Reverse Launch Primer

Written February 2005
by Joe Bosworth

With Australia’s strong thermic conditions and high percentage of coastal flying sites, probably some 90% of all paraglider takeoffs start with a reverse launch. Other parts of the world also widely utilise reverse launches. Perhaps 25% of pilots find reverse launches relatively easy to learn, another 25% really struggle to learn to reverse launch and the middle ground 50% have varying degrees of difficulty in learning the reverse launch techniques.

This primer is intended to dissect the steps leading to successful reverse launches so that the newbie and others who are not satisfied with their reverse launches can become adept in a shorter time and with a reduced struggle.

I write this with the assumption that the reader already knows something about ground handling from initial lessons, you just aren’t as good as you want to be.

Your author started as one who found great difficulty in learning to reverse launch. I have had the benefit of having experienced several sports, had outstanding coaches in all of them and have also coached several sports. A common thread in the coaching experiences has been in breaking down elements of execution into many understandable small steps which when placed together brings a good result.

With the help of many experienced pilots I have analysed reverse launching and have gained a reasonable proficiency. This primer attempts to pass on the steps leading to good reverse launching techniques.

By definition, if you are reading this to learn reverse launching, at some points in your learning experiences you will loose control of your glider and will end up being dragged. Don’t feel badly, I see even the very experienced still find themselves being dragged once in a while.

That being the case please take heed and:

  1. Wear your helmet anytime you harness up. I find that a good way to remember this, as well as to never lose it, is to clip your helmet to one of your harness loops every time you unclip from your harness. If you do this then you will naturally put on your helmet as the first step in buckling up. It will also avoid the problem that some have had, that it losing one’s helmet due to leaving it behind while packing up.

  3. Wear stout clothing over arms and legs. Unless you are very lucky you are going to lose some skin in any substantial drag on almost any surface. Motorcyclists call it road rash. Save yourself the recovery from road rash, wear at least the equivalent of jeans to cover your legs and at least a heavy cotton jacket on the upper body. A long sleeve shirt under the jacket is also a good idea in all but very hot weather.

  5. Wear gloves with at least leather palms. Grabbing hold of bare lines and pulling the glider in is tough on the hands without leather gloves. It is up to you what kind of gloves you might wear. My choice in hot weather is yachting gloves. As crew members spend there time hauling on sail control lines they have things pretty well in hand with good soft leather that works even better when they get sweaty and damp and have open tips on all or first digits which helps one grab particular lines as one will want to do from time to time. Bicycle gloves are somewhat similar but do not cover as much length of finger. For cold weather use there is not much that the motorcycle guys haven’t sussed out for comfort and warmth.

Footwear doesn’t quite fully come under the guise of safety but it is well worth comment. When it comes to landing on rough terrain good ankle support will save ankle some ankle sprains.

However don’t undervalue the role of good foot support and traction to aid reverse launches. I went a long time wearing light boots without either good support or good traction aiding soles. That was during a period in which I was a lousy ground handler.

When I got good boots my handling improved. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, you are not going hiking or mountain climbing, as least as a primary purpose.

Hooking Up and the Reverse Turn
As by the definition from the Introduction, you already know enough about ground handling from your initial lessons to know how to hook up and get into the reverse position. You also know how to layout the glider and its lines.

However I can’t help but make a few observations.

  1. I like to be certain that the glider’s lines are in order and not twisted before getting into my harness but it can be reasonably argued that this can be done after step 3 below. I do it first as any pulling on lines means the glider can get away without me attached.

  3. Always hook into your harness using the same sequence. I don’t really believe that it makes much difference what the sequence is, just make it always the same. Falling into a single pattern will help one assure that they are properly hooked in. I also shun any help from others as that is sure to break the pattern and adds to the possibility that something has been omitted.

  5. Once in your harness do a visual check to assure that you haven’t forgotten anything and this includes twisted straps and buckles that have not been pushed home to the secure position.

