Published on December 28th, 2016 | by Mark Ashton Smith1
Paraglider Skills: Active Flying
Collecting some of the wisdom of the sky gods, instructors and other top pilots this article looks at some tips for building our active flying paragliding skills. Active flying is needed for all of these –
- How to play with the wing over its full range of motion (e.g. wing-overs) staying in control.
- How to fly comfortably and in control in bumpy or turbulent conditions without getting collapses or near-collapses.
- How to work lift, and find the right lines to fly to stay high or get higher.
WHAT IS ACTIVE FLYING?
Active flying is where you’re actively controlling the wing to fly safely and improve performance – through weight shifting, break input, using speedbar, and opening all your senses to read what’s going on with your glider in the air. Your own inputs make the wing fly as you want it.
The more you practice, the more active flying becomes automatic and instinctive – and the less the workload. This widens the range of meteo conditions you can enjoy flying in. And it builds the confidence to push your boundaries – whether for ridge runs on the coast, sea thermalling, inland cross country, wagga in the dunes, acro or whatever you want from your flying.
Whether you are hunting lift, thermalling, chucking the wing around, or just trying to keep the wing open in rough air, we need to be on top of pitch, roll, yaw and momentum.
For the drills, we need the following:
The higher you are in the air, and the smoother the air, the safer the training drills below are. Also it’s a good idea to practice them when others are around – for feedback, and for safety.
The best time to practice these manoeuvres is when you feel clear-headed and motivated – not when you are tired, groggy or can’t really be arsed. No point in forcing yourself to do them – just practice when you really want to. Also, as Pal Takats says, if your mind is busy with your fears, something is already wrong.
What Pal Takats says about acro training is also true for practicing active flying drills:
“Visualising everything is extremely important. You won’t be able to perform something nicely if you are unable to simulate it. Practice this many times, before your flights.” Pal Takats
Using An Action Cam
Pal Takats recommends always filming any practice drills or manoeuvres you try for acro – and the same applies for wing-overs and other active flying drills. It’s easier to see what you’re doing right or wrong – and where there may be bad habits – if you record what you’re doing.
Pitching is when your glider rocks forwards or backward in a pendulum. Try these pitching exercise recommended by Bruce Goldsmith and other instructors for pitch control. It’s best done when you have good ground clearance.
Pitching Drill 1: Dolphining
Fly straight with the wing overhead and apply both brakes smoothly (1 in diagram), starting with around 20 cm, and release them quickly. The glider will surge forwards in front of you (2) and as you then swing under your glider, gently apply the brakes again when the wing is overhead (3) to add energy to the swing. Adding the right amount of brake at the right time quickly sets up a strong oscillation. Start slowly and gently, but as you get more confident, build up the dolphining to 45°.
Pitching Drill 2: Killing Energy
Once you’ve practiced dolphining, apply the brakes just as the wing surges in front of you to instantly kill the oscillation and return to level flying.
If the dive is quick and energetic you will need a quick and decisive jab on the brakes. If the dive is slower and smoother, you can brake more slowly and smoothly. With different timing you can either add energy ‘in phase’ with the oscillation to build it up, or kill energy by braking ‘out of phase’ with the oscillation to flatten it out.
“You can play around with the timing and amplitude of the swinging so that you train your reactions to understand the movements of the glider. Start slowly and gently at first and then as you get more and more confident let the glider go further and further in front of you. It is amazing how far in front of you it is possible to let it go before you get a front collapse. Be careful though: do not let the glider surge lower than about 45-degrees to the horizon. It is important to get used to starting and stopping the oscillation quickly and safely at will. The difference between getting it to start or stop swinging is just in the timing of the brake application.” Bruce Goldsmith, Fifty Ways To Fly Better
You can see Flybubble’s Greg Hamerton demonstrating this pitching drill on a high performance glider at this YouTube link for active flying
Pitching Drill 3: Speed Bar Variation
After practicing drills 1 & 2, you can try them just using speedbar. Apply bar and quickly release to set up. After the wing rocks behind you and comes back overhead, dab on speed bar again. With the right timing this will get you dolphining.
Now you can try applying the bar ‘out of phase’ to dampen the oscillation, bringing the wing back into level flight.
