Monday, May 11, 2020

Something about paragliding

I've gotten pretty heavily into this action sport called paragliding. Paragliding is akin to hang-gliding, which is akin to sailplanes, this is the youngest of the three... The sport started in the 80s when climbers decided to use parachutes as a means of descent from the mountain... It eventually evolved along with hang-gliding, into a much safer and enjoyable sport comparable to sailplanes, albeit distances and conditions flyable are not at all in the same categories.

It has been two years since I've started recording my flights, and I've decided to put some links up that will remain current and to explain a little about my progress so far.

typical sight at the takeoff, people discussing the weather conditions


It's important to keep track of your flights, this helps that you measure your progress and also helps your friends to see what kind of conditions were available... Generally it means your sites get more "flyable days per year," meaning you might get more visitors... While "more visitors" is something you may or may not want given the current pandemic, the data can still serve as future reference for your club pilots.

I like to use for my logbook. Besides it being a great logbook, it has many other features. My favourites are the ability to track your friends, and get notifications about new flights at your favourite site or by your friends. It is quite a new app but the developer, Žan, has put a good amount of effort into improving it. 

I have other website based "logbooks" but I don't curate them as much as I do FlySafe. Some data may be missing or duplicated on others.. Because of FlySafe's neat statistics and other facilities I have decided not to spend too much time on other resources. I do use the paragliding forum Leonardo XC server (just in case I chat in the forum and people want to know a little about my flying), the Leonardo XC server (for competitions, this is the official Brazilian competition server), and leonardo server (oh yeah... I have some flights there too, just in case people look me up through there).

Statistics are important and it even helps you to know when you have to maintain the gear. As you see all these different "logbooks" it would get tedious to keep them all "shiny." So I don't care about the other three... I only care about keeping the statistics 100% correct on one of them... This lets me see how many hours each piece of my gear has gotten, and so I can know about when to get it checked. Here's a screenshot of FlySafe's "glider hours" page, where you can see exactly how many hours I've done on each glider, this process is manual so doing it on three other XC servers is not an option.

detailed statistics in FlySafe.. source

Live Tracking

Live-tracking is a really great tool for spectators. During competitions this is the only way people can really follow the sport along. On regular paragliding competitions it may be a little easier to film people flying through a task, these are generally not longer than 100km, and an organisation with enough money may actually be able to film that. However on events such as the X-Alps, it quickly becomes impossible or too expensive to try to film everyone taking part, simply because once you are 2km away the paraglider is no longer visible... and these guys move fast.

The other great reason for setting up live-tracking is safety. If you crash and are not able to send out a message people can see your last position and direction, even if you are no longer able to send out a signal... You are likely to be very close.

some spots are quite remote and cell reception is poor, hence the satellite comms on my left shoulder

The third and probably most common reason for live-tracking is retrieves. On an XC-Flight (XC stands for cross-country) you may cover many dozen kilometres, and that means you have to get back home or to your car somehow. It is not uncommon for groups to organise themselves into what we colloquially call "boats" here (barcas in portuguese). We stuff as many guys and gear as we can get into a 4-wheeler, along with a designated driver, and head to the takeoff. Everybody gets in the air and driver will hop in the car to start chasing the pilots. Paragliders don't fly very fast, at trim speed (this is normal speed, without brakes or speedbar) mine goes 40km/h, however they do fly as the crow flies... we still have to turn in thermals and so the average speed drops. A good XC pilot may average 25km/h where I live. Other locations may have even faster average speeds. In the north-east of Brazil, where the current world-records for distance are being set year after year, the average speed will be much faster, around 50km/h; the driver simply cannot keep up in bad roads.

Pickup drivers may have a hard time following or even finding pilots

Two is one and one is none, so backups are important...

I have Live-Tracking on three different devices. One is purely satellite based, I use the Garmin inReach mini for that, because it is packed full of features and very lightweight. Then I also have a Flymaster Live SD 3G with a global data SIM card, super great deal for 3.99 EUR per month. The third live-tracker is my own phone, which is the first option I would suggest to everyone if you are just starting out... I have an Android phone so I use the XCTrack app, which reports to (a global competition site that lets you see people's flights from all over the world, truly amazing). Besides the report, also has built-in live-tracking and picks that up from the XCTrack app directly and can report that to my friends.

The added benefit of using Flysafe app is that, if your phone is the only instrument you use - phones are very capable these days - Flysafe is able to use the simplest GSM network to report back your location! ie. If you do have an accident and you are unconscious and your friends noticed on live-tracking that your went down in bad location, are not responding... and you still have the lowliest form of cell-coverage (regular GSM without any internet), your phone can still report back your location upon request... I find that is quite something. FlySafe is available for Android and FlySafe is also available for iOS, and no I'm not getting paid to promote them, lol.

