Paragliding in Western Australia

Caedmon Mullin | 12th April 2015

If you've flown in Australia it was probably somewhere in the South East of the country. It's in the South East you'll find most of the famous sites, the biggest hills, the comps and the clouds!

A few thousand kilometers away in Western Australia (WA) the clouds are almost as hard to come by as the hills. Don't let this fool you though, there is flying here and the locals make very good use of what they have.

WA has about 4,000km of coastline so there are of course some great coastal sites, particularly around Albany in the SW. There are even a couple of small sites within Perth's city limits. Inland there are fewer options, there's a tow field within a few hours drive of Perth and then there's Mt Bakewell. Bakewell, which sits just outside the small town of York, rises 250m from the vast Wheatbelt region East of Perth. Skies here are generally cloudless but that hasn't stopped numerous 100km+ flights and even a few over 200 from this modest hill.

There's nothing like asking the locals when you want to know a little more about an area, so I caught up with three local pilots who were kind enough to share some of their knowledge on the area...

 

Introductions...


Rod Merigan

Rod lives right under Mt Bakewell and has (like the other two here) held the open distance record for the site at one point. If you're going to fly Bakewell you'll want to chat to Rod first.

Bruce Marks

I caught up with Bruce shortly before he heads to the alps to support Gavin McClurg in the X-Alps. He's the current Bakewell record holder as well as a big fan of his local site, Mosman Park.

Dave Snowdon

Dave is based close to some great coastal flying in the Margaret river region but he's also made the trek several hours north to the XC sites frequently enough to clock a very impressive 1010km from his best 6 flights in WA this season!

 

How long have you been paragliding and how /where were you introduced to it?

Rod

13 yrs, I saw it on the internet and thought I would give it a go.

Bruce:

I learned in Verbier, Switzerland 7 years ago, haven’t stopped much since.

Dave

Gosh .. been flying since 1990, started in Mid Wales UK with a bunch of tigerish ex-climbing lunatics looking for a mountain fix without being hailed on by falling debris…

Outside of WA what are your favourite flying areas?

Bruce:

I prefer the Alps for the nature of the  flying, and triangle possibilities. I focus on trying to achieve 200+K FAI triangles, nothing like landing back where you start after 9 hours in the saddle. This type of flight isn’t available anywhere else.

But I’ve flown and enjoyed many other countries, Nepal, India, The Maldives(!) and even the UK.

Dave

Flown sites pretty much worldwide. Most known big sites in Europe, South & North America, Thailand et al. Flew on the PWC circuit for a couple of seasons way back and did most of the Brit Champs 96-2008. Flown a lot of the Aussie champs from 98 until now.  Never won anything in Aus but had a lotta fun. First time flying in Aus was ’98 & then a couple more visits to comps & flying the big 4 in Australia (Manilla, Bright, Canungra, Corryong) as well as throughout WA and a few other more remote sites.

Rod

Slovenia was nice but Bright is pretty good too...

Western Australia


How would you describe the flying in WA?

Bruce:

Tough …. but very rewarding on a good day.

Dave

Hard won! Not the technicalities of the flying, that side is quite typical of high base strong thermal flatland flying… its tough getting the right meteo conditions to fly far. There’s a tonne of coastal sites (with 4,000km of coastline there should be!) but lots of the Westerly days are embedded with fronts or troughs making it a bit damp. More consistent flying is had on the SW coast around Albany with a choice of Southerly sites. Coast flying here is great when it is on, nay amazing. Clean air flying along coastal rifts and azure seas in warm air… I live within a few K’s of Yallingup and yet only flown the 20k o/r run to Sugar Loaf maybe a handful of times. Although I actually managed to get away once on a short 20k XC inland. Rare.

