The build up to the world champs was certainly drawn out! We had arrived in the UK a month before the competition to get some practise flights and take a little trip to Germany for some training. However the weather gods were not in our favour and June seemed to be breaking all sorts of records for ‘worst summer ever’ in the UK and elsewhere. After a frustrating month, with only 3 flights, we were well and truly ready to hit the road to Birstonas, positive that the weather must surely be better the further east we flew.
Birstonas is a lovely green spa town, known for its healing mineral waters. It has a population of around 3000 people and is situated in a crook of the Nemunas River, just over an hour west of the capital, Vilnius, or 2000km drive from England. We arrived early to allow ourselves three practise days of flying and to get settled in. On Saturday we enjoyed two great practise flights, with clear skies and nice steerable winds. As seems to be a bit of a trend for me, this turned out to be the best day for flying we would have all week! Over the next few days balloon vans and trailers began to arrive and unlike 2 years ago where I didn't really know anyone, this year it was nice to see so many familiar faces and catch up with people again.
Tuesday came around quickly and it was off to the opening ceremony (complete with formation jet fly by and a surprise FAI flag raising by yours truly). Then it was on to the general briefing and the first flight briefing, scheduled for 7pm. With such long daylight hours we almost had to reverse our sleeping patterns, with night-time sleep being a ‘nap’ before waking at 3.30am for a 4.30am briefing, and trying to get a longer sleep in during the daytime.
The evening looked good and we were given 3 tasks: A PDG star, JDG and WSD. There was a short wait at the CLP for the winds to drop and then we were up and into it. I was surprised at how quickly everyone got up and away. As soon as we took off it was pretty clear that the left turn down low that was forecasted to get more predominant as the evening progressed was not going to happen and in fact the little left that was there was not very consistent. It was a matter of finding the altitude with the best direction, which turned out to be at around 3000ft, and maintaining it for the flight. I managed to find a bit more left than most and finished the first evening in second place. We were refuelled, debriefed, fed and in bed just before midnight, alarms set at 3.30am ready for flight briefing #2!!
Flight #2 saw two more tasks on the table before some funky weather was to arrive later in the morning. Launching from the CLP we flew north to a HWZ with all 3 targets set at the airfield, and then a WSD. There was speed and some nice steerage for both tasks. I was really happy with my line into the HWZ, but just didn't get the winds that Matt was reading on the surface (unlike the balloon on the outside of me when I dropped down, who managed to score better!). On to the WSD and my best result yet at a competition, 73cm (still room for improvement!). This flight saw me hit the lead with around a 500-point margin.
Then it rained. All day. That evening’s flight was cancelled as was Thursday morning’s flight, and although we went to the launch site on Thursday evening, it was far too windy to fly and there were some big bands of rain moving across the countryside to the north. So frustrating and disappointing to start a competition then just sit around as the flying slots tick on by.
Friday morning we arrived at briefing to find 5 tasks on the table. We drove to a CLP to the west and arrived to fairly brisk conditions. It was obvious that there was a little tension in the air amongst the officials. It was a difficult go/no-go call. I’m glad they called it on as it ended up being a very fast but great flight, with all tasks achievable. We took off and had a PDG first up. While my placement of the goal was good, when you’re travelling at 60km/hr these things creep up on you pretty quickly and your ability to adjust closer to the target is pretty limited! Still, 47m put me 4th. Then it was on to the HWZ at the main launch site where I just made the scoring area.
After the first 2 tasks of the morning i.e. the first 12mins of flying (!!) I settled into the flight and achieved a 1st, 4th and 2nd in the last 3 tasks. The flight was over in no time and it was then a wait to find out whether I would extend my lead. We were confident it was a good flight but knew there would be mixed results.
That evening a 2-task flight was called, flying in to the airport. A supplementary briefing at the airport cancelled the FIN and eventually the flight was black flagged just before the Hare balloon was to take off. Another cancelled flight on Saturday morning meant there was one flight to go before the end of the competition. The scores from the day before had finally been published and I had a sizeable lead of around 1700 points from the next competitor.
Saturday evenings flight briefing seemed to go for hours all the while more rain was closing in. The pilots were obviously very keen to get another flight in as a good flight could have potentially changed the lower rankings quite dramatically. It was a hard call but in my opinion the event director was a bit mad not have a plan B, and he send us in the direction of the bad weather to fly in to the CLP. If he had made the decision to go earlier and sent us from the CLP we could have had a great 2 or 3-part task before any rain came through (the fiesta pilots flew from the CLP that evening). Regardless, we drove towards the rain to the west to begin a 3-task flight. As soon as I took off I looked behind me and saw a large band of rain only a few miles away. There is no doubt that it was affecting the winds on the surface as the flight progressed. It did seem to be dispersing when, almost half way through the flight all tasks were cancelled. What an anticlimax! But I had just won my 2nd world championship title so it wasn't all bad!
It was such a mixed week of emotions. Winning the first world championships was an amazing moment, but slightly unexpected. I certainly felt more pressure coming into the second world championships. It wasn't so much the pressure to win (although of course that was a small factor), but for me it was more about having the opportunity to fly well. The weather being bad was always a worry for me in such a short competition period; with so few tasks there is no room at all for mistakes. Luckily I flew consistently well. Here are the results for the top 5:
- Nicola Scaife, AUS -8713
- Ann Herdewyn, BEL -6992
- Cheri White, USA -6680
- Ekaterina Larikova RUS -6441
- Agne Simonaviciute LTU -6433
It is an honour to be the 2 x women’s world champion. Having the women’s world championship is such an important thing for women in ballooning. It gives us an opportunity to participate and hone our skills in a high-class event that most would ordinarily not have the opportunity to do. Hopefully by continuing to create an encouraging and supportive environment like this we will see more and more women taking to the skies and flying competitively against the men.
A huge thank you to Matthew, Sanshiro and Sean, my extraordinary balloon crew. To Granny Judy for taking on last minute babysitting duties for Hugo. To my great friend Liz, who flew all the way from Vietnam just to be there with me (also, because she knew I would win, haha!). I could not ask for a more clever and supportive team. Finally, thanks to everyone supporting from afar, your words of encouragement are not to be underestimated. xx
Thanks to Aurelijus Šeštokas for the pic.