Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Future in Paragliding Competitions

The landscape of paragliding could change drastically in the near future. It appears that Ozone has taken 'point' with regard to shaking up the competition wing offerings in 2009/2010.  It all started with the introduction in a PWC event, last year, of the BBHPP, which stands for BaBy High Performance Paraglider.  The BBHPP is the practical proto version of the HPP - an experimental 2 liner optimized for performance over all else.  The HPP, even Ozone admits, is not a practical XC machine.  It was a platform to test many innovative design features.  Many of these features are included in the BBHPP and the 2010 Mantra R10 & 10.2 competition wings.

The Baby HPP is a more usable wing with an aspect ratio of greater than 8:1.  It has created much debate due to its integration of 1mm carbon fiber 'rods' that run chordwise and allow for a drastic reduction in the number of lines.  This use of a 'rigid' material in the BBHPP has been very provacative and everyone with an opinion has voiced it HERE.  I'm not going to burden you with a diatribe on this subject, other than to say that  I am all for the use of modern materials to improve the usability and performance of our wings, as long as safety isn't the price we pay for that innovation.  The safety implications have not been thoroughly tested WRT carbon rods, so I don't have an opinion yet & I disagree with the PMA making a preemptive ruling recommendation based on fallacious reasoning. . .

But back to the situation in competitive paragliding - 2010.  Ozone has just announced the delivery schedule for the Mantra R10.  It will be offered in a 3-line and a (more demanding to fly) 2-line version.  Ozone says both these models will have increased collapse resistance, performance, and comfort on bar than the Mantra R09 did.  The other manufacturers are, I'm sure, going to offer new models with glide ratios exceeding 11:1 and good speeds, but it appears that Ozone has taken the lead.

This is all background to address something that I feel is a growing sentiment across our sport.  Many pilots are flying XC flights and have aspirations to compete.  For the first few years they compete on EN-C & EN-D wings to "earn their chops" and hone their skills.  During this period two things become readily apparent.

  1. To compete in the top-10, you must fly a modern competition wing.
  2. Each year, competition wings are produced that have new characteristics and habits to be learned and handled by each pilot.  You are essentially, a test pilot - flying in competition conditions sometimes at low altitudes, while not completely aware of what your wing's reactions to those conditions will be.  I say this because no certification flights are required, or pilot reports are available when you order this new wing.  Word spreads among those who have the wings after delivery.
Pilots get to this stage in their competition flying 'cycle' and either go to a competition (uncertified) wing or stick with a 'hot' EN-D wing and settle for overall top 20 and competing with the other Serial Class wings.

I have reached this stage. . . And I've made an uncharacteristicly indecisive move because I just don't like the risk/reward ratio of flying an unknown, uncertified wing that is delivered (if I'm lucky) shortly before my first competition of the season.    

Last year I was flying a Gradient Avax XC2.  It is an amazing wing with wonderful handling, good performance, and excellent safety.  It is an EN-C wing, but I was occasionally running with the big dawgs and loved the front of the pack feeling (fleeting though it was).  In the blended U.S. Nat'l results I placed 16th overall on my Avax, and I'm happy with that result. But I'd like to be on a wing that puts me in contention - That allows me to score well if I'm flying well.  I guess I'm just tired of wondering how I'd do if the playing field was level.

So, what have I done?  I took the plunge last season and purchased a Gin Boomerang 5.  This wing was a top-of-the-line wing in 2008.  It has a great reputation and has probably flown as many XC hours as any model of competition wing without showing any bad habits.  I bought this wing with the logic that it satisfied my need for speed while not crossing into the potentially hazardous region of "unproven new model."  I continued to fly my Avax XC2 for the rest of last season and plan to fly the Boom 5 in the 2010 season XC events.

I've had some fun with this wing already and am beginning to enjoy the feel of the wing, as I learn to trust it and explore the corners of the envelope.  It has an aspect ratio of 7.4 and can develop some wicked cravattes, but is not so bad as a Boom 6 with the stiffeners in its ribs.   For those who have done some maneuvers on your wings and wonder what it looks like on a comp machine, here is a video of some teasing of an IcePeak 3.  Stay with it to the end for a demonstration of how a high aspect ratio can affect the behavior of a wing after a simple full-frontal. The hazard of a frontal is that the wing can wad up and create riser twists very quickly, which is probably a worst case scenario.  EDIT- 

So - How does this all play out?  I'm at a crossroad.  Do I continue to fly competition wings and eventually get into the thin-air of the 10-15 guys in the US that purchase the latest uber-wing every Spring so I can try to compete with the best?  Or do I fly a good handling, performance EN-D wing and compete with my fellow Serial pilots?  I'll let you know at the end of the season, but I think I already know the answer.

In the meanwhile, I'd like to advocate that our sport look, very hard, at the potential benefits of a requirement that all wings flown in FAI competitions pass the EN-D certifications.  Either that or a certified, one-design class similar to those in sailboat racing.  I really think this has the potential of bringing more pilots into the comp scene and keeping them longer, which as a result, will increase safety and skill due to increased experience level.



Marc said...

This article is conceptually still a long way from where I fly. Im still playing with sport class. It is interesting to see that as paraglider pilots progress, our risk/reward expectation changes too. In my little flying community in Australia, a LFT2 is considered hot and a bit risky, while at the top end of the sport unclassified wings are acceptable. I have started a little paragliding site to help promote the sport to others at

Jack Brown said...

Tim just remember to keep checking your fun meter... if it stays in the green along with your confidence then you should be good to go. If the desire to compete in the top 10 takes on a life of its own, and becomes separate from your overall passion to race with your friends, then you might want to re-evaluate your goals. The risk/reward scenario ramps up in a big way when driving the latest hot ship which has the horse power to win on full speed during the final glide to goal. The more you fly the B5, the more you're gonna love it... See ya out there!

Tim said...

Hey Jack -
The fun meter is still in the green & I'm looking forward to some fun tasks this year. I think you're right that my main drive is the 'fun' aspect over the competitive aspect. I'm looking forward to flying the Boom this season and look forward to clinking beers at goal.