How to fly cross country: The basics

Friday 20 December, 2002

Bob Drury explains his Five-Star system for flying cross country

Over-whelmed by conflicting advice on how to go XC? Ian Blackmore clarifies the basic do’’s and don’’ts of XC paragliding and hang gliding flying so you can exert your mental energy on getting the most out of your flying day. First published in Cross Country magazine in 2002

If there’s one thing in flying you can be sure of, it is this: we all spend far more time thinking about flying than actually committing aviation. Strong winds, rain, work and family commitments all conspire to ensure we spend large amounts of our life studying techniques for cross country yet rarely get the opportunity to put things into practice. Even pilgrimages to places with ’reliable’ weather often become a week in a bar listening to endless lectures on how to fly further and faster.

When the weather finally does clear, you find yourself staggering around launch looking like a walking advert for your local gadget shop. All competition pilots will have gone through this. You’ve bought everything you need to win a PWC and are blundering around launch with a severe case of information overload. When the horn blows your head is so full of advice and manuals for gadgets that the instant you launch, basic skills go out the window.

A typical scenario for the aspiring comp pilot is this: you are still trying to program waypoints into your new GPS when the horn blows for window open. Everyone launches. You frantically set up and launch a minute later into the world’s worst sink cycle. It is very quiet. You suddenly realise the vario is off and you have to remove your gloves to fire it up. With that sorted you then try to reposition your GPS so it will acquire and show you the way to your first turnpoint. You look up just in time to avoid a tree. At this point you get a few beeps of lift and consider turning. It’s your first rational thought. Unfortunately another pilot overtakes you and some confused snippet of information pops into your overloaded brain and over-rides instinct. Race! Despite being half way down the mountain by now you fly straight through the lift and thirty seconds later, THUD! You’ve landed at the bottom. Again.

These sorts of problems happen to us all: novice pilots, pilots going XC for the first time and even experienced pilots after a long lay off. I made a snap decision to enter my first competition for over two years this spring, and made all the classic mistakes. I arrived late with no wing, borrowed one the wrong size on arrival and at registration asked for a film for my camera.

“No films – GPS only” came the reply, followed with a rather cutting, “You haven’t been around for a while, have you Ian!”

Oh dear. I hung around at registration trying to buy a new MLR. I finally arrived on launch late and had to get someone else to set it up and explain it. When the horn blew I’d still never inflated the wing, had no map and no idea how the GPS worked. Everyone launched and I briefly panicked. Sanity thankfully prevailed at this point and I reverted to the basics: Calm down. Switch on my vario, ask a marshal where goal was. As soon as my accosted marshal started to reel off the co-ordinates I stopped him and politely asked them to point; “Err, that way” he replied. Thank you. I chose my moment, launched and concentrated on getting as high as I could. Then I set off and headed that way enjoying the flying. After a while an arrow to goal popped up on the GPS and I made a respectable place.

What I aim to do with this article is give you a simple set of rules to follow that should help you manage all the information you receive – or in other words, time management based on what is important at specific phases of your preparation and flight.

The Day Before
Always check the weather forecast. Always have your equipment fully prepared in advance. Fresh batteries, maps, too much clothing, details and directions to the sites you may visit. Fill your car’s tank with gas. Two years ago, on what looked like the best yet day of the season, I woke up to find the local garage closed. The more you do the night before the less you have to think about in the morning.

On The Day
Get up early and set off earlier than you need to. Never arrange to go with people who are always late; all it does is stress you out. Buy plenty of sandwiches, muesli bars and isotonic drinks on the way. Check the weather on the way.

