Sutton Bank report 2023

PNGC exped to Sutton Bank, October 2023

Floating above North Yorkshire under a dazzling blue sky, it was obvious that the PNGC exped had ventured to a foreign land. Under the experienced leadership of a native, Adrian ‘Nobby’ Noble, a small team of six had travelled oop north to try summat different.

Sutton Bank, home of the Yorkshire Gliding Club since 1934, is renowned for ridge soaring and opportunities for wave flying, and has been a successful club expedition destination for several years. This exceptionally welcoming, friendly club is well used to autumnal migrations of Southern Softies (PNGC’s parachutes even boast of it). But with us this year came a swathe of high pressure and cool, bright sunshine.

Nobby, Elaine Bunting, Chris Hensman, Michael Monson, Enrico Steffinlongo and Barney Wainwright headed there from Middle Wallop on Saturday 14th October. Nobby towed the K21 LPV and Enrico the Astir, 480. Barney’s DG300, FDW, which he shares with Nobby, was already on site following an earlier visit.

The group arrived to find that the clear skies belied a moderate to fresh north-westerly and turbulent conditions at Sutton Bank. The wind strengthened through the day and the windsock on the top of clubhouse cavorted around its pole. Plans to fly that afternoon had to be scrubbed.

Instead, we decided to visit nearby Rievaulx Abbey, a 12th Century Cistercian monastery dissolved in 1538 and stripped of all its treasures, right down to the lead in the roof. We had an interesting walk among the ruins, then up the hill to Rievaulx Terrace, a landscape garden flanked by two 18th Century temples. From this high vantage point, the scale of the moors and valley can clearly be seen.

Afterwards we returned to our comfortable accommodation at the Yorkshire Gliding Club and dinner: Nobby’s chilli and rice, with garlic bread, followed by Elaine’s apple crumble, plus cheese and biscuits.

To Bagby and beyond

On Sunday 15th, the winds had eased off to become light to moderate. The three gliders were rigged, checked and made ready. After the daily club briefing, the launch point was set up on the short runway 24 adjacent to the clubhouse.

Clear skies and still air in the morning made ideal conditions for site check flights for Chris and Michael, the start of aerotow training for Elaine, and a first flight by Barney in FDW. Unfortunately, Enrico reported feeling ill and was unable to fly.

Taking off from Sutton Bank is quite an experience. As you get airborne, the steep-sided edge of Sutton Bank plunges away below. The famous White Horse of Kilburn is visible on the hillside beneath, and the land continues to descend a further 750ft into the valley. It’s an amazing sight.

From above, there is a wonderful view of the ridge winding around to form the main bowl, which cups Lake Gormire, before turning northwards to High Paradise Farm. To the west lies the town of Thirsk, epicentre of the James Herriot tales. Northwards is Middlesbrough and, to the east and across the moors, Scarborough and Whitby.

Points of note for the site briefing, aside from key points of the day’s right hand circuit, were landmarks along the ridge, RAF Topcliffe and the runway of the self-styled ‘Bagby International Airport’. This tiny airstrip two miles away is well placed for an outlanding if one were to run out of height for a return to Sutton Bank.

As the late morning progressed, there was some thermal activity and cumulus began to form. Barney, Michael and Chris with Nobby all soared locally, and Elaine began her aerotow training. Barney had one of the best flights of the day, logging 1 hour 30 minutes, while Michael had 1 hour 3 minutes and Chris managed some good soaring over Lake Gormire.

At the end of a full day, the PNGC team drove into Thirsk to Bianco restaurant where we had an excellent meal and were able to unleash Enrico to test the authenticity of our Italian waiter.

A little light soaring

On Monday, the day was still and calm, with high, thin cloud cover. Eventually some zephyrs filled in from the south-south-east and there was a busy queue for aerotows off the club’s long runway 20.

On a day when no one found lift of any note, the PNGC crew scored the longest flights of the day. Barney had a flight of 27 minutes, and another of 24 minutes. Chris with Nobby did some light soaring too, while Elaine and Nobby later explored some faint remnants of a wave bar in the same area. Sadly, Enrico was still feeling too unwell to fly.

Elaine completed aerotow training by returning from a wave-off by the tug at 300ft, and followed with a solo in the K21. Then the YGC’s DG500 was taken out of the hangar and the pair took a tow to 4,000ft to complete Elaine’s spin training. Despite Nobby offering a group from YGC the same golden opportunity, there were no takers. 

After a busy and interesting day of flying, the PNGC group went back into Thirsk to a Wetherspoons pub, The Three Tuns. The food would flatteringly be described as unmemorable, though Enrico did best with his ‘gourmet steak dinner’, a la-di-da affair with peas and three onion rings.

Tuesday was all change. As the high pressure moved away north-eastwards, the forecasters agreed it would soon be followed by Storm Babet. There would be strong winds and large accumulations of rainfall lasting until the weekend.

During the morning, the light to moderate east-south-easterly began to increase. Low, broken rags of cloud scudded overhead. The launch point was set up on runway 20, which gave a 90° crosswind with, at times, a smidgen of tailwind. It was going to be very good practice for take-offs and landings.

As the wind strengthened during the day, it also formed some tantalising streets with weak thermals. Barney again managed the soaraway flights of the day: 33 minutes in the morning; and 40 minutes in the mid-afternoon.

Towards the end of the afternoon, Nobby and Elaine set off on a final aerotow out over the White Horse. At just about 100ft QFE, the Pawnee was jolted upwards by a sudden, sharp gust. Seconds later LPV followed suit, causing an inadvertent cable release. Nobby immediately took control of the situation and turned right to assess whether to descend to the valley below or return back to the airfield.

Some lift helped take LPV to a giddy 150ft and Nobby guided it back on to runway 06, finally turning to float up the long runway towards the launch point and some very surprised YGC members. It was easily the shortest flight of the day – in fact, of the whole week. It was also, by Nobby’s own admission, the nearest he has ever come to visiting Bagby.

A further uneventful flight saw Elaine with Nobby mooching around the edges of a line of cloud to extend to a whopping 25 minutes in the air. And with this last flight of the day, the PNGC exped came to an end. Wednesday’s forecast continued to deteriorate. With strong and turbulent winds and rain in the offing, it was decided to de-rig the aircraft and put them back in their trailers to tow home in the morning. 

The crew had a final night out in Thirsk and a terrific curry at the Grand India, a known favourite of Nobby’s. Every Tuesday evening they have a ‘Banquet Special’, with 3 courses for £10.95.

The next morning we drove south and delivered the gliders back safely to Middle Wallop.

The weather at Sutton Bank in October did not oblige with ridge soaring or the wave conditions that lure pilgrims from the south. However, we did have some hugely enjoyable flying, much of it in beautiful late autumn sun and crystal visibility. And if we did not exactly soar sky high, we were privileged to float over one of the country’s most beautiful landscapes.

A very big thank you is due to Nobby for leading the expedition, for his meticulous preparations and planning, and doing his utmost to ensure everyone got all the flying they could hope for.

Thanks also to our hosts at the Yorkshire Gliding Club, where we had such a warm welcome. They do have the most excellent facilities and location perched up there on the roof of Yorkshire. Whenever you get the chance to visit, be sure to go!