You can try a similar active flying exercise with roll as you can with pitch. You can start side-to-side swinging by holding your risers and weight-shifting right so the wing rolls to the right. As it rolls back then weight shift to the left while your body moves right.
Try building some roll momentum first and then damp the oscillation by weight shifting ‘out of phase’ to the rolling motion – to level the wing again. So just as the wing begins rolling right and your body moves left, weight-shift to the left. You could also apply a quick jab on the left brake. This should kill the oscillation, and get you flying steady again.
Sometimes roll oscillations can start when you are ridge soaring in thermic conditions, and practicing this helps you stop them in their tracks.
Good over-the-top wingovers demand a high active piloting skill level where you have to control the pitch, roll, yaw and momentum of your glider with well-timed brake and weight shift input.
“Wingovers teach you more about the dynamics of your wing than any other. It combines pitch, roll and yaw and teaches you about timing and pressure control, which form the fundamentals of paraglider control.” Russell Ogden
“…wingovers are quite difficult to learn. But they are really the basis of everything and will help you enormously in understanding the dynamics of the paraglider. It requires precise (but hard) brake inputs and heavy weight-shifting with perfect timing to build up this amazing three-dimensional movement” Pal Takats
Wingover practice can help give you more comfort and security in thermic air. Along with spiral dives wingovers are the first manoeuvre to master in acro. Wingovers also help a lot in preparing for SIV courses.
We can use the clock face to help visualize the angles. 12 o’clock is where the wing is directly overhead (A). 2 o’clock is when the wing is pitched deeply in front of you – 60° from vertical. C shows the angle a 45° wing-over angle. D shows an over-the-top wingover angle.
Here’s how wingovers can be learned progressively and safely – from 45° (C) to over-the-top (D).
- Look first, then weight-shift.
- Aim to apply the weight-shift as your body is still descending, not once it has passed 6 o’clock.
Weight-shift with brake
Two important principles apply here. One is that you make sure that you weight-shift as soon as you start to dive – increasing your bank which reduces your chance of getting collapses when you go above the wing. Weight-shift is really critical for big wing-overs. Second, add brake close to 6 o’clock – not as you ascend past the dive where you’re losing energy. Braking as you are going up too far beyond 6 o’clock leads to wing collapses. You apply the brake when you feel most pressure/weight in the seat of your harness, when there is most energy and speed. As advised by Malin Lobb, this energy may still be felt a little past 6 o’clock – but don’t leave it too late! You will need to experiment with the dynamics of your own wing.
The more weight shift, the more you bank out as you swing through the dive, ensuring that you keep the wing inflated throughout the whole manoeuvre.
- You should have already practiced the pitching game (dolphining to 45° pitch). Now build the dive beyond this to 2 o’clock (60° pitch) by applying more break as you swing under the wing until you have to catch the dive with a jab on the brakes to stop the wing over-pitching and having a frontal tuck. This first step is needed if you want to master ‘over the wing’ wingovers where you need to apply brake during the manoeuvre to stop collapses.
- Look, weight shift as you are diving and then brake with firm brake input as you swing through the 6 o’clock position with max energy/pressure on your seat-plate.
- As you are yawing/ turning your wing around with the weight-shift and brake input look at wing to check for pressure.
- Release brake once you’ve turned to dive.
- Quickly look/weight-shift in opposite direction while diving. Add brake as the seat pressure / speed increases – this time a little longer.
- As you are yawing/turning the wing to come around again, add opposite brake to keep wing pressured as needed.
- Let off the brakes as you dive, and quickly turn head & weight-shift the other way.
- Then deep brake – a little longer as you turn the wing around. Look at wing and use outside brake enough to prevent deflation.
- Let off the brakes to dive and while diving weight-shift other way, brake at max speed & use outside brake for wing pressure as you turn the wing round.
- And so on…to the point your wing goes past 3 o’clock and you’re way up at 10pm! (D).
As you are making larger and larger wing-overs, you need to apply the brake longer and longer each time to keep symmetric wing-overs.
As you are making over-the-top wingovers (D in the clock diagrams), you’ll most likely need more opposite brake each time you apply the main brake after weight-shifting – to keep the whole wing inflated through the whole manoeuvre.