  7. When in strong winds or in gusts it is a good idea to pick up brake lines with the correct hands before locking into the karabiners. In lighter, non-gusting conditions I sometimes don’t pick the brakes until the karabiners are attached but before turning into the reverse position. Your choice is a matter of balancing safety and convenience.

  9. At some point in time you will want to be able to turn in either direction while launching. This is so because hill sites sometimes have winds at that vary at some considerable wind direction between canopy height and body height. When the vector moves the glider to your (reverse) right when you need to turn left you have some problems and visa versa. The problems are solvable but can become simple by initiating a reverse turn from the other direction.

However, don’t try to learn turning both directions until you have a single direction seared into your brain and it becomes a reflex action. How long does this take? I don’t know about your learning habits but I am 1½ years into the learning process and don’t even think about going both ways. One thing I do know is that I will keep my regular direction as the one to do by reflex action and the other to be initiated only by very conscious prior decision.

Hand Positions
Cross or not –
Since turning into a reverse position results in crossed risers you need to decide whether you are happy to cross your hands so that the final forward position right riser is in your right hand or whether you are happy to let going of lines and risers and brakes during the forward turn in order to get your hands properly placed for a forward launch.

I recommend learning to reverse launch with crossed hands. The best reason for my recommendation is that you have your hands on some controls at all times during the launch and turn sequence. I found that any learning experience became a reflex almost immediately on starting and I have felt comfortable ever since.

However if you have trouble coming to grips with cross-control use, by all means use the straight-arm approach. It works as well 99% of the time.

The one rule that needs to be followed for either method is to be sure that both A risers are clear on top and both D risers are clear on the bottom. I am surprised at the number of people that don’t check and have to abort launches to get things in order. You can not get a good inflation unless the A’s are cleanly on top and you can’t get the glider cleanly down without the D’s cleanly on the bottom. Ask for help if it is not absolutely clear how to accomplish this

Which risers –
There are a wide variety of ways to arrange the risers and brakes in your hands whether crossed or not. There are advocates and good reasoning for all of the alternatives. My view is that no single choice is best and you need to practice two or three methods depending on kiting / launch conditions. Let’s talk our way through this.

Before we start however let’s get the brakes correct. I like to use the cross arm approach and to grab the brakes in the correct hands while still facing forward as we learned for forward or so-called Alpine launches. Getting your hands on the brakes at this point assures two things; firstly the matter of safety, if the wing catches a gust while turning into the reverse position we have a chance to quickly kill the glider and secondly, it assures that the brakes will be clear for control once we have turned into launch position after inflating the glider.

We know by now that lifting the A risers inflates the wing and initiates the lifting process. We also know that pulling on the brakes causes the trailing edge to drop, eventually stall and the wing to settle back down.

However a couple of problems with using brakes arise. One is that overuse of the brakes when close to full inflation will increase the lift of the wing, sometimes enough to cause a premature takeoff. The second is that brakes are relatively slow acting, at least compared to using C’s or D’s.

D’s do a better job of killing the wing quickly than do the brakes, so when in doubt or when getting into impending trouble use D’s rather than brakes. This becomes more critical in stronger winds and less important the more benign the conditions.

Interestingly the C’s are the best way to control the wing in really marginally strong conditions; the kind which you may choose to not subject yourself to with sound thinking. The good thing about C’s are that they cause a crease to form across the wing from tip to tip when which reduces wing area and therefore the pull of the wing. More about this later.

I will discuss my personal preferences and why I got to this point. But before I do, let me state the obvious and that is that all wings and people are different. You need to find what works best for you and your glider for differing conditions that will be found through practice.

My glider to now has been an overly large DHV1. It rises slowly and seems quite heavy.

In most conditions except for those which are starting to get too strong, I get the best inflation by holding one A riser in each of my crossed hands. This allows me to initiate the strongest inflation to counteract the weight and slow rise. This also allows me to differentiate the lifting action if one side starts to come up slower than the other. Simply slowing the lift on one side, speeding the lift on the other or a combination of the two works wonders in getting an even inflation. So does dropping the A on the faster rising side and applying a little brake. I like the variety that this gives me in most conditions which leads to my favouritism.

