There is a longstanding tradition of gliding in this part of the world. Something partially thanks to state-sponsored aeroclubs, as technical culture was cherished and supported in socialist times. Many, who otherwise would not be able to afford to pay for flight training, got it for free. Flying is therefore still deeply rooted as one of the cornerstones of the technical culture (unfortunately deteriorating fast).
Fun fact – the first few generations of air traffic controllers were almost all more or less connected to aviation in one way or another, many also glider and sports pilots. Air traffic control is sometimes perceived as a restrictive service, as non-enablers, pushing weekend flyers away from controlled airspace and wanting to do as little as possible with them. It couldn’t be further from the truth. There are individuals of course, who will break the rule (on both sides of a microphone), but they certainly don’t represent the majority. Being a pilot as well, I always strive to enable people to enjoy flying and to help them, not to prevent them from accumulating knowledge and experience in flying in controlled airspace….
A few years ago, the strong, steady northern wind was prevailing for a whole week, meaning, that on the leeward side of the Karavanke mountain range, conditions for so-called “waves” could form. The steadiness and mountain range are pre-requisite for waves to form, as in lower altitude so-called rotors form by airdropping down the slopes and air at higher altitudes flowing over them as over ridges and additional layers are added on top of each other. At a certain point, turbulent air currents smooth out, and the air just slowly, but constantly rises higher and higher. This is a honey pot for our friend’s glider pilots, who are seeking any opportunity for high-altitude soaring. One just glides all over the place on smooth, rising ridges of air. Pure joy! The problem is that this usually happens just over very busy arrival routes for Ljubljana airport and well in the controlled airspace.
It was Saturday afternoon, meaning that the flock of high-altitude-aspiring glider pilots would probably be large. As I thought, we started noticing them over Slovenj Gradec airfield, one, two, three…..six of them, already climbing to the edge of uncontrolled airspace. FIS sector is just in front of the approach sector, so we could hear them praising excellent conditions for wave gliding, asking, if … by any chance … can you please ask approach if we could…Both of us at the approach sector looked at each other, knowing what is coming, and my colleague asked me: “Shall we let them?”What kind of question is that? “Of course!”, I answered. One by one they contacted us. I asked if any one of them is transponder equipped, so we could track them on radar and separate them from the IFR traffic. It turned out one glider was equipped, so I told them: “Here is the deal. We will of course not take the pleasure of wave soaring from you, but please mind, there is quite a lot of IFR traffic coming near you soon. I need all of you to fly as tightly as possible near that guy with a transponder. We will create a protective buffer zone around you and divert all IFR traffic away from the cluster.” For the next couple of hours, we vectored all IFR traffic around them, with the unique phrase “vectoring around wave gliding group” and not a single pilot protested for flying some extra miles, as they knew it was for good cause.
This story repeated itself a few years later with gliders starting from Postojna (funny enough, I know the pilot – Matija Kodrič who was trying to catch this elusive beast of waves). Postojna later hosted many more successful hunts for waves. https://old.opensoaring.com/…/Doz…/dozivetja_valovi.html
A few weeks ago, winds were favorable for waves soaring again. So again, there is this guy…” can we?” Waves….no flight plan…At least he had a decent radio station and mode s transponder, which is the absolute minimum these days. So up he goes… One must be aware, that catching the wave is a mix between delicate and precise flying, some luck, and fighting through the turbulent layers. By turbulent, It sometimes means very violent. And it is not straightforward – as stepping into the elevator and that’s it. This natural elevator goes up and down, there is no guarantee that once in an upward motion, it will stay that way. But this guy was persistent, after a few attempts, he got the perfect spot and started climbing and climbing…When I was relieved from duty after two hours, he was peacefully enjoying at FL260, which is 26.000 feet or almost 8 km above sea level! VFR flights above FL195 are principally not allowed, but as mountain waves occur ever so rarely, nobody at ATC is making any fuzz about it.
There are numerous other occasions, where pilots ask us for non-standard procedures or clearance, usually weather-related. Sometimes it is not avoiding bad weather they ask, but permission to operate aircraft in a way, so they can enjoy natural phenomena. There was once an IFR flight from Portorož back to the small airport in Austria with Piper Pa-34 Seneca. We knew the guy well, as he was regularly flying to the coast for the weekends. It was a lazy evening, they were on the return leg, flying in NE direction. Clouds were covering almost the whole of the country with tops at a relatively low level. Sun was at their back. The pilot called in and asked if he can get something unusual – if he can maintain a non-standard level (IFR flights are conducted by maintaining exact altitude or Flight Level), as they were skimming the tops of the clouds and would like to play around. I was green with envy, can you imagine how beautiful that must have been? Sun at the back, flying above puffy essence, gorged in orange, red, and yellow splashes of color and silver cloud linings in the distance? Pure heaven. I approved, of course, I even blocked a few levels above and below, so they can play with the clouds, up and down, left and right.
Being a bit of a humourist, I checked their flight plan, and sure enough, there was a phone number of the pilot in command. I later sent him a text message, asking if he can share some photos from that trip, to which he gladly obliged.
But believe me, the sight must have been gorgeous on that flight. I’m more than glad to enable other people to enjoy their flights.