Soaring the Ligurian Sea
Back in the 90s, long before gliding flights were shared with pilots worldwide on the Internet, a young boy used to visit his grandparents in a small village in the southern French Alps each summer.
He'd spent the whole day looking at gliders taking off from the nearby airfield. What adventures they must have experienced when they returned from the high mountains late in the evenings again? At the age of 14, he would start taking gliding lessons himself and would never stop soaring the Alps again.
The small village and the French boy have become well-known in the gliding community nowadays. Fayence, as the starting point for big flights in the French Alps. And Baptiste Innocent for his spectacular and very unique long-distance soaring flights.
Flying out of Paris for Air France, he proves every day that it is possible to cross the Atlantic with a Boeing 787 and 60 m of Wingspan. But you don't need to travel with Mach .85 at an altitude 0f 10 kilometers to cross the Ligurian Sea. An ASH 31 Mi, the right weather conditions, and the mindset of an explorer suffice, to make for an extraordinary flight. Back in August of 2021, Baptiste flew a declared triangle from the French Alps to Corsica and Italy.
From that point, the gliding community started wondering what else he was up to. On the 25th of April, Baptiste Innocent achieved the seemingly impossible. A triangle of over 1400 km, from Fayence via Corsica to Sardinia, then crossing to Italy and returning to France. Here are the flights of Baptiste and Thomas Puthod:
Baptiste, we were told you live quite far away from the airfield in Fayence.
Yes, I'm living in Paris. I usually spend some days in a row in Fayence as I have an apartment there, during my off-duty period. And I hope for good weather during this time. Otherwise, I try to come on the eve of the flight to prepare everything. It takes me around 5 hours from door to door.
Tell us about the 25th of April.
After our prospecting flight made with Gil Souviron on the 25th of March and the restart of the engine over Italy, I couldn't wait to try it again, in order to close the loop. I was also seeking a new routing through Corsica, to avoid the detour on the lee side of Cap Corse. We thought that the direct route over Corte Airfield and Ghisonaccia would be quicker.
After only one month another favorable weather window was expected for the days of the 24th and 25th of April. For Monday the wind was expected to blow from 310° but weakly, and mainland Italia is looking very good. Whereas the wind forecast on Tuesday was 300° but strong, and no obvious convergence in Italy with an area of rain.
What is the perfect wind strength for this kind of flight?
Usually, a strength between 70 kph and 90 kph is ideal. It has enough energy to create wonderful wave conditions. Stronger, the wave can become flat - I mean that the bounce is not higher with a higher wind force. Furthermore, the progress with a headwind is really tough with a stronger wind.
So which day did you choose?
I didn't know what to do. I was afraid the wave wouldn't be great over Corsica and Sardinia on Monday. Let's fly Tuesday then! Thomas called me to tell me that he would also make an attempt on Tuesday, and he would start from Grenoble.
We activated our ATC network with Marseille, Nice, Bastia, Ajaccio, Roma, and Milano. Everyone was happy to welcome us. A big thanks to all of them! Everything is ready then. I didn't fill the wings with water as I don't have antifreeze and the temperature will be -20°C. I'll eventually regret it.
My declared task would be a 1350 km FAI triangle with a first point in Sardinia in the wave we already explored the previous month, a second point in the middle of the Barga Valley in Italy that we've already flown, hoping that it won't be in the rain. And finally a last point in Serres, which would allow me to fly back home using the ridges.
How can other pilots who also want to fly that route prepare?
There's no room for improvisation as you can guess. A good knowledge of wave, in general, is necessary, and a good preparation with ATC well in advance, as they surely will refuse the crossing clearance once over Fayence if they're not aware of the attempt.
How did the flight start?
Take-off 6:05 am, I shut down the engine at 2500m as I didn't feel any strong wave conditions over Fayence. But I was mistaken: The climb was constant with a 2m/s up to FL195 cleared by Marseille. The wind direction was optimal, but there was a slight problem: The strength was 110 kph.
I hoped it would decrease over Corsica and Sardinia. However the crossing over the sea was made very quickly, and I reached the island of Corsica at more than 3000m allowing me to easily try the new route by land, which works perfectly. Without stopping I reached Figari at the southern end of Corsica after having been pushed up to FL195 and before 8:30 am. Incredible!
That should leave enough time to continue further South?
Sardinia called for me. It seemed quite cloudy, but some lenticularis appeared. I was quickly on the wave going to my first turnpoint, which didn't work very well, but I thought that it was too soon to go back to Corsica at that time. So I continued further south-east to explore all the waves around the Eastern shore of the island. All of the climbs were average, although the wind was still very strong. I turned back just North of Tortoli, to be on time for the next part of the flight.
