Sunday, March 14, 2010

Flying in Paraglider Competitions - A Primer, Part 2

This is the second installment of an article I'm writing - Part one is HERE

Getting Started
Addressing the Prerequisites
You want to give it a try – but are you ready? You don’t have to be a sky-god to fly your first few comps – Just not a danger to yourself or others. You can build your list of skills gradually. Let’s go down the list and discuss how to develop some of the tools you should have in your aviation toolbox.

Pilot Readiness. It is imperative that you are properly mentally prepared to fly in Paragliding Competitions. A beginner with Intermediate Syndrome and a gung-ho attitude is a little scary to watch – and dangerous to be. You need to talk with pilots who have flown comps and understand the game. You need experience at flying away from the local hill and the understanding that an XC flight should be conducted with the same level of safety and sense as that of a simple local flight.

You need to fly every flight with a commitment that you will not go places, or fly in conditions, that you wouldn’t while on a non-comp-local flight. Risk / Reward management is the primary skill that one needs to cultivate while building an aviation toolbox.

Pilot Skills
 Assessing Weather conditions. The ability to assess the changing weather conditions while flying is essential. When you fly locally, don’t just be a follower. Try to understand how the local wx guru determines the forecasts and decides on likely flying spots. Look, also, at the weather on non-flyable days to develop a talent for seeing the hazards hidden in the forecast. Get to the site early and watch the conditions change. Note the visible hints and timeline of change vs. your forecast. All these skills will make you a safer and more tactical pilot.

Consistent Launches in variable conditions. Practice, Practice, PRACTICE. Mountain pilots don’t get to kite as much as coastal pilots, so the skills are different. Both groups should work hard to develop their weak skills. Know how to time your launch in a thermal cycle. Know how to control the wing in a stronger-than-anticipated gust. Ask – Practice.

Thermalling - in traffic. Thermalling is a dark art that many new pilots avoid. They worry about turbulence and bumps and collapses. Experience and airtime are the only cures for fear of the air. The sky is an ocean of air and thermals are an essential part of the ‘freedom’ of free-flight. Get good at thermalling and visualizing the lift. That said, thermalling with friends is a skill you will need to develop too. A gaggle is a busy place and, as a beginner, you need to fit in. You have to stay within your comfort level and get closer to other pilots with experience. The main mistakes a new pilot makes are:

o Turning in weak thermals. When you are new, the temptation is to take ANY lift available. That’s fine until you see a bird, trashbag, or other glider climbing faster than you are. If you see this you should move to that thermal. Learn to judge climb rates of others while you are in a thermal.

o Not turning tight enough. Keep your turn going. Let the gaggle guide the circle for a bit and just climb with the collective. When you are in a gaggle, it’s not your time to try to modify the circle. If you have pilots consistently cutting the turn, behind you, it means you need to tighten the turn.

o Not keeping a constant attitude while banking up. When you tighten your turn, keep a constant nose attitude so you don’t spiral down through the gaggle.

o Be Polite. Remember that this is one of many climbs today. You don’t need to ‘win’ this climb. Fly cooperatively and respectfully. Don’t try to stay out of the way, that almost always creates problems since now, you are not doing what they expect you to do. Try to be predictable and signal your intentions with body language.

o Enter like a PRO. You can make a name for yourself (not a good one) very quickly by entering a gaggle the wrong way. When approaching a gaggle you must look at it like a turnabout that you are merging with. Choose a gap in the parade and fly outside the turn, on a tangent, and slowly slip into the gaggle. There is no need to crowd or barge.

o Leave when the lift fades. There is little to be gained by staying with a thermal once the lift begins to fade. You will be in a better position staying with the gaggle. Assuming your altitude is close to that of the gaggle’s, when the gaggle rolls out on glide you should too.

Navigating. Practice with your GPS. I’ve set up waypoints at my local hills and built tasks to go through all the steps in flying a task. It is important to feel confident in your instrumentation and your ability to use it.

 Wing Control. Flying the wing simply has to be a secondary task. You must build the experience to keep the wing over your head even when flying in dynamic air. Don’t get in the habit of looking up at your wing every time you fly into turbulence. Sense your wing position as a bird does – through your body, hands, and sight.

Assessing LZs from the air and planning the approach and landing. Like all flights, XC flights come to an end. The landing plan must be begun while high enough to offer you options and a good view of the landscape. You should actually plan many approaches to landing as the day progresses in a normal flight. At 1500’ AGL I have a rough plan and a field or two that I keep in mind. At 1000’ AGL I make sure that at least one of my fields is adequate – That is:
o A size that is appropriate for the conditions and slope.
o Wind direction and speed.
o Wires
o Obstructions to the approach and rotor creation
o Wires
o Livestock in the field
o Extraction considerations.

o IMPORTANT – Look for a backup spot in case of; wind change, low altitude pop, etc. Nice to have a place to go when Plan ‘A’ doesn’t work.
It’s nice to work in a nice thermal trigger along the way to your LZ, so you are giving yourself an opportunity for a save while maneuvering to land. Strict discipline is important though. You should abandon all efforts for a save at an altitude (I won’t pick a number since it is conditional) and stick to that decision. Most pilots who get hurt, while landing out, start their stories off with something like, ‘’I was on base leg when I felt this great bit of lift off to my right. . .’’ While flying your approach to landing you must consider that you are tired, dehydrated, disappointed, and concentrate on the task at hand. Get down safe so you can fly tomorrow’s task.

While on the subject of landing out: Nobody looks good while throwing a tantrum or sulking. If you have a bad day, either go away to sulk alone or hang out with your buddies and regale in their success. Know that everybody has had a bad day. Fly enough events and you are surely to have a bad competition, where every task is a struggle and your results are dismal. Don’t get wrapped up in the results. You are doing this for fun and the pilots who have longevity in the sport never forget this – they are truly a treat to be around.

More to come in the next installment -

Part 3 is HERE.


Unknown said...

Timo I hope you kick some butt in paragliding competitions, your tips are solid and a long way ahead of me but I hope to compete one day myself. I posted a link to your primer on my paragliding blog at

Tim said...

Thanks for the link. I hope to see you out at the BAPA events one day.