To fly decent distances we need to be inland and on it with the weather. Bakewell takes a SSW-SSE for best XC. The tow setup allows for all directions except a Westerly, as that would just fly us into Perth Airspace. Historically, we’ve had 200k+ flights in all directions off the tow. Got to hit good flight meteo though. Too cool or warm after a warm night and it’s a late start for trigger temps even for a 100k day or too hot (36 deg +) and we get dustied to hell or thermally battered. The region seems susceptible to trough conditions a lot, they are quite unpredictable in movement and intensity but make a big difference to the flying day. Mostly we seem to fly blue. Quids in when we get clouds to play with too. Airspace with VHS radio is up to 3000m so we can get up there and get on with it.

For me it’s a four hour drive each way up to fly Bakewell or the tow paddocks. So I weather watch and plan my flying days well ahead during XC season, chat online lots with the crews and then get all revved up to get on it when it's happening. We’ve have it pretty much nailed now meteo wise with looking for the right conditions and I don’t often go out unless it has a 200km XC potential.  XCskies is my guru.

Rod

The flat land flying is different from most other sites in Oz, probably because of the temps and dry air

What's your favourite site in WA and why?

Rod

WA is the flattest state in the flattest continent, we only have one decent inland hill near Perth and that is Mt Bakewell.

Dave

On the recreational side, nipping up and down the coast sites is a pleasant afternoon out. Albany for the rugged coastlines and Yalls for its paradise beaches. But Bakewell has it for me as its really the only established inland site we have. We’ve broken through the 200 barrier from there and I’m convinced 300+ is doable with an early start and considerable piloting conviction.

Bruce:

For XC, Bakewell, we showed this year what was possible, multiple new site records, currently (mine) 241K. Otherwise it’s the tow paddock, which is a better option for huge distance, but is more hassle.

Mt Bakewell, York, WA

Bakewell is by far the most popular XC site, can you describe the flying there? What do you like / dislike about the site?

Rod

It’s the only XC site apart from towing, the down side is its a SE facing ridge in a river valley so we always have an inversion which makes it almost impossible to get away before 11:30am.

Bruce:

Relies on surface winds from the SE to SSW to bring thermals onto the face. It’s just not high enough to just launch and push forward, you will land 50% of the time doing this.

Can be pretty rough low on the face, so it’s tough for new pilots. Biggest problem is that we have restricted wind directions that we can fly, in particular we can’t launch into a westerly, which is the ideal wind to go big.

Dave

Indeed  XC in WA “is” Bakewell or the nearby Barrington tow paddocks. That is most certainly, thanks to Rod and all the active pilots going there (there less than 20 of us!), where it's at.

Bakewell is special in that for a good XC day the therms can rip through at hill height or be completely benign, switching in a second. Metaphorically, it can be like diving into heavy surf over coral whilst pumping air into your lifejacket. Feisty. Then the cycle passes and its un-soarable. Although once you are cored in and cleaned up into the climbs most folk get can get away and quite far.

I think I’ve managed somehow to have clocked the most K’s over WA soil this season with 1010 km out of best 6 but Bruce has grabbed the final glory of the site record with his 241 within his 895/6

The Bakewell record went from 143-185-199-208-200-220-241km in the space of 3 months this season… with a merry bunch of XC pilots each enjoying the glory of record holder for a brief period (Herve had it at 220 for about 15 minutes then Bruce flew past..)!

How would you say the flying in WA differs from other places you've flown?

Rod

We rarely get clouds to fly under, most days are blue, to get the southerly winds for good XC we need a high just ridging in, so most days we have a hard inversion around 1600mts. This season has been unusual we have had quite a few days where we have topped out above 2500mts .

Bruce:

A lot fewer pilots. You have to organise everything yourself. And fewer people to learn from, so it’s harder to progress.

Dave

Biggest difference flying here to flying other even remote flat places is the need nay necessity for good logistics and organised retrieve infrastructure. We have roads, although not many cars on them but most areas are accessible. Roads and tracks are often far apart and a trek of more than 20k through 40 deg heat to some other side of nowhere is not recommended. My hat off to Bruce on all this. He has got us organised which really sorted the flying this season. Of course linked into it is good comms and having everyone on Spot making for a limitless XC with no worries about landing out in the boonies or relying on broken SMS coverage.