Safety note: Don’t ever hold brake so much that you turn more than 180 degrees!
You can practice all the inputs and timings with flatter wing-overs first, then work your way to over-the-top wingovers.
“To start with, keep the angle of bank to around 45°. These steep S-turns should be identical in pressure, energy and body position. It’s more beneficial for your training to be able to pull off 30 small but identical well-pressured wing-overs than it is to do one massive one and then have it fall apart.” Russell Ogden
To exist a wingover you can just let off the brakes as you dive and let the wing climb as you swing under it, followed by a dive, which you can dampen with break input to return to normal flight. With over-the-top wing-overs, it is advisable to convert the diving energy into a spiral to exit the wing-over.
“This is known as a “rapid exit” and is usually done in SIV from exiting a spiral, but you will get in the same configuration from a wingover. It’s a great way of teaching pitch control because you can build up the energy progressively (from either wingovers or spiral entry).But with over-the-top wing overs the subsequent large climb and aggressive dive can catch pilots out, to avoid this you can turn the wing-over into a spiral as you dive to bleed off the energy.” Malin Lobb
ACTIVE FLYING IN THERMIC OR BUMPY AIR
Thermals are rising columns or bubbles of air with edges and cores – possibly multiple cores. You can’t thermal if you just want to just fly in ‘smooth air’. And climbing well in thermals means you are always adjusting to different kinds of wing-pressure in the uneven air. And thermals will often meet inversions where the air can get quite choppy. You’ll often want to break through that inversion to get high and go far.
Flying along in ridge lift, with other gliders passing you, the air you’re flying in may look something like this. That could be a shreds of a thermal mixed with wind, or the wake of another glider that’s just passed by.
When the air is thermic, bumpy or turbulent, it’s important to keep the wing overhead and pressured using both brakes / rear-risers and weight shift, constantly monitoring what’s happening.
Opening Up Your Senses: Look and Feel
You can be sensing what is happening to your wing in flight through all of these channels:
- Visual field, with the horizon or ground as a reference
- Looking at the wing directly
- Some brake tension
- Rear riser tension
- Forces through your seat plate
- Forces through your speedbar
Using Your Eyes
With your eyes you need to be checking your position relative to the horizon or – when it feels bumpy or while doing manoeuvres – looking directly at your wing overhead. What you see gives you much faster feedback than what you feel through your brakes, seat-plate or speedbar. You can instantly see how the wing is moving – whether it is pitching back or forward, or rolling or yawing, or about to collapse – and quickly add inputs to keep it pressured and flying safely overhead.
Having a wrap with some brake pressure obviously gives you feedback about what is happening with the wing– brakes go taught when wing pressure increases, and softer when pressure decreases. Some pilots put a finger on the brake line itself for extra sensitivity.
Rear Riser Pressure
In light to medium turbulence on most high end B wings and above, you can use your rear risers instead of your breaks to feel wing pressure. If you apply brakes, the centre of pressure in the wing moves rearwards which releases tension in the A-lines, making it more susceptible to a frontal. Controlling the wing in the glide via the rear risers reduces this effect – the angle of attack changes rather than the shape of the foil.
Harness / Seat Plate Forces
What you feel through your harness as the wing meets uneven air can be a very useful source of information for your active flying, as explained below in ‘flying with your hips’ and ‘finding lift’.
You can also use your speedbar to gather information, feeling of pressure of the leading edge of the wing through your feet and legs. And you can set up your speedbar in ‘steps’ so that you are not using your quads and bending at the knees, but always have straight legs and are pushing with the balls of your feet using your calf-muscles. This is much less tiring on the muscles for continuous use of the speedbar. Any time you are on glide and sinking, or flying into wind, you should be on speedbar – even if it’s just a quarter-bar or half-bar. Rear riser control with speedbar is a good combination in many flying situations.
Here is Russell Ogden talking about using different information streams while flying:
Loss of Pressure – Preventing Collapses
Most accidents with serious injuries are caused by collapses – mostly asymmetric collapses resulting in a dive into the ground, but also frontal collapses.
We should all know that a bit of brake tension by taking a wrap is important for active flying so you can let up quickly if the wing pitches back, or apply brake if the wing dives or loses pressure.
