Archives for June 2006

Emergency Maneuvers for Paragliders

When many people think about paragliding, they wonder what on earth would prompt somebody to jump off of a cliff into the sky.’Never mind that we don’t actually jump ’rather, we just run down-hill until taking flight.

Yet even among those who understand the process a bit better, and who might even see some joy in the act of flying, the notion of getting several thousand feet off the ground and then deliberately crippling one’s wing is just plain crazy.’It’s akin to sawing off the tree branch that you happen to be sitting on at the time.

This past weekend, however, I took a clinic where I did one terrible thing after another to my wing while flying over Lake Chelan, Washington.’This was an emergency maneuvers clinic where we deliberately simulated incidents in flight.’I had been nervous about it the entire week leading up the class.’Now, having gone through it, I’m glad that I did not fully understand what would be involved ahead of time.’I’m also glad I had the opportunity to learn additional skills that may one day save my life when flying in mountainous terrain with larger thermals.

What follows is a brief description of my own experience in the class.

Friday, June 23, 2006 : Arrival in Chelan.

All the students arrived in Chelan on Friday, in preparation for an early start the next morning.’We met our instructor, Gabe, who gave us an overview of what we would be doing over the next few days by means of "ground school."’Unfortunately, this ran rather late into the evening, and most of us did not get to bed until close to midnight, despite planning to start at 7am the next morning.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

First Flight

image002The launch was a rectangular piece of land about the size of a soccer field that went out into the water.’Everybody was standing in a circle around Gabe as we tinkered with our radios, putting them into plastic bags, and taping them to the outside of our helmets.’There was a chance that we might land in the water, so we were using cheap radios that were not so costly to replace if they were destroyed.’

Gabe pointed at somebody and started counting us off from one to eleven, indicating the order in which we would be towed for flight.’Then, one after another, the first three people in line said that they did not want to go first and each of them moved themselves to the end of the line.’That left me in the first position and increased my own anxiety level just a tad.

I had never done anything like what we were about to do. ‘I had never been launched by tow before.’I was only marginally clear on the sequence of events to take place once in the sky, and all eyes were on me as the first dummy who didn’t say "not it" to the tow-order.

The tow-bridal is a two-piece device that attaches to each of the carabineers on the side of the harness right where the wing gets attached.’These two pieces are joined together with the tow-line in a manner that is supposed to allow quick-release of the tow-line with minimal pressure.

image003In order to launch, the pilot faces the boat with the wing to the rear, prepared to do a forward-inflation.’The difficult part is that the pilot has to watch the line growing taught as the boat speeds away, and to pull the wing over head so that it is flyable before being dragged forward through the dirt.’The scary part is watching the boat speed away, knowing that in a matter of moments you are going to have to run after it as fast as you possibly can, and for goodness sakes, you had better not trip.’Even with proper timing, the pilot may still need to sprint for 10 to 20 yards at speeds greater than 14 miles an hour.’If there's a headwind, the running speed is slightly reduced.

image004Once airborne, I was pulled behind the boat to an altitude of roughly 2,500 feet, at which point I pulled the pin on the tow-bridal, sending the line downward on its own mini-parachute called a drogue.’At that point, I was flying on my own, no different from any of the 68 flights I had taken prior to that day.’The difference was how I planned to use the altitude between me and the ground below.

It started with asymmetric collapses: making the left or the right side of the wing collapse by pulling quickly and aggressively on the lines leading to the front outside edge of my wing and then letting go. ‘If you imagine sitting on a swing, then suddenly having one of the lines holding your butt off the ground drop on one side, you get the idea what the experience was like.’In the air, the recovery is almost instinctual ’lean your weight towards the other side.”

After that, I collapsed the center of the wing by pulling the inner two lines leading to the front of the wing in the middle.’That felt just like the moment in a swing when you are all the way back, and just before you start swinging down again.’The recovery is to dampen the swinging motion as you approach the bottom of the arc.