FlySafe's live-tracking does not provide a "personal" link, see the app's "paragliding map" or use the "locate friend" feature

an easy retrieve... where five pilots managed to fly together and land at the same spot

On Progress

Paragliding is a fantastic sport because you are always learning. There are so many different things to learn about it that is it quite challenging to get close to mastering it. By mastering I mean becoming a very well rounded pilot, while you can likely still master a specific spot and it's local weather conditions, learning to fly anywhere or any type of equipment is probably something quite different.

In the above video I am at takeoff trying to feel the wind on my fast-wind mini-wing. I did not takeoff this day.

At first it felt like doing anything would make me improve... then it became clearer that you need a lot of hours, a lot of time... Some of the conditions were not usable because the winds were too strong, so I decided to get a smaller wing to try to learn how to fly in that. That did help, but I increased my risk margin. I haven't had any serious accidents, at most a sprained ankle, some rope burn, a bruised ego. Though I have seen people get hurt even without "pushing it". The process of learning how to deal with risk in this sport is a little slow. You have to be super excited about paragliding, at the same time you have to learn to be super patient. These two things are quite conflicting..

It is quite easy for me to consume many videos on YouTube, since English is the closest language I have to a native tongue. Some of my buddies here aren't as fortunate. Picking up information from many places has helped made the difference. Insights from other pilots have been invaluable too. Reading the "50 ways to improve your paragliding" book was super helpful. It showed me the subtleties involved in becoming a proper pilot.

Having many instructors was also useful. In particular two acro related courses were the most helpful. At the time I believe I was lacking quite a lot of structure and did not even know much about paragliding in general, nor the extent of things still to learn... Quite likely there are still many unknown unknowns. But as I generally do, I went about teaching myself more about what I am interested in, when there's nobody around to help.

The ability to read the weather forecasts and local conditions has come hand-in-hand with my progression. Once I started getting flights that nobody else got, I felt like I was "doing better." Yet I was also taking all the risk myself. There's no merit in getting a flight nobody else wants, especially if you end up getting hurt. I am sometimes still the first to take off. For me this is an informed gamble, because reading the weather forecasts helps a lot. If you have read up on the weather you can decide whether going up to takeoff early will pay off. Once you know what to expect from the forecast, and compare that with the local conditions, you can decide whether the day is looking "right." Another thing is that sometimes forecasts can also show whether conditions will put you early or late in the day. If everyone else is late on takeoff, and you've read the day well, taking the risk to launch early could pay off. Just the other day I texted everyone "let's GO!" the night before and was trying to get them to come early, but nobody did. I took off first and shot up 800m above takeoff, soon to be followed by a few people, but plenty were still getting ready and had a "short day" (winter if flyable here, but the hours are much shorter). I call this "graduating on reading the forecast and local conditions," and it's a point I take some pride in, perhaps the thing I excel at today because I took personal interest in it, and I guess I've also been lucky to work with meteorology tech in the past.

I shan't forget we can still make mistakes after we make the right call. Five days earlier we were at the same takeoff and the wind looked strong, it would have been a hell of a turbulent flight, and I knew it, I've experienced bad conditions in Organyà, on my second acro course; the feeling of being dangled life a fish at the end of a stick is quite unpleasant. Because I had flown in strong conditions I thought it looked doable... I was readying my equipment and all my buddies were silent. I asked them "you'll tell me if you think it is dangerous won't you?" and there was another silence. One of the guys called me over so I could take a look at the bushes over edge of the cliff, and see how much they were moving. I decided to pack it up and go down in the pickup with them. It is good to listen to guys that have more hours. Even if I could have flown, it may have been a very short flight not really worth the risk.

Now progress has started coming at a slower pace. Just merely racking up the hours isn't going to get me exponential results. I have to keep track of things, the points that I'm lacking, take notes and work on specific exercises in order to improve. Reading books helps, because it creates more known unknowns... The "Mastering Paragliding" book is really nice because, as it presents itself, it does provide a structure for you to see where you are in your progression. I would recommend it to anyone in any level. I thought I was good at ground-handling and using the Mitsos takeoff Method, suited to the windy sites I'm usually at; but the book did teach me another takeoff method I had never seen or heard about - the Three-Axis Method, better suitable for more control in light winds. I am still learning, still have plenty to learn and enjoy.

In Closing

I must say, my life has gotten a lot more colourful from Paragliding. The epic skies and sceneries, along with a very colourful group of people, and even the paragliding equipment itself, has been stunning. After a bad motorcycle accident that dislocated my hip, this is one sport that I can continue to practice into a late-age and it will remain challenging and entertaining. Plenty of places to go and lots of people to meet. I am lucky to have discovered it and hope to continue to practice for many years

Sunset at Palo-Buque (Chile) - end of a ground-handling session