On Launch
Check the conditions. If the forecast is obviously wrong and you are on the wrong hill leave immediately and go to the correct one. If you are at the right hill then get your gear set up immediately and check everything over. If it’s soarable, and the site has a safe top landing area, then have a short flight to check everything is OK. Psychologically, this is a huge help for later. You have flown therefore you know it is OK. The longer you wait on launch the more reluctant people always get to fly, especially if your wing is still in it’s bag. Continue to check the conditions for safety up to the point when you can launch and reliably stay up. At this stage do a final check of your equipment, get your plan for your flight clear in your head and launch. Waiting for it to get better rarely works with novice pilots. When it does get better it is usually then either too strong or too rough. If it’s safe and people are staying up then launch.

Gain and Maintain
Your sole task at this stage is to gain and maintain altitude. Work every little scrap of lift and observe everyone else in the air. Try and gain a picture of where the regular trigger points and house thermals are on the site. Fly ’speed to fly’ from thermal to thermal losing as little height as possible. Observe the clouds and other pilots around you and where you plan to go. When it starts to look like your plan or route is possible then gain as much height as you can and set off. Be decisive: if you have to go over the back of a hill in wind then as soon as the day is working well enough away from the hill to set off, leave. Pick the next good climb and go. A good climb is not always the strongest but usually one of the biggest. Large areas of smooth lift (as opposed to punchy little screamers) are most likely to go all the way to cloudbase.

When Climbing Low
Once you have made your decision to circle and go then forget the ground and concentrate on flying the airmass. If you keep looking back towards the hill when circling you will subconsciously wander forward and out the front of the thermal. Low down concentrate on staying in lift and climbing as efficiently as you can. Think of nothing else other than safety issues and clearance from terrain.

When Climbing High
In the last third of a climb to cloudbase, the thermals are usually smoother and larger leaving you time to plan where to go next. Less concentration is needed to stay in lift and it’s time to look around. For your first climb in windy conditions (eg flatland flying) now is the time to use your compass to take a bearing back to take off. Draw a line on your map from launch on that heading. Your drift in the first climb will usually stay roughly the same for the next few hours so you now know that whenever you look at your map if flying downwind you are likely to be somewhere along that line. This makes navigating later far easier. Choose where you are going next and take a compass heading to it, be it the next cloud or another ground source such as a mountain peak. Once you actually get to cloudbase, visibility decreases, and you’ll lose height and distance by leaving the cloud on the wrong side. [Edit, January 2011: Nowadays of course most of us use a GPS so knowing where you came from is easier. The technique for map and compass will still stand you in good stead though if you are just starting out, or if the batteries die.]

Gliding High
Relax and take a break. The initial part of a glide is your chance to de-stress. All you have to do is speed up in sink and slow down in lift as you head towards your next thermal. This gives you a short break from heavy concentration. Use the time on glide to navigate, adjust your harness, eat drink etc. On a long flight you need these moments of relaxation. Once half way to your chosen lift source you will usually have lost a third of your height and it is time to get back into hunting mode. Scan the sky for other gliders climbing and start looking ahead for alternative clouds if your chosen one doesn’t work. Make sure you fly right under your chosen cloud and do some big search circles if you get any hint of lift. This is your best chance of finding a good thermal on your glide. The lower you get the less chance you have.

Gliding Low
In the flatlands, once you have lost two thirds of your height between cloudbase and the ground you need to start looking at landing options and ground sources. Always stay within reach of at least two landing options and if there is an obvious ground source then fly to it and lurk. It takes only a couple of minutes to overfly a ground source, which may only pump every 20 minutes. If there is an obvious ground source then fly to it and keep searching as long as you can before you have to land. If there is no obvious ground source or trigger then keep gliding until you land.

And there we have it, yet more information! What this breaks down to is simply this:

Only bring other things into the equation such as speeding up to race or GPS etc once the essentials are covered. The essentials being staying up and staying safe. When you start getting to goal on a regular basis then you should think about doing it quicker.

Before working for Cross Country, Ian Blackmore was a competition pilot and instructor. In 1996, he narrowly missed out on a win in a national championships due to camera problems, and has since become somewhat focussed on the details…

Updated January 2011

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