Launch sites are widely varied. Some will be open and grassy. Others may be rocky, brushy, or narrow and lined with trees. Your ground handling skills will be put to the test during any launch, but especially at sites that have more challenging aspects to them.
Things to keep in mind while assessing a launch site should be: slope angle, wind, line snag hazards, obstructions, footing, and whether it will be possible to abort a launch or not. If there are rocks and vegetation that can snag your lines, be sure you double check them before launching. If there are obstacles at or below the launch be sure you choose a path before you inflate your glider.
This is especially pertinent if you are using a reverse launch. The slope angle will have an effect on how quickly the glider will load and get you airborne. If it is very steep you will probably get off the ground quickly – should the launch not go as planned you still need to be prepared to abort, regardless of the wind or situation. Aborting launches is something every pilot will do, and not something to be ashamed of. Better to be prepared to abort and walk away. Like many pilots say:
“It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.”
If the slope is shallow and the wind is light you will have to generate enough airspeed to get airborne, and you may have to run farther than expected. The addition of an up-slope airflow will lessen the speed at which you have to run. Too much up-slope airflow will make it more difficult to manage the energy in your glider and more difficult to launch. In higher wind conditions, it may be necessary to de-energize the glider by stepping toward it and using the rear risers. It is important to assess the conditions and have an adequate technique for each launch situation. Visualize the technique and energy that will be required to get the glider overhead and smoothly transition into flight.
The torpedo position is the most common way to successfully and safely launch and drive your glider off the hill. It gives you the ability to accelerate your glider and transfer that energy into flight. The actual moment you assume the torpedo position is slightly different for reverse and forward launches.
When using a reverse inflation you will turn to face forward once the glider is under control – at that point the glider is overhead and you are facing down the slope, you will want to assume the torpedo position (chest & head forward with arms back). You should be leaning and looking forward, feet behind you, arms back and up, and driving forward with your legs. This keeps the glider “loaded” and your legs positioned to run.
When using a forward launch, you will assume the torpedo position sooner in the process – as soon as you start running to bring your glider up.
When standing upright it is easy to get lifted and have your legs swing forward which usually results in an abrupt landing on your harness. Keep yourself in the torpedo position until clear of launch.
Forward inflations in higher winds generally don’t work. As you move forward the glider comes up behind you, enters “drag-chute” mode, and drags you backward. It is very difficult to run backwards to de-energize the glider and almost impossible to reach the rear risers to disable it.
When launching in gusty air you will want to be careful to look down the slope before launching to see what is coming up at you. If you launch into a strong parcel of air you may be picked up unexpectedly while still in a reverse position. If this happens, DO NOT put your hands out for balance. You will initiate a sharp turn close to the ground and run the risk of being flung into the hillside. Instead, keep your hands up where they should be for flying, since that is what you are doing, and allow the risers to un-twist from the reverse position without making any sudden inputs. If you are confident you can abort the launch you may do so, but this usually requires a high level of ground handling skill. Even advanced pilots will generally fly the glider away from the hill if they become airborne while reversed.
Note: On the first few flights you will remain upright, NOT sitting back in the harness. Once you have had a few flights and have gotten your flare timing correct, you will learn to get seated properly.
Getting Into Your Harness
Once you are airborne and a safe distance away from the hill, you may get comfortable in your harness. There are several safe methods for this. Using a foot stirrup or the one handed flying method are common. Some harnesses will simply scoop you in once airborne and no further action is required.
The foot stirrup method requires that your harness has a stirrup attached. Once you are airborne, while maintaining horizon reference, locate the stirrup with one or both feet and push yourself into the harness. This prevents you from having to relinquish control of the glider.
The one handed method is less favorable in bumpy conditions because you relinquish some control of the glider. You will need to maintain a horizon reference to avoid being pushed off course and flying into obstacles. You will lean behind the risers and place both controls in the same hand that you would throw your reserve with. This is to prevent you from accidentally deploying your reserve while getting into the har- ness. Next, reach down the left side of your harness and hook your thumb behind one of the straps below your carabiner. In one motion, bring your knees to your chest and push forward with your non-brake hand. You can readjust from this position if necessary. If you find yourself drifting off course you may correct it with the hand that is holding both controls. If you are drifting left, push your control hand left. If you are drifting right, push your control hand right to correct your course.
Once you are comfortable, cross your legs at the ankles or keep them tight together. This helps dampen oscillations that could otherwise be exaggerated by your legs swinging about. When flying, you want to have a tight lower body and a loose upper body. There are some key things to remember when you are getting into your harness. Getting comfortable is a low priority and avoiding obstacles is high priority. If you are drifting into an obstacle, encounter turbulence, etc. rectify the situation before getting comfortable. Flying the glider is your number one priority. Do not rush to get comfortable. The most dangerous time in a paraglider is when you are close to the ground so you should be extra attentive when launching, landing, or flying low. Never let go of your control toggles and/or grab the risers to help you get into your seat.
