Big Ears, Tea-bagging and Flares

12 03 2010

After a very lazy recovery week back on dry land, Zoë was keen to get out on the water again and do her Day Skipper course before the summer season is over. With the memories of dizzy queasiness still fresh in my mind I gladly offered to stay ashore and look after the crisps and ice-cream while she was away.

This was also my opportunity to try my hand at Paragliding!

I’d always watched with envy the gliders traversing along the beach or soaring across the hills in various places around the world. One of the most appealing concepts for me though was the possibility of hiking up a hill and instead of the knee pounding hike back down again, unpacking your kit and flying off the top!

Nelson is a good place to learn the sport with it’s consistently fine weather and good training hills from which to launch. I followed a recommendation for Cumulus Paragliding because of their emphasis on safety, something I hoped would allay Zoë’s fears that I’d be dead or crippled by the end of the week. Having mentioned I was going to learn paragliding to a couple of people recently, their immediate reaction was to tell us how dangerous it was!

So, having dropped Zoë off at the harbour I went to meet my Instructors Tony and Deane. The first stage of my course would be one of the fundamentals of paragliding – Ground Handling.

This was all done in a playing field by the sea so no chance of falling to my death yet. The morning was spent learning how to run up the glider in a forward launch, something done in 0-5kmh of wind. Even in this barely detectable breeze, pulling this huge wing up over your head took considerable effort! Once up in the air the glider became much lighter and with a combination of sideways running and steering with the brakes I could soon stay centred underneath the wing. At the end of the field I’d then ‘teabag’ up the glider and carry it back over my shoulder for another go.

The more common method used, particularly in stronger winds, is the reverse launch and I attempted next to learn this. In theory this is simpler as you are now facing the wing and can therefore see what it’s doing and control it better. All of the other pilots I saw over the next few days would demonstrate just how easy this was. However, consistently spinning around to launch without getting in a tangle of lines is a skill I’m yet to master!

My first flight was early the next morning off the 600m high Barnicoat hill. Many schools will start students at much lower altitudes but this adds a time pressure due to the considerably shorter flight.

This is something that I found frustrating when learning to skydive. As a beginner, you want plenty of time to think about what you’re doing and perform the manoeuvres you’ve been taught. Starting off at lower altitudes only makes this harder as you have less time to perform your freshly learnt skills, increasing the risk of panic and cocking something up!

Tony did a good job of getting me set up and ready quickly so there was no time for nerves to set in! Thankfully I hadn’t forgotten how to launch overnight and was soon running down the hill and then floating out over the forest below! Once away from the hill I could settle back into my seat and enjoy the view while Tony and Deane talked me down to the landing paddock over the radio. There was no nervousness or fear once in the air. Because you don’t feel like you’re falling you can just sit back and relax as you slowly drift down over the landscape below. A few minutes later I’d landed at the bottom, albeit on my backside, and was soon packed up and taken back up ready for my second flight!

The thermals were picking up now so it was a bit of a rougher ride this time. Again, another safe backside landing and just enough time for flight #3 before the sea-breeze kicked in around midday.

For my 3rd flight I was to make my own landing, with Deane still watching from below just in case I got into difficulties. Eventually I got down towards the landing zone. I know most of the time paragliding is about staying up in the air but when you’re trying to get down, thermals repeatedly lifting you half way back up the hill you’ve just flown down can get a little annoying!

I think I made an old mountain-biking mistake when coming into land, that is focussing too much on the things you don’t want to hit! By telling myself repeatedly “don’t land in the gorse bushes, don’t land in the gorse bushes” I found myself gravitating very rapidly to those very gorse bushes! Thankfully for my bare legs I managed to just miss the bushes, and for the first time land on my feet too! Unfortunately just as I was wiping my brow, my glider then fell back and landed squarely on that huge patch of very spiky shrubbery. A fellow pilot kindly came to help me untangle about 40 lines from the dense patch of gorse, trying very carefully not to rip either the glider or our arms and legs to shreds in the process! From that point on I’d be coming into land on the opposite side of the paddock!

As the sea-breeze picks up during the day and messes around with all the thermals on the hill it wasn’t until later in the afternoon that we returned for my 4th and final flight of the day. This was a proper solo landing so the pressure was on. Luckily I’d learnt my lesson and came into the landing paddock on the non-prickly side and also performed my best landing of the day, a good flare and daintily landing on my feet. A long but productive day – 4 flights down, only 2 to go!

The weather towards the end of the week was getting a bit rough so I was keen to get the 5th and 6th flights required for my PG1 student rating done on Day 3. Another nice flight in the morning although it was still a little blowy for my liking and so I was introduced to Big Ears. This involves grabbing a couple of the lines above your head and pulling them down around your waist so the outside ends of the wing fold down at 90 degrees. This reduces the area of the wing providing lift allowing you to descend a bit more rapidly out of all the turbulence trying to shove you back up the hill.

Again, we had to wait until the evening for another gap in the wind. We were joined then by Andy who’s visiting from Switzerland – the chief photographer for Advance paragliders and contributor to all the top magazines. I had a good chat with him about all his photo gear that he mounts up in the wing, operated by remote control as he travels around the world photographing the worlds best pilots – a nice job!

The wind on top was still rather gusty and did a good job of dragging me backwards up the hill while I was trying to launch for my 6th flight! I definitely need to get back in the playing fields and master the reverse launch! Finally I was away and enjoyed a leisurely soar around the hills before coming down to the paddock.

With only a short test to complete I could now get my PG1 licence!

If you’ve ever fancied learning to fly, then I’d thoroughly recommend Paragliding as a way of getting airborne quickly and cheaply. Although I’ll pass on the warning I was given by my instructors – it can get very addictive!

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