The next maneuver was something called a wingover.I was looking forward to this, because it was the move that got me hooked on the sport nearly two years ago when I took a tandem flight in South Africa. The wingover is supposed to be a pendulum swing, combining both left-right, and front-back motion, resulting in the body doing a huge figure-of-eight in the sky in three dimensions.’My wingovers, however, were nothing close to what they should have been, and were more like a gentle rocking motion from left-to-right on the roll axis.

The final maneuver was an asymmetric spiral in which I'm supposed to be swung way out to the side of the spiral via centrifugal force, but in an oval rather than a circle in order to keep it from getting too intense.” After that, I came in for landing, put my gear into the shade, and helped others in the class while waiting for my turn to roll around again.’

Second Flight

image005My next flight was just like the first, except that the huge amount of anxiety that I had built up prior to the clinic was beginning to dissipate.’This time, I was able to start focusing on what I was here to learn.’The sequence of maneuvers was identical, except that all of the moves were done more aggressively this time.’My first set of asymmetric collapses disabled maybe 20% of my wing at a time.’On this flight, I disabled closer to 40% of the wing, so the drop was much more noticeable and the recovery left me swinging quite a bit more before stabilizing in level flight again.

My wingovers were quite a bit better this time because I learned to combine the roll-axis from shifting my weight with the yaw-axis by pulling my brakes.’Apparently, the key to a good wingover is ‘throw out, then throw up.” No, were’not talking about barfing.’Instead, it means that the first lean and turn throws your body way out to the side like a spiral, but the second turn throws your body high up into the air, with your wing occasionally lower than your head on the horizon.’They key for me was to focus on my roll and yaw as separate components that needed to be coordinated, rather than just two different ways to initiate a turn.

Third Flight

Again, this flight repeated the same maneuvers, but went much more aggressively on all of the moves.’By this point it was ‘go big or go home’’meaning that if you're not going to really throw yourself completely and utterly into the maneuvers, you're going to miss the value of the exercises under instruction and over water where it's somewhat less dangerous than when nature does these awful things to you over the mountains.

image006The big change this time was in the asymmetric collapses.’This time, rather than just pulling the outer front lines down with one hand, I was grabbing the outer three lines, using both hands, pulling them all down quickly to my belly-button and then letting go.’This induced a collapse of close to 70% of my wing and created a massive falling sensation.’Unlike the partial collapses, where the recovery was to lean toward the remaining good side of the wing, in this case I actually had to deliberately fall towards the collapsed side and wait for a massive pendulum swing towards the good side, followed by the return towards the crippled side which was now starting to re-inflate.’This motion was incredibly scary, but fortunately gravity did most of the work and the wing did open up again quite normally.’My heart-rate, however, took a little longer to settle down than the wing.

image007My wingovers were also significantly improved this time, and were beginning to feel much more like the one I remembered from my first flight long ago.’I was improving my timing and coordination and was getting much more energy and height out of the maneuvers.’The key learning from the exercise so far has been the added confidence dealing with really bad collapses, recognizing the difference between partial collapse where you lean towards the good side, and full collapses where you lean into the collapse.

Fourth Flight

I'm getting better at being towed as well, which results in getting more altitude from the same distance that the boat travels across the lake.’This time, I got well above Chelan Butte, which has an elevation of 3,300 feet.’This was a good thing, since the lessons for this flight were about how to descend as quickly as possible while still maintaining directional control of the glider.

Rapid decent techniques are needed when the weather changes suddenly, or when you get caught in a thermal which starts sucking you into a cloud (‘Cloud Suck’), or when you have to piss so badly that your molars are floating.’Techniques practiced here included B-line stalls, big-ears, speed-bar, really big-ears, combining big ears with speed-bar.’I had done most of these before, but never in combination.’

B-line stalls are when you put a lateral crease in the top of your wing, which kills the lift and makes it sink like a parachute.’If you've seen ‘spoilers’go up on the back of a jet's wing on landing, the principal is similar.” Big-ears are when you pull the tips of the wing inward to reduce the size of the wing.’Speed-bar is when you change the angle of your wing to point it in a more downward direction that increases your forward speed by sacrificing altitude for speed.

