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As the nights draw in, and our thoughts turn to how on Earth we can afford to go abroad to fly during the UK winter, it is time to reflect on hang gliding and paragliding activities conducted by the RAF this year. The year has been a fairly eventful one, but it has featured the usual setbacks due to the weather. I can think of few sports (apart from skiing where, of course, you need snow) that can be so easily affected by the weather. A couple of miles-per-hour wind speed or a couple of degrees’ change in wind direction are all you need to turn a flying day into a non-flying day. Of course, the optimists among you will argue the opposite is equally true – we need more of you in the sport! Mind you, out of the vagaries of the weather have sprung other activities, such as kiting, model aircraft flying and parawaiting – anything to while away the time before you fly. The latter includes a whole range of disciplines from lying under your wing to shelter from the wind (and/or rain for hang gliders) all the way through to playing with the ring tones on your mobile phone. How the days fly by ….!

By way of background, the sports of hang gliding and paragliding are served by a small voluntary committee, the RAF Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. The Association is responsible for furthering the sport, and its activities range from arranging funding for our activities, organising competitions and expeditions through to buying, holding and maintaining equipment for aspiring pilots fresh out of their training. We also interact with the sport’s national governing body and have dealings with the other 2 Services through a Joint Association.

Back to the years’ activities, the year began with a number of our pilots taking part in Ex LETOVI BACKSTOP, a paragliding expedition to Slovenia in April this year. Slovenia offers flying in an Alpine environment, an environment that is coveted by most of us who are used to sitting on blown out or clagged in hillsides in the UK. Sadly, notwithstanding the excellent venue, the event was a washout with pilots flying on only one day in the week they were there. Better luck next year …..!

Subsequent to that expedition, we ran a hang gliding and paragliding tandem weekend, based at the Joint Service’s Hang Gliding and Paragliding Centre (JSHPC) in Crickhowell, S Wales. This Centre is the Joint Services’ school for both disciplines, and they run a series of courses throughout the year to take non-flyers all the way up to Club Pilot, the minimum qualification for independent free flying, and beyond for those qualified pilots who wish to go a little further. A number of our experienced tandem-qualified pilots converged on the Centre and took a bunch of non-flyers from across the RAF on air-experience flights in the Welsh mountains. Some enjoyed themselves so much, they have now returned to the Centre on formal courses. Good luck to them all! We did another tandem flying weekend in September. This time, however, we were a good deal less fortunate with the weather; none of the passengers got to fly, although 2 of the pilots did do a spot of ‘gale hanging’ in front of the picturesque Rhossili headland on the Welsh coast near Swansea.

During June and July, there was a series of events for the more experienced pilots. Firstly, there was a hang gliding advanced flying course followed by the RAF and Inter-Services Hang Gliding Championships. This was immediately followed by a paragliding advanced flying course and the RAF and Inter-Services Paragliding Championships. I would normally like to dwell on the results of these, but the RAF did not do too well this year, and had to defer to stronger Army and, in the case of hang gliding, Navy teams. Credit where it is due though, in the Hang Gliding Championships, Mark Lewis (St Athan) came first in the RAF Open Class, with Al Howland second and Norman Potts third, and the author, Mike Madden (Abbeywood), came first in the RAF Novice Class; vanity prevents me from mentioning how many were in the Novice Class. Lee Bligh (St Athan) came first in the RAF Open Class, with Jon Hollidge and Pete ‘master of rapid descent techniques’ Jones in second and third places respectively. Trevor Preece and Rocky Rockcliffe came first and second respectively in the RAF Novice Class. Well done to all.

Throughout the year, a number of our pilots, notably Lee Bligh, Sean Simmons, Mark Lewis, Colin Hermon and Dave Cox, have been involved in instructing on expeditions. We have also had a number of pilots who have been active and very successful on the national and international competitions circuits, notably Sean Kimberley, Norman Potts, Lee Bligh, Matt Brown, Sean Simmons and Colin Hermon. The Association encourages this and does all it can to support such initiatives. Indeed, we have sourced travel costs at public expense for most of the UK competitions, and Association funds have also been used to subsidise participation in some of the international events.

Our plans for next year are quite extensive, so all you RAF flyers out there who only come out of the woodwork for the RAF Championships - take note! We are planning to run a series of mini, UK-based paragliding and hang gliding expeditions throughout the season as a means of coaching people to a higher standard and encouraging participation in competitions. We are going to assist people to get away on other Joint expeditions, such as LETOVI BACKSTOP (Slovenia), as well as DRAGON KESTREL (French Alps). Of significance, we are also planning to run an RAF Sports Tour to Slovenia in late April/early May 2005, at the end of which we plan to run a small RAF Alpine competition. We also have an aspiration to get some people away on an SIV course, a course that teaches people all about paraglider instability and how to correctly react to it. Add to that the RAF and Inter-Services Hang Gliding and Paragliding Championships during the summer, and a number of tandem air-experience weekends, and you can see we have a busy schedule to suit all levels of pilot and also suit anyone who wants to come along for a gentle introduction to sport ahead of committing themselves to a course.

To wrap up, a plea on behalf of the sport. If you are interested in getting on a course, get in touch (the details are below). If you are a pilot who did not know the RAFHPA existed, get in touch. If you are a pilot who knew the RAFHPA existed, but have lost touch, never joined (free) or have been posted without telling us (as if), get in touch. Our contact details are: Secretary, Sean Simmons, seansimmons@aidu.co.uk (95233 8140).

Safe Flying!