Freeflying is deceptively simple. Lobbing off the hill can be achieved with a little run but flying away can take years to get right. There are so many lessons to learn, and getting any one of them wrong seems to put you on the deck before you can say “top to bottom”. In this article Flybubble team pilot Dickon Walker shares some of things “I wish they’d told me.”
1. If it’s going up, turn!
Thermaling is an art more than a science but it is fundamentally simple: if the air under your wing is going up, you want to be turning in it. Many pilots spend years flying through thermals – in one side, then out the other. The art to flying well and flying high is to find thermals and stay in them.
If you find yourself constantly dropping out of the edge of a thermal, you probably want to turn more tightly. Most thermal gaggles (especially near launch) end up turning in too wide a radius, due to the pilot with the least experience dictating the turn.
The best lift is usually found in the middle and if you can consistently stay in the thermal you’ll go up much more reliably and quickly than if you keep falling out of the edge.
2. Fly your own flight
Comparison really doesn’t help. It’s frustrating to compare against better pilots, be irritated by badly flown thermal gaggles, or grumble about crowding. Focus on how you can do the best with what you are given. Make clear decisions of your own, so that you can learn from them. Let your heart guide you: Where do you want to go today? What do you want to achieve?
3. Watch the best pilots
Where are they finding the rising air? What lines are they taking? How are they linking moves to keep gaining more height, opening options and opportunities which are not available to those soaring closer to the hill?
Getting away from the hill can sometimes be like playing chess – it is a question of manoeuvring for position until your attacking move becomes clear.
4. If you stay up, you’ll go far
Phrases you’ll hear from other pilots such as “Speed to fly, pressing on, maximising the potential of the day”, are advanced aspects of paragliding. For your first few years, certainly in the UK at least, the best practice is to simply stay up. In my years of ‘learning by mistakes’, I’ve noticed rushing is often a precursor to landing.
Paragliding is paradoxical: an adrenaline sport best performed in Zen-like calm. I used to drink RedBull before flying, in the expectation that it would help me be sharp, focused and able to concentrate, until I worked out that it made me rush, and that rushing caused mistakes.
Flying distance is first and foremost about staying up: turning in zeros will often unlock the door to a working thermal, or allow you to slowly drift through a blue hole, or until the midday lull passes, or until you reach a better air mass.
It’s not about the distance at those moments: kick back, admire the view and remember how lucky you are to be flying with the birds.
5. Be prepared to travel
Staying local is easier, but will give considerably less opportunities for the big flights. Find your own tribe who are willing to travel on the good days. Keep putting yourself on the right hill and watching the good guys and you too will be flying 100km flights on your days out.
6. Paragliding is dangerous
There is a reason the BHPA, coaches, clubs, old pilots all bang on about safety. We really can’t be too careful in the air.
Some pilots have managed 25-year careers and never had an accident (Till Gottbrath who founded Nova for instance) but it’s no coincidence that he is a very conservative and risk-averse pilot. I would guess that the majority of pilots experience some degree of injury.
The #1 factor is affecting your safety is attitude: decide to fly safely above all other priorities, decide to land safely from every flight. Personally my goal is to be flying safely until I’m 80. If I keep doing that, my other goals (such as cracking 200km in the UK) will sooner or later fall into place.
Most of all, listen to your gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t and your gut is the best tool you have to get you down in one piece or prioritise discretion over valour in deciding to stay on the ground while leaving the flying to another day.
7. SIV, SIV, SIV
If you intend to go cross country, sooner or later, your wing will collapse. An SIV course under your belt will likely make the difference between responding with the right reaction and the wrong one.
It will also allow you to feel safer in the air whilst flying which in itself will bring about more enjoyment. It might feel scary, but it’s also a lot of fun!
8. Negativity is contagious
The best pilots are either insanely optimistic, or they just get on with things and don’t complain. Negative pilots will spend all day moaning about dangers, limitations and impossibilities while the good pilots are getting away and putting in 5 hour XC flights.
My mood can flip between the two poles and the difference is night and day: when I’m in a positive mood I fly well, enjoy the day and rack up km’s, when I’m in a negative one, I fly poorly and generally don’t go very far. So seek out the positive pilots, and let them enthuse you!
9. The right kit does equal more flying
If you’re keen on flying, buy quality equipment. This is because it helps you fly further. Equipment which gets in the way, irritates, doesn’t suit your skill level or style of flying, or simply doesn’t perform as well will put you on the ground. Paragliding is a sport of marginal advantages – small % differences compound and combine to make the difference between bombing at 30km and staying up for 150km. You’ve spent all that time and money learning, and for the typical ‘weekend warrior’ there aren’t many potential flying hours in the year.
Make them count, get kit you’re happy with and fly far.
Enjoy your season and I’ll see you up there!