When I ask students what drew them to the sport of paragliding, the most popular answer by a considerable margin is “I want to hike and fly”
It is without a doubt the most pure form of the sport. Your two feet, a paraglider, a harness, and a mountain - nothing more. There are no distractions from just how remarkable our sport is when it’s stripped back to its bare bones. Cars, winches, helicopters, and cable cars all take away a vast chunk of the satisfaction of flying. “hike to the top of the tallest mountain you can, take off and fly to areas no one has ever been” This is the nirvana of flying and an idea that draws a considerable percentage of the flying population to the sport. Why, then, do so many pilots never tackle the prime reason they entered the paragliding world in the first place?
This 4 part series aims to help newer pilots unravel the complexities of stepping away from groomed launches and the safety net of club officers and start venturing into the back country, where the real fun begins.
When we sacrifice the comforts of modern infrastructure (roads, launch sites, retrieve drives) we also sacrifice our safety net. You’re going to be leaving the safety officers and club rules behind and rely on your own ability. As a result we need to sharpen a few skills that we can get away with overlooking on everyday flying sites.
Launching is without a doubt, the most undervalued skill in paragliding. Most accidents happen on launch, and almost all of them are the result of pilot error. Perhaps the most dangerous factor is not pilot ability, but a pilots perceived ability. The positive reinforcement of getting off the ground tells us that we’re launching at an acceptable level, and the only way we’re going to believe otherwise is if we have an accident.
Launching is the cornerstone of any good pilot’s ability. Can’t launch - can’t fly. Spend as many days at a local training hill as you can. On a single day at a training hill you might inflate and launch and land 50 times. That’s as many launches as your average weekend warrior completes in a year. Launching and landing confidence really is key in the hike and fly world. The greater your ability here, the more launch options open up to you and the more landing options you have for those epic days. Work on your reverse inflations until they’re second nature. You need to be be able to control pitch and direction throughout the entire process.
The key to a good, smooth launch is footwork. Too many pilots rely on inputs with their hands alone to control the wing while we’re still on the ground. In strong winds footwork is mandatory, but it’s still incredibly important in lighter conditions. Sit on launch on a strong day and watch pilots anchor their heels into the ground and attempt to overpower the wing. The added tension on the lines causes the wing to inflate violently and (if it comes up symmetrically) overshoot often resulting in spectacular frontal collapses. Running towards the wing on launch reduces the relative airflow making the wing far more controllable. Ever sat on launch on a strong day and wondered how some pilots make the process look effortless and calm while others are rushed off the ground? - watch their feet.
EXERCISE: HANDS FREE INFLATION
What you'll need:
- large flat training field
- wing + harness
- light to moderate wind
This exercise will train you to:
Open the wing symmetrically from a rosette without any input from your hands
Inflate the wing smoothly
Control the roll of the paraglider without relying on brake inputs
Accelerate in time with the wing to control the pitch during launch
While on the ground a paragliders natural pendulum stability has no effect.
In the air, roll movements naturally stabilise as the pilots weight swings underneath the wing. On the ground however the effect is reversed, a wing sitting off centre of the pilot will continue to move away from the centre point of balance (think of a broomstick balanced on your hand) unless the pilot moves underneath the wing. A common mistake made by new pilots is to make these corrections too late or to rely entirely on hand movements to recenter the wing. The later the correction (moving under the wing) is made, the larger it needs to be. Learning to make these corrections early takes practice but will greatly improve your understanding of a paragliders dynamics. There is no fast way of learning to effectively grand handle, it takes time and countless inflations on a training hill.
Remember that a day of flying will typically see you launch once or twice. Time invested in a day at a training hill will show a far greater improvement in your flying ability.
Stepping under the wing:
Allow the wing to pull you towards it, resisting it will cause the wing to accelerate and overshoot. Stepping towards the wing reduces the loading making it more controllable. It's common to see pilots attempt to subdue the wing using the brakes while still on the ground. The added brake input increases drag and lift, too often resulting in the pilot being pulled off the ground early, swinging under the glider and being dumped onto their back followed by a spectacular frontal collapse. Rear riser control allows for far better control of the wings power (than brakes alone) as the deformation pulling in the rear risers causes drastically reduces the lift generated by the wing. Running towards the wing however reduces the tension on the lines slowing the progress of the wing and making it far more manageable.
Once the wing is overhead:
Step towards the lower wingtip if the wing starts to roll. Making these movements early reduces the need for large movements.
On flat ground it may be possible to keep the wing overhead for extended periods, however of a slope, the lift generated by the wing will typically cause it to continue to accelerate once overhead and so may only be kept overhead for long enough to stabilise and turn around.
Only turn around into the wind once the wing is stable overhead, turning around early greatly reduces pitch control and typically results in pilots accelerating away from their wing resulting in it either stalling and falling to the ground behind them, or overshooting once the pilot leaves the ground, often resulting in large collapses infront of launch.
If you're hiking to an new launch site, chances are you'll be landing in a new one too. Your landings don't have to be pinpoint accurate, they do have to be safe! You've likely already seen pilots so determined to touch down on the landing marker that they forgo all sensible landing technique, resorting to deep brake inputs, 'flapping' and usually relying on the integrity of their airbag.
Site your landing before starting the hike. Google Earth is a great resource to start scoping out potential sites but it has a few crucial shortcomings for paraglider pilots.
Powerlines aren't visible
Orchards or densely packed trees often appear to be grassy fields on a screen
Rocky valley floors are rendered as flat
Gradients are often inaccurate, especially where there is a change in terrain
Your landing starts well above the ground. It's a constant process of sighting, evaluating and re-sighting launches throughout the entirety of the flight.
When siting a new landing, keep in mind a few key points to get you back on the ground safely:
You won't be able to see individual powerlines from afar. Instead, look for powerpoles and assume each power pole is connected to create a visual worst case scenario for all possible lines.
Never plan to land in a narrow gap between a house and the road as there is likely a powerline joining the two.
Never plan to land on a narrow bank of a flowing river. Get blown off course and you've got a one way ticket down-river behind a paraglider shaped sea anchor.
Don't trust your initial impression of the ground surface. Harsh rocky landscapes look smooth from the air (and Google Earth) and neat orchards or dense vegetation appear as grassy or ploughed fields from the air.
If hiking long distances with your paraglider is new to you, take the time to get used to your pack, find out how packing it differently affects its balance and stability. Keep the heaviest parts of your kit as close to your back as possible. Do yourself a favour and replace the pack that came with your glider with something more suited to hiking than throwing into the boot of a car, this will save you around a kilogram of extra weight as an added bonus to the increased comfort. Once you're comfortable with how the pack feels, start training. Short training hikes will work wonders for the overall enjoyment of longer, more demanding hikes. Get accustomed to hiking poles, they'll improve your overall hiking speed, reduce fatigue and decrease the risk of rolled ankles. More on equipment in part 2...