Did you struggle against the wind?
The way northbound was very tough. From wave to wave, 1m/s to 1m/s. I was on the glide for Figari. In the middle of Olbia CTR, ATC gave me free hands. In the meantime, Thomas had joined me in Sardinia and turned back to the North considering the hard time I was having.
The transition worked well, the Foehn gap over Figari appeared clearly as I was approaching. Finally, at 2500 m, I was in the wave that would lead me to FL195 on the course to the Eastern shore. Beautiful weather here, a wonderful island.
Next the final jump to Italy?
Heading Cap Corse, I had a good climb again which set me up for the crossing towards Pisa. Conditions there looked rather bad: A big snowy and rainy front was developing west of Bologna.
The satellite picture I had managed to download showed that unfortunately, the waypoint was in the rain. But also that the first chain of ridges North of Pisa and west of Massa was sunny. I had never flown there before, why not try this new exploration?
What happened to Thomas?
He was joining me as we reached the shore. He had done better than me for the crossing. We would then be together to fly back to the Alps. Nice! We flew Northbound, still above the clouds, until reaching La Spezia and the marble hills of Carrara. We eventually descended below the cloud base, at 1300m, but the North looked great along the ridges that seemed to work with the sea breeze.
It worked really well, and after 80 km we were able to see high convective clouds and finally the convergence! Good climbs, 3000m, then 3400m a few km more to the east.
So everything worked out perfectly?
We were happy. We decided to follow all the convergence lines going to the west of Genoa despite the strong headwind. What we could see far ahead gave us three possibilities: Torino and Susa as in May 2021, Cuneo and Mount Viso as in August 2021, or more to the South towards Albenga and Arche Pass, a new route for me.
Which option did you pick?
The three options have more or less the same mileage, but I preferred to stay over the mountains and the western slopes on the North of the Mercantour area, considering the late afternoon. So we picked the southernmost route.
This option was the good one, the few clouds here gave us 3000 m and the western slopes worked well. We reached 3400m before the Pass, and once on the good side of the Alps, it was Mount Siguret that offered the best option with 3500m and later 4500m in the wave. We could then glide directly to the Pic de Bure, where the wave began at 3000m and lead me to 4500m again. A quick calculation of the remaining time and potential distance allowed me to extend to the west in order to reach 1400km in FAI triangle. Thomas headed back to Grenoble, he also closed a beautiful triangle and did a nice flight.
I was gliding back up to the mountain of Glandasse and began flying downwind at 3000m towards the Lure mountain. The atmosphere was quiet, the light wonderful, the wave worked over every valley, and at the end the wave over Jabron Valley followed by Mallefougasse allowed me to climb enough for a relaxed arrival to the departure point before night time after 14h30 of flight, 1408 km in FAI triangle (new European record), and 2 low batteries that I'm going to change quickly!
A great thanks to all ATC involved for their great help, to Gil for everything he's brought to those prospects that are far from being over to Thomas for the team flight during the tough part, to the club of Fayence for their unlimited support, and to all of you who encouraged and congratulated me.
Let's start dreaming a little bit. What other routes are possible on the right day?
I think that I explored all the possible ways for the big triangle. I need now a combination of the best ones for each day, which will give the largest triangle possible. Other than that, you need a lot of Luck.
Seriously, the perfect day would be a day with the right wind direction, right strength, right convergence over Italy, wave back in the Alps, and a little more than 15h of flight time. Why not dream about 1600km or more?
You have done these kinds of flights in the early season and in August. Did you track the conditions in mid-June, when nearly 16 hours of flight time are possible?
Last year was a little special with only one good wave day on June 9th. With a wind blowing from 330° unwell for Corsica, too. In 2021 we did our first flight on the 25th of May. I think that some good days can occur in June and July, with 16h of flight possible. But not as often as in springtime when the high-pressure system is not still in place over Europe.
How have Klaus Ohlmann's flights to Corsica, Italy, and Greece influenced you?
Klaus has a real soul of an explorer. He was indeed the first in recent years to cross to Corsica and then to Italy. The day he went to Greece was exactly 7 days before our first attempt with Gil. So the idea of the triangle was already anchored in my head. His performance gave me confirmation that both crossings were feasible with a glider.
What inspires me a lot from his flights is the wave he flew over mainland Italy. It gives me an idea of a big out-and-return flight.
Baptiste, thanks a lot. We hope to have you back soon when another gliding dream comes true.