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Seeking Nirvana #1

Copyright Dixon White March 24th, 2002

This is the first in a series of columns that will review step by step concepts concerning weather and flying pointers. Get together with your local instructor and club to discuss these topics in greater detail. Although this column will help define some step by step concepts for solid piloting development, it's very important that you seek the advice of an experienced certified instructor. As you research candidate instructors be sure and interview a few of their graduates, see how happy they are with their paraglider training experience. Listen carefully if their graduates seem focused on barely surviving the sport as opposed to finding it easy and rewarding. Although an instructor can't have 100% success, he/she should be graduating pilots who are mostly having loads of fun without taking unnecessary risks. Take the time to research the sport through the internet, library, watching educational videos and reading training manuals. When working with your instructor be sure he/she takes the time to fully engineer your training environment. If you've done your homework, you'll know if you're not getting the training you need to go forth with confidence. There's no reason paragliding can't be taught and then "lived" without accidents, but if your training is poor, you'll put yourself at great risk. If you naively get involved in the sport you may not realize that the instruction you've received hasn't prepared you for reality, and reality can hit very hard.

The knowledge, skills and attitude that you'll want to develop with paragliding can be counter-intuitive. In the movie "The Gods Must be Crazy" an African Bushman finds himself involved with the modern world. He's never seen many things that we take for granted. At one point he stands on the hood of a run-a-way jeep and leans over the dash to try and steer. Although he doesn't wreck the jeep, there's no doubt he isn't remotely prepared to drive a vehicle in traffic. Our children learn to drive after years of sitting in the back seat listening and watching. By the time they get to drive they've had loads of semi-involved experiences, but they still have an ungodly rate of accidents. Try and maintain this same type of perspective about your own development as a paraglider pilot, that you not only don't know very much, but you certainly know very little about what you DON'T know. It may take years for you to fully "arrive" with the body memory, academic modeling and the attitude that are necessary for competent piloting. Let's not develop as paraglider pilots through luck, but through a thoughtful approach to something that's altogether the leading edge of human potential.

Paragliding seems so simple from a casual observation, it looks as though the pilot isn't doing much but sitting in what looks like a recliner and gently pulling on 2 hand controls. We've trained many pilots from other aviation disciplines, folks like Bruce Comstock who is not only a 3 time World Ballooning Champion, but the crew chief for Steve Fawcett's around the world attempts, Jim Cowan the 5 time World Sky Diving Champion, a few USAF Fighter Jet pilots, loads of helicopter pilots and many commercial airline pilots; they all insist that paragliding is more refined and requires as much or more thoughtfulness and skill than their other aviation disciplines. Aviation in any form is unforgiving of gross errors, and paragliding is just as risky. We might compare the complexity of paragliding to back country skiing in avalanche terrain or deep water scuba diving.

Let's take a moment and review why this sport is far more complex than it appears. First, paragliders are the slowest winged aircraft and must be flown in the most modest of atmospheric conditions.  Excellent paraglider pilots are keen observers of the weather. These observational skills are very refined, to a micro-micro meteorology. Weather observations will originate from observing the macro elements – the Jet Stream and then the Lows and Highs and then the Upper Level Winds and then the Thermal Index, but the observations are then refined to the immediate presence of gust differentials, the observation of cloud formations over your current position, what's happening to birds and then what you are actually feeling in the wing. Many WX (abbreviation for weather) models are running through an experienced paraglider pilot's mind as he hunts around the sky. One of our best paraglider pilots from the US, Dave Bridges, had a BS degree in meteorology from the University of California, San Bernardino. Dave actually won the US National championships two years in a row. Great pilots tend to fly fewer days than less experienced pilots, but the days they do chose to fly usually result in the best flights.

All the while the paraglider pilot is running mental flow charts on the weather the well-trained pilot is keeping the paraglider wing safely balanced overhead and also trying to maximize soaring efficiency. The paraglider wing is unique as a flying tool as it has no rigid structure. Most pilots of other types of aircraft can't imagine how a "soft" wing could ever manage the intense turbulence that they have experienced. The softness of the paraglider wing is actually something that can give it an edge over other types of aircraft. A paraglider wing isn't broken by severe turbulence, as can happen in other types of winged aircraft, it simply dissipates the energy by folding and contorting it's way through the "bad" air. With proper preparation a paraglider pilot will first use his/her knowledge of the conditions to avoid flying in turbulence that may be beyond his/her skill and will secondly begin to refine his/her sense of how to manage the wing through bumpy air. With skill bumpy air becomes something worked for lift, without skill it's something that can be terrifying and dangerous.