If the wing or one side of it suddenly feels soft through the brake/s it is a signal of loss of pressure and a possible collapse. The air you are flying through could be bumpy enough that changes in pressure across the wing happen continuously. Use your brakes to keep constant pressure while going through bumpy air.
In really turbulent conditions you may need a real whack on a brake with fast reactions to keep the wing inflated.
“For bigger collapses you will need to do more than just rest the weight of your arm on the line, especially if the turbulence is strong or you are flying fast. In these cases you may need to actively jerk your arm down in order to be fast and effective enough to catch the collapse at an early stage.” Bruce Goldsmith
(Safety notes: If you feel there’s any chance of a collapse (frontal or asymmetric), it’s important you quickly release your speedbar. And it’s also important that not too much brake pressure is applied in turbulent or thermic conditions to risk stalling or spinning the glider. Heavy-brakes while flying is a major cause of accidents. Also, too much brake on glide in bumpy conditions can seriously reduce your performance. )
Flying With Your Hips
Flying with your hips helps maintain pressure on the wing in turbulent conditions.
“…when flying in turbulent air you should momentarily lean to the side that sank to keep the lines stretchered and that side pressurized until the pressure is regained and avoid a collapse. I would advise to relax your body and let it falls naturally to the sunk side. Remembering this is valid prior to collapse. After the collapse have happened it’s a totally opposite strategy.” Lauren Martins
“You want to be similarly loose and responsive with your hips. One of my instructors said, when the glider asks you for something, you want to give it to it. This means when one riser gets light and your harness starts to roll to that side, don’t fight to stay on the high side, let your hips go there for a moment. Then roll them back. Keeping the lightening side loaded this way also helps prevent collapses.” James Bradley, Paragliding Forum
In many situations if you do get a collapse on one side, quickly switching weightshift to the side that is flying is appropriate. This may prevent a large asymmetric dive that could see you piling into the ground!
“Normally I am pretty loose and maintain pressure by following the wing with my hips, I rarely have “full fat” collapses. That compliant movement generates free energy to be used and enjoyed. However when it does let go….I keep my weight on the side that is still flying while getting to work re-inflating the side that isn’t. Sometimes you get an unexpected quick slapping from nowhere, in those instances my default reaction is to keep flying the “bit” that is still flying….so far it’s worked for me and everything has turned out fine.” Martin Harris, Paragliding Forum
While using the hips, use the brakes or rear risers constantly to maintain pressure and heading.
(Safety note: Obviously if there is a collapse, the weight-shift should be to the part of the wing that is still flying – away from the collapse.)
Stability On Bar
The speedbar shouldn’t always be seen as increasing the risk of collapses. You need to experiment with your own glider in bumpy conditions.
“…a lot of gliders stiffen up and become more solid and tuck resistant when you go on bar. I’ve had several gliders that were more comfortable in turbulence on quarter bar than at trim, and one or two that were more tuck-resistant at three-quarter bar than at trim. It varies from glider to glider, and the only way to find out is to try it.” Adrian Thomas
Surges – Preventing Collapses
The times I have experienced surges have been:
- When being pulled towards a thermal
- In turbulence caused by e.g. wind shear
- When dropping out of thermals
- From the turbulence caused by another glider’s wake
- After a B-line descent
- After a parachutal or full stall
The wing may surge forward symmetrically, or just on one side. In all these situations with quick reactions you can kill the surge using either brakes or rear risers. If you are on speedbar, you can obviously lessen a surge by coming off bar.
(Safety note: If you’ve already HAD a frontal, it’s a bad idea to pull down hard on the brakes in case when the wing inflates again it drops back and stalls. Better to keep hands up and jab the brakes after the wing has recovered and is flying forward in a surge again.)
Rocking Back – Preventing Stalls
If you are ridge soaring and fly over a more vertical part of the cliff, you may momentarily rock back in your harness as the wing pitches back in the lift band. Or you could pitch back when flying into a thermal. If you are already flying with a lot of brake, you could be close to stalling your wing when this happens. There are different ways you can pitch forward to counter this by active flying:
- Let up on your brakes
- Release your rear risers if you are flying with them under tension
- Quickly pump on the speedbar (it may be best to do this just through foot movement on a lower step of the bar, rather than bending at the knees – if you’ve set it up right!)
