Paragliding and hang gliding: Ten Tips for Comp flying

Thursday 17 March, 2011

Ahh… the old days! Paragliding World Cup 1994. When people used ‘film’ in their cameras and ‘two lines’ was what you held in your hand

The paragliding competition season is nearly upon us. The rules may have changed a bit, but Greg Hamerton’s advice on how to compete remains timeless. First published in Cross Country magazine in 1999

THE WINDOW IS OPEN! hails a marshal from down below, and suddenly the slope explodes into action around you. Your mind fills with a chaos of coloured fabric as the pilots leap into the air. A glider rushes by, and you duck to avoid the pilot’s legs. Then it is your time to go, you have to launch and join the mellee of spiralling gliders out in front of the takeoff site, mad swirls of the frantic and the masters, mixed in a fluid dance of adrenaline and determination.

A flying competition can be an intimidating trauma for the inexperienced pilot. For the veterans it can be a wonderful game, an exhilarating challenge of skill pitted against the sky. But it’s a high stress situation. Maybe this article will help bridge your gap between overload and understanding.

Use the time to methodically prepare your equipment: Reserve parachute repack, fresh and spare batteries for everything that can ‘go flat’, repair kit for your glider.

Research the site: chat to the local pilots, ask about competition tasks flown there in the past, war-stories and where things went wrong, what weather to expect.

Practice days: invaluable if you can afford the time! Getting there early allows you to calm your nervousness of an unfamiliar site. You can scout out recovery routes, learn the lay of the land, source the best flying maps, and absorb information, preventing overload during the comp.

Get some airtime: whether you are at the competition site or still at home, take your glider out, make some time and get airborne! Keep current.

Practice your ground-control, as it shall come under pressure (100 pilots watching, cameras, spectators, side-on winds, thermals, unfamiliar sites).

Understand the briefing: get a more experienced pilot to help you out. Things look completely different from the air, so ask, ask and ask again – you can’t have too much information about where the turnpoints are.

Identify the top pilots: Note their glider colours and harness design, and memorise a few. Observing them will teach you an immense amount. Don’t copy and follow them, just watch and compare what they did to what you did, how they performed each day.

Form a battle strategy: every task consists of a few critical points connected by stretches of easier flying. At the end of the day, you will find pilots clustered around various points along the course, having fallen prey to those common technical critical points.

Sometimes they sneak up on you, sometimes they are obvious and can be planned for – a big valley crossing early in the day, a long glide away from the mountains against a headwind, a predicted weather-change. Decide how you will tackle each issue, get some advice, but most of all, mentally prepare yourself for these “look-out!” points.

Takeoff timing: expect confusion, as competition takeoffs the world over are busy. The trick is to be ready before the pilot’s briefing. Immediately after the briefing, get clipped in. You can always move, you can always wait, but if your glider’s in its bag, you’re going to be too late!

Thermalling fast: means following the core of the thermal. In a big gaggle of pilots traffic problems can be avoided instantly by following the pilot in front of you. Efficient, flat turns are essential to hold on to every scrap of lift.

Finally, you will see the top pilots jostling for position. As soon as a good pilot maneouvres himself to lead the circling gaggle he can escape the turbulent wash of the other gliders, and will most likely sneak away.

To fly fast does not mean full-speed ahead, buy the fastest glider, fly in a straight line and hope to God you get some lift. Speed is a product of superior tactics and good thermalling. Use strong thermals to climb very high, then use long glides, bypassing the weaker thermals on the way.

Long ridges with abundant thermals can be flown fast by staying low, encountering more thermals. As you thermal upwards, think what your next move will be, stay one step ahead. This allows you to choose the fastest tactical route from the options available.

Although there are other pilots in the sky, no one will experience exactly the same lift and sink as you will. So don’t worry about the pilot that seems to be gliding better than you, or the leaders up at cloudbase.

Maximise your individual performance, within the air that you alone are offered. Other gliders are information, use them as visible thermals. Make your own tactical decisions. Even if they are wrong. This way you will learn and remember the correct decision next time. Following the gaggle is mindless.

In a competition, every metre counts. Keep going until both feet are on the ground, and expect a miracle – low saves are commonplace in competitions. Never, ever give up.

BUT an injury caused by flying beyond your safety margin is a waste of good skin and bone. So have heart, believe you can do it, you can achieve incredible feats of distance flying, but keep your shield of safety by your side, don’t push yourself into situations you dread.

There will always be some nutter out there who is prepared to take maniacal risks. Just break through your personal limitations, extend your flying beyond what you have ever achieved.

Turn-point photography is an art in itself, so get some guidance. You only need one mistake with your camera to ruin your brilliant performance, so be absolutely methodical. A few extra seconds spent to be sure of your photographs could mean a huge leap in ranking.

Go to the pub, buy yourself a drink and relax! This is where you will learn the most – the stories of the other competitors. Quiz the task winners, debrief yourself, chat to your mates and absorb the tactics that worked, those that failed. Everyone wants to tell you his or her story, it’s as easy as saying “So, how was your flight today?”

This is the deciding factor in many flights. The winners are those pilots that can regularly pick themselves up after a bad day. Remember that each pilot experiences his or her own individual weather, slightly different from everyone else, so use that fact to your advantage after a bad day. You tried your best. It didn’t work. Today you will have completely different circumstances. Just fly your best, always give of your best, and that way you will never have cause to feel depressed about a day when the lift just wasn’t there for you.

You are on holiday, after all. It is only a competition, one of hundreds held every year.

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