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Seeking Nirvana #2

Sam Gaylord wrote a wonderful editorial in the first teaser issue of Paraglider Magazine on his dreams of seeing the magic of foot launched aviation reach the masses. Why has the pilot population in Europe dropped off as much as 50%? Why has the U.S. pilot population remained so low? I believe that a lack of pilot competency has caused serious real and psychological problems in both pilots and the non-flying public. In the early 1990’s the Euros went nuts for paragliding and the sport grew exponentially. BUT the threshold for terrible accidents and bad experiences became the focus of conversations as opposed to the beauty, certainly a distraction from the appeal.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s too many hang glider pilots were maimed or killed and that image still prevails. Paragliding accident statistics have generally been poor. You want to appeal to the masses, allow the sport to be beautiful. Change the flying habits, and thus the resulting post-flight discussions, to those of absolute joy. Just listen to many post-flight discussions and there are far too many, “… and I thought I was going to die!!!” How can this type of resultant be the least bit encouraging to all but the most extreme? Paragliding and hang gliding should be 99% simple, easy and beautiful – they can be genuinely appealing. Instructors and leaders in the sport need to embrace setting examples and coaching joyful flights. This means slowing down the use of dynamic air and aerobatics. Encourage clinics, supervision and simple sled rides. Both the instructor and the student need to be dedicated students of the weather. I believe through a less nave approach to foot-launched aviation we will fewer unhappy participants.

Where did these smooth and completely easy, sled ride conditions come from? Remember everything about the day and go look at the variables in the weather maps and make some notes. It would be best if you did your studies prior to flying so that you can see if your predictions were correct.

Where did this very fine and happy boaty air come from? Launch, fly out 100 yards, hook gentle rising air, turn a few figure eights until high enough over launch to make full circle, climb up 1000 feet, gently float down to a top landing, and do this 4 times within an hour. What happened today that this sweet air made it all so simple? Did your pre-flight weather check indicate you would get this type of atmosphere? Go back and look at information available about the weather if you didn’t get enough information to explain the day.

Where did this difficult, downright frightening, glider tossing air come from? A super long launching run, wondering when you’d ever lift off, trouble getting away from the hill, feeling the glider pitch back, roll off to the side, a sudden dive, a frontal, and then a large asymmetrical fold. What’s going on with the air? Only a practitioner of some intense religion or well-medicated person could have called this type of flying enjoyable. Being within just a couple of hundred feet of the ground in this environment makes this very serious business. Go study the WX maps and information. Get with instructors who teach weather information and learn how to access and interpret the available information.

We have a choice. We can either just “hope” we get a good happy flight or we can stack the odds in our favor. Although sites are different, they do have many similarities.

One very common issue in evaluating each day is the strength of the inversion. A clear night, especially in high pressure conditions, can result in cooler air pooling near the ground. The air actually gets warmer as you ascend some number of feet. There are 3 problems with inversions, from my experience. I’ll cover the first problem in this article and continue with the other 2 problems in the next.

The inversion can mask the fact that there are strong upper level winds. It’s hard to believe, but different temperature zones of air can stratify the atmosphere. You can compare this to descending in a deep pool of water and suddenly finding a different temperature. Different temperature layers of air don’t mix very well. Ever notice that one layer of clouds flows one direction and another layer of clouds may be flowing a different direction? For this reason balloonists can launch and float one direction at one altitude and then, occasionally, float a different direction by ascending or descending into a different strata of air. The concern for us foot-launched aviators is that if it’s blowing hard above the inversion it will most likely, eventually, blow hard on the surface. When the puddle of cool inverted air finally warms as the sun heats the ground and, in turn, heats the air above it, a mixing will occur resulting in the upper level winds sweeping the ground. Let’s suppose you are launching at 2,000’ MSL and there’s no wind on launch, you may be in an inversion. You can research upper level winds by locating the “Winds Aloft Forecast”. Our website has an easy access to this chart. The W.A.F. lists forecasted winds for the next 6, 12 or 24 hours. You’ll note in the attached chart that there are abbreviations for cities within different regions. You will need to select your own region and then determine the abbreviation for your area by going through the NWS website and selecting the list of city abbreviations. You may also call 1-800-wx-brief and press #1, and ask the briefer what the winds are doing at 3,000’and 6000’ agl (above ground level)for your area, the upper level winds are given initially in increments of 3,000’ agl. As a side note, we are supposed to check in with the briefer prior to flying to confirm that there aren’t any notams (notice to airman) which might have shut down our airspace. This requirement was put in place following the 9/11 disaster. Keep in mind that you need to call from a local phone in order to get the local station. If you use your cell phone you will get the station near your cell “home”. If you discover that the winds in the next “layer” overhead are predicted to blow hard, more than 12 knots, you may want to launch and land early in the day or wait until the evening.

We’ll expand on the specifics of this data, and how to interpret it, in the next issue. In the meantime, treat your flying like you’re supposed to treat your spouse, with love, affection and complete respect.