Unwanted momentum can build up very quickly on a paraglider without well-timed break inputs. Damping wing momentum – catching the energy build-up before it gets out of control like in a surge – is one of the keys to good active flying.
“The biggest focus for my active piloting would probably be momentum management. When the glider is building up momentum, to take off on you, you counter that energy with brake inputs, the end result is a stable wing. If you’re fast enough you’re making corrections before the wing gains a serious amount of off balancing momentum, if you wait too long the momentum has increased, and we must square our efforts and then deal with the problem we’ve just caused through over correction.” 3-Dog, Paragliding Forum
Damping Oscillations In Pitch & Roll
One thing that hacks into your performance is wing oscillation, where you pendulum in pitch or roll. This may be caused by turbulence or entering/exiting thermals.
The ‘killing energy’ exercises described above – where you weight shift into the side that is lifting for roll control or apply brakes for pitch control – helps with smoothing out oscillations which can improve your glide.
“This technique is to stop the pilot induced oscillations that often trouble beginners as they ridge soar in thermic conditions.” Greg Hamerton
If you are looking at your wing in rougher or thermic conditions (as you should be now and again), you can sometimes catch it yawing / rotating on its axis, which obviously doesn’t help performance if you’re on a glide. You can stop the yawing through opposite brake inputs timed precisely to prevent the momentum of the yaw.
Flying with Rear Risers
Applying break deforms the wing and reduces performance. Controlling the wing while ridge soaring or on glide via the rear risers reduces this effect – the angle of attack changes rather than the shape of the foil, and this improves glide performance.
“The glide goes to worms as soon as you touch the brakes.” Adrian Thomas
How To Use The Rear Risers?
Rear riser flying works particularly well for recent EN C and D wings, but may also work with high end EN B wings. You need to experiment.
“For steering, move the risers sideways rather than pulling them. Moving a rear riser sideways even 5 or 10cm will give you good control over direction. Work up to it slowly, the wing is easy to spin or stall with rear risers. For pitch control, pull backwards (not down) on the risers, to allow more subtlety and reduce loads. You aim to control pitch with small, fast inputs rather than by slowly adding armfuls. Try to use the smallest possible control input that is just enough to keep the glider above your head. The earlier you detect a pitch movement, and the faster you put input in, the smaller the control inputs you need to use. Less is more as far as efficiency and glide are controlled.” Adrian Thomas
For turning with rear risers, you can combine weight-shift with pulling inwards (towards the middle) on the rear riser – the side you are turning into. Don’t do anything with the outer rear riser as you are turning – if you pull on it in any way it will work against your turn.
Iranian paraglider Ali Atarod strongly advises rear-riser active flying.
“As for the use of rear risers, through the whole flight I use them with or without speedbar, especially in rough condition. I use the brakes only in take off, landing, and thermalling, and of course in steep turns. What you get by using rear risers is you don’t make drag and the glider maintains its speed, So it cuts through turbulent air much easier – it might be more shaky, but no collapses and you pass through much faster. I constantly have contact with experienced pilots, mostly with Russell Ogden as he is the Ozone test pilot and designer. They all insist on using the rear risers instead of brakes in all conditions, in transitions, on glide. You should get used to it and trust it. Try to stop using the brakes even in quite rough conditions, you will be very surprised how much easier you can deal with turbulence. Another great trick in thermals is to turn the glider flat is to use the inside brake along with outside rear riser. As I said don’t be afraid of using the rear risers and not only on speedbar. Once you trust them, you will never go on brakes in turbulence again. Use 30% to 50 speedbar in turbulence as well, it will be even better. Another trick would be to pitch control your glider by pushing and reducing your speedbar. Once you master all these together you will be much more relaxed in rough condition, without losing performance and speed and you will see how much your glide ratio will improve in transitions.” Ali Atarod
Here is a great example of rear-riser active flying in strong Spring conditions in Annecy – Malin Lobb flying a Niviuk Peak 4. And here’s Brett Hazlett combining rear riser active flying with ‘loose-hips’ in a PWC comp.
