James Cooper will never forget the day he got his wings.
“There’s a photo my wife took, and I’m riding toward her on a bike with a huge smile stretching across my entire face after one of my first flights.”
That was in 1980, when the Perth resident travelled to the Gulf of Carpentaria to witness the world-renowned Morning Glory phenomenon.
The annual cloud spectacular is the only regular occurrence of its kind in the world.
Each year, epic barrels of cloud, some stretching thousands of kilometres, roll across the Gulf of Carpentaria from September to November.
The clouds are formed through the interaction of sea breezes on both sides of the Cape York Peninsula.
The Morning Glory clouds also hold cultural significance for the region’s First Nations groups.
The Gangalidda Garawa traditional owners believe the spirits of their ancestors travel on the clouds to watch over their people.
For decades, travellers from across the country have made the pilgrimage to the Gulf community of Burketown, known as the mecca of the Morning Glory.
“It forms much like a wave in the sea,” Mr Cooper said.
“And like a surfer rides a wave coming into the shore, glider pilots can launch into this wave of cloud and fly up and down to take in the view.”
After 40 years of flying, a retiring Mr Cooper couldn’t think of a better way to hang up his wings than with one final surf of the epic phenomenon.
“I’ve been flying since 1980; I’ve broken records and won competitions and generally enjoyed myself, but I’ve had enough, and it is time to move on,” he said of his last flight performed this month.
As Mr Cooper looks to a future with his feet firmly on the ground, he said many more gliders would be taking his place among the clouds.
“I used to drive the 4,000 kilometres from Perth to Burketown and meet up with other gliders to see it [the Morning Glory].
“I know people who have been travelling to Burketown for 18 years just to see it.
“And the amazing thing is that every Morning Glory cloud is different.
“It’s a special place if you’re a glider.”