Active Piloting, Surge & Roll Control
Once you are safely in the harness the fun begins. Your first flights will consist of smooth “sled rides” (top to bottom flights with no elevation gain). You will be flying the glider at trim speed most of the time. You should feel about 3-5 Lbs. of pressure on the brake lines.
At some point you will fly in more active conditions with small thermals or other air texture that can cause the glider to move around. You can keep the glider from mov- ing around too much by using active piloting. This involves feeling a constant pressure on the brake lines and adjusting your weight in the harness to keep straight and level flight. At first you will probably be slow to react when making these adjustments, but af- ter some practice it will become second nature. Remember that active piloting doesn’t necessarily involve constant action. It means constantly being aware of what the glider needs and making the correct input at the correct time. Be careful not to over control the glider. This can be worse than under-controlling.
In smooth air, you will be making minimal pressure adjustments. In active condi- tions you may need to make continuous and rapid adjustments. If the pressure de- creases in the brake lines and the wing is out in front of you, your hands should de- scend until you feel pressure again and the wing is back over your head. If the pressure increases and the wing gets behind you, your hands should rise until you feel 3-5 Lbs. of pressure again and the wing begins to come forward over your head. The idea is to apply the brakes at just the right time to keep the glider over your head, or to stop its energy when it is directly over your head.
Keeping the glider from getting out in front of you, or from rocking behind you is called surge or pitch control. This backward and forward rocking is one of the most common movements a glider can make. When it encounters a parcel of air that is rising it will pitch back giving it a higher angle of attack. The amount of pitch will depend on the speed and size of the parcel of air that is rising. After this rearward pitch the glider will then surge forward giving it a lower angle of attack. You can help circumvent prob- lems by making a few simple adjustments while this surging is occurring. When the glider pitches back it will have a high angle of attack, so we ease up on the control tog- gles and allow it to speed up and move forward. When you feel the glider start to surge forward and come overhead, you add brake input to slow it down and keep it overhead. The further the glider pitches back, the further it will likely pitch forward, and the more brake input you will need to give it to slow it down. Occasionally you may encounter air that causes the glider to surge forward without pitching backward first. The correction is the same and you would immediately add brake input to slow the glider down. If you maintain horizon reference while flying, the movements of your glider will be easier to detect, and you will be able to make the correct input.
Atmospheric conditions that cause surging can also cause the glider to roll. If the glider is raised higher on one side than the other it will create a similar tilt in your har- ness thus alerting you to the roll. You should also see the change in your horizon refer- ence. To correct it simply shift your weight to the high side of the harness and force an alignment of your risers and re-center your glider. If one side of your glider rises slightly, you can add a little weight shift to that side until it flattens back out. If you get a roll oscil- lation and are swinging from side to side, do not attempt to correct it with opposite brake. If your timing is off it will make the roll worse. You should add a few extra pounds of pressure to both brakes and hold it until the swinging stops. You may then ease up on the toggles and return to trim speed.
When approaching any landing zone you will most likely have excess altitude that you will need to burn off in order to land accurately. The best way to lose altitude without overshooting your landing zone is to make turns. By adding brake input the angle of attack is increased on that side of the wing. The increased drag will slow down that side like an oar in the water. The opposite side will continue flying at its original speed, resulting in a turn. Basic turning is easily accomplished by pulling the appropri- ate brake until the desired rate and amount of turn is reached.
Before you turn, look in the direction you will be turning to ensure the path is clear of other pilots or obstacles. The action of turning your head will also serve as a turn signal to other pilots in the area and let them know which direction you intend to turn. Once you have determined the airspace is clear, shift your weight to the side of the harness you want to turn toward. Keep looking into the turn! Shifting your weight will allow you to use less brake input and make the turn more efficient. You should use weight shift in your turns as much as possible. As your are looking and weight shifting, add brake input and hold it. The glider should come around smoothly and you will be able to adjust the turn with the amount of brake input you use. Always keep some brake pressure on the outside control toggle/brake as well to maintain active piloting and keep the glider from diving into the turn. As you reach the desired heading ease up on the weight shift and brake input to transition back to straight and level flight.
Turns are an excellent way to lose altitude. The steeper the turn, the more altitude you will lose. When close to the ground you should only make turns with a low bank angle (flat turns) to avoid losing altitude too quickly. Never make sharp turns close to the ground. Sharp turns can build up a lot of energy and speed and you won’t enjoy dissipating that energy into the ground.
There are several types of turns, but the one you will be using most during your training are S-turns. Later you will learn figure-8 and 360° turns. S-turns are course ad- justments of up to 180° though may be far less. During an S-turn you are always in a position to straighten your course toward the landing zone and into the wind. The closer to the ground you are, the shallower your turns should be. 180° turns should not be done close to the ground.
Figure-8 turns are very similar to 180° s-turns except you continue the turn back over a fixed spot on the ground. This keeps you from moving toward your landing area and potentially overshooting. Holding your position at one end of the landing zone may be important if you arrive with a lot of excess altitude. When you are at an appropriate level you may transition to s-turns, then shallow s-turns, final glide, and landing.
