XC Secrets: How to thermal with pilots
Here's the thing. If you've done your homework and checked the weather forecasts (see Weather Forecasting for Paragliders) then it's likely somebody else will have done the same thing. So when you get to the best site on a cracking XC day, there'll be somebody else there too. A lot of Somebodies. If you wait until all of them have left the hill, you'll miss out, so you need to fly in the traffic. But it freaks you out, right?
It's intimidating if you're not used to the aerial dance of gaggle flying. It becomes easier if you follow some simple rules, which we'll show you in this article.
So here's a short video to get you started.
In the video we join Simon Steel from the Flybubble Team as he waits to launch. It begins right there. Most beginner pilots will see the traffic ahead and think "I'll just wait until they get up a bit, out of the way". But thermals are usually bubbles, not columns, especially in the morning where there is limited heated air available to pull into the core. If you see pilots climbing, that might be the tail end of the thermal. It's time to launch!
Aim slightly beyond the outside of the outermost turning pilot. What does that mean? If those Somebodies are turning right, then aim further left than the point where you think you'll intersect with the pilot who is thermaling with the widest circle. This gives you some space in case they shift their thermaling turn, or in case you just get it wrong. As you improve your skill, you can trim your approach line closer, but never aim for the middle of the thermal, which will cause traffic chaos.
It's a queue that spirals inwards: take your place, and you'll be fine.
To fine-tune your moment of arrival, slow down or speed up so that you enter the thermal following one of the pilots. This will help you to synchronise, and also gives you the best visual clues on the position of the best lift.
Keep your first turn wide, so you're outside of or following the traffic. As you get established in the pattern, you can narrow your turn to tighten on the core, but only if the pilots at the same level have the same idea.
If the traffic at your level is getting too much, don't leave the thermal, just widen your turn. This will put you in the weaker lift (or possibly, sink) and allow the gaggle to pass you. As soon as they are past, tighten your turn again and keep thermaling.
What if you fly into the guy you're following? Well, don't. This is totally in your control. Paragliders fly at the same speed, so if you're catching others up you're either flying too fast (pull some more brake) or you're turning too tight (widen your turn). Use your brakes and turn radius to get yourself into a position that makes equal spacing on the circle.
As you develop your skills you'll find that the best pilots are easy to fly with, because they create space around themselves by constant adjustments to their position. This allows them to hook a tight turn when they strike sudden lift, which often gets them out of the gaggle altogether.
So in summary:
1. get behind other pilots
2. never cut across the circle
3. slowly tighten your turns on the core
Related article: Traffic Rules: Thermalers vs Soarers