The key learning in this exercise came from being able to steer the wing even when my hands were holding in my wingtips, and thus not able to pull on the brake lines.’The trick was simple enough ’hold the wingtips in, but steer with weight shift.

This was the last flight of the day, and at this point my quadriceps were really stiff, like I just climbed a mountain.’It could have been from tensing my legs in an effort to lock my tush into the back of the seat, or from running so hard to launch.’Either way, it was a long and full day, and I was ready for bed.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Fifth Flight

image008This was where things started getting really hairy.’The exercise started by pulling both brakes in order to slow the glider down farther and farther, until it reached the point where it ceased flying as a wing completely.’At that point, I pulled both brake lines down as far as I possibly could by taking one wrap of the lines around my wrists and tucking my hands beneath my butt.’Even with elbows locked, it was difficult to hold my hands down for the required 5 seconds while a desperately fluttering wing surged backwards and forwards over my head as I sank rapidly through the air.’I was being jostled about in every direction and saw my horizon change from the water, to the sky, to the mountains in rapid succession.’The lines were jerking at my hands with great force as the wing tried to recover, but I had to hold it down until the surging subsided.’That also meant I had to wait until I was falling straight down, rather than swinging beneath my wing.

At that point, I let up half-way on the brakes as the wing was slightly in front of me.’It then surged still further out front and had me swinging through a huge arc underneath it.’As the wing came overhead yet again, I could let out the rest of the brakes and begin taking control of my wing by once again allowing it to become the flying device that it was meant to be.’Throughout the maneuver, fear was actually far less of an issue than total disorientation.’Thank goodness I had the calming voice of an instructor on the radio.

Sixth Flight

Up until now, all of the difficulties I had encountered had been deliberately induced in the hopes that if ever I encountered them "in the wild" I would be prepared to respond appropriately.’On this flight, however, I ran into my first minor technical difficulty.’While on tow, the line snapped when I was only about 1,500 feet above the ground.’At first, it did not seem like that big of an issue, as I had plenty of altitude to make the landing zone.

As I had been instructed, I held onto my end of the tow line by not releasing the drogue.’Unfortunately, as I got closer and closer to the ground, the resistance that the line created actually increased because I was feeling more line being pulled through the water rather than through the air.’What looked like an easy glide to the LZ was now a questionable descent which might very well have dumped me onto a bank of very large and sharp rocks.

But as if that’s not bad enough, here’s where it gets awful.’I was heading to shore on a downwind leg, loosing altitude.’I did not have the height to be able to turn around and point into the wind for landing.’As it was, I was barely able to turn right and parallel the shore line, cross-wise to the wind.’Unfortunately, that's when more of the line began to drag lower in the water and added terribly to my resistance.’I was heading South, my wing was flying South, and then just before the ground, the line yanked my body to the West while my wing kept going South, 90 degrees to my body.’I landed very hard going sideways, hitting my butt, then knee and hip, elbow, shoulder, and finally whacking the side of my head.’

The extent of my injury was a scraped elbow and my mid-back was a bit sore.’Mostly, I was just massively shaken up, confused, and overwhelmed.’I had no idea to expect that kind of behavior from the tow line, since I had never had this happen before, and because I was following the instructions I heard over my radio.

In hindsight, it would have been better to just land in the water, or to have to have jettisoned the drogue when I had more altitude but was perhaps closer to shore.’Apparently, there are sometimes problem releasing the tow line when there is no tension from the boat any longer.’Even were that really the case, then that might have called for the tow line to be cut with the hook-knife.’By having me focus on the ease of drogue retrieval, I believe that my instructor made a very bad call at my expense.’The experience for me was not unlike a dog running at full speed before suddenly and violently reaching the end of its leash, and it also resulted in probably the largest wedgie I've ever had in my life. “Fortunately, the next pilot was able to learn from my mishap because the line broke on him as well and he knew to get rid of the drogue high over land.’Further, I took the time to write the incident up to USHPA despite the lack of serious injury so that others might learn as well.

