Competition news

Sportavia International Open


With only a handful of XC flights to my name I won’t be ranking near top of a AAA competition.  So my goal here is have fun and to learn from some of the best in the sport.

Sportavia Gliding Centre is like a play ground for the aviation nut.   It operates on an old WWII airbase that was the largest in the Southern Hemisphere at that time and was home to scores of aircraft including B24 Liberator bombers and Beaufighters.  The original base covered an area of 8 square miles and had 450 buildings.

Sportavia is primarily a sailplane operation.  However, Richard Cawsey, the owner, believes that sport aviation is the future and hired Grant and Tove Heaney to expand into other forms of aviation including hang gliding and micro lights.   

A LARGE WWII hangar houses the sailplanes and tugs.  It’s like a toy box for those wishing to commit aviation.  One peek in there will have you wiping the saliva from the side of your mouth.  The huge expanse of concrete floor is carpeted with a large array of sleek soaring machines that have been brought out by (mostly) European owners for the flying season. Sportavia also owns quite a few of them. 

People come here from all over the world to enjoy the flatland flying.  Flights of over 1,000km are not uncommon.

It has got to be one of the most civilised flying sites around.  There is a range of accommodation on site, including motel style rooms, bunkhouses and camping area.  They also have a bar and restaurant next to a pool and well maintained lawn.  Free broadband internet connections both wired and wireless allows you maintain communication with outside world.

Day 1 – Victoria sucks!

Anyway, after stepping over the birds, I made my way to the briefing room.  Eddie Madden, the CFI assails us with a barrage of METARs, TAFs, Synoptic Charts and incomprehensible cloud and thermal prediction graphs.  By the end of the week we are starting to make sense of them all. 

Today he is predicting hot weather (surprise) with thermals to about 6000 ft - but no clouds. 

At 11am we all make our way to the centre of the airport and set up in the stubble field next to the grass runway.  The sailplane boys are just starting to get airborne.  Did I mention that it was hot!  The thermometer is nudging 420C in the shade.  Out in the sun it’s probably 500C.  I’m burning my hands on the battens as I stuff them in the sail, and having concerns that my one month old Climax C4 will be reduced to a molten pile of plastic and metal by the end of the week.

The task committee calls for a 115 km dogleg task comprising a 45 km leg south to a virtual turn point near Moodie Swamp then a 70 km NE leg finishing several kilometres north of Corowa.  There is a 10 km radius exit start circle centred fifteen kilometres away from the airport to keep us out of the traffic pattern.

My task for today was to stay safe and have fun.  This is the first time I’ve towed in a high performance glider.  All previous tows have been in a Sonic.

By the time I carry my glider over to the tow queue I’m drenched and panting like one of those birds.  I’m starting to get into their mindset.

The mood among the pilots is pretty edgy.   Two days before the competition a hang glider pilot was killed here while on tow.  No one knows exactly how it happened but eyewitnesses said that he was yawing and pitching more than normal.  At one point he got fairly high above the tug then locked out and went upside down.  The glider folded and he plummeted 500ft to the ground, “like a dart” according to one account.  Apparently he tried to throw his chute but was too low.  Further investigation found that he had released but the tow line was caught around one of the side wires. 

I was pretty spooked by that incident and almost didn’t come.  But now here I am, on the dolly, next in line.  This morning I spoke to a number of people, trying to learn from their experience on what to expect and the best techniques to use.

The Dragonfly lines up.  The tow line is connected to my bridle.  By now I’m really sweating - not sure if it’s the heat or nervousness.  A light breeze is blowing in my face.  I hear myself call “go, go, go”.  The tug engine revs to full throttle, I lock my arms to get the dolly rolling and am racing across the strip, my nose inches above the ground. It’s time to say goodbye to the dolly when it starts bouncing on the deck, and up we go.  To my surprise the Climax is way easier to tow than the Sonic which felt like you were hanging on for grim death.  Pitch control is feather light.  However roll response is slow. 

At 1000 ft we hit a patch of strong turbulence that throws me off line, so I pin off and come in and land in the setup area.  I must have been very dehydrated because I don’t have the strength to lift the glider.  Craig comes over with a dolly and helps to get the glider back to the tow strip.  Bill Moyes offers a can of Coke.  I gratefully suck it down followed by a couple of litres of water then soak my shirt in the esky water to cool down.  Everyone else was off on task by now and I was the only pilot left on the towing strip.

