Active Flying

Basics for Paragliding Pilots

Q: So, what actually is active flying? I know that one must be tuned in to the glider, but how does one go from non-active flying to active flying? If it is reacting to the glider, why is it not called reactive flying?

A: Active flying is called such because the goal is continuous connectivity to the paraglider as a bird is to its wings. If Yoda had taught Luke how to paraglide, he would have said something like – “Connect to the Wing Luke”. True active flying includes some anticipation and using subtle sensations to anticipate air activity to manage it quicker.

Q: So, if I go to a maneuvers clinic will it help me to achieve this feeling?

A: Yes, a maneuvers clinic will help you in some of the sensations that happen in the process of maneuvers and collapses, but no it is not the whole picture.

Q: OK, can you tell me how to feel the wing and become an active pilot?

A: Sure, the following is the basic theory of active flying and you can learn this with continuous practice while you fly.

Active flying in its essence is flying in a way to make the craft more stable overhead. By sensing a Paraglider’s movements overhead and immediately managing these movements, it is possible to tune into and manage a paraglider actively. As one grows as a pilot, the sensations that are felt through the harness become more and more vivid. Active flying is not difficult, but it requires a high degree of sensitivity and quick actions. It is control of the wings movement to minimize surges and rapid angle of attach changes.

The below article is intended for pilots that are past their basic training and starting to fly in textured air. Overcorrecting the wing can actually turn a minor situation into something more severe, so each of the below controls will require some experience to gage the degree of action necessary.

Managing Gusts

If you are flying along and encounter a strong gust of wind and or some lift (possibly a thermal), you need to anticipate what is happening with the wing. If you feel the strong gust hit the wing and the nose of the glider lifting, active flying includes letting your hands up as far as to trim if they are not in that position. This will help the glider avoid a high angle of attack and a possible stall (If it is a minor gust, you can simply let your hands up slightly). Once you feel the glider is back overhead (the glider has adjusted to the lift/gust and is back in its normal flying position) you can then decide if you are in a thermal or not. A common practice it to count to 3 after first encountering a thermal head on. This will ensure that it is large enough to circle in (one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand). If you are climbing in a thermal, you can pull the brakes to a slower speed to increase your climb rate and begin centering in the thermal.

The main point here is to let the hands up when you feel the nose of the glider lifting. Even if it is just a gust without lift, the initial drag will pull the wing back slightly, thus incresing the angle of attack. In this case, the correct response is the same, to let the brakes up. How much you let the hands up will depend on the severity of the gust. Once again, experience will help you deem how much to react to different degrees of gusts/thermals that you enter.

The above situation and action is not exactly the same if you hit a thermal gust on just one side of the wing. When you fly straight into a thermal, it can raise the angle of attack of the entire wing. When a thermals is on one side of the wing, this is not as threatening.

With a thermal that one encounters that is on one side, I recommend at first maintaining direction (braking and weight shifting towards the lifting side enough to maintain direction or to begin turning toward the lift). The amount of weight shift and corresponding brake will depend on the strength of the thermal. If the lift continues after you have maintained direction, you can then turn towards the thermal and begin to try to center in the lift. Always make sure the situation is safe for thermalling (the thermal is not on the side of the hill and turning into it would be dangerous), before you go after it.

Managing Surges

Now, the opposite happens, you are in a thermal and feel the wing suddenly hit the edge of the thermal and begin to surge forward. If this is not too severe, one can pull the brakes briefly down just below the shoulders to minimize the surge. If it is a very severe instance, pulling half brake or a little more might be the correct response. In either case, the action to dampen the surge will be over in less than a second so extremely quick action is the key. Once the surge has been controlled, the brakes can be released. The trickiest part of surge dampening is sensing how severe the surge is and acting immediately with some brakes.

It is critical here that the surge dampening be done before the surge has progresses too much. If the wing is already out in front of you and that is when you pull the brakes, you will add to the pendulum action that will happen as your mass swings back forward underneath the wing.

The main point of the braking action to dampen a surge is preventing a frontal collapse. If you are late and get a frontal after a surge, brakes are going to help the wing recover quicker. Some caution is advised here because too late or too much use brakes can add to the pendulum action. Keeping a large amount of brakes pulled following a surge is not good because following the surge and control, the wing will be in front of you and pulling the brakes a lot as you swing back under the wing could result in a subsequent high angle of attack as a result of the pendulum action.

Another surge situation is when you are flying along and just one side of the wing surges. The action to be taken here is very similar to the surge control just described in regards to a whole wing surge. With a surge on only one side, you would manage the surge with just the one brake on the surging side. Most common during thermaling is that the outside wing surges as it encounters the outer edge of the thermal. In this situation, your weight is likely to be on the inner side and this is fine. Just react to this with a quick addition of outside brake to prevent the surge from getting far enough forward to cause a collapse. After the brake application, don’t hold the brake down for long, just enough to stop the surge on that side. As with all surges, the key to asymmetrical surges is immediate action to dampen it.

There is a balance between quick reactions to strong surges when necessary, but overreaction to smaller movements of the wing can create pilot induced pitching and movements of the wing. Good active flying involves the sensitivity to avoid overreactions but allows for stronger reactions when necessary.

Managing Turbulence

Paragliders become more stable with a bit of brake pulled (Brakes at shoulder height works for most gliders). When the air becomes a little rough, it is prudent to fly with the brakes pulled down slightly. If it is so windy that flying with some brakes will cut into your glide, you may have chosen the wrong day to fly a paraglider. You will have to make your own best decision if you ever get into this situation. The decision will be a balance of penetration and wing collapse management.

When flying in turbulence, the above rules of active flying remain in effect. When you enter a gust, let your hands up to trim or near trim (if you were flying slower) until the wing levels off in the lift. You will still need to dampen surges. But between these situations, rather than flying at trim, fly with some brakes pulled so that you can feel some tension and get feedback from the brakes.

Paragliders are more stable in Big Ears. Many pilots like to do their landing approach with Big Ears when the LZ is turbulent. Big ears increase the wing loading for the portion of wing that is flying. This combined with the increased descent rate, increases the internal pressure of the paraglider. The trade off is that one can only seat steer with Big Ears activated.

If you are going to use Big Ears in any turbulence, you should be well practiced at entry into, exit from and steering while in Big Ears. With practice, one can land right out of Big Ears. If you are going to learn to do this, practice in smooth air and hone the technique, perhaps have an instructor or someone experienced demonstrate this and explain the techniques to you. I cannot say that all wings are equal in this regard, so consult with your local instructor and make sure your wing can do this safely.

So, there are many aspects to active flying. In fact, it is a process that starts at the launch and does not end until you have safely landed on every flight. Active flying will only help so much if you choose to fly on the wrong day, there is no solution to that.

Jeff Greenbaum    10-12-04