Updated: May 1, 2020
Do you want to minimize your odds of being one of our statistics?
This year has started like all the years before that I can remember. It’s only spring time, and the accidents are already beginning to add up. Every January I can’t help but wonder how many days we will go before an incident, accident, or worse will happen. It’s a dark thought, I know, but unfortunately it really is just a matter of time. I kinda joke that “The last person to die flying a paraglider hasn’t died yet, so don’t let it be you.” I was hoping to share some thoughts on how we might be able to minimize becoming one of the statistics.
It’s that time again. As the seasons change from winter to summer, so do the flying conditions. The sun is higher in the sky in summer, we get longer days, higher temperatures and stronger lapse rates. These are among a few of the many differences.
Anybody who has heard me speak for more than a minute, has probably heard me rant about mid day conditions. What is special about mid day conditions? The sun is very high in the sky, the higher temperatures, the stronger lapse rate,... yes, a pattern emerges.
With these seasonal changes, dust devils and turbulence are way more common, especially closer to the ground. In fact, it’s rather rare to find a dust devil first thing in the morning or at sunset. However, they can be a dime a dozen mid-day in the summer at a site such as ours, these inland mountain desert sites we call “home”.
I don’t care who you are or what wing you fly, dust devils can really put a dent in your health span. I consider it Russian roulette to land in conditions ripe for dust devils. I am not saying I don’t do it, I just want you to know that I accept the fact that to some extent I am playing Russian roulette, and I admit it. I accept that it may have super dire consequences. I know that I am not just “better than that”, or “good enough”, or “skilled enough”, or “experienced enough” to fly into what looks like a violent (though remarkably beautiful) mini, sometimes not-so-mini tornado. I accept that I may die, or worse. Do you?
I think more often than not, most people get lulled into a false narrative with themselves. It may be from having seen others landing mid-day in the summer, maybe from getting away with it so many times before, or maybe they just never really considered it. It's easy to do.
A lot of times it looks so deceiving. The winds feel light and variable most of the time and it may feel like a perfect time to practice some kiting, which brings me to another danger; kiting in the middle of the day, in conditions ripe for my beloved (and hated) little tornadoes.
Many times while expressing my concern about the current flying and/or kiting conditions, people will inquire, “Even kiting?” “Yes! Especially kiting!” After all, the whole time you are kiting, you are less than “two mistakes high”, a concept I remembered from my early remote control flying days. I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty vulnerable when attached to a powerful beast such as my paraglider, even with above-average kiting abilities if I don’t say so myself. 🙂
Don’t be afraid to ask and talk to the locals. Most of them are friendly enough and eager to help. If you see all the local pilots sitting on launch, ask yourself why they're waiting. Are the gusts too strong maybe? Waiting for better conditions? Ask them, don't be shy! They may even tell you about the secret spots for the low saves, or the consistent lift found late in the day over at Regionals along with the associated dangers.
Spending extra time connected to your wing while setting up increases your chances of getting plucked, or dragged. Again, less than a couple of mistakes high. We aren't rushing the setup, but being connected to your wing any longer than necessary is an easy way to increase your odds of becoming a statistic.
I see some pilots connected to their gliders while fiddling with instruments, radios, phones, or even chatting with others while maybe “waiting for a cycle”, or “building a wall”. Some people are just nervous and want it to be “perfect”. This is understandable to some degree, but they are unwittingly spending even more time in the danger zone. Being able to launch from almost any layout can minimize your odds of getting hurt. If you need the perfect wall to fly, maybe look into learning a more consistent method.
Also, while I’m at it, please be courteous and do not set up in the middle of launch if you think it's going to take you a while. Let other pilots have the chance to use the space to launch while you're still working on sorting out your gear. You won't feel rushed to get out of the way, which means you won't forget your pre-flight checks and hopefully you don’t forget your leg straps. Legs, Legs, Legs!
I have heard many pilots strategize on launch; “If it gets too bumpy, I’ll just go land.” I hope by now you know where I am going with this, but if it’s beyond my personal bump tolerance levels, the last place I want to be is less than two mistakes high, as happens while landing. A better strategy would be not to launch in these conditions, but if you should find yourself in an uncomfortably bumpy situation, I would suggest sucking it up and staying up until later, when it smooths out. Don’t force it down.
There are lots of bad reasons to launch. Please do not launch yourself into the kind of conditions you're not comfortable with, only because your friends are launching, or because you're tired of baking in the hot sun on launch. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to wait it out, walk away, or drive down.
