Clouds

Hearing of the Wind

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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Pre-Flight Routine

It was a warm Southern California morning as we sat on launch, waiting for the first thermals to start rolling up the hill.  As we contemplated, talked, and speculated on the day a small group of local pilots showed up.  They were kind and offered their thoughts and advice.  As they began getting ready to launch we watched their preflight routine.  A fellow pilot in our group (an instructor) noticed the local pilot getting ready to launch had missed a few things.  He kindly pointed out that his speed bar was not attached, and that his reserve handle was broken and would not deploy if needed.  It was a great reminder to me that day that we should all have a solid and consistent pre-flight routine.

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Notice anything wrong here, besides the obvious speed bar attachment? Look closely at the make shift zip-tie reserve pins.

It is spring again, and many pilots who have not flown for a few months are finding their way back to the mountains. Regardless of whether or not your a new pilot, rusty pilot, sharp pilot, or an old timer pilot, we all need to find a pre-flight routine that works.  Making sure all the vital steps are followed is a great way to insure a safer flight.  Every pilot’s routine is different, and that is okay, so long as it works and is consistently followed….every single time!

 

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Since there is no right or wrong sequence, I thought I would share my 10-point pre-flight routine.  It may not be perfect, but it is one I have followed for many years and has served me well.


Pre-Flight Routine

My preflight routine begins as soon as I land from my last flight. I detach and fold up my wing every single time I land. This gives me a chance to do a proper line check and organize my risers in such a way that there is no guess work on the next launch.  It also allows me to quickly look over my wing as a whole during the folding process.  That way, when I am at launch I can be confident that my wing is ready to fly, the lines are clear, and properly aligned (A’s on top).

Another important aspect that should be discussed is of course whether or not to fly. This is actually not part of my pre-flight routine, because I will never even begin my routine until I am confident that the conditions are inline with my expectations and I have made the decision to fly.  To understand what I do to determine if it is safe or not even fly, please see my article on The Energy Equation.

We are now at the launch site and everything looks good and a decision has been made to fly.  All my stuff is now on my body, or packed in my harness.  My helmet is on and nothing but my wing and harness are on the ground. The 10-steps I do are quick and I make it a point not to stop, or be interrupted.  If by chance someone talks to me during the process, I start over and start counting again.

Step 1: I put on my harness, then leg buckle left.
Step 2: Leg buckle right.
Step 3: Chest strap left.
Step 4: Chest strap right.

I can usually take a break here, especially since my wing is usually folded up.  If I am flying with radios or instruments, I get them ready at this point and make sure the are turned on and checked.  I am about 60-90 seconds away from launching.  At this point I lay out my wing and unfold it.  I already know my lines are sorted and risers aligned so I can quickly connect to my wing.

Step 5: Riser left, until I hear the carabiner click.
Step 6: Riser right, until I hear the carabiner click.
Step 7: Speed Bar left.
Step 8: Speed Bar right.

I will often do another quick line check and make sure once again that the A’s are on top, and that the brake controls are pulled all they way out with no snags.

Step 9: Reserve chute handle check, just to make sure it is there and connected properly.
Step 10: Breathe.  This calms me down for just a few seconds so I can pause, feel the air and make the last metal preparations required for executing a proper launch.

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Paul, going through his pre-flight routine.

In the end, the local pilot decided he wasn’t going to need his speed bar, and that he didn’t think he would need his reserve.  He inflated his wing and set off into the sky.  As pilots, let’s all remember to follow a solid pre-flight routine. Regardless of what routine you decide to follow be vigilant and follow that routine every single time!  It is a great, and perhaps life saving habit to get into. Remember, If someone, or something interrupts your routine, don’t be afraid to just start over and get it right.  It makes for a safer and lower stress flying experience.  I hope to see you in the sky soon.

 

 

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Mind Those Toggles

One of my favorite aspects of paragliding has been mentoring new (and sometimes not so new) pilots through the years. It is a rewarding experience watching and helping others accomplish their individual goals. Sometimes these goals are small and simple, like learning to circle in a thermal. Others are more difficult like XC flying across an entire mountain range, or pioneering a new flying site. No matter what the goal might be, it is always a rewarding experience to both teach, learn and accomplish something together.  After all, as pilots we should always be willing to both share our experiences, and be eager to learn new things.

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Those waiting moments offer each of us great opportunities to learn and share.

So often in this pursuit of paragliding we find ourselves driving, hiking or just waiting around.  These transition moments offer great opportunities for questions and conversations to emerge.  One question that I have been asked several times through the years, is “how do you hold your toggles?” I found that a strange question the first time I heard it, so I shared my experience the best I could.  In the spirit of that question, I thought I would share my thoughts and experience as to how and why I hold the control toggles the way I do.

Stage 1: The Trapeze
The control toggle attaches to the brake/control lines of a paraglider and has a standard trapeze configuration. When learning to fly under direction of my instructor, I always held those toggles right across the bar. It didn’t take long for me to realize I didn’t feel comfortable, nor connected with my wing holding them this way.  Besides, I seemed to want to hold onto the risers when flying this way, which is a big no, no in paragliding. Once I was flying on my own, away from instruction I quickly graduated on to the next stage.

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Holding my toggles in what I like to call “The Rabbit Hole” approach.

Stage 2: The Rabbit Hole
Watching others around me, and asking questions myself I quickly adopted the hand through the toggle, or “rabbit hole” approach. My fingers were finally attached to the line and I could feel my glider so much better.  With the lines at my fingertips and the bar on the back of my hand I felt much more secure and no longer felt the need to hold the risers, which is a good thing.  Also, while under normal flying conditions I felt I could easily get my hand out when needed. I flew this way for a long time, years actually, until…that one day. I can still see it vividly. It was a normal mountain flying day, active conditions, but nothing out of the ordinary. I was flying over and around a large peak near my home site (Lone Peak), a flight I had done many times. I was climbing in a thermal, turning steady to the right, when all of the sudden converging air turned my thermal into a washing machine. The right half of my wing collapsed leaving my control line totally slack. I fought for a few seconds then decided I should probably throw my reserve. As I reached for my reserve handle I realized I could not get my hand out of my toggle and it quickly became tangled. Because my hand was “through” the toggle I could not easily slip it out in a slack condition when I needed to.  I quickly gained control of my glider again and flew away safely, but in the aftermath I began looking for another way.

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Holding my toggles in what I like to call the “Bar Half Wrap.” Notice the bar in my hand, with the webbing and control line extending around the back of my hand and into my fingers.

Stage 3: The Bar Half Wrap
In the wake of my incident, I adopted a hybrid approach, something between Stage 1 and 2 that I call the “bar half wrap” approach. In this approach I hold the toggle like a trapeze, then wrap the webbing of the toggle and brake line around the outside of my hand until it reaches my fingers. This approach gave me the security I like to feel, and the ability for a quick release of the toggle whenever I needed it. Whether slack or taut just open the palm of your hand and boom, your free.  One thing I noticed a little further down the road was that on long flights, the bar actually kept the line from digging into my fingers which meant no more blood deprived (and warmer) hands. As soon as I adopted this toggle grip my flying seemed to progress rapidly to a higher level. I could feel my glider better than I ever had in the past. I could feel the surges before they happened, actually feel the thermals in the palm of my hands. This is the approach I still use today as it gives me both the security and intimacy required to fly successfully.

Will there be a Stage 4? Perhaps someday, as I am always open to new ideas. Well, that about ends my thoughts, experience and reasons as to why I hold the toggles the way I do.  It may or may not be the right way, but it works for me.  How about you? How do you hold your toggles and why?