Shortly afterwards, it was scorching hot, well into the triple digits, and we decided to take a break by going back to the house.’The plan was to come back around 6p to do some more towing in the early evening, since it is light until close to 10p.’However, when we were all back at the house where we are staying, I took a short nap.’When I woke, a decision had already been made to blow off towing for the evening.’Most folks decided to go someplace for wine-tasting and then to a stake-house.” As a non-drinking vegetarian, I was not happy about it, and so I decided to stay at the house instead.’The down-time to relax was nice, but that is not what I came here to do.’I was frustrated.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Seventh Flight

I knew that I could not let my previous flight be the last one that I did at the clinic, and that I needed to get back into the sky.’I didn't develop any fears over flying, or of landing, but I was a bit timid regarding the tow-line.’Unfortunately, when the boat roars away from the shore, the pilot still needs to run at 100% full speed to get airborne while still keeping the glider upright and stable.

The tasks for this flight were to work on negative spins, more recoveries from full stalls, and if possible, to try for a maneuver called a SAT.’Negative spins are when half of the wing is flying and the other half is stalled, resulting in a helicopter-like motion in the wing.’Full stalls were getting easier to enter and exit, but they were still quite violent even when done well.’The SAT, however, is a much more complex move that I still don't fully understand, even after having done one.

When I was finally in the air, I found that I was still shaking a little bit, and had to deliberately calm myself down so that I could focus on the maneuvers that would begin after letting go of the tow-line.’What I could not have known at that point was that releasing the drogue would become an adventure all of its own.

At final altitude I pulled the release handle but nothing happened.’I pulled again and still it would not budge.’I let go of both breaks and wailed on it with both hands, but still nothing.’At this point, I was starting to feel the pull of the line dragging me down, and despite having close to 3000 feet of altitude, I went into just short of a panic based on yesterday's abrupt landing.’I had images of the exact same landing, only happening from altitude.’This was not just fear’this was genuine panic, with rapid heart-rate, rapid breathing, knocking knees, trembling hands and tears.

Over the radio, I heard the boat driver say that he couldn't see the drogue, despite the line having gone slack.’It was slack because I somehow had the sense to fly directly over top of the boat to keep it from pulling me sideways again.’With a little bit of slack available, I reached down and pulled the drogue into my lap by hoisting it hand over hand from the tow bridals so that I could look at the release mechanism.’Meanwhile, my wing was tossing about erratically from side to side in the process, but I just had to deal with it.

Once in my lap, it took but a fraction of a second for my panicked brain to conclude "This release is all f***ed up!" The release pin had been inserted incorrectly and had jammed.’No wonder I could not get it to release!’However, with the entire contraption in my lap, I was able to fix it, pull the pin, and toss the drogue over the side towards the water below.’I was out of immediate danger, but my adrenaline levels were still way off the charts.’

I took a few deep breaths, tucked the tow-bridals safely under my tush, and saw that I still had well over 2,000 feet to spare.’Over the radio, Gabe requested that I take it easy, and that when I was ready to begin the rest of the maneuvers, that I make a left 180 degree turn. ‘I had thought about simply flying to the landing zone to skip this one, but that was not what I was there to learn.’

After a few moments, I commenced my turn, and further instructions came pouring over the radio.’While I was able to physically comply with the directions, the relationship between what I did and what happened to the wing really was not sinking in.’

I slowed the wing down just a bit, and then stalled the right side while letting the left side continue to fly, resulting in a negative spin to the right like a helicopter blade.’The exercise was then repeated to the left, and then followed by some wingovers with increasingly greater G-forces.

Beyond that point, I really have no clue whatsoever what really happened.’I was told that I entered a SAT, which is when the wing circles forward while the pilot circles backwards, except that somehow thing were going terribly wrong.’I had a massive cravat on the down-hill side, which meant that the outer 6 cells of my wing-tip had folded inward and become entangled in the rest of the lines while I kept spinning faster and faster.’I tried pulling on the left break line, then the right.’Not only was I unable to clear my lines, nor could I manage to exit from the rotation.” My instructor gave some directions on what to try, but none if it was working.’All the while, I was probably falling at 700 feet per minute or more, all the while completely oblivious to my ever-decreasing altitude above the water.

