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The following is an excerpt from the January/February 2018 Volume 48 Issue 1 of Hang Gliding & Paragliding Magazine
By Calef Letorney
For the last eight seasons I’ve been helping novice pilots fly in the mountains of Vermont. Along the way I have picked up a few concepts that I think most yearlings could benefit from thinking about. While some of these ideas are my own, I largely offer an amalgamation of prior information for the current audience. From attitude adjustments to technical advice, here are a few things I like to share with yearlings:
Play the long game
Let’s agree upfront having a long, fun, safe flying career is all that matters. Nobody cares how long you soar. You can impress your flying buddies by not doing anything scary. The rest of the world thinks we are nut jobs with a death wish; let’s prove them wrong.
Paragliding instructors are invaluable and should not be skimped on for P-0s through P-2s, maneuvers training, and when flying in new and challenging environments… but it’s the yearling’s job to wean off instruction. Nothing helps ease the transition like getting in with an awesome crew. Your flock will help you pick flying days and decide when it’s appropriate to launch. Be a good team member by doing your own forecasting, showing up on time, and always make your own decisions. Feed and hydrate your flock and they may share some secrets. Ask questions. Don’t argue or be defensive when receiving criticism. As long as you are justifying yourself, you’re not learning. Nobody likes playing “rescue the rookie” (especially not the rookie), so be extra conservative when flying with your new friends.
Never lose focus on landing
Landing is literally inevitable. Nobody will look down on you for sinking out, but the opposite holds true if you soar your way into the trees. “Dirting” first is the plight of the yearling; do it with humility and grace. Pay your dues and you’ll get yours, I promise.
Conditions are everything
When it comes to flying bag-wings, fun is largely a function of the weather. Never forget that conditions change dramatically throughout the day, based on solar heating. For much of the USA, you should not fly in the middle of the day until you’re a rock star. In New England, I try to launch P-2s before 11:15 and again after 4:30. Every place and every day are different, so don’t be surprised to see nuclear conditions at 10:00 a.m. in the desert. P-3s can work the margins a bit more, but some of the meanest air can be found on the transition from the morning preheat to midday.
You don’t know what you don’t know
In psychology, the “Dunning- Kruger effect” describes the dual burden presented by a lack of expertise. The first burden is simple: You don’t know what you’re doing, so you’re bound to have huge “areas of improvement.” This is true of nearly every task and especially when emulating avians. The second burden is an insidious one: The lacking expertise is precisely what is required to evaluate performance. This explains why not infrequently I witness a terrifying launch/landing/flight plan/whatever and the pilot later tells me how good they thought it was. If you’re not an expert, you’re not qualified to judge performance. In Slide: The Avalanche Podcast, Doug Krause describes this as the “too stupid to know how stupid you are” phenomenon. He points out “if you have poor grammar, you can’t really recognize that it is poor without an understanding of what correct grammar is. Knowing how good you are requires the same skills as being good.” The best way to combat this dangerous knowledge gap is to seek feedback from experts. Good feedback should be constructive, but it’s got to be critical. Doug explains this comically and eloquently in Slide: The Avalanche Podcast, which is a masters class in our brain’s capacity to make bad decisions and tools to fight back.
Spook early and often
Most bad situations can be avoided if you spot them early enough and choose to avoid. This includes the decision to not launch. Be “quick on the uptake” to changes in conditions and developing situations.
Dial your wing control
If you’re anything like me, your first flights were herky-jerky, aided by erroneously prioritizing other tasks ahead of piloting. We must learn to carve smooth, efficient turns in the sky, obeying what Kelly Farina describes as “the Golden Rule” in his book, Mastering Paragliding, by not needlessly turning our height into speed. Dial in your control in calm air, because turbulent air is more challenging and mistakes have bigger consequences.
You can’t fake “active piloting”
Turbulent air requires active piloting to keep the glider flying smoothly and efficiently. I think of active piloting as two tasks: pressure management and pitch control. Pressure management is all about catching and preventing collapses. You simply maintain a gentle pressure. I prefer the weight of hanging my hands in a ½ wrap. When you passively hang the weight of your arms, your hands will float up and down like shock absorbers. You can prevent collapses by recognizing a sharp decrease in pressure, stabbing your hand down until you feel it again, and letting up equally fast. In general, pressure management is intuitive, but pitch control takes a lot more practice.
I think of pitch control as a four-step cycle.
Recognize what the glider is doing. This is best observed with peripheral vision on the risers and swing set sensation in your harness.
Decide what the glider needs. If the risers go back and you feel yourself getting pushed forward on the swing set, then go hands up.
When the risers dive forward, and you are going back on the swing set, then you need to catch the surge with brakes.
Give the appropriate input. Bigger and faster glider movements will require a bigger and faster response.
Evaluate effectiveness. And repeat.
