FLY­ING HIGH

above the world be­low Ad­ven­ture seek­ers are tak­ing to the skies in the glid­ing “mecca” of Be­nalla.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Steve Kelly photos Marc Bongers

Ad­ven­ture seek­ers are tak­ing to the skies in the glid­ing “mecca” of Be­nalla.

IF you’ve ever searched for some­thing else out of life but haven’t been too sure where to find it, take a trip to the North East town of Be­nalla. The coun­try town is home to the largest glid­ing club in the south­ern hemi­sphere where peo­ple from all over the world visit for months at a time to ex­pe­ri­ence some of the best fly­ing con­di­tions known to man, or woman.

Glid­ing is a pas­time that al­lows a per­son to feel the clos­est sen­sa­tion to that of be­ing a bird, but with an added touch of comfort you wouldn’t get from hang glid­ing. Vivi­enne Drew, Be­nalla’s Glid­ing Club of Vic­to­ria vice pres­i­dent and 30 year vet­eran of the skies, said there is noth­ing quite like the sen­sa­tion of glid­ing.

“It is very peace­ful and at some stage you think there isn’t any­thing else in the world, this is just it,” she said.

“Lit­er­ally all you hear is the air go­ing past the glider and my air­craft has a top speed of 300km/h and we’ll do any­thing from 130 to 150 knots. It is pretty much as close as you can get to be­ing a bird, and hang glid­ing is prob­a­bly the next one, but they don’t go the same dis­tances that we do. We have pur­loined a few hang glid­ers over the years be­cause they just de­cided they wanted to do those longer dis­tances that they have not been able to. You’re in rel­a­tive comfort and you’re not be­ing blasted by the el­e­ments all the time.”

Glid­ing is “the very purest, ba­sic form of fly­ing” that you can get with­out an en­gine, as it re­lies on ther­mal en­ergy to keep you up there. The club has been work­ing with the Royal Aus­tralian Air Force Cadets for the last three years as the force want their trainees to start glid­ing be­fore tak­ing on larger air­craft.

“It’s about un­der­stand­ing the ab­so­lute fun­da­men­tal el­e­ments of air­craft - how it flies, the physics of why it flies and if it can fly, and how you man­age that,” Vivi­enne said.

But while some peo­ple might think, no way - I’m not get­ting in a plane with­out an en­gine, it’s a com­mon view Vivi­enne has heard many times.

“We get that a lot - peo­ple say­ing you are ab­so­lutely crazy fly­ing some­thing that doesn’t have an en­gine,” she said.

“But ev­ery aero­plane is a glider, even down to the big 747s or A380s that land on the Hud­son (River). It all de­pends on the glide ra­tio and how far they can go with­out the thrust to keep them go­ing.”

Vivi­enne stayed in Swe­den for a while dur­ing her ca­reer as she had taken up a role teach­ing every­thing in­volved with glid­ing and she found out that the skies of Be­nalla have a good rep­u­ta­tion within the world glid­ing com­mu­nity.

“The club has an en­vi­able rep­u­ta­tion es­pe­cially in Europe and I sup­pose you get used to your own sce­nario, but peo­ple asked me where I flew and when I replied Be­nalla, they were in awe,” she said. >>

“Be­nalla is ac­tu­ally like the ‘glid­ing mecca’ for glider pi­lots - you wouldn’t think this small coun­try town in the mid­dle of Vic­to­ria would be, but ev­ery­body (in glid­ing) knows its name. It’s the place to be, ba­si­cally, be­cause of the flat land plains and the dis­tances peo­ple can fly in their glid­ers.”

The goal of a pi­lot is to stay in the air as long as pos­si­ble and Vivi­enne ex­plained that Be­nalla holds the world record for the largest num­ber of peo­ple who have flown out and re­turned, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing 1000km dis­tances in a day. She said the amaz­ing feat is sim­ply be­cause of the weather, the dis­tance and the fact it is open airspace.

