It was from Sarangkot, on his Nepali language course as a Second Lieutenant that Major Nick Lloyd (Chief of Staff HQ Brigade of Gurkhas) first experienced free flight, strapped to the front of a local Nepali pilot. Just after touching down on the shore of Fewa Tal, he remembers turning around to see an 82-year-old pilot landing, who was known to fly every day. It is not the crazy activity that some people often assume it is. From that experience, floating up to the clouds with the Himalayan vultures it seemed the perfect way to explore Nepal.
A few years later (!) in 2023, Major Lloyd is Army Champion, the Army Team Captain, and the UK Armed Forces Runner up, from the recent Inter Services Championships, itself held within an international competition of 130 pilots. The 6 days of racing took place near Tolmin, in the Soca Valley, Slovenia, a beautiful location on the edge of the Julian Alps. Cross country competitions involve a timed race around a series of GPS coordinates usually high over valleys and deep into the mountains, and depending upon the weather conditions, can be up to, or over 100 kms in length. It is a highly intense experience as pilots must concurrently fly their aircraft, avoid collisions, read the weather conditions, navigate a course, make tactical decisions on route options, and try to balance the requirement for maintaining height (to get around the course) against the need to fly fast (to win). By coring thermals (turning tightly in lifting columns of rising warm air) pilots can top up their height, rising up to the level of the clouds, often at rates of up to 4-8 metres per second, however time wasted going up too much puts you behind the lead pilots who are always pushing forward.
It can be likened to a mixture of a game of chess and a 3-dimensional sailing regatta, where your boat is always sinking! Nerves are on edge, adrenaline is pumping, the brain in overdrive, and the views simply breath taking. But it is also remarkably safe. There are far fewer accidents than sports such as skiing, mountain biking or horse riding because the safety is governed almost entirely by the weather conditions that you decide to fly in – which is all taught in the training. Whilst less common a sport in the UK, in the Alps everyone learns to fly from a young age, and it is growing here too due to its accessibility of requiring only a 10 kg backpack. The satisfaction of defying gravity whilst sharing a thermal with a Golden Eagle, or a flock of vultures as you rise up the front of a cliff, passing the hikers and climbers, and continue up past the summit to the clouds, is hard to describe.
If you are interested in learning to fly, courses are run at the Joint Services Mountain Training Centre (JSMTC) in Bavaria , on the edge of the Alps in Southern Germany. As with all Adventure Training, it is free to attend, you just need permission from the Chain of Command and to apply. Courses can be booked through the Defence Gateway or JSAT Course Booking Guidance | Defence Connect (mod.uk). Once you have completed the Elementary Pilot Course (EPC), and the Club Pilot Course (CPC), you are qualified to fly solo, and can join the Army Hang Gliding and Para Gliding Association (AHPA) from where equipment can be hired and funding for Adventure Training or Sports trips can be provided.
By Major Nick Lloyd, Chief of Staff, HQ Brigade of Gurkhas