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