Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Flying in Paraglider Competitions - A Primer Part 1

The following post is the first installment of an article I'm writing for new pilots entering, or considering entering the Northern California Cross Country League.  Subsequent posts will cover additional aspects of the subject.  If you have any recommendations along these lines or subjects you would like to see covered, please comment or send me an email.

The complete article may be downloaded,
PDF format HERE

Flying in Paraglider Competitions
A Guide for the Aspiring XC Pilot
When I first learned to fly paragliders, I had been flying for 35 years. I’d flown various flying machines that ranged from 400 lb. sailplanes to 875,000 lb. commercial airliners. I was no sky-god, but I was a “Flyer.” I was the guy who looked out the window of a car and wondered what flying along that ridge would be like; and I’m the guy that my wife had heard, innumerable times, say, “I wish I was a bird. . .” Paragliding was the perfect combination of freedom, autonomy, and challenge.

That said, when I learned to paraglide in 2003, I viewed the sport of racing paragliders like I viewed moped racing – “What’s the point?” Then, in 2004, I began to yearn for more adventure, more challenge and started straying from my home site to fly cross-country. This thrill rekindled the excitement I felt when I was 15 and first flew my sailplane over a couple ridges to land in a friend’s pasture. In 2005 I was flying a popular LTF 1/2 paraglider and entered my first XC competition and really enjoyed the challenge. I took it slowly & didn’t score very well, but I learned so much in just 6 flights that I was truly hooked on XC competitions.

I’ve learned that I learn best by reading all I can and visualizing events, then applying what I’ve learned. I also found that I gain value by ‘debriefing’ and critiquing – writing down my observations for future reference and comment by other pilots I respect. The main documentation is done on my blog. This paper is an extension of that process. Much of it is personal opinion & observation. Most of that is information I have gleaned from others. It is meant to be a tool for those who are considering entry into XC Comps. By removing some of the unknowns, I hope to make your entry into this sport more comfortable and safe. Nothing has done more to increase my enjoyment of local flying, and improve my skills, than participating in XC competitions.

Now the legal stuff.

Paragliding is an inherently dangerous sport. Nothing in these pages should be construed as encouragement or endorsement of YOU entering the sport of Cross Country Paragliding. This paper is written to document what I have learned about the sport. I encourage you to use your judgment and training to decide whether your qualifications are appropriate and your life is ready to engage in this activity.
Tim O’Neill

1.  Paragliding Competitions - Right for You?

What are Paraglider XC Competitions?
The paraglider community has held paragliding competitions since the sport caught on in the 80’s. Early wings had atrocious performance and even worse flying characteristics, so these comps were true thrill-sporting events. The modern paraglider is much safer and has the performance to fly long distances at high speeds relative to the early days of the sport.

Generally speaking, most XC Comps are events that have a defined task, over turnpoints, to a goal with scoring points accrued for distance flown and speed-to-goal. There are other formats that will discussed later, but this is the format that will be considered for most of the examples.

Why Fly in Competitions?
Do you really want to compete?  If the answer is ‘’NO,’’ then understand that you will be among many other pilots who also participate in competitions for the experience and enjoyment it provides.  If competitions didn’t offer more than an opportunity to ‘WIN’, there wouldn’t be more than 10 to 20 participants.  So, why should you consider these events?  Competitions are, by definition, organized. The extent of the organization will vary, event to event, but this organization often includes: 
  • Task setting based upon weather knowledge and local knowledge. It’s like having the local guru give you personal advice on where to fly. The tasks often push you to reach goals that you would otherwise think unreachable. During the task briefing, listen carefully to any cautions and predictions; particularly forecasts of valley winds and over-development.
  • Retrievals. You have a group of pilots all heading the same direction and cars along the route to pick up those who land out. Comp organizers look for every last pilot until they are all accounted for.
  • Camaraderie among the participants is very encouraging and educational. Just ‘lurking’ at launch provides many tid-bits of information regarding equipment, tactics, and technique.
  • Logistics. Most competitions will have worked out accommodations, safety procedures, launch recommendations, repair services, emergency services, and retrieves etc.
  • Safety. The prospect of planning and flying cross-country flights can be sketchy without the above items. It is my opinion that a well-run competition is the safest way to fly XC, especially for the newer XC pilot.
  • FUN – These events can be a lot of fun.
Who Should Fly XC Comps
I’m the first to admit that there are some pilots who shouldn’t fly, or aren’t ready to fly, in XC Comps. To safely fly away from the comfort and familiarity of the ‘nest’ introduces many new variables that one needs to observe and react to correctly.

