Red Bull X-Alps pilot Jon Chambers explains how to prepare for those first flights of the season
It’s Spring, and the Alps will be coming to life for paraglider pilots as the days get longer and the weather improves. Here in the Alps some of the best cross-country days can arrive right at the very start of the season. But April also brings powerful conditions with strong spring thermals and turbulence that can catch out even the best pilots if they are a little rusty after the winter’s lay-off.
In my time I’ve read countless articles about the risks of strong spring conditions, but few of them ever helped with what actually to do about it, so this is my attempt to address that.
Get in the air early and often
Living in the Alps the ski season blends seamlessly into the flying season. But if you wait until it is time to put the skis away before you get the paraglider out you’ll be too late. Get up in the air as early as you can. Even during February and March you should be getting out flying when you can, even if it is only top to bottom flights.
Take advantage of the ski lifts to get lots of flying in. At places like Verbier or Chamonix you can get a day ski pass and use it to ride up the telecabine and wingover your way back down as many times as you want.
The goal is to be current on your wing when the thermals arrive. As the weather improves the thermals will start, slowly at first. Don’t wait for the epic day before you get out, even with only two hours of weak thermals you can make a nice little tour of the local area around Annecy, for example.
Get your gear ready
Either through your club, or with your mates, get together and check and repack your reserves. Get all your gear set up and fly with it even on those early pre-season flights. This is particularly important if you have new gear. You don’t want your first epic April or May XC day to be the first time you try to work out how to mount your new instruments in your harness!
Have a plan
Keep an eye on the weather and ensure you can make yourself available when the good days come along. Plan the flight and the route together with friends of roughly the same ability. Flying together in contact with each other provides some element of security in case an incident does happen.
A good first XC for the season will often be a ‘classic route’ – quite likely a flight you’ve already done. This is not the time to try blazing a new route, rather it is a time to enjoy blasting along proven routes. Be happy just to be back in the air!
Look after the little things
It is easy to forget about the little details that become second nature when we are flying regularly. But often these can make the difference between being alert and on the ball versus distracted or sluggish.
Firstly dress well. My advice is to have a good down jacket and a windproof outer layer as well as plenty of under layers as it can get very cold sitting still for hours in the air. It is very difficult to keep hands warm in cold spring conditions, so good gloves are essential, but even so it is still almost impossible to keep your hands toasty holding the brake lines. Numb hands don’t help your control, so use hand warmers or at least ensure on every glide to shake your hands out to get some blood flowing.
Secondly, make sure you eat well beforehand and have food and drink with you so you don’t get dehydrated or lack energy. Finally, if you are someone that needs to, make sure you can go to the loo in the air. Cold air seems to make a full bladder doubly uncomfortable.
Getting these simple details right will ensure you are warm, comfortable and relaxed as you ease your way back into the season.
Take off early
On good Spring days the thermic part of the day can start surprisingly early as the air mass is cold, meaning that the trigger temperature is reached early.
This is very different to summer flying. When this is the case make sure you go to a southeast-facing launch where you can get in the air in the morning. If you wait until the sun comes round onto some of the more traditional west-facing take-offs then the thermals will already be more powerful.
By launching early on an east face you not only maximise your cross-country potential but also allow your flying skills to warm up with the conditions.
So if your first cross-country flight of the season does not involve waving to late season skiers as you skim over their slopes, slushy from the spring sunshine, then you’ve probably started too late! Get out now and have fun!
This article was originally published in Cross Country 168 (Apr 2016)