Try to organize later rides up, or bring plenty of water and sunscreen to wait it out from the earlier trips. You'll see others launching mid-day, you'll see many get away with it, but it doesn't mean it's right for you (or even for some of THEM for that matter!)
Oh, and 10:00AM and 11:00AM are NOT morning flights here in the summer! It can be quite bumpy and strong. I have seen dust devils before 10:00AM and even after 6:00PM.
Exploring & Flying
Do not follow other pilots into sketchy areas thinking they know what they're doing. It's possible that the other pilot you're following is either very good and more skilled than you, or it's possible they just don't know any better. Just because someone is flying a higher-rated wing than you and flying in crazier conditions than you, doesn't always mean they're pros. Some people have more money than sense. Do what YOU feel comfortable with.
Flying Too Close to the Terrain
Skimming the ground at the end of the day can be fun, but being less than “two mistakes high” can also be dangerous. Please try to pick smooth conditions, early morning and late afternoons, for this type of fun. This same flying during mid-day summer conditions is obviously much more dangerous, and yet I see it all the time, especially with visiting pilots who are used to ridge soaring closer to the terrain at their home sites.
Learn where the wind shadows are. Do not fly close behind hills or other objects like trees, big rocks, etc. where you will likely find heavy rotor. Try to stay in front of, and higher above objects and obstacles. Imagine the air as the water, and imagine the hills as the rock in the river, with white water (turbulence) behind the rock in the river. We have a lot of peaks and valleys and ridges, and sometimes it’s not as obvious as a clear cut ridge. When in doubt, fly out and away from the terrain.
Pro tip here; there is actually much better lift when you get a bit away from the hill. The ridge lift can get you up to some degree, but thermals can take you to the moon!
Be aware of your surroundings when flying and thermaling. Please clear your turns (left, right, up, down, and around) and DO NOT assume that the other pilot sees you and will move out of the way, even when it 'seems' like they're looking straight at you! Know the right-of-way for both ridge soaring and thermal flying, and always be ready to get out of the way if you see someone flying toward you. Leave enough room for error.
I don’t like to depend on right-of-way either. A lot of people die with the right-of-way, many in crosswalks for sure. Don't assume that everyone in the sky knows what they're doing. There's a wide variety of pilots around you at all times; visitors, new pilots, pro pilots, experienced complacent pilots, maybe self-taught pilots, etc. Sometimes you just don't know, and even the best of the best can make mistakes.
When in Doubt, Whip it Out
It sounds crazy to the non-pilot, but after a while, we seem to kind of get comfortable with collapses. If you have been flying for any time at all in thermal conditions, you most likely have had your fair share of little tippy collapses. The wing will usually be opened up before you even have a chance to look up and see it. You may have a full frontal, and again, it's opened before you know it. Maybe a big asymmetric collapse, a little heading change, maybe a surge, and you fly away. This can turn us kind of complacent to collapses.
So far, you may have dozens or hundreds of these little events. Then when the big one happens, people waste precious time in getting to the parachute. So how do you know? I say if you have a massive heading change, if it develops into a spiral, if you feel the G’s adding up, or you have big free-fall moments, it’s probably time to whip it out.
When I am flying less than two mistakes high, I am hyper aware of my vulnerability. I turn into a quick draw McGraw with a hair trigger. These reserves can sometimes work at remarkably low altitudes, if you get it out. No guarantees of course, more altitude is always better, but don’t give up thinking you are too low to throw. But again, you have to whip it out for it to even have a chance.
When you're approaching the landing zone, please keep an eye out for other pilots trying to land, especially later in the day when most of the newbs are all coming in at the same time. Hang gliders are faster than paragliders. There is a bit of a conflict of speed here. You want to be in your designated approach pattern and side of the field when you land, otherwise you may cause a collision, or worse.
I see a lot of pilots making lots of low turns trying to negotiate their way onto the grass. We really want to be predictable to other pilots, and a more methodical approach with a well-defined base and/or final leg is the way to do that.
A common issue at AJX is that the wind comes in from the South-West, and paragliders often drift over to the “hang glider side” while setting up their approach. This isn’t necessary, but it takes some thought to turn onto final before crossing over to the conflict area.
Once you do land, please take your glider and move out of the way as soon as possible. If you land on the wrong side of the field, please don’t kite all the way back across the active runway to the shade structure. Just carry your wing while watching for incoming aircraft. Consider it incentive to land closer next time. Most people are not so fully aware of the airspace around them while kiting at the same time. If you were that good, you probably could have just landed on the appropriate side of the field. Finally, please do not fold your wing in the middle of the field. Again, think active runway.