If a pilot is unable to deal with variables (wind changes, obstacles in the LZ, turbulence, etc.) he should gather more experience before leaving the nest. Another factor to consider is nerves, or lack of confidence. Some nervousness is normal (and healthy) but too much can hamper your ability to respond to changing conditions and react correctly. XC is all about decisions. When you are making consistent good decisions and are looking for additional challenge, it is time.

As you read the equipment and skill requirements necessary to participate, it may seem a bit intimidating. Remember that this is something akin to collecting and building a foundation that allows you to enjoy the benefits of our sport.

A pilot who is capable of landing in an LZ assessed from the air; who has demonstrated thermalling ability in traffic and control of her wing in turbulence; who is willing to make mistakes and endure disappointment to learn the game – is qualified to fly a competition. Generally a P3 with endorsements or a P4 are required to enter a national competition. Local/regional comps are not so concerned & minimum rating is determined by the rating required to fly the launch site.
  • Pilot Readiness - The most important prerequisite is your mental readiness and emotional control. You must be prepared to endure some disappointment while doing your internship as a new XC pilot. Too much competitive drive, coupled with too little experience is a recipe for disaster. Approach your first few comps as student of the game. There are so many aspects one must master to be a good XC pilot that it will not happen overnight. An XC pilot should be fit enough to carry his PG rucksack for at least 3 miles. Acclimatization before flights above 3500 meters is highly recommended.
Pilot Skills - Before considering participation in an XC Comp a pilot should be experienced in:
  • Assessing Weather conditions. The ability to assess the changing weather conditions while flying is essential. Your safety may rely on your reactions to the weather and its changes, even in unfamiliar locations.
  • Consistent Launches in variable conditions. Launch often feels like the first Tee at the US Open for new pilots. The “yips” are very real unless you are comfortable launching. Practice getting your wing up in less than optimum conditions.
  • Thermalling - in traffic. You can’t fly far if you can’t stay up. Practice at your home site. It isn’t as scary (usually) as it looks to be in a gaggle of well behaved pilots, but things can be hectic. We have all left gaggles we thought were not safe, but gaggle flying is a skill you will need to develop. 
  • Navigating. You don’t need to be Magellan, but you need to be able to visualize the task and how you want to fly it. The truth is, that your early comps will have you playing follow the leader but you will be building navigation skills as you fly each task. Build judgment skills that allow you to decide whether you can make a thermal source on glide.
  • Wing Control. We fly our competitions in the heat of the day, when conditions are their best and, often, rowdiest. The conditions are not dangerous, just very active. Each pilot needs to keep their wing over their head. SIV experience is very helpful. Confidence in your skills and ability to control the wing is essential.
  • Assessing LZs from the air and planning the approach and landing. The most dangerous part of a XC flight is the approach and landing. You may be tired and dehydrated. It is natural to be frustrated if you land out. You will unconsciously relax, since the task is now ‘forgotten.’ You will need to exercise discipline to maintain focus and a healthy paranoia during the approach and landing.
Equipment Required
  • Any modern LTF 1/2 rated (or higher) wing can be flown in XC competitions. A properly adjusted “Speed-system” is imperative. You do not need the latest and greatest – just a wing that you are comfortable on and confident in.
  • Reserve Parachute is required. It is generally accepted that the reserve should be less than 10 years old and regularly inspected / repacked by a pro.
  • Transceiver capable of transmitting on the common frequencies. Many transceivers need to be modified to transmit on USHPA frequencies. It is helpful to have a speaker/mike to allow easy operation of the unit. Don’t invest in fancy PTT (push-to-talk) systems. They tend to be distracting, damaged easily, and are outlawed by many comp. directors. VOX (voice activated) systems are a very bad idea at comps. Keep it simple with either a chest harness or a simple speaker mike.
  • GPS unit. You will need a GPS unit (preferably one with a 3D tracklog) and cable to download waypoints and upload tracks to/from your unit. For your first few events a simple GPS is fine. Later you might opt for an integrated unit which displays more information in a more useable format. These units are great at ‘unloading’ the pilot – allowing him to concentrate on flying rather than computing final glide figures. Serious XC Comp pilots carry a backup GPS as a track logger in case of primary instrument failure.
  • Variometer. You will want to carry either a variometer or an integrated GPS instrument. Some pilots carry an audio only vario as a backup.
These are the essentials. More on what pilots carry in their kit, in later sections.
More to come in future installments . . .

Part 2 is HERE


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