At some point I heard that calm voice over my radio say "Ashley, pull your reserve."’I had done it in simulations, but never for real.’Thank god for the attention I paid during simulations!’I reached down for that yellow handle below my right butt-cheek, and ripped it out of its Velcro.’Just as my instructor repeated his instructions, I hurled that sack of bundled nylon wrapped inside its diaper into the sky without even thinking.

That's when time began to slow down and I entered that hyper-aware state.’I did not actually see the chute, but I saw the long line of black nylon webbing extend outward from under my legs.’The problem here was that it was supposed to be over my head.’I had thrown it correctly, except that I was upside down, legs skyward, as the lines began to extend.’I had a sensation of the lines slowly coming under tension, and an awareness that I was about to be thrown ass over apple-carts as the chute opened and began to take a load.’That’s exactly what happened as I was rapidly spun into the upright position under my reserve canopy with perhaps 300′ of altitude to spare before hitting the surface of the water.

Despite being under new canopy, I was still spinning and swinging quite violently as the entire system tried to stabilize when I looked down and saw the water approaching at what was still an alarming speed.’Of all of the things that could have gone through my mind at that precise moment, I was inexplicably thinking that I might loose my glasses.’Moments before smacking the water I put my hands to my face and held onto my helmet as I took one of the fastest and deepest breaths of my life.

!’!’!“ S * P * L * A * S * H” !’!’!

I have no idea how deep under water I actually plunged, but I could hear the phenomenal rush and swirl of the bubbles all around me.’My eyes were wide open now and I was able to see thousands of individual bubbles, each in incredibly intricate detail.’That was important because the bubbles let me know which way was up as I began swimming for the surface which seemed so very far away.’I swam and swam, frantically driven towards the sunlight.’Eventually, my head pierced the surface and I could breath again, but all that I could manage was a long series of hyper-ventilating gasps amidst my doggy-paddle to keep my head above water.

The flying harness we use floats, but unlike a life-jacket which is designed to keep your head out of water, this harness ends up keeping your butt out of the water instead. The soggy pilot must continuously paddle by hand, remembering not to kick, lest one of the 150 lines from wing and reserve chute wrap around her feet worse than a fish caught in a gill-net.

The tow boat was at my side in less than 10 seconds, at which point I reached up and grabbed the side of the boat while still desperately trying to recover my breath.’He asked if I was OK, but all that would come out of my mouth was "OH!’MY! GOD!!!" I kept uttering it over and over again while hanging onto the side of the bow. ‘The driver asked me to come to the rear of the boat so that he could pull me in, but I had to just hang there and breathe for a while.

When I moved to the back, he hauled me in, and I promptly plopped on the floor of the boat.’I simply could not stop laughing and calling out "Oh My God!"’We went back to shore where others helped me out of the boat and carried my soggy gear onto dry land.’I literally bent down and kissed the dirt, let out a rip-roaring scream of elation and joy to the gift of life (and endorphins), and I had to be helped away from the shore because my knees were still shaking so badly.’It took about 45 minutes to re-establish internal equilibrium, which was signaled with intense physical hunger and a craving for chocolate.’I opened the cooler and satisfied both with vengeance.

New: Video Clip of the flight!

Eighth Flight

With the temperatures still in the high 90’s, it didn’t take long for my wing to dry out to where it could be flown again.’My reserve, however, would require more care and special packing before it could be used again.’Therefore, for the next two flights, I used one of the spare harnesses that the instructor had with him because it had its own reserve still packed.’

This flight involved more spins and stalls, but no SATs.’It finished up with Asymmetric spirals.’My instructor wanted me to do some more wingovers, but I was close to spent already, so I pulled big-ears to decline the instruction and came in for landing.

Ninth Flight

For this flight, I wanted to be mostly left to my own to work on wingovers, rather than being guided through the timing.’I asked for two attempts to get it right on my own, and that after that, to coach me some more if I failed to get it right.’I was able to do sets of 4 wingovers before loosing my timing and starting over.’