What's been your most memorable flight in WA (2 or 3 flights if that's easier)?

Rod

My first big XC on my Bolero 1, I only had about 30 hrs total time, 125 km from towing out of Wyalkatchem that was a record back then. I probably could have flown further but hit the edge of the wheatbelt - no more roads.

Bruce:

3 years ago we flew in NNW heat wave conditions, needed 39c for the thermals to trigger, and it got to 45c. Very rough down low, but once high, strong but flyable lift to 5000m. When you are 4500m above the wheat belt it’s quite impressive. I flew 225k that day and was leaving lift below cloudbase, which was over 5000m. As a real indicator of the day, Rod and I pretty much agreed to leave such extreme days alone in the future.

Dave

The terrain always ‘looks’ the same, although flat its far from featureless, patterned wheat fields or barren ground, salt lakes and rock outcrops, Towns or hamlets are sometimes 100k apart, quite visible once high and great aiming points… oh and Wedgetail Eagles are fun in mating season. I’m sure Bruce has a few words about those fellas, I’ve avoided a hit this season but had several rather aggressive encounters, so its never dull up there.  But it’s really about the air which is never the same. The 208k I did off Bakewell was in a really good air mass and moved along nicely with a fair wind. Getting away alone was challenging and held me grounded and watching  a while until I’d settled to fly and worked out the therm cycles. I connected quickly with a rocket of a climb out and just got on with it. I had Rod chasing on retrieve & for Radio Company  which is just great. Drift was 45 deg in 4-5m climbs and down wind dashes often over 80kph. I’d left late and only had 5hrs of fly time on the flight. My aim was 200 for the day just to break, not smash, the record (small steps makes it more fun). Hindsight says I could of left probably 3 hours earlier so at those averages I reckon 350 was surely possible… That was a good day.

However the best flight of the year I shared with Bruce. We’d all had a really good season and that day was likely the best last chance of a good forecast for a tow out of Barrington. I had a great tow from Rod and hung around over the paddock for Bruce. His first tow was pinged low-ish and a rouge cycle had him grappling for recovery at about 100m. That done with he re-towed high and we met up to fly one to one leap frogging for a 180 out to the only green patch in WA, the Westonia Oval. We rarely get the opportunity to fly together and it was something of a privilege to be able to share that run.

What advice would you give to someone looking to do some flying here?

Rod

Watch out for the eagles, we have had 4 gliders damaged this year. Don’t know why they have been so cranky this season. If you want to fly XC organise a retrieve, I have landed out and not seen another vehicle for hours.

Bruce:

Learn somewhere else first! You can do plenty of flying here, but only once you have skilled up. Otherwise it’s just too hard to get your hours up.

Dave

Watch the weather patterns. Watch for updates on our Paragliding Western Australia facebook and be out there when the XC crew are onto it. Be confident with your thermalling and have the conviction to climb high off launch and GO. Its often better out back. Explore your climbs, some are far bigger than you think they might be and use the drift. For the big runs, leave as soon as the inversion breaks and be prepared for a long period in the air. It’s just about being airborne for a long time. If you are in the air for 4 hours plus you’ll get distance. Speed comes later. Simple maths.. I can average 40k+ out on the runs without it being blown out for landing.. If there is 9 hours to do it in, well that’s 360k available on a really good day, more again on a windy day.

I did a little over 100k from Bakewell a couple of weekends back without organising a retrieve, I was sure I'd be spending the night in the pub and hitching back the next day until Rod came to my rescue - what have been your most memorable retrieves?

Bruce:

I just don’t bother anymore without a dedicated driver in my car, spot tracking and good radio coms. And with that attitude, we very rarely have to cancel a days flying, as we went to the trouble of training up a local, and we pay him for his services.