However; let’s not throw out the A and D option. Both A’s in the hand in the direction you are going to turn and both D’s in the other hand is the favourite of many. The biggest advantage that this allows the fast killing of the glider when needed because of the previously mentioned fact that D’s react on the wing more strongly than do the brakes.

If the wing starts to rise un-evenly you still have some control by moving your hands laterally.

Let’s say that when looking at the wing from the reverse position that the left side starts to riser faster than the right side. You need to slow the left side and speed the right side. This will occur if you move your hand with the A’s to the left which brings the right A into more prominent play. At the same time move the hand with your D’s to the right which provides the equivalent of a bit more braking action to the wing’s left side. When things even out move both hands back together in the middle of your body. The more responsive your glider the better this works. As previously mentioned, I get less control out of this method than I like so I don’t use this much though I still practice it, especially when I intend to stay in reverse kiting position for a while.

For both of the above methods it is important for a straight inflation to start with both hands together and to keep them together until conditions dictate to the contrary.

In conditions that border on too strong I recommend using A’s and C’s. The C’s are used as per the D’s mentioned above with the advantage that pulling forces are reduced. As much as anything is certain in paragliding, holding C’s with some pressure while the glider is on the ground will keep the glider down. At least down better than brakes or D’s.

If it is that strong and you still make your decision to try an inflation you can reduce the pulling loads by keeping the C hand close to your belt buckle and only start to feed it out to the hand with A’s after that hand has started to lift the glider.

Handling on the Ground
It is important that the glider remain on the ground when you want it on the ground. This is necessary between the time that you hook in to the karabiners to the time you commence inflation. The time may be from moments to several minutes, depending on your waiting for traffic clearances and/or favourable wind cycles.

The safest condition occurs with the leading edge of the glider partially inflated and sufficient pressure on the A’s that the edge is about 15 inches – 35 centimetres above ground. In this situation you want just enough light pressure on your C’s, D’s or brakes, (see previous section), to assure that air doesn’t get under the glider and/or you can apply further pressure to control the bottom trailing edge.

While you are waiting with your glider partially lifted on the ground you are in a perfect position to determine if you are set up squarely and perpendicular to the wind. In almost all conditions, (that will be discussed next), if you are square to the wind you will get a level and even inflation. If you are not square, the downwind tip will inflate first and the upwind tip slower while tending towards collapse in exceptional circumstances.

Pick up a wisp of grass or dust and let it go to judge wind direction. Even better, induce a partial inflation, raising the leading edge so that the trailing edge barely leaves the ground then drop it back down with C’s, D’s or brakes. If it pulled up evenly you are likely square to the wind. If it did not come up evenly you are not square to the wind. Take a couple of steps towards the side that was slower inflating and try again.

The one major exception to the rule of being square to the wind is when the wind at the elevation of an inflated canopy is at some vector to wind direction at body level. We have one site in particular where the wind at canopy level often is at a vector of up to 30 or so degrees to body level wind direction. The best way to determine this is to allow others to be wind dummies and watch what happens to their canopies during inflation.

The experienced ground handler can inflate evenly even with a vectoring wind by differentially applying risers. You/we are not there yet. The best recourse is to shift most of the way into the vectoring wind and iniating inflation with the upwind A a little in lead of the downwind A.

It is time for inflation but before we do so I wish to raise two points that I had to figure out for myself and I haven’t seen written elsewhere.

The first has to do with hand position on the brakes after inflation and while the glider is overhead. I see many low hour pilots hold on to the brake handles with the strength of a gorilla swinging in the trees. And then they complain that they can’t feel what the glider is doing. Among other things, your hands and arms need to be relaxed to get any real feel.