“Nowhere in Europe can you fly for 1000km with­out be­ing in three dif­fer­ent coun­tries, and it is all con­trolled airspace over there,” she said.

“The weather is very dif­fer­ent, as here you’ve got quite a sta­ble set of con­di­tions so you can fly and do those dis­tances.”

A glider is a ‘sail plane’ and they have long wings - the longer they are, the longer you can glide. A Cessna or Piper aero­plane have wing­spans of about 13m so their glide ra­tio is about 1:15, mean­ing for ev­ery 15km you travel, you will lose 1000ft in al­ti­tude. Glid­ers have wing­spans be­tween 15m to 25m with some 30m long, so if your glider has 25m wing­span it will have a glide ra­tio of 1:60, so for ev­ery 60km, you will lose 1000ft.

The Be­nalla club has two-seat train­ing air­craft they use for in­struc­tion, which have dual con­trols. Once an in­struc­tor thinks the trainee is pro­fi­cient in fly­ing then they ad­vance to the sin­gle seaters and are ready to nav­i­gate their first solo flight.

“There are two meth­ods of launch­ing and at Be­nalla they do it by aero tow, where a sin­gle en­gine Piper plane, one that’s of­ten used for crop dust­ing, tows the glider into the air,” Vivi­enne said.

“Once the glider-pi­lot is at the height they re­quire, they are re­leased and the tow plane re­turns to the tar­mac.”

The high­est height reached in Aus­tralia has been 26,000ft, but with ex­treme al­ti­tudes such as this, weather con­di­tions have to be per­fect.

“There are some days you will get 4000ft and other days you’ll get 10,000ft,” Vivi­enne said.

“If it’s a hot day and you’ve got the big, fluffy clouds, you can do long dis­tances.”

The glid­ing club will cel­e­brate its 90th an­niver­sary in 2019. It’s been at Be­nalla for 70 years and has hosted two world cham­pi­onships - one in 1987 and the other in 2017. The club has 250 mem­bers and par­tic­u­larly en­cour­ages young women to join, as cur­rently few take part. Par­tic­i­pants don’t need to have their own glider to en­gage with the hobby as the club pro­vides air­craft. The idea is to cre­ate some rev­enue for the club be­yond the tow flight while giv­ing pi­lots some fun as they fly dif­fer­ent glid­ers.

“There is ca­ma­raderie in fly­ing to­gether in the two-seaters and at the end of the day there is a so­cial out­let as well,” Vivi­enne said.

“Peo­ple can ac­tu­ally fly a glider solo at 15 years old - be­fore they can legally learn how to drive a car. We don’t get a lot of women in glid­ing and we still don’t un­der­stand why, whether it’s the fear fac­tor be­cause it doesn’t have an en­gine on the front, or be­cause of leav­ing their chil­dren,” she said.

“We’re try­ing to get young girls into glid­ing and there is no rea­son why they can’t do it – it’s not a phys­i­cal sport where you have to keep lift­ing and shov­ing heavy things around. I’m an old bird and I’m still do­ing it af­ter 30 years. It’s a sport for all ages – it doesn’t just start when you’re young – you can give it away then come back into it. It’s a sport for ad­ven­tur­ous girls who are look­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent to do.”

The one-off cost for a 4000ft flight (up to 40 min­utes) is $260, or there are op­tions of up to 30 min­utes for $220, and up to 20 min­utes for $160. There is also a mem­ber in­tro­duc­tory of­fer that in­cludes three 3000ft flights in a day, and cheap mem­ber fly­ing rates for three months, all for $450.

Glid­ing is “the very purest, ba­sic form of fly­ing” that you can get with­out an en­gine. Vivi­enne Drew

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SKY HIGH / At Be­nalla, glid­ers are launched by aero tow, where a sin­gle en­gine Piper plane tows the glider into the air, be­fore re­leas­ing it and re­turn­ing to the tar­mac.

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