How would you like to “hang ten” half a mile above the ground? A few glider pilots have figured out a way to ride on the clouds moving over the Australian countryside, going 35 miles per hour with no power whatsoever. These clouds are 600 miles wide, and a glider can surf them just like a wave on the ocean. Here’s how to go surfing, half a mile above the ground.
“Morning Glories” are clouds that appear in September and October. They only manifest on a peninsula that starts at a good, thick 350 miles wide and is whittled down to a slim sixty-mile-wide strip of land surrounded by water. Here’s how they form.
The Cape York peninsula juts directly North, and the sea breezes from both sides of it meet in the middle. The two gusts of air meet over Burketown, and the collision causes a wave of tumultuous air that moves southwest. The air is moving through damp sea air, and the water molecules in the air, hit by this rush of pressure, often move up, over the top of the wave. Once they rise high enough they hit the cold of the upper atmosphere and condense, forming a cloud. The wave passes, and they drop, disintegrating into unseen water-vapor again at the tail edge of the Morning Glory. The wave isn’t visible on its own. People just see the water droplets caught by the wave, and how they constantly form at the front and dissolve at the back, showing its forward progress across the sky.
The same thing that lifts the water droplets lifts air — and the air lifts gliders. Glider enthusiasts come from all over the world to ‘surf’ the Morning Glories. The pilots use motors to climb to cloud level in their planes — and then they get in front of these massive waves of high-pressure air, shot across the sky in seven-hundred-mile stretches.
The waves are about 1,000 feet off the ground, and form structures over 1,000 feet high. Although in the clouds things are chaotic, the air above and around it is said to be, “as smooth as glass,” providing both an easy ride and a powerful push. The the turbulent air in the cloud charging through the atmosphere, shoving everything aside, provides power that can lift gliders up to 8,000 feet. A skilled pilot can then drop, surfing across the front of the wave, do loops, or ride on the ‘wingtip’ of the cloud for hundreds of miles. Gliders achieve record speeds and gliding distances on these.
Unlike motored power, though, clouds can just disappear. When that wave of high-pressure air dissipates, shredded to nothing by atmospheric conditions, all the air it was pushing up falls. With a structure pushing it up, the air moves in an orderly way, but when it falls, it can fall in a haphazard, turbulent way that means the glider is going to get tossed around like a toy plane on its way towards the ground. Surfing miles up in the air is not without its hazards.