Practice is great, highly recommended no matter how experienced you are, but be aware that if you plan to kite in summer mid-day conditions, you're taking a risk. You can't always see it when you're on the grass practicing, but there ARE dust devils out there, and they WILL pick you up and slam you down if you present the opportunity. Always wear your helmet and watch the flags no matter what time of day it is. If they're pointing at each other, there's likely a dust devil forming nearby and you need to act quickly.
In my opinion it's not worth the risk, I'd save the kiting for later when it cools down, but some of you will choose to go for it anyway. If you're with an instructor, they'll keep an eye out for any signs of danger as you're kiting. Still, it’s a bit of a gamble, as no one is perfect and these devils are sneaky buggers.
If you've bought new gear such as a harness and/or wing, please kite & practice on the grass with your new gear first, maybe go off the training hill a few times, do a hang check at the shade structure, and choose mellow conditions to test it out first. You don't want to buy something more advanced and then throw yourself off the mountain on a turbulent, gusty, hot mid-summer day to see how it performs. I know of many reserve tosses and I’ve even lost a friend to this easily-avoided mistake. Sounds so obvious, and yet it continues to happen. Don’t let it be you.
Opinions vary, but most would agree that if you're a beginner pilot, it's best to stick to a beginner-friendly wing for at least a couple of years first. I personally love the “A” rated wings. They are very forgiving and could save your life when you get yourself into a bad situation. Be sensible and don't let other people talk you into hotter gear when you're not ready for it. It's not worth your life. You won't get bored! (which seems to be the most common argument).
It's easy to think that you should move up to a higher-rated wing, that it's the natural progression of a pilot after so many flights or hours, or experience levels. I am here to tell you that is simply not the case. Most of our local instructors actually fly “B” rated gliders. Low “B’s” at that! These are pretty OK pilots and they still fly “beginner” wings.
The truth is that they are very capable wings these days, not really just for beginners at all. They can fly just as high, for just as long, they can pull G’s and spin if that’s your thing, they can do almost everything. So please, don’t rush the process. Learn as much as you can and enjoy your time in the sky. Odds are that you are less likely to get spooked and quit flying altogether, or worse.
Always have a charged radio with you in case of emergencies and use the AJX frequency: 145.555. Of course water is always a good idea too.
Risk vs. Reward
What all of this comes down to is a ratio of risk versus reward. For example, you don’t have to fly mid-day to get amazing flights. Just like most surfers will never surf 50 foot waves, I would submit that the guys on three foot waves aren’t having any less fun. The guys that do surf the big stuff have generally trained for it, and have a reasonable expectation of survival, though we all agree it’s still risky. The difficulty in flying is that for the uninitiated, it’s hard to tell if it’s a 50 foot wave kind of day.
You just can’t see the air as easily as you can see the surf. The clues are there though. Is the sun high in the sky? Is it much cooler at launch compared to the landing zone? Is it gusting with a big spread between the base wind and the peak of the gust?
How many times have you heard someone land mid-day and feel compelled to tell everyone it’s bumpy? I hear it all the time and it’s as if they were telling me they were surprised to find the fire was hot today. No sh*t!
You can still soar for hours in a much more forgiving environment later in the day, not chancing life and limb. Paragliding doesn’t have to be Russian roulette, though some of us like it that way. Some of the risks are completely avoidable, others can only be managed and reduced.
I see a lot of risk being taken out there for little reward. Dropping your brake toggles while connected to your wing is one such danger. Rarely is it an issue, you might have done it a million times without consequence. I sometimes think I’m making a big deal out of little things, but you only have to get caught once.
Jumping while launching is another one. Get away with it enough times, and the pilot may even convince themselves they got “unlucky” when it doesn’t work out. They won’t convince me though, for I have seen them jump while launching a million times before. I could keep going, but I’ll stop here for now. Risk versus reward. Everyone needs to find that balance for themselves.
- Pick your spots.
- Stay away from the ground (stay two mistakes high).
- Minimize your time in the danger zone (less than two mistakes high) Be prepared out there.
- Legs, legs, legs!
- When in doubt, whip it out.
- Don't rush the process, it’s supposed to be fun.
- Someone is next, don’t let it be you!
Those are a few of my thoughts. Questions, comments or concerns? Chime in and let us figure this out together.