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Forward launches

Copyright Dixon White May 13, 2003

I’d heard that there are “real” situations where even the very “best of the best” at reverse launches would decide to do a forward launch. I really had trouble envisioning this situation and was surprised when I found myself making one out of necessity this past April. It has seemed to me that if a difficult launch situation required a forward launch, you shouldn’t consider launching in the first place. To feel it’s necessary to forward launch may mean you won’t be able to scan the glider for symmetry and cleared lines and then have room to abort – and I hate to rely on luck. Without a great deal of enthusiasm I would teach forward launches, but not without a bit of snobbish comment on how ridiculous and dangerous they seem.

We tend to gravitate towards what we first learn, so always be careful to think through how you train. Work with an instructor who’ll take the time to build your skills and knowledge in a pragmatic fashion. Bad habits are hard to break but it's easy to break a pilot because of bad habits. It seemed to me that forward launching was only necessary for folks with landing gear weakness (like frail knees), such spastically poor athletic skills they couldn’t coordinate a reverse launch, or a result of having been taught the forward launch first and thus simply being too lazy to perfect their reverse launches.

Reverse launches are more difficult than forward launches, they require significantly more practice and skill, but students who learn forward launches first often had more trouble gaining confidence in their reverse launches later in their careers. Why? Well, first of all, the student is already confident in one method of launching, they don’t really “want” to learn something new, they just want to get into the air. Second, they are “geared up” mentally to face forward and when we put them in a reverse position they keep mentally seeking that forward facing reference, they have to unlearn that mental configuration. When learning a reverse launch first we are forced to end up in a forward position as part of the launch process and the mental progressions are forced.

Some instructors explain that they are simply too busy and stressed to help students perfect a solid reverse launch. They might insist that the lack of winds in their area make it difficult teaching reverse techniques. It still concerns me that we build students correctly, these instructors should go to the time and trouble to find a place that does have a good wind flow for ground handling practice. Some instructors say that it’s easier to just spot their students on a forward launch and get them airborne, they can move more people into the air faster. This is seemingly all good and well in a highly monitored simple situation and if the instructor doesn’t expect the students to continue very long with the sport. When those students who get the “fast track into the air program” find themselves unattended there are greater opportunities for a non-supervised forward launches to go a foul, and this may mean an injury. The glider might come up crooked and swing the pilot to the side, yank the student backwards and onto their head or back, over-fly the student and take a frontal slamming them on the ground, have a knot in the lines, have a line-over, etc, but now it’s too late because they’re airborne and stuck with the fouled glider. In addition, those students who don’t put in the kiting practice seem to lose control of their gliders more easily when flying through turbulent air and they often don’t use lifting air as successfully as those who are competent at kiting. We note that students who get “air” too early are out of step with their development, they end up scaring themselves unnecessarily for a lack of glider integration from kiting.

Although a reverse launch offers some hazards, they are less in comparison. It’s significantly easier to see a problem, easier to abort/control and easier to run up under the glider when gusted. The problem with the reverse inflation, is coordinating the turn around, it takes practice. Once you get it “down”, it works and protects you over the years from the problems that forward launches can cause even the most expert of pilots – I’ll give you an example in a few moments.

My determination on this got some criticism from other instructors, years ago. This seems to have turned around, many are now saying they see the reasoning and now teach reverse launches first, Pagen recommends this within his training manual, “The Art of Paragliding.

Training to work in the circus, i.e. learning to ride unicycles on the tight wire, we were thoughtful about engineering the training environment for a systematic skill development. We would avoid teaching skills that might screw up techniques down the road, might build a habit or thought process that would be hard to shake. A well - designed training syllabus should unfold a natural layering of habits that don’t have to be changed, “broken”. As a side note to instructors, the confidence your students will have about “how” a glider behaves and works as a result of the reverse launch training process will actually keep them around the sport longer, confidence builds enjoyment.

Once a student is up to speed on their reverse launch it’s a cinch to get them going with a forward. They have already spent loads of time reversing a glider and then turning to stand/run in a forward position with the glider overhead. This has prepared them for the simple addition of the inflation phase while facing forward.

I’m certainly more determined to have our students practice forward launches as a result of some flying I did with “Mad” Mike Kung in Austria this past April. We were literally launching off of snow with a 3 to 5 mph tailwind. There were strong thermals rising out of the valley out in front and they were drafting air down the launching slope. I KNEW I had to do a forward, I couldn’t remember doing a forward one time since 1990 because I felt I needed it. I wondered if I’d actually have trouble, “practice is the mother of skill” and Lord knows I haven’t practiced very many downwind forward launches. Even though I can do no wind and very light wind dynamic reverse launches, I didn’t even consider trying this technique. The good news - my fears of having a fouled glider and suddenly being in the air were unnecessary as the slope was quite shallow and a glider scan and possible abort would be easy.

Well, it all went well for me on my forward launches in the course of my visit, no aborts. I guess the little demonstrations I do for our classes paid off. It was interesting that “Mad” Mike actually fouled one forward launch because it came up crooked – even the very best pilots sometimes loose track of their forward launches. Next time I’m heading to Europe I’m going to practice my forward launches at least 30 times, I did feel a little lucky that they went so well, and you know how I feel about relying on luck!