Last Saturday as I was flying above the north facing walls of Mount Olympus, a mass of violent spinning air slammed into my wing like a freight train. It was in that moment of heightened awareness I was reminded of a tip I learned many years ago. A tip that today allowed me to ‘catch’ my wing before it even tried to collapse.

Flying towards the walls of Mount Olympus on the Wasatch Mountain Range
Flying towards the walls of Mount Olympus on the Wasatch Mountain Range

Through the years I have learned that paragliding is a pursuit ruled by the human senses. Although air is initially invisible to the untrained eye, we learn to make decisions based on elements we can actually see and feel. As we advance in our flying careers we begin to see and feel the invisible air in a whole new way. We learn to watch the birds, the clouds, and the leaves sparkling in the breeze. We learn to feel the air in new ways, like the difference between base wind, thermals, edges, cores, and which direction the air is spinning. A combination of all these senses teach us how the air moves across terrain, and in turn helps us become better and safer pilots.

Several years ago when I was just learning to “see” the air around me and fumbling my way in and out of mountain thermals, a fellow pilot gave me a quick tip. He told me to make sure I always had a helmet where I could ‘hear’ the air with no obstructions. I thought that was an odd comment, but has proven to be pure gold in the advancement of my flying. Ever since that day I began to really notice how the air not only felt, but how certain air actually sounded. While flying high above the sparkling leaves and out of sight of many visual triggers, this tip allows me to actually hear an approaching thermal, or hear a mass of turbulent air coming my way long before I feel it.

That leads me back to Saturday. I could hear the turbulent air approaching like a freight train, and knew by the way it sounded that it could mean only one thing. I tightened up the controls and was able to catch the wing surge before I actually felt it. If I would have waited until I felt the surge, it would have been be too late, and I would now be telling you a story about collapse recovery. Time after after time listening to the air has proven to be a valuable tool in my free-flight toolbox.

When it comes to paragliding, we should always remember to use all our senses, including listening, to better make decisions and thus more clearly “see” the air around us. By listening to the air while flying you can glean large amounts of information to help you make safer and more reliable decisions. If you are struggling with, or just learning how to thermal fly, try using a helmet where you can hear the swirling air around you….then of course, listen!

Happy flying, and I hope to see you high above the mountains soon.

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