Flying with Speedbar
Not only is being on speed-bar – even if only on quarter-bar – a good source of information about the pressure of your leading edge, but ‘speed to fly’ principles for the best glides advise us to use speedbar much more than most of us would normally think, even when ridge soaring. It definitely shouldn’t just be used for when we’re pinned in strong winds.
“When pilots start out they often only use the bar when they get pinned to a ridge or very tentatively on a glide. But the speedbar is just another control on your glider. If you aren’t using it you are missing out. In sink or in headwind it can make a huge difference to performance. …Today’s gliders are so good on bar that you don’t really sink all that much…all the way up to top speed. In fact, with their shorter span and lower line-area some modern EN B gliders outperform some modern EN D gliders at full speed – the sink rate goes up but the speed goes up more than enough to make up for it.” Adrian Thomas
Even for ridge soaring, if there is any element of a head-wind (e.g. into a slight into-wind beat or pushing out away from the ridge), or if there is any sink then it’s strongly advised to fly on bar – particularly in combination with your rear risers. And the extra feedback you get from the pressure through the speed system can help a lot with your active flying.
The speed system can be set up in ‘steps’ so that unless you are thermalling, you are almost always flying on bar with straight legs, controlling the pressure with your foot.
Hunting Lift & Thermalling
We’ve talked about flying with your hips so that the wing stays pressured in bumpy air. But if there are better defined thermals or chunks of lifting air and you are actively trying to thermal or gain height in mixed air, you’ll need to weight shift into the more pressured / rising side of your wing. You’ll also need to ‘dig in’ to the lifting air parcel with your brakes. This is all part of what’s meant by ‘coring’ the lift. This should be done while also maintaining ‘enough’ pressure on opposite brake to prevent collapses.
If the air is thermic and your main goal is to get high, it’s actually safer to work the lift like this – actively digging in to the cores of the lift, and getting away from the thermal edges where collapses happen.
This principle of ‘working the pressure’ can also be applied when trying to find the best lines on glide, weight-shifting into the ‘ribbons’ of lift – whether on an inland XC or ridge soaring.
Make A Decision!
Whether you fly with your hips and brakes to keep the wing evenly pressured, or you actively dig into the pressured side by weight-shift and brakes / rear-risers, depends on your judgement about whether there is decent lift out there, and how bumpy and disorganized the air is. The more you feel you can work the lift, the more you should be actively flying into the pressured or rising side. The more you feel like the air is just bumpy and disorganized, the more you should focus on keeping the wing evenly pressured through the brakes and hips. You need to decide.
Top Pilot Tips 1 : Going With The Flow
The standard idea is to keep the wing pressured and flying above your head safely, but that doesn’t mean stopping all pitch, roll and yaw movement in its tracks. Stopping oscillations is good for performance, but letting the wing ‘follow the air’ ‘naturally’ may also help performance. Getting a feel for this comes with lots of experience. It’s a ‘dark art’.
“Few of us tolerate the amount of rock-and-roll that our wings can actually cope with. Most of us over-control the wing, forcing it to stay above our heads with pumping legs and flailing arms when letting it float would provide far more performance. The glide goes to worms as soon as you touch the brakes.” Adrian Thomas
The more you are flying on rear risers, the more you can let the wing flow with the energy of the air around you while maintaining good performance.
Top Pilot Tips 2: Reading What The Air Is Going To Do Next
Once you are confident about your canopy control, then start to visualise what the air is doing around you, and anticipate what your glider is going to do next.
“The really big difference between the real experts, and the rest of us, is that they get the wing set up for what the air is going to do next, whereas we have to wait. Most of us are reactive, the real experts learn the patterns in the air movements and become predictive.” Adrian Thomas
The more your senses are widened and alert to what is happening in the air around you – feeling how the wing moves through the air in the presence of thermals, using your ears to hear different types of air rushing past your canopy, being sensitive differences in temperature, as well as seeing all the signs from birds, other pilots, the waves on the sea and the evolving clouds and their shadows – the better this kind of skill gets.
Good active flying and positive psychology go hand in hand. Active flying depend on you being relaxed and focused – not fixated or inhibited by fear. It needs confidence. It also builds confidence.