Run those four steps over and over as fast as you can. The faster you respond, the smaller your movements can be, the smoother your piloting. Don’t get too hung up on where the glider is; it’s where the glider is going that matters. Even if it’s a little behind you, if the momentum is rocketing forward, you need to start catching the surge well before it reaches the ideal stopping point. As the conditions get bigger, so does the need for active piloting. The goal is to make the conditions look smooth by keeping your glider right where you want it. Most expert pilots can judge active piloting skills from a half-mile away, so ask your friends how you are doing.
The party is out front
We need to end the dangerous fallacy that scratching at the hill is the best way to catch a thermal. If you launch into a thermal or find lift on the first pass across the hill, of course, you should work it. But if you are sinking, take your search upwind (towards the thermal sources) instead of wasting altitude looking in the same places for a second or third time. Imagine a 3D line that connects the thermal source (field, often LZ) to the top of the mountain or the obvious thermal trigger. When you get below that line, you are not likely to find the thermal again, until you push upwind and connect with the line closer to the source.
Keep in mind that sink on the mountain is often the result of a thermal cracking off upwind. Many P-2s are hesitant to look for thermals upwind of the LZ, because it resembles going out to land. Forget that thinking; flying out front is not giving up on soaring. In fact, the strongest thermals are often a little bit out front, because they drift downwind less often than weak thermals. When you push away from the hill, you gain ground altitude, so the thermals have more height to coalesce, which is another reason that thermals found out front are often better. An added benefit of snagging a thermal out front is that you can stick with it for much, much longer before you need to worry about your drift behind the mountain.
In addition to being productive, pushing out front is always the safe choice, as it gives more ground clearance and puts you closer to the LZ, so unforeseen sink and headwind won’t interfere with your ability to make it home for dinner. For all these reasons, my XC adventures typically start with finding a thermal out front and coring it continuously to 501’ below cloudbase.
Make decisions based on yourself
Experienced pilots will make the nastiest air look smooth, so somebody else flying does not necessarily make it a good idea for you. Constantly judge your decisions and required safety margin based on your own skills and equipment. Age, aptitude, and other experiences matter, so make your own decisions.
Just because it worked does not make it a good idea
We face so many low-probability, high-consequence events that most bad decisions result in… nothing. Don’t let the absence of negative outcomes trick you into thinking a risky decision is worth repeating. Normalizing risky decisions, even something with a 99% success rate, will eventually catch up with you. Novice and master pilots alike, we all need to remain honest with ourselves and engage in self-reflection. Remember that a lot of bad decisions result in great flying, but that doesn’t make the bad decision a good one. Everybody wants to fly, but nobody wants to put in the work: The best coaches recommend five kiting days to each flying day. What’s your ratio? If you want to fly in thermic conditions, you first need to be able to launch. If you find yourself aborting or having scary launches, you’re trying to fly above your skills. Kiting is the best way to improve your piloting. And kiting is fun, so make a habit of kiting as much as possible.
Frequency matters, so protect your flying days: It’s no secret that pilots who fly frequently progress in fewer flights/hours than pilots who fly infrequently. New England gets so much rain and wind that it’s a relatively difficult place to progress. If your home is similarly afflicted, your best option is to travel. Place a strong emphasis on consistency (how often it is flyable) when picking travel destinations. You can increase your local flying by consciously guarding all potential flying days. Get your chores done when it’s blown out. Be non-committal to non-essential social events. When I get invited to a BBQ on a Saturday afternoon, I don’t miss a beat in saying: “Thanks so much for the invite! I have tentative plans to go paragliding that day... but the weather probably won’t cooperate, so I’ll likely be there!” Tighten up your chore game and BBQ dodging skills and you could easily rack up another 20 hours per year without quitting your day job to live in a Sprinter van.
Only launch into thermals if you intend to go up
Over the years, I have seen more than a few novice pilots launch between thermal cycles and then fly through lift, hoping for a “short, safe flight.” This move is all sorts of dangerous. If the air is too strong for you to comfortably soar, then the air is too strong for you.
Don’t force yourself into a hot LZ
If you’ve launched and decide you don’t like the air, unless it is getting worse (before the peak of the day, clouds are over-developing, or there’s other new hazards coming into play), it’s generally not a great idea to force yourself into a hot LZ. In this situation, it’s often best to try to relax, get as high as you can, and stay as far away from the ground as possible, until things mellow out. This is a great time to go XC towards better LZs. If you really want to get down, don’t force yourself into a hot LZ just because it is where you normally land. Instead, get high, fly somewhere with calm, sinking air, and core the sink into a new LZ.
Adjust your ground clearance for the conditions. If you are at a new site and using unfamiliar equipment while experiencing strong thermals, big sink, wind, strong lift, and turbulence, it’s good to keep extra ground clearance. Remember, it’s not just the “turbulence” that can get you. You also need to watch out for soul-crushing sink and headwind. Peak climb rates are typically mirrored by peak sink rates, so don’t play near the terrain on days with strong lift.
I will end this pontification by asking EVERYBODY to help make smart, conservative decisions. If you see your buddies pushing too hard, pump the brakes for them... because when somebody gets hurt, it affects us all. I humbly include myself in this request. So if you see me getting too wild or demonstrating areas that need improvement, I invite that feedback.