorough in my checks (I hate being rushed, even by myself!).

Finally, at almost 6.40pm, we got off the ground. It was the evening, even if it had been a hot day and I had no expectation of anything other than a long circuit. We took a tow to 3,500 feet (man that DG, with its wingtip extensions is a handful – bit of a crosswind and swerving all over the place as the ground-roll started) that was in constant sink, but after release (what a pull required for the gear!) I managed to find a lone 3 knot thermal over a rocky west-facing hillside and rode it for a thousand foot climb in steady lift. The crosswind had this thermal leaning over quite a way until towards the topping out point, the source of the thermal was way over my left wing and I was thermalling almost above the airfield threshold several kms away!

After leaving that thermal it was wall to wall sink – not heavy sink, but no lift left at all. The sun was low and the shadows and light made for pretty views of the surrounding countryside and I had plenty of time to circle around before getting down to circuit height. I quite like the stick trigger trim on the DG, it made it simple to trim and retrim while thermalling.

Finally on the ground at 7.20pm (!). It was a shortish flight, but at least I got one!