Interview with a champion: Manfred Ruhmer

Friday 22 July, 2022

Four times FAI World Hang Gliding Class 1 Champion, four times FAI European Hang-Gliding Class 1 Champion and now 7 times FAI World Hang-Gliding Class 2 Champion, Manfred Ruhmer has been in love with flying for more than 30 years. Louise Joselyn caught up with him on the eve of the next FAI World Hang-Gliding Class 2 Championships.

When, why and what did you start flying?
I was interested in flying since I was a young boy. My first training hill flight I did in 1981, at 15, on an old Rogallo (Ikarus 200) hang-glider. But I only really started hang-gliding in 1986, and then only in my free time.

Clearly you love competitions! What are your most memorable events and why?
Hard to say which one, there where so many!  For sure my first Class 1 World Championship at Monte Cucco in 1999. Then the combined World Air Games and Worlds in Spain in 2001 – all Austrian pilots on the podium. We had the strongest team back then. Or the 2003 event in Brazil landing in the centre of Brasilia. That was really something! And also at the end I was 400 points ahead of the second place and 800 points ahead of third place. I think that never happened before or since in such a major competition. Winning the European title in my home country in Austria/Innsbruck in 2000 was pretty good. Then there was the 2013 Worlds in Australia with very hard flying conditions over many days. The 2000 Speed Gliding Worlds in Greece, was something different and very exciting.  Sadly it has never been repeated, so I am still the Champion!

You entered your first competition in 1990 and finished 44th in the Worlds. By 1998 you had collected four gold medals. What competition advice do you have for up and coming pilots?
Get as much flying experience as possible to start with.  Then enter comps to learn from the good pilots. You have to learn patience, to fly instinctively and accept to lose, in preparation to win later. Very important is the right motivation. Don’t take excessive risks. Stay on the safe side. I think it’s important to have fun when you are flying.

If you like flying in competitions then you will get better, although it also depends on how talented you are, and how fast you learn. It helps to work with a manufacturer – getting good equipment certainly makes it easier to win. In high level competitions you get to see just how good your gear is, and your decision making.

What made you switch from hang gliders to the Swift?  What appeals to you most about Class 2 compared to Class 1?
I was always fascinated by technology and the possibility of a super hang-glider. More performance is always what we want. The Class 2 not only performs much better, it is also much safer than traditional Class 1 and 5 hang-gliders (and paragliders) in strong or very strong conditions. You are strapped in and together with the aerodynamic rudder control and the fixed CG position you don’t have the problems with tumbling or collapsing wings. In the right conditions paragliders and hang-gliders are great to fly, but they are limited in terms of flyable wind speeds. Transport gets more complicated with the Class 2 gliders. But for many years I travel around with my van. The wings are on top (in bags) and inside is the cage. So it still feels more like hang-gliding to me than sailplane flying.

Outside of competitions, what about records?  What/where was your longest distance flight and/or your most memorable flight?
I tried once to break the distance record with my Swift-Light. That was 2006 in Zapata, exactly five years after my flex wing record flight of 700.6km. The goal was to fly 1,000km free distance but the weather conditions were not ideal. On the last day, I managed to fly 778km in very light back wind conditions but it wasn’t worth making it official. It would be pretty good to get back there and try again!

This year’s Class 2 Worlds allows pilots to launch with an electric motor as an alternative to tow-launch. How do you explain to free-flying purists that this is still ‘free flying’?
Even soaring birds sometime use also their “muscle engine” to get or stay in the air! Well, the fact is that very few Class 2 pilots are willing to take off on foot from a mountain launch. I have done many and still do sometimes. But since a really good electric device is now available it so much easier to get in the air.  Then turn it off and free fly.  If you need the engine again it is there. There is little energy in the battery (3kw/h is equivalent to 0.3 litre of gas) but it can be used to avoid landing in difficult areas. For safety reasons it is definitely good. Most of the time we are free flying, engine off.

What are your thoughts on defending your title at the upcoming World Class 2 Championships?
I’m looking forward to flying with friends again and having fun. Then, of course, we will see who at the end who has made mistakes! I am super relaxed and there is no pressure at all. I am also happy to see that it is happening again and especially that we can take off with the electric motor. I’m not sure yet if I fly with or without it!

You are a test pilot and designer with Icaro. What are your current  challenges?
I still like it a lot to fly with a Class 1 hang glider. Well it is also part of my work!  The Class 2 Hang-glider (Swift) also offers some possibilities to me in the future, like installing solar panels to charge the battery during flight.  And I am looking forward for the new Swift 3 which should be ready this year.

Where are your favourite flying sites in the world, and why?
I love the high Alpine areas like the Dolomites, and anywhere quite wild and special. But also in the right conditions the hill areas can be quite challenging. Over the season there are different sites to fly depending on the conditions.

What are your (short, medium or long term) flying ambitions currently?
Last year I did one Class 1 Sport Class competition in Laveno (Italy) with a single surface glider (Icaro Piuma) and that was great fun. So this year I plan to enter some more of those comps. It’s a complete contrast – this glider has great low speed performance (similar to a competition level paraglider). Then, of course, the Class 2 Worlds. And I want to spend more time flying with my 16-year old son, who likes hang gliding, trike flying and RC models.

The Class 2 Hang Gliding World Championships takes place in Aspres, French Alps, from 23 July to 6 August 2022. Follow the race at CIVL Comps

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