Attitude: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
By Joe Schofield, Skywings Editor
Amid the huge feel-good buzz generated by the Olympics, and the superb achievements of the legions of unpaid ambassadors who helped to make the event so memorable, it’s worth remembering that we are all ambassadors for our own sport of free flying.
Hang glider and paraglider pilots are a very small minority and most non-flying people will only ever meet one or two of us. Their opinion of our sport will be based, for good or ill, on such brief encounters and, perhaps, on occasional visits to hilltops or the rural villages that surround many of our sites. And of course those rural communities themselves are exposed to more than their fair share of our comings and goings.
Our sport is small, low-profile, easily targeted by officialdom or the media… and at risk from negative publicity of any kind. It behoves us to behave as well as we can when in the presence of the general public.
By and large, most of us are aware of the precarious balance that needs to be struck between our desire to be on the right hill at the right time and the needs of the wider community. And yet, since the sport began, there have been regular reports of freefliers disgracing themselves and the sport by inconsiderate behaviour.
The list is long: rally-driving, both solo and in convoy; abuse of walkers and other outdoors enthusiasts; fighting on sites; selfish behaviour when parking cars; a lack of care when landing out – and sometimes abuse of the people whose land we have suddenly appeared on; worrying livestock; trampling on crops, ignorance and defiance of agreed site rules; nasty campaigns when site access is opposed by local people; and of course the age-old city-folk-in-the-country sins of leaving gates open, climbing across stone walls and leaving litter. Perhaps the most persistent self-inflicted injury is the amount of shouting and swearing that sometimes goes on around take-off and landing sites.
None of this puts us in a good light. And like urban cyclists jumping red lights, we are all identified negatively with the actions of a few. Cyclists used to be a part of the community; these days, in many areas, they are seen as vermin. We are nowhere near such pariah status, but it doesn’t take much swearing on popular sites or driving like an idiot with a hang glider on the roof to change public perceptions against us.
It is of course true that farmers are sometimes unreasonably angry; walkers, bikers, horse-riders, climbers and others can be inconsiderate too. But an angry farmer will only be more angry next time someone lands in his field if he gets a mouthful of abuse from one of us. Such little acts go a little further every time to undermine our position in the rural community. And then, one day, if there is a Public Enquiry over our use of a site, or resistance to a plan to purchase a site, we may find we have few friends.
You may feel that the case is being overstated. Yet over the years I have personally witnessed all of the above. I would guess there are few of us who have not.
It’s not hard to drive sensibly on the way to sites, even if it is 11am and the sky is booming. It’s not hard to keep one’s voice down on a hilltop, or to realise we aren’t the only people there. And there are of course ways of dealing with confrontational people that do not involve being confrontational oneself.
Sooner or later something will occur, locally or nationally, that will encourage those who know us only by our deeds to make their minds up whether they think free fliers are an asset or a pain in the butt. Some vested interests may even attempt to steer opinion against us. Let us not make it easy for them.
Originally published in Skywings Magazine, October 2012