Out of the corner of my eye I see a small flutter of brown. I turn my head to see a bald eagle just off the tip of my wing turning back towards the mountains. I lean hard, bank my glider and follow his lead. Moments later we are met with dynamic rising air, pushing us upwards. With wing tips locked together we rapidly climb upwards, with each circle leaving the snow covered landscape below. This is not an uncommon occurrence in my life, it seems to happen all the time, but in this particuarly intimate moment with nature, I take a deep breath and realize how lucky I truly am.
Back in October of last year my legs and feet suddenly began to hurt. At first it felt like really sore muscles. No big deal, so I kept pushing harder and harder, but as the days passed my condition rapidly deteriorated. I remember stepping out of a truck on a high mountain launch site, barely able to walk. That flight was breathtaking, beautiful, rugged, and memorable in so many ways. The next morning, I could no longer walk. The pain and inflammation in my feet, legs and back was so overwhelming that my body could no longer stand upright, let alone push itself forward.
After countless doctor visits, I was still nowhere. Things spiraled out of control and I soon found myself in the Emergency Room fighting this mysterious illness. That led to several days in the hospital, along with every possible test known to mankind. I had my fair share of needles, blood tests, MRI machines, and head scratching doctors. From back specialists to orthopedic doctors, oncology to infectious disease specialists; nobody could determine the root cause. Eventually I ended up in the Rheumatology department. It was here I finally had some real answers, some actual proof, and more importantly a pathway to moving forward. Unfortunately, there was so much damage in the tendons and soft tissues of my feet that healing was going to be a slow process.
There were many dark days in pain sector 9, but I found hope and healing in the kindness of my friends. So many were eager to lend a kind hand, a listening ear, or just a few minutes of distraction. Even with all the help around me, I knew I had to do my part too. So, each day I would try and walk just a little. I remember how excited I was when I walked 150 steps in a single day. Each day I continued to walk, step by step, looking, hoping, and praying for the opportunity to someday hike and fly above the mountains again.
As I circle wing tip to wing tip with this majestic bald eagle I realize how lucky I truly am. Blessed for the opportunity to fly once again. I am not fully recovered as I will never be fully rid of this disease. Hard as it may seem, it is just something I must now learn to live with each day. I may be hiking a little slower these days, but I am hiking again, flying again, and trying to enjoy the simple sensations that this amazing life on this amazing earth provides.
(For better or worst, I film stuff. This short video captures a few scenes during my recovery process. Not a great film, but a journal entry)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.