I hear later that another pilot landed early because he was dry retching during flight with symptoms of heat stroke.

Nearly an hour later it’s nearly 4pm and I’m feeling much better. I contemplate the wisdom of re-launching.  My drenched shirt is now completely dry, and I’m ready to tow up again.  Bob Bailey says to me, “Stay on as long as you like.  I don’t get bored doing this”.  I asked whether he could tow me to goal.  He just smiled.

It now much was much less rowdy and a lot smoother as I towed up behind Bob.  We circled up over the airfield until I felt a nice thermal at around 2,200 ft AGL.  I pinned off and circled up to 6,500 ft to the west of the Sportavia before crossing the Murray into Victoria.  There was some good lift just across the border, so I topped up again to 6,000 ft. 

A sailplane cruised past as I cut through the edge of the 10km start circle before heading south to turn point one.  Ahead lay a mosaic of green irrigated fields as far as the eye could see.  Getting through here was going to be like finding stepping stones across a pond.

At one point I was circling in 100 fpm lift trying to sniff out the core.  About 1,000 ft below me a flock of 8 Ibis were circling in something.  I extrapolated the thermal up to my altitude and moved over there. Boom! An 800 fpm thermal took me up to nearly 6,000ft again.

And that was about it.  It was still hot below but there didn’t seem to be anything coming off the obvious triggers.   I landed a couple of km’s short of Katamatite and about 40 km from TP1. I was a bit disappointed but had completed my personal tasks – I was safe and had a lot of fun.

17 pilots made goal and Attila won the day from Gerolf and Jonny.

Many pilots deck it inside the 10km start circle and others litter the course for the next 20 km.  Trent Brown lands in Katamatite 2km further on after getting low over a cricket match.  The rest of our team doesn’t fair very well today.  Greg lands 1 km back down the road from me.  Ian lands in the start circle, while Eduardo doesn’t fly because of VG problems.  It’s an easy retrieve for Craig today.

Day 2 –The safety committee moves to the right

The birds are bit more active today.  They’re enjoying the breeze from the NW.  I spot one hanging upside down from a tap trying to extract a few drops of water.

The forecast is again hot – up to 420C. During the morning briefing Eddie, our CFI and weather guru puts up his graphs that show a cloud base at 8,000 ft and moderate winds. 

We all head out and set up next to the grass strip.  The wind is a little on the high side and large cu’s are starting to form.

The safety committee cancels the day.  They feel that the combination of strong winds and strong lift would make it too rough. Because of the accident a few days earlier, they are being more conservative than normal.

There is a lot of grumbling from the ranks.  Many of the pilots think it would have been quite flyable. Good thing we’re not in Paris or the guillotines might have been dragged out.

It’s hot so Tove takes a group of us to a beach on the Murray River and we float a few kilometres downstream to the middle of Tocumwal. The cool water is the best place to be on a stinking day like today.  In retrospect the safety committee made a good decision.  Even though the skies are filled with large cu’s the wind has really picked up.

Day 3 – An ill wind… from Mexico
A front is coming up from the south and the winds are forecast to increase during the day.  The day was cancelled again.  Again the heat and winds are making the conditions too risky.  No one is keen to fly today.

Day 4 – To fly or not.  The choice is yours
The birds are no where to be seen outside the bunkhouse.  I spot them later across the road at the dam with a few of their mates.  Seems to be some sort of fly-in going on. At least they’re having fun. 

However, here, the mood is grim. Most of the pilots are suffering from low altitude sickness and are on edge.  The common room is laptop city.  By now we’ve all caught up on our email, have browsed the web to its extremities, explored every shop in Tocumwal and checked out all the tourist attractions.  Some pilots have even resorted to doing some work!

Ian is half way through Pagen’s book, “Secrets of the Champions”.  Today he’s learning a few tips from Kari Castle – the ones she’s prepared to tell anyway. 

The weather forecast is not looking promising.  It’s post-frontal, the winds will be fairly strong from the south and the thermals will be weak.  A Dragonfly is sent up to assess the wind conditions aloft. When he returns it’s decided that we go and set up, which we do.

The safety committee is discussing the conditions as the tugs arrive.  Most of the pilots are in the tow queue by now.  Some sailplanes have launched and are struggling overhead.  They are not straying far from the airfield.  There not many clouds in the sky and the lift looks marginal.  At least we’ll be heading north away from sucky Victoria.