At this point, however, I was more than happy with that.’I was absolutely exhausted at that point, and I don't think I could have done another flight even if I wanted to.

So why is it that I put myself through such an ordeal in the first place” Because I know that sooner or later, I am going to encounter some nasty conditions, and I want the skills to be able to survive.’The other reason is summed up in the quote below:

Everyone who lives, dies.

Yet not everyone who dies, has lived.

We take these risks not to escape life,
but to prevent life from escaping us.

The Benefits of Practice

I had the best flight of my flying career so far last Sunday at Tiger Mountain .  The skies were clear, winds were light, and the lift was abundant.  I had three flights that day.  The first was a launch off of North Tiger which lasted 24 minutes, top elevation maybe 300’ above launch.  There was concern that the wind was going to pick up way too much and that everything might get blown out, so I launched early. 

However, the winds stayed constant at about 5-10 MPH, and I had time to get back up to the launch again for a second flight.  This one was just fantastic.  I managed to experience a number of “firsts” for me.  In particular, I was able to find and circle multiple lift cores, rising well over 1,000’ in each one, topping out at just below 5,000’ MSL.  (Launch is 1,830’ MSL).  At one point I got sucked into a lift band close to rising at about 800 fpm.  I had never heard my variometer make that kind of noise before.  It was literally screaming at me, but they were screams of joy because it meant going up!

Also, while I have had brief partial collapses in the past, I had one of the largest I have ever experienced, complete with that terrible sinking sensation from loosing altitude.  It might have been only 20’ that I lost, but my heart and bowels told a story more like dropping a hundred feet or more.  As scary as it was, I managed to regain my composure and thought “OK.  That was not so bad.  Now go do it again so that I’m more prepared and controlled for when it happens by surprise.”  I did that a few times, hating it every time, but managing to regain control a little quicker each time, and then I left that area to fly somewhere else.

In this same flight, I also managed to do a little bit of cross-country flying, traveling about 7 miles from launch towards one of the “tiger tag” waypoints.  I was concerned going that far away from my home base for the first time — what if I couldn’t make it back?  However, I knew that the same region of travel which took me to altitude would probably be there on the return trip, so I actually did a few laps.  Around this time, I looked at my timer to see that I had been up for 50 minutes.  It had long been a goal to stay up for more than an hour, and this one clearly looked like it would do it.

I started playing with some much tighter spirals, and switching the direction of my spin from one way to the other.  I’m sure it looked rather tame from below, but for me it was quite a thrill.  I came back down towards the launch and had planned to try my first top-landing.  Unfortunately, I was way too high, but not high enough to go around a second time.  I was also more than a little nervous.  But rather than continuing to sink out and go to the landing zone, I managed to catch more lift again.  I thought about trying another top-landing but got so
caught up in the fun and lift that I took it back up to 4,000 again and just flew all over the place.

Eventually I had finished my water, I was getting thirsty, and I had to use the restroom.  So I went back towards launch for another shot at a top-landing.  This time, I was too low, and had to veer off.  That was fine, since the landing zone below was only another 8 minutes away. Yet the lift was still there and remarkably I got a third shot at my goal.  This time, there was another tandem wing in front of me
trying to land on top at the launch, so I could watch his approach and then repeat it.  I was following about 20 seconds behind him, and saw that he actually landed a bit low of the launch, hitting the side of the hill.  I was able to correct a little bit, but still landed on the same hill above him, but below the launch.  Regardless, it was a successful top landing, and I was just beaming!

I put my wing into a rosette, walked the 30 feet to the top of the hill and unclipped my gear, then raced for the restroom.  I had been airborne for 2 hours 10 minutes – clearly my longest flight ever, and far exceeding my own expectations.  Afterwards, conditions were dying down, and most other pilots had already sunk out by now.  It was getting late, I was thirsty and hungry, and it was time to go back down.  The air was calm with nearly no wind.  I set up for a running-reverse which I executed nearly flawlessly, and took a deliberate sled-ride to the landing zone, joining up with another group of pilots who had just completed an awesome set of flights as well.