After my first opportunity to visit a number of UK gliding clubs in May, I was headed back to the UK area in August for a continuation of my spring work, but now in Northern Ireland. My work was taking me to an area just west of Belfast, for continued testing of the X-32 ejection seat system. When I had previously flown with ex-BESC member Peter Jones west of London, Peter had mentioned a club in the Northern Ireland area that he said would be good to visit. Peter stated that the Ulster Gliding Centre was located in the far northern part of Ireland, near the town of Bellarena. The town name alone was interesting, so I researched the area and the Ulster Gilding Centre, and when I arrived in country, I called and made arrangements to visit if I had some time at the end of my work week.
Although it was the first week of August, I quickly learned how the Emerald Isle retained its glorious green color - it rained every day (it reminded me of the recent Seattle summer). However, on the Friday of our scheduled ejection testing, the weather cleared, the sun came out, and we had a perfect test of our system. Since we were quite far north, the sun position in the late afternoon gave me plenty of time to head from just west of Belfast into the far northern sections of Northern Ireland. I arrived about 5:00 PM at the Magilligan peninsula and the small town of Bellarena (also spelled Ballarena on some maps). All throughout Ireland were a number of towns starting with 'Bally...' or 'Ball...', plus there were signs, especially in the Republic of Ireland areas, spelled in both English and Irish (sometimes only in Irish in the west, very confusing at times).
As I walked up to the clubhouse, Harry Hanna, the Ulster Gliding Centre chief instructor, greeted me. Harry introduced me to club treasurer Ron Lapsley and Tom McFarland, and quickly ushered me to the 4-seat club towplane, a Robin DR-300, for a sightseeing tour of the area. What followed was a very enjoyable 1.1 hour excursion all around the local area.
The coastal areas and cliffs were very impressive. The gliding club, at times, uses the beach area on the north part of the Magilligan Peninsula for landings. Harry let me fly the Robin down Lough Foyle, then over Londonderry (or Derry, as it's called in the Republic) and west into the County Donegal. As we flew into the Irish Republic to the west, we circled down low over a stone circle called the Grianan of Aileach just west of Derry. Its origins date back to the time of myth and legend when it was said to be built by the Dagda, an ancient King in 1700 B.C. The circular ramparts date back as far as 5000 years ago. It later became the Royal Residence of the Ui Neills, Overlords of Ulster and High Kings of Ireland, circa 5th Century A.D. I then flew north over Lough Swilly, past a number of towering modern windmills, then up to the farthest north tip of land in Ireland, Malin Head. I then flew back across the Inishowen Peninsula and back to the Bellarena field, where Harry made a picture perfect landing.
Since the sun was now getting lower in the west, Ron Lapsley and I preflighted the club's immaculate Slingsby Capstan T.49B, BPW. The Capstan is a side-by-side two-seat wooden glider with a huge canopy. The Capstan was Slingsby's last wooden two-place design, and only 34 were built, with only one making it to the U.S. It has an L/D max of 30 at 45 knots. I was eager for a chance to fly this rare wooden design. As is the standard in most BGA (British Gliding Association) clubs that I've flown with, Ron and I both donned parachutes before we entered the cockpit.
Takeoff in the Capstan was flown with full aft stick until liftoff, then normal tow procedures kept me in a high tow position behind the Robin. We towed north from Bellarena, and actually reached our 3000 foot release altitude well over the Irish Sea, with nothing but the Outer Hebrides between us and Iceland. I made the UK standard left turn after release, and although it was August, the cool water and thoughts of Iceland had me heading southward for land! The Capstan's great visibility and smooth control forces had me soon relaxing in the evening sun. This Capstan had a huge airspeed indicator with large ticks at every knot, and it seemed absurdly easy to maintain airspeed to the exact knot I wanted.
Since it was already late in the evening, I didn't expect any lift, but Ron and I did find some zero sink as we cruised along the impressive Binevenagh ridge located to the east of Bellarena. Ron stated that the ridge was quite workable with any westerly (predominant) winds, and provided a comfortable glide back to the field if you fell off the ridge. The area is also known for some impressive mountain wave activity, which was evident while viewing some glorious lenticular clouds as I was driving up from Belfast that afternoon. I headed west toward the airfield environment, and again found some zero sink to try out thermaling turns, at least to get a feel for the Capstan. She flew very honestly, giving a slight rumble as I slowed for an approach to a stall.
Since the winds were out of the east this evening, the downwind and base portions of our landing pattern took us out over Lough Foyle, giving the impression of a carrier landing approach. We passed about 10 feet over a flock of sheep as we made a smooth landing on the long Bellarena grass strip. Ron, Harry and I put the Capstan away for the evening, and Harry then proceeded to take me on a detailed tour of the club hangar, which housed well over 30 assembled gliders of all types. In addition, there appeared to be about the same number of trailered gliders parked outside. As the sun was setting (after 10:00 PM), I finally said goodbye and headed back to my hotel. If you are ever visiting Ireland, be sure to check on the beautiful sights and warm hospitality afforded by the Ulster Gliding Centre at Bellarena, it's worth a special visit.
One final note about the 'other' vehicle I was involved with during my Northern Ireland visit. The X-32 ejection seat sled test article is an impressive machine. And for all those wondering about its poor glide ratio (about 1:1), just remember that it has great acceleration out of thermals (zero to 450 knots in approximately four seconds)!!