The first pilots launch and get tossed around in a strong layer of turbulence above 1000ft.  Most of them don’t stay up and come in to land.  Bruce Wynne and a couple of others get up and climb slowly over the airfield drifting northwards. They later land about 20km to the north near Jerilderie.

The safety committee decides to call the day because of marginal launch conditions.  However because it’s been so many days since people have flown, they allow free flying.  Most pilots elect not to.  Some do tow up and get thrashed by the turbulence.  I made the mistake of launching and was getting thrown around at about 1000ft.  I tried to pin off but couldn’t grab the release which was flapping in the breeze.  I finally pin off just as the glider is starting to lock out, and come back to land.

Next day I change to a tow bridle with a shoulder release, as used by Sportavia. It’s proven to be trouble free in the tows I’ve had since then.

Day 5 – Smoke and irrigation

The birds are quiet today.  It looks like they’re a bit hung over from their party.  Dam water will do that to you.

It’s relatively chilly today at 350C.  There is a NE breeze blowing.  Eddie reckons we’ll get lift up to about 6,000 ft and it should be fairly good conditions. 

After 3 days of not flying the tension in the air is like a tightly strung rubber band.  You can sense the relief when the task is announced.  Yes!  We’re going to fly.  It’s a 132km task SW to Axedale in Victoria. 

The towing operation gets going with five tugs and is very slick.  40 gliders get airborne in about 45 minutes. 

I circle up to about 6,000 ft with Greg and a few others.  We head SW across the border into Victoria and top up just past the river.  We’re now inside the 10km start circle.  The thermals are wide with light lift about 100 – 200fpm up.

We pass Strathmerton and are confronted with more of the same minefield of green irrigated paddocks as far as the eye can see.  To make things worse the sky is getting dark with smoke from bushfires further south.  We’re circling in light lift.  The others are quite a bit higher than me. 

Kraig Coomber comes past and immediately finds something that takes him up to over 5,000 ft.  I go to where he was and naturally am immediately punished with sink.   The others have gone and I am left grovelling above the green.  Heading downwind, Katunga is ahead but a little off course and I’m hoping it’s going to give me some love from all those corrugated iron roofs. 

I fly over at 1,500 ft.  Nothing.  Not a bump, not a turn.  Nothing.  I come in and land about 2km out of town.

Greg lands about 8km further on.  I hear Ian on the radio flying over at 5,000 ft.  He eventually lands about 16km further on.

13 pilots make it to goal today.  Jonny wins with Dave Seib right on his tail. Most of those that made goal had headed to the west before turning south and avoided most of the irrigated area.

Day 6 – Australia Day celebrations
A wedge tail eagle has moved in.  He’s cruising above the airfield sniffing out the thermals.  The feathers on the trailing edges of his wings are active as he constantly reaches out for every sign of lift.  Soon he is a speck in the sky.  The message he leaves for us is, “It’s time to fly!”

The day is hot and humid.  Already, small cu’s are forming around the district.  Eddie prophesied a few days earlier that today was going to be the best day of the week.  At the briefing this morning he’s predicting cloud base at 8,000 ft with possible overdevelopment and thunderstorms later in the day.  There is a moderate breeze from the NNW which means another trip south to Victoria.

Everyone is super keen to go and sets up quickly beside the airstrip. Fairly large cu’s are forming everywhere.  The task committee sets a course for a 165km dogleg.  It will be 91 km from the start circle SW of the airfield to Violet Town down on the Hume Highway then a 74km cross wind leg NE to goal at Brown Brother’s winery near Milawa.  We’re beginning to understand the task committee’s priorities.   Jonny, a member of the committee walks past and says, “This will sort the men from the girls!”

There’s a bit of confusion in the tow queue as people aren’t sure of where to line up which results in a bit of pushing and shoving.  However, once again the operation is as rapid as an aircraft carrier on full alert with gliders zooming skyward one after the other.

Surprisingly quite a few pilots don’t stay up and have to relaunch. Brendan tows me up to about 2,000ft where I pin off and join Scott Barrett and Gerolf Heinrich in a juicy thermal to the west of the airfield.  We mill around for a few minutes slowly gaining height until they both manage to hit a surge and get up several hundred feet above.  Gerolf gets to about 4,500 ft and heads SW across the river.  Scott follows shortly after. 