And we can’t be disheartened by cock-ups – or embarrassed by showing ourselves up – if we want a fast learning curve. Making mistakes – and making sure we learn from them – is the fastest route to getting better!
Paragliding and (some) fear go together! Greg Hamerton at FlyBubble has a good list of why you might be afraid: flying in turbulence thinking the glider might collapse, not trusting the gear, thinking that you might have a mid-air collision, that you might crash when landing, thinking you might be sucked up by a cloud, being worried about a walk-out or not getting back to your car if you try ‘going over the back’, or being worried that you might panic if you fly too high – or in a place that is too remote.
Some fear is normal. All pilots feel fear at times and that’s part of flying – not something to try to avoid. Fear can make us alert and focused and fly better. What we want to avoid is too much fear – fear that paralyses us, keeps us from flying, pushing our boundaries, and getting better.
As Greg Hamerton says, “fear can bind you in a web of limitations which will leach the joy out of the sport”.
“When I feel frightened in the air, it is debilitating. I spend most of my energy dealing with it, rather than the task at hand of observing what is going on around me, making tactical decisions and having fun. I land exhausted.” Heike Hamann
Learning to fly better means – step-by-step – opening the conditions in which we can feel confident about what we’re doing, increasing our tolerance to challenging conditions, and NOT feel this kind of fear.
If you are want to thermal – whether at St Agnes, Carn Brea or in thermic, mountainous sites abroad – you may need to work with fears about dealing with turbulence, or leaving the familiarity and security of the hill, or being worried about not being able to get back to the car. On smaller ridges you may have to deal with fears of other glider’s wakes or collisions, or tricky take-offs. If you want to do big wing-overs you may have to deal with fears of collapses.
Here are some tips for dealing with fear in the air from Heinke Hamann, former Australian national paragliding champion and psychologist, in Fifty Ways To Fly Better:
- Notice that you are afraid. Sometimes we don’t even recognize our fear.
- Identify what you’re afraid of. This may be obvious sometimes, but not always. Then you may be able to deal with it before you’ve already committed to landing! And after landing, you may be able to think of ways of dealing with your fear.
- Is it a real danger, or a subjective, irrational one? Is the risk high or low? Apart from your own experience, talking with others of a similar ability can help with this evaluation – as well as reading forums, articles, books, etc. For instance, I found out that many pilots (e.g. Bob Drury) think it’s perfectly acceptable in a big XC flight to have a few big collapses. In my own experience I’d agree with this for most collapses. It becomes dangerous when you collapse low down, not high up.
- In any case if you feel afraid, look around. Fear makes us fixated, and forcing ourselves to look around can reduce the fear.
- Breathe! Fear makes our breathing shallow or hyperventilated. Deep, steady breaths help reduce fear instantly, and improve mental clarity.
- Set yourself a mini-goal. These are critical and can shift your focus from your fear to something positive. If it’s bumpy air, your goal might be: ‘find the lift and get higher’. If a thermal is strong with sharp edges, your goal might be: ‘Let’s core this f**ker’. If you’re suddenly feeling panicked by being so high – your goal might be: ‘find the best line on glide’ or even (like my partner Annie): ‘Take some photos’. If the air is aggressive, your mindset for your goal may need to be aggressive too. And as Jocky Sanderson says, by focusing on a goal you can turn feeling anxious to a feeling excited and determined.
- Talk to other people on the radio. Talking to people while you are flying is a great way of moving through a state where you feel anxious or afraid – particularly if you’re talking to someone experienced you trust. For this reason – along with many other good reasons – it’s worth having a radio when you fly I more challenging conditions, outside your comfort zone.
- Use your ‘anchors’. These are little rituals that help you centre yourself and feel more on top of the situation. It might be some motivating words, or a song, or a shout or ‘yeeehaa’. Or it may be something you do that you associate with being relaxed and focused when you’re not flying. Competition pilot Lauren Martins always flies with a little furry rabbit – maybe that’s an anchor for her when she’s scared?
The more you work through fears while you’re in the air like this – as you use your active flying skills to cope with the challenge – the more your confidence builds and the quicker you’re on the way to becoming a really good, all-round pilot.
