“Wave” is an exciting and very particular sort of lift that can appear in the lee of large hills. For this reason, many glider pilots regularly travel to Wales or the highlands of Scotland to experience strong wave effects. However, we often also get wave at Chipping, especially in northerly winds.
An airway passes directly over our airfield at a height of about 6,500 feet, carrying airliners to and from Manchester Airport, but because of the possibility of contacting wave at Chipping, we have negotiated a “wave box” above our site with Air Traffic Control and we can contact the local ATC to open this box when required, potentially allowing us to soar up to a height of 14,000 feet.
Wave is created when strong winds and stable air layers carry across mountains and high hills. They travel up the slope of the hill, and when they reach the top, they curl over and rush down the other side. If conditions are just right however, the winds then bounce back up and set up an oscillating “wave” that travels many miles downwind and can shoot upwards to heights up to 10 times the height of the hills that created them. Often, the existence of the wave is signalled by a very distinctive “wave lenticular” cloud formation, lying at right angles to the wind direction.
If a glider pilot can position himself in the upward draught of these wave oscillations, he will find the air will turn very smooth, with no turbulence and he can be carried many thousands of feet into the air on strong up-draughts. Wave exists in extreme conditions however and flying in it can be tricky. Although a well-positioned glider can find itself quickly borne aloft in silky smooth air, a pilot who strays into the wrong part of the wave system can find himself in extreme turbulence, (a bit like flying in a washing machine), or else in air that is descending at over 1,000 feet a minute!
In 2014, one of the pilots from Chipping flew his own glider from an airfield in the Cairngorms and reached a height of over 26,400 feet using wave lift. Because of this possibility, you will find our private fleet gliders often have oxygen breathing systems installed on board. Unfortunately, what gliders don’t have is cockpit heaters and good wave tends to be a winter phenomenon. When temperatures on the ground are around freezing (and given that air temperature goes down by about 2°C for every 1,000 feet of height gain), flying in good wave can often mean coping with temperatures around -20°C or lower and thermal clothing is definitely required!