I’d like a bit more height under me and keep circling in light lift.  I notice Len Paton a fair bit lower trying to circle up over the airport.  A couple of guys are over the southern end of runway rapidly approaching cloud base.  My thermal is drifting that way and it seems to link up with theirs so I take the elevator ride to cloud base at 7,500 ft. The other 3 gliders have already gone by the time I arrive so I follow them out towards the start circle.

They cut through the 10 km circle and head downwind along the course line. I try to follow them, but they’re going fast and soon become specks in the distance. 

I’m at 3,500 ft circling in a nice 400 fpm thermal near Katamatite.  A couple of farmers are talking on our radio channel.

Hey, Ken, could you pick up the drill that I left down at the back dam?” 
Yeah. No worries.”
”I think I also left a bag of fertilizer down there.  Can you have a look for it?”
”Yeah. No worries.”
”Did you see all them hang gliders in the sky?”

I keyed the mike and said, “If you look up you may be able to see me.”

Yes, I’m an idiot.  I should have turned the radio down and concentrated on flying, but it seemed like a fun way to spread a bit of goodwill. The radio went silent for a few seconds and I could imagine them scanning the sky looking for me.

“…where are you?” came back the response.

I’m at 4,000 ft just north of Katamatite in an orange glider.”
Uh, yeah; yeah.  I think I can see ya”, came back an enthusiastic reply. “We’re just near the big intersection on the turnoff to Cobram.  Our house is right on the corner. What’s the temperature up there?
”It’s about 220”, I said reading off my instrument.
”Yeah. It’s really hot down here.  Been hot all week…

<!--[if !supportLineBreakNewLine]-->

And so it went for a couple of minutes.  They wished me good luck and I returned my concentration to that thermal.  Unfortunately I had dropped out of the core and was now circling in 100 fpm, but drifting quickly across the ground. This mistake was to deck me a short time later.

There were some big cu’s developing directly ahead.  When I got under them the lift was surprisingly light.  I later heard that others had experienced the same thing.

I get down to 2,000 ft still moving fast across the ground with a strong tailwind.  I see some large brown paddocks ahead.  A cloud shadow is moving across them.  Surely it is going to kick off something.  Unfortunately I’m drifting too fast and pass the shadow before any thermals have a chance to come up to me.

There are some homesteads and tree lines ahead.  Sure enough there are some small punchy thermals coming off them.  I’m only 800 ft off the deck by now and circle tightly in and out of a small bubble gaining a few hundred feet, but I can’t quite ride it back up to where I want to be.   At this height it’s very hot and the ground is passing underneath at a great rate of knots. I search desperately trying to catch a ride with anything.  Downwind is a huge tract of land with no road access.  I don’t really want to go there.  The thermal cycle passes and I land in a big paddock, 40km from TP1.

Ian passes overhead at 5,000 ft.  He lands about 20 km further on.  I hear Eduardo on the radio overhead shortly after.  He lands about 25 km further on.

Only two pilots make goal - Jonny and Balazs Ujhelyi from Hungary. They took a track slightly west of course where the clouds were more defined and were rewarded with minimal sink. I spoke to Balazs later and he said that he only took one thermal on the first leg – in over 90 km!

Many of the others fell out of the sky like confetti around TP1.

Ferenc Gruber, another Hungarian tracked south of Violet Town (TP1) and found himself between 2 large cu-nims and going up at a great rate of knots.  He pulled full VG and tried to dive out of it. He then hit some turbulence which tore the base bar from his hands.  It pitched the glider up and then spun it upside down.  He was at about 7,000 ft tumbling down when the keel broke. He pulled his chute but was concerned about throwing it at that point in case he got sucked up into the cloud.  He waited until he was about 2500 ft up then threw it.  The wind carried him a few kilometres across the mountains where he landed in a tree.

The other Hungarians were concerned when he didn't report in by midnight and basically drove around the area trying to raise him on the radio until about 5am in the morning.  At first light a chopper was sent out.  The pilot managed to raise him on his radio, and then homed in on his signal.  The reason his team mates couldn't raise him is because he was in a hollow on top of the mountain. Overall he spent 18 hours suspended in his harness until rescued.  He was quite tired but emerged almost totally unscathed. Everyone was delighted to see him again – especially his wife and little girl. 