Hugh Miller is both one of UK’s best cross-country pilots as well as a CBT therapist, helping people overcome thoughts that make people anxious or depressed, or limit what they can achieve. So he’s an ideal person to listen to when it comes to the psychology of paragliding.
“Jane is a brilliant, natural pilot, and is often at the top of the stack. But on scratchy days, she used to find herself sat on the hill, unwilling to launch, letting the ‘top guns’ enjoy the light thermals out front. Her reluctance was holding her back, and I was intrigued where it came from – as she so wanted to start knocking out some big distances.” Hugh Miller
First Jane said “I don’t want to bomb out”. But thinking about it more, she admitted, “I don’t want to mess it up for the better pilots” She didn’t want to take the risk of showing herself up. She was putting herself down, and her doubts got in the way of a learning experience, and the chance to build her scratching skills. Not trying was better than failing.
Having rooted out a belief like this that keeps playing in our mind again and again like a stuck record – like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I don’t want to show myself up’ – it’s easier to challenge that belief and replace it with a more positive one. For Jane, she realized that her desire to improve her flying ran deeper than her fear of failing in front of others or getting in their way. She started believing that ‘this is a chance to get better through practice’ – even if there was a risk of embarrassment. Because of this her flying got better and better in scratchy conditions.
Hugh Miller gives other examples of self-limiting beliefs:
“I find it very hard to concentrate for more than two or three hours, and by mid-afternoon I usually go totally vacant for a short time and land soon after. No doubt it’s a blood sugar low, but it really messes with my head.”
“God I’m so stupid, what am I doing?” tends to see me drift aimlessly in zeroes for ages.”
He advises that we check our own beliefs and how realistic they actually are, and work at replacing them with more positive, but realistic, ones.
A real help here can be learning to replace the belief that not trying is better than failing – particularly in front of others.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Johnson
Failure is good as long as it doesn’t become a habit.
“Failure is an event, not a person. Yesterday ended last night.” Zig Ziglar
Bomb out early, cock up your wing-overs, fuff up your top landing in front of a crowd, lose sight of others speeding off on an XC, get a bit scared trying out someone else’s wing – the more we do all this stuff and learn from it, the faster we’ll become a really good, all-round pilots – maybe even ‘top pilots’!
Playing with Pitch, Roll and Yaw
All should be visualized too.
For a random guide, each could be practiced for 50+ times or for 1 hour or more.
They could then be demonstrated on video x5 times or for 2 minutes.
Dolphining – 45° – with brakes
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
Dolphining – 45°- with speedbar
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
Dolphining – 45°- with rear risers
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
Roll oscillation – weightshift
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
- Brake > dive and turn (l & r)
- Speedbar > rise and turn (l & r)
- Weightshift > opposite turn (l & r)
Weightshift and rear-riser wingovers
45° wingovers – weightshift & brakes
Deep dolphining >45° find frontal collapse angle (ready with brakes!)
Over-the-top wingovers (outer brakes for collapses)
Spiral dives & exits (l & r)
Finding Stall Point
Minimum speed flying
Pre-stall – release (minimum speed, then 1 cm more > quick release) – near ground
Pre-stall – release – at altitude
Landing & hovering on feature
Pitching dive (swoop) close to ground
Shallow wing-overs close to ground
Ground spirals (careful!)
Damping and Maintaining Wing Pressure
Damping pitch oscillation – with brakes
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
Damping pitch oscillation – with speedbar
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
Damping pitch oscillation – with rear risers
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
Roll oscillation damping – with weightshift
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
Flying with hips in bumpy conditions – no brakes
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
Keeping wing directly overhead in turbulent conditions – brakes
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
- Try with gliders wake turbulence
Keeping wing directly overhead in bumpy conditions – rear-risers & speedbar
- Looking at horizon
- Looking at wing
Efficient Tracking & Turning
Heavy weightshift tracking – no brakes – following lift
Rear riser + weightshift tracking – following lift
Weightshift + rear riser figure of 8s ridge soaring
Weightshift + rear riser large 360s
Weightshift + brakes thermalling
Weightshift + inside break + outside rear riser
Dolphining – alternating brakes, speedbar and rear riser
Dolphining > spiral; Spiral > dolphining
Tracking lift / thermalling using different control inputs
Different waga sequences (visualize also)