There are a few different ways to fly a paraglider. First, there are sled rides. These are simple flights in simple air from the top of a hill to the bottom. The goal is to experience a very smooth, comfortable and non-threatening flight. Any time someone chooses to fly in lifting air they need to have some thorough training. Although we can identify some types of lifting air as being more simple than others, there’s a great deal of complexity in comparison to simple sled rides. Lifting air is usually found where air is striking a hill or ridge, or it is the result of heat rising through the atmosphere. Birds use lifting air as much as possible and can be seen flying in the lift bands of airflow moving over buildings, billboards and even the sides of parked trucks. Birds will also circle to great heights over the ground using thermals for lift, and this all can done with paragliders. Those who become accomplished at flying in a variety of different types of lifting air often want to try flying cross country. The current world distance record for a paraglider is 208 miles.

In recent years a new aspect to paragliding has evolved where pilots are towed by ropes over water where they perform aerobatics. All of these activities are loads of fun and most paraglider pilots like to try a little of everything as they progress.

Be sure and expand your library of books and videos. This column will recommend certain books and videos, realize that there may be some ideas that are arguable. It's amazing how many "crummy" ideas still exist from the early days of the sport, which was only 15 years ago, so be sure and try and study the most current information and ideas. When you decide to get involved with paragliding practice the weather concepts daily, even when you aren't going flying. If you don't know much about paragliding you can still make notes about how pleasant some days seem compared to others. Great paragliding days always surround pretty mild weather. Winds should be less than 15mph and the gust differentials soft and gentle. It’s recommended that newer pilots avoid conditions where gusts exceed a 5 mph change in less than 5 seconds. Most of our students invest in some type of wind meter, we carry a few different types. Try and get to know the local flying group, call those who flew on days you couldn't get out to the flying site and see how close you came to predicting the conditions. Be thoughtful about going to new areas and how powerful some atmospheric influences may be in contrast to your home sites. There are some sites that become unruly by 9am in August yet others that can be flown all day.

There are a couple of clues in the macro view of the atmosphere that can help you visualize approaching weather as much as 3 days in advance. Planning ahead for the possibility of flying can sure make the "home" scene and relationship with the "boss" much easier. You may rather be at home gettting through a list of "honey-do's" instead of driving for 4 hours without any flying.

Through the Internet, television weather reports, and the National Weather Service you can find Jet Stream maps for as much as 5 days away. For example, you can select www.weather.com (www.paraglide.com has a very thorough weather section also) go to maps and find the Jet Stream forecast for a specific day. In general, it seems accurate for only 2 to 3 days out. The Jet Stream indicates the macro-meteorological. If the Jet Stream is moving into your area, within 100 miles, there's a pretty good chance that flying will be switchy (changing direction dramatically within seconds), demanding (gust differentials beyond the optimal) or impossible (just too darn strong). Although the Jet Stream is many thousands of feet over the ground it draws cold fronts from the poles, which can then drop the pressure and lower upper level temperatures thus reducing stability. Stability refers to how easily thermals will want to rise up through the atmosphere. When the sun heats the ground puddles of warm air eventually release, and as the upper atmosphere cools the surface heating wants to rise more easily. The Jet Stream can have an influence on surface winds as strong upper level winds can mix to the ground once the inversion has melted. An inversion is a circumstance that usually occurs overnight when cool air settles out of the atmosphere to blanket the ground for hundreds or maybe even thousands of feet in depth. Different temperature layers of air don’t like to mix and they will simply lie on top of each other. If there’s a cold layer of air near the ground it’s possible, even likely, that there’s windy layer of air up above, especially when the Jet Stream is nearby. As the sun heats the ground and the ground heats the layer of cool inverted air, the upper level wind will eventually mix down to the surface. This means that it can get suddenly more windy than is comfortable for paragliders. You may notice on some days influenced by the Jet Stream that surface weather conditions can change within a few minutes.