Day 7 – Atomic bomb weather

The birds are looking miserable again.  It’s stinking hot and very humid. 

At the morning briefing Eddie tells us that the sailplanes will not be taken out of the hangar today because of the high risk of thunderstorms.  He’s predicting 40,000 ft tops on the cu-nims later in the afternoon that he describes as having the energy of an atomic bomb.

The safety committee prevaricates but eventually sends us out.  Large cu’s are forming and combining with some weird looking lenticular clouds.  There are some very strong winds up there.  It’s not looking good. 

The task committee calls for a short task but no one is really interested.  Quite a few of the pilots haven’t even bothered to set up.  Everyone is looking at the threatening skies.  One by one everyone packs up their gliders until the day is called.

One of the trike pilots is taxiing back to the hangar when a dusty blasts past. He tries to outrun it but one wing hits the ground and he is thrown out of his seat and is skidding along beside it trying to control it. Thinking quickly he kills the motor but the tail wind catches him and flips the trike, ripping the sail and breaking a leading edge.  Fortunately no one is injured.

Despite the wind, it’s still very hot and sticky so a number of us go up the river and drift downstream for over 13 km back to Tocumwal – a perfect way to spend the afternoon.

Day 8 – Racing the storms

The birds are huddled around the tap in the middle of the lawn chirping to each other.  They’re looking forward to a bit of rain.  We’re not.

The forecast is for early forming cu’s and a good chance of thunderstorms later.  The sailplane pilots are restricted to the local area with no cross country allowed.

By 11am the cu’s are well formed and the winds are light on the ground. It’s hot with high humidity. 

The safety committee keeps holding us back until finally at one o'clock we go to set up.  They sky is blue to the north, west and east, but you can see it’s likely to O/D to the south.  The task is a 113km triangle to get everyone back in time for the presentation dinner.

I’ve lost my retrieve team because Ian and Craig had a go home.  Eduardo and I scramble to find another retrieve driver and Kevin Carter kindly offers to drive since he’s having equipment problems.

By the time we set up many pilots have towed up and are out on course. Eduardo gets airborne and I’m in the queue right behind him.  I see him climbing well with another glider. 

I line up on the dolly only to find that the wind has switched around 1800 from the south.  After waiting for ten minutes the wind direction looks permanent and the whole towing operation has to be reversed. A few gliders have come back to land.

I tow up behind Smokey in the Dragonfly.  It’s a little bumpy and at 2,000 ft the weak link breaks right over the Murray River.  Surprisingly with all these cu’s around I don’t find any lift and head back to the airport.  I try to get up in some small bubbles near the airfield but I’m drifting too close to the runways so decide to land.

Only Craig Koomber makes it to goal today. A couple get close but most pilots only make it 30 to 40 km.  Most pilots are on the deck before TP1 either because of lack of lift or for safety reasons as storms start developing.

Jonny Durand wins the competition followed by Balaz Ujhelyi and Kraig Coomber in third.







Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 5




Moyes Litespeed S 4



Andreas OLSSON

Wills Wing T2 154




Moyes Litespeed S 5



David SEIB

Moyes Litespeed S 5




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Airborne C4 135



Peter DALL

Atos B




Moyes Litespeed 4




Airborne C4




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 4.5




Moyes Litespeed S 5




Aeros Combat L 13




Wills Wing T2 154




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Airborne C4 13




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Airborne C4 13




Moyes Litespeed S 3.5




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Moyes Litespeed S 3.5




Aeros Combat L




Moyes Litespeed S 5




Moyes Litespeed S 3.5




Moyes Litespeed S 4




Airborne C4 14




Moyes Litesport 4




Airborne C4 14




Moyes Litespeed S 5




Wills Wing T2 154




Airborne Climax 14




Airborne C4 14



I learnt a huge amount, enjoyed meeting new friends and hanging out with old ones. 

A big thanks to Tove and her team for organising the competition.  As usual it was done very professionally especially since it was the first time at Sportavia and done in the face of many challenges.  Special thanks should also be given to the volunteers who slaved away in the heat for several hours each day helping to get everyone airborne safely.

Even though the weather didn’t co-operate, the flying was fantastic.  Sportavia has huge potential as a world class hang gliding site.  Hopefully this is just the beginning.


For all the 'armchair pilots' amongst you you can catch all the action reported on pilots blogs here on under the news feeds section