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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Several months ago I wrote an article about Managing The Risks of paragliding, which spurred a lot of great conversations and comments. Reflecting on that article, one of the items I mentioned was to make sure we understand which side of the energy equation we are flying on. Several pilots asked great follow up questions wondering what that meant, and how best to apply it. Therefore, in the spirit of sharing, I thought I would discuss my approach to the energy equation and how it works for me.
Let’s talk ENERGY – It is everywhere, it is in everything, and it is a critical concept not only in paragliding, but in ALL types of aviation. Learning to manage energy is one of the fundamental principles every pilot should learn. I say should learn because I do not think many paragliding schools teach it, so it’s up to you! Energy can be boiled down to basically two kinds, Potential Energy (PE) and Kinetic Energy (KE). Understanding how to balance both is vital to safely flying a paraglider. Today we are going to focus on a portion of Kinetic Energy, or more precisely the moving energy of the air over and around our wing.
What we are really trying to determine with this whole energy discussion, is deciding at any given time what has the energy advantage. Is it the glider, or is it the surrounding air? Let me ask it in a more practical way. On any given flight, if you had to quickly get on the ground, out of this canyon, out of this thermal, or even just get out in front of the ridge….could you? If your answer is yes, then your wing has the energy advantage, and that is what we consider being on the right side of the energy equation. I think we have all had times when we realized the air had the advantage and thus we were on the wrong side. It is scary getting blown backwards over a ridge, or going up at 3000 feet/min in a violent thermal, or being sucked into a canyon…well, it is for me at least. I find it is best to eliminate those scenarios before I decide to fly, and the best way is to survey the energy!
For a little more of a scientific approach, the following is an energy equation I developed that helps me make informed decisions. I do not claim it to be right for everybody, but it works for me. I fly primarily the rougher mountains, and am often alone, so a systematic approach has helped me be less emotional and more calculated in my decisions. The equation is simply:
[Glider Energy] – [Air Energy]
which seems to make sense in that who has the advantage, the glider or the surrounding air?
[Glider Energy] (mph) = Airspeed, which is the actual speed of the air traveling over your wing to keep it flying. This is usually the trim speed of your glider, but can vary depending on how slow or fast you decide to fly. Once you get comfortable using the equation it can help you see why we want to fly faster in turbulent air, and why so often your speed system actually helps stabilize your wing in rough conditions.
[Air Energy] (mph) is a little more difficult to determine as it is the amount of swirling air around you which can possibly disrupt or counteract your airspeed. When airspeed is disrupted too much, you get a collapse. In order to determine the Air Energy, we need to break this out a bit:
[Air Energy] = [Wind]*[Terrain Factor] + [Gust]
[Wind] (mph) is the Base wind you feel sitting on launch (or what you measure while flying).
[Terrain Factor] is a unitless number from 0.0 to 1.0 that measures the roughness of the terrain (0.0 meaning completely featureless and smooth while 1.0 is the roughest mountain terrain possible). Most ridge soaring sites are 0.0-0.4, while most mountain sites are 0.5-1.0. The purpose of a terrain factor has everything to do with how wind and thermals interact with the terrain. In rough terrain it is possible to have the base wind actually reverse back on you in small localized gusts. These can be as small as your wing and only last a couple of seconds. These small gusts can disrupt the airflow over your wing thus causing potential collapses. In rough terrain this happens more often, with more force, hence the higher terrain factor.
[Gust] (mph) is the amount of thermal energy you feel while on the ground. This is the gust on top of the base wind that you feel. This thermal energy is from spinning air (thermals are not columns of air going up, they are columns of spinning air with a vertical component). This spinning air can go both ways, and if the spinning air is strong enough it can blow back against the wing, disrupting air flow and thus cause a collapse.
I know this is starting to feel like actual math here, but it is pretty easy and quick, with no pocket protector nor calculator required. Let’s look at a few situations that help put it into action:
Example 1: While sitting on the ground, feeling the steady breeze mixed with thermals rolling up the hill, it is tempting to clip in and go, but should you? You are at your home site, a fairly technical mountain launch with a terrain factor of 0.8. The base wind is about 10 mph blowing straight in. Occasionally you feel about an 8 mph gust on top of the base wind. You fly your glider with an airspeed of about 25 mph, and the stall speed of your glider is about 15 mph. Let’s do the quick math.
Therefore, 25 mph – 16 mph = 9 mph. This is the potential worst case airspeed you can expect going over your wing. Is it MORE than the required 15 mph stall speed of your glider? NO! That means you can be sure that the air has the energy advantage in this situation, not your glider. Therefore you can likely expect collapses and other less fun things to happen. Best to stay on the ground for this one.
Example 2: The next day you try again. You hike up to the same technical mountain site with a terrain factor of 0.8. The base wind is 5 mph straight in with a gust of about 5 mph (means the wind goes from 5 mph to 10 mph at the peak). Feels pretty good, should you fly? Let’s do the quick math.
Therefore, 25 mph – 9 mph = 16 mph. This is the potential worst case airspeed going over your wing. Is it MORE than the required 15 mph stall speed of your glider? YES! that means you can be sure that your glider has the energy advantage in this situation, not the air. Therefore you can likely expect little to no collapses and a fun, relatively mellow flight. Time to get in the air.
This simple mathematical approach is what I have used through the years when trying to assess a flying site. No, it is not perfect, but it has helped me put aside emotion and make better decisions inline with my personal risk tolerance. Hopefully you find this discussion helpful in your flying pursuits. I would encourage each of you to find your own approach to energy and make a conscious effort to fly on the right side of the equation. Wishing you all safe and happy flying, and I hope to see you up high in the mountain air soon.