Dave

Without a retrieve, and a late landing, you’re going to be dossing in the bush for the night or standing by the road for hours waiting for a ride. Crossing open ground gets to be somewhat disconcerting as you can be easily 30k from a serviced road quite quickly. We do tend to track along main road routes but cut across tack quite often. Some years back I landed close to a small community near a main road, with a post office and filling station, to find absolutely nobody there! 5pm in the evening, and no traffic... 3 hours later a road-train stopped, driver on a compulsory rest period for another hour, waited and went with him. Got back most of the way to Northam after midnight and everything shut. Dossed in a car park and hitched back to York the next day… Never again.

Note to self: Love your retrieve driver & pay him handsomely… :0)

What goals do you have for your flying in general and specifically here in WA?

Bruce:

300k+ on tow past Southern Cross is just waiting for the right day. From Bakewell …. it will take a very good day for my record to go, but we are pretty keen to push it beyond 250K. The difficulty is that Bakewell gets blown out in winds that might make that distance easier.

Dave

This next season will see us (or someone) break thru 300 in WA. I had a goal of over 1000km of xcontest for WA flights this year and succeeded.. yey! So just to achieve that again next season would be good enough. It has been quite a lot of fun playing the Xcontest numbers against the more pilot populated states like NSW and Queensland. We were out front for quite a while until the Deniliquin crews got airtime. We’re still second which is amazing having only a dozen XC pilots here. I’d love to help others achieve their goals and keep us up there with the numbers game. I also have an eye on the crew out in Kalgoorlie who have a winch setup and would like to get out there to fly back west towards York. For Bakewell & Towing, I’ll be looking out for the 200k+ days with keen eye come October and hopefully grab a few days in the meantime during  these winter months to keep current.

Is there anything threatening paragliding in WA at the moment - ie airspace, site access, etc?

Bruce:

We fly with the goodwill of the land holders. That can always change, and we don’t have many options.

Dave

Biggest threat to flying is those interminable Wedgies. We seem to have a pair on every Xc route we’ve got and they do make a mess of wings on contact. I think we’ve had about five hits causing damage this season.

Other than that, it’s all about maintaining rights of access and keeping our numbers up, honing XC skills and keeping the vibe going in a positive way. Rod does a great job with Bakewell and really is the custodian of our interests there. He’s the only local resident there and also our airspace & xcontest policeman. Quite an asset.

Bruce high above Mosman Park

I'm sure I've missed things out so if you'd like to tell us anything else about the flying here please do!

Bruce:

Our most eclectic site is Mosman Park, a 20m escarpment on the Swan River. From here in the morning easterlies (better ENE) you can catch thermals drifting over the river and heights of 1500 feet are readily obtained on a good day. Over that we have airspace filled with very big planes. One memorable day I flew back across the peninsula and landed on Cottesloe Beach.

My preference is thermal XC flying … but south of Perth we do have world class coastal soaring, particularly Sandpatch at Albany and Yallingup in Margaret River. In addition much of the Perth foreshore is flyable, which is kind of cool.

Dave

One aim of mine from the beginning of this season has been to get WA placed on the Aussie XC radar. We’re so far from anywhere that few venture here to fly. A few more pilot numbers would be great especially if they have good XC skills. I think our flights have now shown the potential, which just needs some saturation of activity. Once the word gets out that this place is something of a mecca for good distance flying for most competent flyers, attracting those with the time & patience to grab it when its good. It's rarely on for long periods but when it is it's just great!

We may well see some rather phenomenal distances done here next season. October thru to End Feb seems the best and we’ve been most prolific in December.

This is the Right place, just be here at the right time & Come on Up. :0)

Your Comments

Moritz Leiser says:

Thabk you for this post! We are currently in Australiela and now i am thinking about staying a bit longer to be able to fly in western australia too!

Posted 1485 days ago

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Caedmon Mullin’s reply:

Thanks Moritz, I hope you get some good weather for it, maybe see you up at Bakewell!

Posted 1484 days ago

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