I have found that to insure relaxation and to improve feel that I rest only the first knuckle of two or three fingers across the bottom of each brake handle. This applies to feeling the glider in the air and on the ground as well. It is all but impossible to be tense through two fingers and it is amazing how much feel you achieve. This also allows you to provide control inputs at varying levels of force whether through finger movement, hand movement or arm movement. Waking up to this was a major break through for me to raising the level of my ground handling and inflation.

The second break through was to realise the importance of loading the glider wing during inflation. There are two aspects of this, static weight and applied weight.

We know that gliders are designed to be flown at a certain load, mostly near 3 ½ kilograms per square meter of wing area. We also know that the greatest stability occurs when the glider is in the air and flown near the top side of its design weight range. It takes a very strong off setting wind to disturb the shape and direction of a well-loaded glider. Of course this is also made easier since we auto-center our weight under the wing due to gravity while flying.

I started flying with a glider on which I was in the bottom half of its design weight range. I suffered with premature lift off and difficulty in getting the glider fully stable with canopy overhead while still on the ground. Then I thought it through and started to add ballast. Achieving stability became easier and easier with more ballast. I now like to take off ballasted to about 70 to 75 percent of the design weight range. So much for static wing loading, let’s go on to applying the load.

I see many people commencing inflation with the entire load going through the A risers. The wing was designed to have best lift and stability when all risers are loaded through the karabiners and then into all risers and lines as dictated by line lengths. I have found that emulating the flying load pattern early in inflation provided greater stability. Use you’re A’s by lifting in a vertical direction and then in an arc until the canopy is suitably overhead and flying, even if you are still on the ground. (Don’t start by pulling on you’re A’s). At the same time that you start raising the A’s load the karabiners through your hip action. Pull back with your hips and then start to bend your knees as the wing rises. I like to insure this by putting my buttocks against my harness seat front and feeling the initial load.

Try to take most of the load through your hips. This evenly loads the glider through all risers. This also brings the major forces that you wish to control and resist closer to the ground where it is working against a shorter fulcrum length. This also allows you to best resist through your legs where you have the greatest strength and to also bring the rest of your upper body weight into action through a longer fulcrum length. Remember your days on a “see saw or known as a teeter totter in NA”? The low weight person on the long arm easily balanced the heavier person on the shorter arm.

While you are still on the ground, try to apply load into the wing by leaning. In the first instance backwards while in the reverse position and later forwards when in the forward position. This transfers more of your body weight from the your contact point with ground which is made up by increasing load lifted by the wing.

Of course, as/when the wing goes off center that lean should go towards the low tip of the glider to augment the braking adjustment that you also make. If leaning sideways is not enough, start shuffling your feet. Here is where those bent knees from earlier come into prominent play. All athletic endeavours involving lateral movement are best taken with a lowered body silhouette.

Some people have problems with the wing over-shooting on lift off. Applying early body weight helps avoid this. But it is also usually necessary to slow the wing’s forward momentum as it nears the top of its inflation. Of course you have learned to do this by applying brakes, D’s or C’s as previously discussed. But also don’t forget that a lot of this forward momentum can be slowed by moving under the wing earlier in the inflation process.

Once the wing is overhead I like to immediately forward turn and initiate a smooth forward movement to gain airspeed into lift off. I turn immediately because there are more bad things that can happen in the transition than good things and the shorter the time the least time for the unexpected.

One of the bad things is premature lift off. This can occur due to a wind gust or too vigorous a brake application. Either way the least harm will usually occur if you accept your plight and fly off. Simply give the glider the best opportunity to fly by raising your hands. Usually the weight of you and harness will cause the risers to unwind and off you go to a good flight. Only very occasionally will you need to consider reaching up at arms length to apply outwards pressure to unwind the risers. Let nature take its course first but above all don’t panic.

If you wait to apply all of this to the takeoff situation you will never learn fast enough. There is no viable alternative to practising this stuff on a level field while ground handling. You can get a year’s worth of takeoff practice into a weeks worth of level field ground handling. How many inflations to become proficient?? I don’t know your learning ability but don’t be despondent if it takes a few hundred inflations in different conditions. But of course what level of proficiency are you happy with?

Have fun.