Paragliding the hard way … Supermax, the legendary first film from Phillippe Bernard
Rafael Dubois (VEN) gives a few pointers after learning to paraglide or hang glide the hard way…
I am not claiming any fame or special scholarly authority in flying. So be warned: this article was not written by an intrepid free-flying hero who has attained this sublime condition through legendary aerial deeds. I am neither a competition star or XC guru but rather one of those ’Mr average pilots’: a regular guy who has a job with limited annual holidays, plus a demanding girlfriend and – God forbid! – other passions besides flying.
However, I must say that over the past twelve years hang gliding has dominated my life, taking preference over everything else I do. The vast majority of my leisure time has been dedicated exclusively to flying trips and competitions.
Because I’m not a natural born pilot, my skills have developed from experience and learning from personal mistakes. Mistakes in hang gliding are cruel: you loose altitude and you must land. One blunder and it is game-over for the day.
A simple error usually brings a familiar and pitiful scenario: all of a sudden you find yourself alone and motionless on the deck, grounded, full of despair under a perfect sky. Your equipment is ready to go and the litre of juice in your camelback still runs chilled from cloudbase’s faraway chill. You now face an afternoon of hitching and then a long evening behind the steering wheel.
You are painfully aware that you have squandered a rare combination of factors that will be extremely difficult to attain again. You had wangled a day off from work, the conditions were epic, the wind direction meant there were no airspace restrictions, and all your gear was working faultlessly. How many times a year are you fortunate enough to have all of these elusive factors simultaneously?
This is just a small part of the punishment. Worse still than the wasted opportunity is looking up and staring at dozens of gliders gliding effortlessly under perfect cloudstreets that seem to stretch forever. And this sight is made even less pleasurable by listening to your mates on the radio – their happy voices reporting endless 8-ups, epic glides and great parties at goal, mixed with the continuous chirping of climbing varios’
In order to keep my personal ignominy to a minimum, and hoping to increase my participation at goal celebrations I started to carry a little notebook in my harness. For years I have documented my mistakes under the passing shadows of my friends at cloudbase. The result is a small compilation of tips that I call “Mr Average’s XC Secrets”.
As an additional penitence for all these past stupidities I have decided to go public, so here are some of my lessons which I hope will help some fellow pilots in similar circumstances.
- Make sure you have fresh batteries for your camera & GPS as part of your pre-flight checks. Don’t let Murphy steal your score on your best performing day.
- Carefully study, understand and fully visualise your route using a map BEFORE take off even if this means that you will be the last one to launch. This not only will save you lots of time while flying but also represents half the battle.
- PATIENCE, patience, patience’ This is one of the most important skills of a successful long XC flight. When you are getting desperate imagine that you are literally flying over the route’s “filter” where the majority of pilots will land. Even though it is boring make sure to climb as high as possible between moves because you’ll need every single metre to get through the “filter”. Remember that on painfully slow days few people will make goal but you potentially have an opportunity to score lots of points.
- Before leaving cloudbase make sure that you have defined your next lift-searching spot with one or two backups in case your first choice fails you. Never leave a cloud “to see what happens along the way” just because you are very high. Plan ahead!
- In between thermals always stick to your decision. Don’t hesitate half way through the transition and start gliding aimlessly while thinking about new options. Only change plans when you see an unexpected and obviously better alternative such as climbing gliders.
- Don’t let your intended flying direction or goal rule your judgement. Generally it isn’t a good idea to discard a working cloud near you on the basis that it’s too far your route line. Instead we tend to glide towards much more distant clouds which are on our desired course. If you go for the long glide it is very likely that by the time you arrive there you’ll be too low and the cloud will be decaying. Equally, when crossing a valley always aim to reach the next ridge line above it, even if that means covering much less distance on your chosen general direction.
- While drifting in strong winds always keep in mind the intended turn-point location as you approach, because if you pass it you may not be able to make it up wind.
- Always look ahead and analyse how changes of terrain may affect lift. Is that valley producing convergence? Why is there a blue hole over that area? How is this forested area affecting lift? Etc. Be ready to shift gears at all times and never assume that lift will be the same strength during the whole flight.
- In areas of weak lift take your time and wait on a zero for a suitable opportunity before moving on, especially if you are not too high. Never rush on weak lift! However doing the opposite is also bad; avoid hanging around on “zeros” when you are loosing altitude continuously. Don’t hesitate and waste time unnecessarily, particularly if flying with an inexperienced gaggle: they may be following you!
- When approaching a blue hole slow down. Before attempting to cross it make sure that you are as high as possible even if this means back tracking a bit. Stick to any lift during the crossing and if possible wait for a gaggle to go with you.
- Understand your speed to fly. Even in strong sink too much speed may do more harm than good. In long glides it is fundamental to keep adjusting your speed in order to maximise your glide performance.
- Do not venture into large areas of over-development just because everybody is doing it. Even though it may take ages, stay high on the edge observing and waiting for the sun to re-appear. You’ll either see that the shadowed area is working and then follow or, more likely, you’ll end up cruising high over your landed comrades when the sun is back.
- Don’t follow your flying mate if he/she is taking an illogical route just for the sake of “going” or “landing” together. Generally your friend will “miraculously” sky out again and will leave you on the deck right in the middle of their illogical route. Flying is about personal decisions and understanding what is going on. What suits some else not may suit you. If you don’t understand the logic of someone’s decision you better hang on and observe what happens next. You’ll soon appreciate the reason behind your mate’s choice if it was a good decision. If it wasn’t you will probably be the only one still airborne! Do NOT try to find out halfway through the glide without the necessary height.
- Finally each landing requires full concentration! It doesn’t matter how upset you are or how easy the field looks. Learn to accept defeat and leave enough height for a safe approach instead of improvising one at 10 m over the ground!
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