Paragliding and Cross Country Flying - How to See Thermals and Achieve Great Distance

Greg Hamerton

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1. Launch at the wrong time The ‘skygods’ launch, go up, and disappear over the back of the mountain. They seem to sense when it is the right time to launch, but there's nothing different that you can see about that particular moment that they chose and the moment you choose which sends you gliding like a rock to the fields below. How can you cultivate this timing sense? Pretend you are a Jedi Master, and “feel the force" of the thermal rising up the mountainslope. It's okay, no one's going to see you, because you're pretending. ! When you feel its the right time to launch, wait. When you feel its completely wrong time to launch, then GO. You're not getting up and away with the launch cycles. Which means you've probably been responding to the wrong signals, like when the nice strong wind comes (the thermal is passing - it's too late, you'll just drop out the front of the thermal).

2. Fact or fiction? Air currents are, most of the time, invisible. Any ability to predict where lift (and turbulence) lies is based on our ability to visualise air currents. TV doesn't develop this skill, since everything is laid out on the screen. Read a fantasy novel instead, and your powers of visualisation will be engaged. Sometimes the writer will astound you with their insight - “Fly, you fools, " he cried, and was gone (Gandalf the Grey, Lord of the Rings).

3. Blind as a bat, up to cloudbase A superb tool for extending your ability to sense the air currents is a two-way radio. You need a friend to stand on the launch-site for a while. Then you fly out, and in an un-crowded area of sky, close your eyes. Allow your friend to guide you through the lift and sink. This will increase your sensitivity to the subtle movements of your wing, and allows your imagination to work overtime, for you can't see where you are. It's crazy, it's a little scary, but it's loads of fun. You may even get to cloudbase. If your don't, you can blame your ‘friend’. Now it's his turn. Where was that thorn bush again?

4. Speed to fly Advanced flight computers can provide important-sounding beeps and squawks to tell you how fast to fly to maximise your distance, and when integrated with a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a wind-speed meter, can tell you what your drift is over the ground, and even the time in Hong Kong. Do you need this to fly cross country? On a paraglider? Let's be serious, we're talking about a craft with a glide angle of 8:1 and an effective speed range of 20km/h ('slow’ is 30, ‘fast’ is 50km/h. ) With all that extra equipment which demands your attention, you're unlikely to make it past the ‘turkey patch’. Hang loose, enjoy the flight, and think about where the next lift is likely to be.

5. Lifting the thermal off the trigger points Pretend for a moment that you have the power to influence the movement of the winds. Look around you for the place where you would like the next thermal to lift off from, and will it to form. Wave your hands, if it helps, and mutter ‘Abracadabra’. It may be that we are all ignorant magicians, it may just be that you tend to will the thermals to lift off the most intuitively likely trigger points. Whatever the reason, ordering the thermals to form, and flying towards your own creations, often has the desired effect of a wonderful save, and a climb to cloudbase.

6. The Way of the Two Strong Legs There are two routes in the sky - one that mirrors the roads below, and one that mirrors the clouds above. Rarely do these two coincide. The road route generally stops soon after launch, where some inconsiderate road-planner curved his pencil away from the ridge to meet some distant town. The cloud route is fresh every day, demands that you remain airborne, and is generally longer and more satisfying. The landing site becomes the beginning of the Mystery Hike. May you be home in time for tea!

7. Goals for Heroes Frighten yourself with your audacity. If you're best flight is to the ‘turkey patch’ below launch, vow to attempt a flight to 5km down the road. When you've achieved that, make it 50km. The more ridiculous it sounds to you, the more you'll be able to laugh at the prospect, which is often the key to excelling at cross country flying. Taking it all too seriously, striving to constantly better yourself, can often drain the fun out of a sport which is, in essence, laughing at gravity.

8. Songs for Flying By acting in control, you can often bring yourself back to a position of control. When the sky is falling on your head, and your knuckles go white in fear - sing! Reggae tunes, an old Beatles number, or even The Ride of the Valkyries can help to fill the void of fear which is knotting your stomach. Just don't sing anything by Dead Can Dance.

9. The BUT end of the flight Ahh yes, the underachieving ‘but’ word. As soon as it is uttered, a perfectly good cross-country flight becomes a small failure. “I could have flown 100km, but my vario batteries went flat". “I was going to go over the mountain, but then I remembered I had a dinner appointment. " Every time, you never get as far as you should have / would have / could have. Use the word the other way around : “I was going to land at Joe's Farm, but I hit a thermal and landed here!" This way, you always out-perform yourself, and soon it becomes habit. Better still, don't use the word at all, and rejoice at every airborne moment.

I would have been flying cross-country today, but I had to write this article.

Words © Greg Hamerton

Greg has been flying since 1992 and is a paragliding instructor and cross-country pilot from Cape Town, South Africa. His flying story Beyond The Invisible explores themes of fear and freedom within flying. His Fresh Air Site Guide is designed for pilots touring South Africa. The Riddler's Gift (2007) and is an epic fantasy novel .

Stay aloft with my Fresh Air newsletter, and get useful bonus content. To find out more visit Paragliding in South Africa .


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