They say ‘you should always have a Plan B’, and perhaps some further plans C, D etc. Gliding requires a more or less constant appraisal of the situation and update of the flight plan. At altitude this may mean choosing which cloud to fly towards, bearing in mind the direction you want to travel, the wind direction, controlled airspace, and sky conditions ahead. Lower down it may involve looking for thermal triggers and potential field landing options.
There are certain points in gliding where there is no Plan B. At altitude you have lots of options, but the lower you get the fewer options remain. On your final approach into our field, undershooting into the trees isn’t really a Plan B, it’s a crash. You have only one Plan left – make it into the field. If you are certain that Plan A is going to work, you probably don’t need a Plan B, and the higher the likelihood of a good outcome from Plan A, the less time you are likely to devote to analysing alternatives.
Some plans are better than others, and you need to evaluate their probability of success. On a good day, at reasonable altitude, you can reject a weak thermal in favour of hoping to find a stronger one further on. Key to this decision is how certain you are to find a better thermal. The decision to press on becomes a little bit braver if you are getting low. If you don’t find the thermal in time, Plan B involves landing in a field. While carrying on with Plan A, you need to evaluate the quality of your Plan B – how good are the clouds or fields beyond here?
I don’t often fly in the blue as life is so much easier flitting from one cloud to another, but last summer I had a flight with Mark Fisher which turned into a trip into the blue. In the absence of clouds to guide us, Plan A was to fly from town to town. Towns usually generate thermals, especially the industrial areas, but it was still a bit hit and miss finding them. We could make use of any thermals we stumbled into en-route, but sadly this didn’t seem to happen very often.
As we approached the Cowley factory at Oxford, it was clear that we would arrive a bit low for comfort. Plan B needed to involve a field, but squinting ahead it appeared factories need electricity cables to feed into them from every direction. Almost all the fields had cables in them, so Plan B was going to be ‘complicated’. Cowley always generates thermals doesn’t it, so Plan A looked like a good one and we Pressed On. Happily the factory yielded a stonking thermal and Plan B was consigned to history. Our belief in the reliability of Plan A meant we worried a bit less about the poor quality of Plan B. A similar decision undoubtedly played a part in Brian and my ditching 2UP at Beachy Head when we were attempting to soar the cliffs.
Having arrived at Birling Gap low, Plan B, a field landing at Friston, was in the frame, but a radio call that the lift was working on the south facing cliffs just a little further on, meant we assigned a high degree of certainty to the old Plan A. We rejected the field landing plan and pressed on. Plan C didn’t get enough attention.