Cars, Bikes & Boats

Shooting the breeze

Long-distance gliding above the Alps with a world record holder as your guide is a real learning experience for Ed Ewing.

May 06 2009
Ed Ewing

I’m shattered. The calm of the landing field compared to the speed, g-forces and turbulence of big-distance Alpine gliding feels suddenly disorientating. Our final glide brought us in low over the aerodrome, before Klaus Ohlmann dropped a wing, banked steeply and carved a 225kph turn out of the sky. We landed perfectly at 120kph and rolled along the grass airstrip to the hangar. Ohlmann popped the canopy, jumped out and headed straight off to fly again, and has left me alone to gather my last shred of dignity. I am determined not to kiss the ground.

“How long did you fly?” asks a German pilot nursing a large beer in the afternoon sunshine outside the clubhouse. “About five hours,” I reply. “Ah, just a short flight… Usually he goes for six to eight.”

Ohlmann is one of the best glider pilots in the world. Originally from Germany, he now lives in the southern French Alps near his gliding club, Quo Vadis, which has its own airfield at the hamlet of Serres, 100km south of Grenoble. It is tucked along the edge of a patchwork valley and surrounded by forested limestone escarpments.

Ohlmann has been gliding since 1973, aged 21. He won his first junior prize in distance flying two years later and was German champion “quite often” in the late 1970s. In 1984, he became European champion and turned professional. He currently holds 14 out of a possible 21 world records (the late Steve Fossett still holds a handful of the others), the longest being a 15-hour, 3,009km flight in the Andes, which is where he spends his winters. A dentist by training, he has long loved gliding. In 1984 he led his first “guided flight” tours of the southern Alps. “I realised there were a lot of people flying here,” he explained, “but they didn’t know how to fly big routes – for example, from the Mediterranean to Mont Blanc.”

His role as a guide is straightforward: he flies, others follow. In this way he shows pilots how to fly long distances through big mountains at speed. Louis Piller, a retired architect from Switzerland and glider pilot for 34 years, has known Ohlmann for more than 20 years: “I always learn a lot with him. He has such a great depth of experience.”

Ohlmann flies a twin-seater. He takes paying passengers with no experience, not so much for joyrides as for learning experiences. I am here for that. You sit side by side in the cockpit, there is a stick in front of you, and when Ohlmann moves the pedals, your own feet move in tandem. When he touches the stick forward and you accelerate to a steady gliding speed of 170kph you feel the pressure change. When you fly up the side of a cumulus cloud at 3,500m he helps with the oxygen, saying kindly, “You’re not acclimatised. This will make you feel better.” If you are sick, he passes you a plastic bag. And when you’re feeling better and struggling for every inch of height below dark cliffs deep in the heart of the glaciated Ecrins massif, four hours into your flight, he smiles and takes your photograph.

My day had started at 10am in the briefing room. There were 16 people, three were women, most were German or Swiss. The average age was about 45. On a screen, Ohlmann led us through a dozen meteorological websites to build up a forecast for the day. “I am always positive!” he grinned, as he predicted 4,000m cloudbase around Mont Blanc. Outside in the sunshine, gliders were lined up like expensive Matchbox toys. Top-of-the-range models can cost up to £300,000.

By noon, we were in the hangar and I was being shown my emergency parachute by instructor Robin Dautremer, who explained that Ohlmann’s glider is motorised. It has a small retractable propeller, which is used to take off, and means it can, if necessary, be flown like a normal plane for up to three hours. It’s handy if, like Ohlmann has done, you glide down the Andes, cross the Magellan Straits, land in Tierra del Fuego and want to get back to the top of Argentina the next day.

I imagined we would motor to several thousand feet but, instead, we connected with a scrappy thermal just above the aerodrome, the motor was switched off and we started the gliding proper. First, with the ground spinning below our right wing tip, we turned in tight 360s to get higher and into the better part of the thermal. Then we glided to a hillside to soar in rising air before we found a good thermal, and climbed at 200m a minute to the base of the clouds. There, Piller joined us and we set off, flying in single file 50m apart.

In five hours, we covered 600km and a good chunk of the western Alps, flying first to Grenoble, then Chambéry. We turned back before Mont Blanc because of storms, and flew south into the Ecrins, some of the wildest terrain in the Alps.

We got low here, in the big mountains, and struggled to find lift, turning sharply, jolting the glider around, above rock spires and glaciated gullies, before we connected with a thump with a thermal rocket that took us soaring over the ski resort of Les Deux Alpes and – at last – on to the smooth summit cliffs of La Meije, a 3,983m mountain.

Leaving the high mountains, we headed further south, and toured a chunk of Provence before making for home. Even then it wasn’t over. We caught a “wave” of smoothly rising air just above Serres. It was a surprise even to this expert wave pilot. A founder of the international Mountain Wave Project, Ohlmann brings scientists and military personnel alike to collaborate on incredible high-altitude schemes, such as soaring the Tibetan side of Everest or, his next big plan, a carbon-free flight around the world. “The thing with gliding is you never, ever stop learning,” he said, before touching the stick and diving like a swallow through the air. The glider behind us fell away and, for a second, we were weightless above the earth. Klaus grinned and dropped a wing tip. We spiralled in.

See also

gliders