Andrew Scaramanga and his UK X Race
I was going to be racing with a full tank of fuel, a reserve and speed bar none of which form part of my usual set up…
I arrived at the top of a remote hill in Dorset at 6 in the morning to find the race start shrouded in fog. I’d been a bit concerned about the race all week, particularly my launch technique. I was going to be racing with a full tank of fuel, a reserve and speed bar none of which form part of my usual set up. I had spent my evenings leading up to race day plotting my route on a map, locating possible re-fueling stations and fretting over my kit. George and Dan at the Parajet workshop helped me with preparing my Polini 190 Light engine. I bought 2 stroke oil in 100mm shot bottles to make it easy to get the fuel oil ration right.
So…as we waited for the fog to lift I talked tactics with other racers and worried that everyone else was using cunning electronic navigational aids as opposed to my trusty map and compass. My reasoning had always been that I would be in the air for about 7 hours and that having something to do on the way would make the race more interesting for me — rather than being on auto pilot. I was also concerned that I would not be able to see my phone very well in the bright sun, also with wind and vibration to contend with. However, I was persuaded otherwise and downloaded PPGPS which did seem to be a very good app for navigating and included lots of stuff like fuel consumption and estimated times to way points. I did a crash course on how to use it, turned the brightness up on my phone and mounted it alongside my map.
The fog sat stubbornly on the top of the hill and we kept kidding ourselves that it was getting brighter. I tried to settle my nerves with yet another delicious bacon butty from the organisers BBQ to no avail. I decided that I’d not brought enough layers and managed to borrow a sweater from Parajet Team Pilot Kester, which I shoe-horned inside my flying jacket to give myself a Michelin Man appearance – a strong look!
Eventually the sun burnt through and we were given a start time of 11.20, over 4 hours after our scheduled departure. I tried to set up into the wind but it kept switching about and there was a lot of rearranging of kit going on. A couple of pilots got away but none at the first attempt as they battled light twitchy winds. I was determined to make a good show, applied plenty of power, set off like a steam train, planted my foot firmly in a cowpat and fell flat on my face.
Another pilot kindly offered to set out my wing for me and I set off again, the wing came up a treat and I gave it the once over only to find that the wing tip was knotted in the lines. Another aborted landing and I was getting hot with Kester’s jumper amply performing the task that his granny had knitted it for.
Time to strip off and regroup. I stuffed Granny, by now very soggy, into my map case and had a breather to calm myself. A helpful old pilot advised me to slow down and take it easy.
For my third attempt I followed his advice and all went well and after a protracted run I was airborne. I set off towards the West and soon identified my first landmark which was the radio mast at Rampisham. I was flying pretty much into wind and initial progress was slow so after settling into my harness and sorting my shit out, I let out the trimmers and played with the speed bar. I soon got the hang of it and watched as fields skipped past my boots. I tried to stay low into the wind to minimise the headwind but not so low that I would encounter rotor coming off obstacles in front of me. It was the middle of the day by now and although the start had been shrouded in fog the rest of Dorset had not been and the ground was now warming the air to produce some distinctly bumpy conditions. I began to reflect on the wisdom of the bacon butties and my stomach became more and more dodgy. I didn’t really enjoy this stage of the race and was definitely of the opinion that this would be my last.
The wind pushed me a bit South of my ideal course and I had to track North a bit to get around the radio mast at Rampisham. With no obvious landmarks on the horizon I got out the compass and plotted a course to take me just to the North of Exeter airspace. I had abandoned the PPGPS app which I was struggling to read and operate in the turbulent conditions and as I suspected using the map added a lot of interest to what could otherwise have been a long few hours in the air. I made my way around Exeter and could make out the heathery lump of Dartmoor on the horizon which was to be my first turn-point. I checked on fuel with my mirror and reckoned that I would be alright to reach the services on the A30 at Whiddon Down.
I navigated my way over some stunningly beautiful country often using pylon lines to guide me - they are well marked on the air maps and it’s as well to identify where they are If only to avoid flying into them. I joined the A30 and followed it until I came to Whiddon Down services. There was a good animal free field just to the west which appeared to face the prevailing north westerly wind. I managed to land without too much drama, stuffed my wing in the hedge and set off on foot to collect fuel with just under a litre to spare. I was accosted by a number of holiday makers and grilled about what I was up to. I filled up, rehydrated and set off back to my wing with a heavy paramotor. When I got back to the field I could see from a flag that the wind had swung round to the west and that there was going to be no chance of taking off from where I was. I left the V3 there and set off to find something a little better. I walked through the village and saw a beautifully mown hay field gently sloping towards the westerly wind. I asked about the field at a house that backed on to it. They said that the owners weren’t there but said they wouldn’t mind. I then used all my charm to persuade the rather attractive blonde lady of the house to take me back to my landing field in her Range Rover to collect my kit. This she seemed delighted to do (Hmmm…I’ve still got it!).
A nice easy take off into the wind and down the hill, plenty of vigorous waving to the blonde and I was off again. I flew back over my take off field and then climbed to avoid any rotor coming off the top of Dartmoor. I turned north east over the first turn-point and tried to locate an obvious landmark to guide me to the second on top of Exmoor. The country was littered with wind turbines but sadly my map predated them so they were not marked. I ended up flying a compass bearing and identified roads, woods and villages along my route. As I climbed up the foothills of Exmoor it became more difficult to identify features as everything looked the same but the turn-point soon appeared as an obvious lump on the horizon and I made a beeline for it.
As I turned for home my ground speed increased noticeably with a lovely tail wind. I checked my fuel and calculated that I needed one more stop. From my Google Maps recce I had seen what appeared to be a nice landing field beside the M5 services at Wellington. I slightly lost my bearings at this stage but quickly worked out where I was when I recognised my cousin’s house at Wiveliscombe. I settled back in the calm early evening air on full trim, full speed bar and a lovely gentle tail wind giving me an estimated speed over the ground of over 40mph. In no time at all I was over the M5 services. The field that I had planned to land in was full of cattle so I found another beautifully mown flat field right alongside the fuel filling station. I put in 4 litres which I calculated was enough to get me home and launched into a lovely evening breeze. An ideal flight in perfect conditions at full speed soon had me skirting around Yeovilton airspace and then a straight course back towards the landing field over some of the most beautiful countryside you will ever see.
This is what it’s all about!
As I approached I saw Kester and another pilot take off to welcome me home. They guided me in perfectly and I landed to be told that I had finished second. Now, in normal circumstances I would have done a little show boating for the crowd but I was thoroughly exhausted after standing on the speed bar for nearly 7 hours and just wanted to get down for a beer.
I really enjoyed the whole experience and felt a great sense of achievement. My only regret was that because I managed to complete the course in a day I did not have the opportunity to knock on someone’s door to beg a bed for the night.
A big thank you to the Adventurists who organised a great event - sign me up for the next one!