360° turns are useful when you have a lot of altitude to expend over your landing zone or are thermaling. When making 360° turns, it is important to pay attention to your drift and be alert for obstacles. If there is any wind, it will affect the shape of your 360 relative to the ground. Your flight path will be shorter when facing into the wind, and longer when facing downwind. This is of particular importance when there are obstacles like mountains downwind of you. For this reason, you will only do 360° when well away from obstacles. However, 360° turns can be useful for determining wind direc- tion over a landing zone. By monitoring your drift over a landing zone while doing 360° turns you can determine the wind direction. You will always drift downwind. You initiate a 360° turn the same as a 180° turn but hold it through 360°. You shouldn’t need more than half your overall brake travel.
As a new pilot, you should never perform 360’s close to the ground. They can burn a lot of altitude quickly and are easy to misjudge. If you apply too much brake and perform too steep a turn, you can build up a lot of speed and may become dizzy or disoriented. Too much brake input on the inside may also cause the inside wings angle of attack to become too high and stall, causing a spin (see “spins” in Risk Manage- ment). Be cautious making turns away from the landing area. If you aren’t paying atten- tion, it’s easy to lose too much altitude and not make it back to your intended landing area.
Airspeed & Ground Speed
Airspeed is the speed of the glider through the air. This is constant, unless the angle of attack changes either by the pilot applying brakes, or from a change in relative wind (see Flight Dynamics). Most gliders fly between 20 and 23 mph through the air with no brake input (trim).
Ground speed is the speed of the glider relative to the ground. Your ground speed is a combination of airspeed and wind speed. With a headwind, your ground speed is airspeed minus wind speed. With a tailwind, it is airspeed plus wind speed. The more headwind you have, the slower your landing speed (ground speed) will be. A decrease in your ground speed will proportionally decrease your glide ratio (horizontal distance divided by vertical distance), and an increase in your ground speed will in- crease your glide ratio. If, for example, your airspeed is 20 Mph and you have a 5 Mph headwind, your ground speed and your glide ratio will be reduced by 25% (ground speed becomes 15 Mph and a glide of 7:1 becomes 5:1).
Landing Patterns & Approaches
Before you fly a new site, you should take time to look at the landing zone and think about the possible landing approaches. When it comes time to land you should already have a plan in mind. Think about all the possible directions you could be coming from and visualize the landing approach for each. Always make sure you will have ample altitude to reach your landing zone. Don’t count on a perfect glide. You may encounter sink or a headwind that could cause you to land short of the landing zone. Having extra altitude will give you a chance to determine the wind direction and give you an opportunity to set up a good approach pattern. When it comes time to land, you will most likely use either a T-approach, a downwind-base-final, or both combined.
The T-approach involves drawing an imaginary T across your landing zone with the base of the T crossing the center of the field into the wind. The top of the T should be at the downwind edge of your landing zone. You should lose your altitude with figure- 8 turns at the top of the T. Once you are low enough, proceed onto your final glide down the base of the T, into the wind. You may need to do several shallow S-turns along the base of the T to lose more altitude. When doing figure-8 turns, stay focused on the target in the landing zone that you want to hit. This will help you know when to go on your final glide.
The downwind-base-final approach involves three steps that put you in the cor- rect position for landing. You start with a downwind leg along one edge of the landing zone. In light winds, you may extend this leg beyond the downwind edge of the landing zone as long as you have enough altitude to get back. The base leg across the down- wind edge of the landing zone will move you to the center of the downwind edge. When centered, you will make one last turn into the wind and onto your final approach. As in a T-approach, you may have to do several shallow s-turns along the final glide to burn off any excess altitude.
Once on final glide, you will be out of your harness and have your feet and knees together in the PLF position. If you are lifted while on final glide, you may have to do several s-turns to burn off altitude. You should be constantly evaluating your altitude, the wind speed, and your glide ratio. If you are lifted as you begin your flare do not con- tinue the flare. Hold your hands where they are, and when you are back down to 3 feet, finish your flare. If you continue to rise more than a few feet SLOWLY ease your hands back up. If you raise your hands quickly the glider will surge and abruptly swing you into the ground. When you start to descend again treat it like another landing. If you are coming in for a landing and start to descend quicker than usual, you will need to flare earlier. It will probably still be a faster landing than usual, but you want to slow yourself as much as possible by completing a full flare. If you are landing fast, try to match speeds with the ground by running. If the landing is too fast, perform a PLF.
You will tend to land on what you are looking at; commonly known as “object fixation”. This is beneficial if you are focused on your spot landing target, but it can be un- helpful if your are fixated on a fence, tree, vehicle or other obstacle. Force yourself to look at the spot you want to land on.
Whenever possible challenge yourself to make spot landings. Spot landings take practice to master, but once you are confident, you will be able to land in smaller landing zones and, in turn, fly more places.
Any time you are landing remember it is better to land safely and have to walk, than it is to try a risky landing close to your target. Spot landings are not mandatory. Safety is.