Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mountain Flight

The final step in our paragliding course was to do a longer flight off a mountain, as opposed to our seemingly endless laps (80?) on the training hill. But the weather wasn’t cooperating wind-wise. And we were already overdue to return home. A mountain flight was scheduled for our last day but when we got up to the launch site the winds were too strong. And not just for beginners, none of the other dozen or so pilots launched either. Even the hawks zooming by had their wings tucked.

Technically, the mountain flight wasn’t required for our certification and we got signed off without it. But it was a bit of a let down to be heading home with only having flown off the training hill. Then we got a message late in the evening that conditions were looking reasonable for a flight the next morning. So we postponed our departure yet again.

The next morning it was almost dead calm in the parking lot and on the drive up I was starting to wonder if there would be enough wind this time. But once we hiked up and over the hill we could feel a breeze blowing, just right for launching.

We were at a site called VOR. It’s a good beginner site because it has a huge obvious grassy landing area. On the other hand, the launch area was small compared to what we were used to at the training hill. It was just big enough to lay out your glider and have a few steps to launch. Beyond the grassy area the slope dropped off steeply, not a cliff, but not something you’d want to tumble down.

After we arrived at the launch site, Chris (our instructor) wanted us to get launched while conditions were good. None of the other pilots was getting ready very quickly so he called Shelley to go first. She suggested someone more experienced should go first, which Chris could hardly argue with since he’d told us during training to let someone else go first at an unfamiliar site. One of the other pilots launched uneventfully and then it was Shelley’s turn. She pulled up the glider and got turned around without any trouble but got pulled a little to the side and ended up needing a few extra steps before she got in the air. But she got airborne ok and headed off towards the landing zone, about 900 m (3000 ft) below and 5 km away.

My turn next. I was nervous, but not about getting hurt, or the height, or crashing, or anything like that. No, in typical human fashion I was most worried about embarrassing myself - of botching my launch in front of a bunch of other pilots. As I was getting ready to launch Chris told me “don’t worry, if you mess up you can just put it down and try again”. But I didn't want to think about messing up, I was trying hard to think positively and visualize a nice clean launch. Once he brought it up, it was hard not to think about all the things that could go wrong.

Then he told me that if he said “Stop! Stop! Stop!” that I should … stop. Uh, yeah, I think I could probably figure that out! I realized that despite having been through it many times Chris was probably a little nervous too, about us awkward fledglings leaving the nest.

Finally it was time to go. He said, “wait for some wind that feels good”. The wind was gusting a bit stronger at that point so I was going to wait, but he said, “this is good, a bit strong so it might pull you off your feet, but go for it”. I wasn’t keen on getting pulled off my feet, but what the heck. I pulled and the wing came up fast and hard. I’d like to say I stepped towards it to stop if from overshooting, but in reality it yanked me a step or two up the hill. It seemed like it came up ok and fairly level so I turned. With the glider pulling strongly it only took a few steps until I was airborne. I didn’t even use the whole length of the short launch area. After all the training hill flights it was mostly reflex - pull, check, turn, and burn.

There's something magical about launching when it goes well. You just take a few steps and you're flying. Like something out of a dream.

Once in air it was a lot more relaxed. I steered over to the ridge and followed the spine down, as we’d been told to do. Once over the spine it was easy to stay on course by leaning, no brakes required. Finally there was time on a flight to look around at the view and up at the canopy. On the training hill you barely get launched before you have to think about landing. It was amazing to be flying, to look out at the ocean and down at the hillside and the roads.

From what the other pilots said, the air was extremely smooth, which was perfect for us beginners. But there were still a few small bumps on the way which were a little disconcerting. I never considered air as “bumpy”, although thinking about it, I realize that the turbulence you feel in a commercial plane must involve some pretty bumpy air.

One of the last skills we needed to perform was 360 degree turns. (There isn’t enough height to do these at the training hill.) Once I got close to the landing zone Chris talked me through the turns (via radio). It was a surprisingly large amount of lean and brake compared to the gentle turns we’d done so far. But I got used to it quickly, and did a couple more on my own just for practice and to lose height over the LZ.

Soon it was time to land. I managed to end up fairly close to the bush we’d been told to aim for. At the last minute I spotted a boulder hiding in the grass but thankfully passed just over it. I flared and landed just beside the trail not far from Shelley. Little or no wind at the LZ meant I didn’t have to worry about which direction to land, but it also meant a fast landing since there was no head wind to slow me down. But I landed on my feet without any trouble.

Once my feet were on the ground my landing practice was forgotten. I stood there thinking “I did it. I’m back on the ground!” Then I remembered my canopy above me. I belatedly took a few steps forward to get out from under it. I went to turn around but it was too late and the canopy fell right behind me. Not very professional, but I was too happy about the flight to care much.

This kind of direct flight, without any thermals or ridge soaring is known as a “sled ride” - not very exciting for experienced pilots. But it was plenty exciting for our first real flight!

See also my previous paragliding posts, Learning to Fly and Flying Lessons

See the details of the flight as captured by my GPS watch

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