This post was triggered by pg forum – I’ve been meaning to write a book on flying vol bivouac and relate all my experiences to those who are interested in learning the sport, either from a flying background or an outdoors background. I’ve actually started over a year ago but since returning from Antarctica I’ve made a commitment to focus on my flying, rather than taking photos and video editing and writing blogs. Of course I still love doing this stuff but it has taken the back seat so meanwhile my flying experience is building up and up and only the occasional trip or flight makes it onto my blog. Probably a good thing since I know that most of my posts are quite the read (as in, long!) and I know many of us have to work. In the meantime here are some quick points that one day I may get a chance to expand on.
Progression to vol biv
I first started flying because I wanted to explore the mountains, particularly around Glenorchy in New Zealand. Months before my course I discussed this with my instructor and he firmly said that first I needed to learn how to fly, and this would take some time. Despite that in the first six months all I wanted to do was go off and fly cross country, but while it’s good to “feed the rat” and there’s no better training than the activity itself, it’s worthwhile getting proficient at some skills first.
- Wing theory. I love physics so I find the theory really interesting. But however you learn it, understand why your wing flies and know all about what can happen and how to deal with it. I always make a point of erring on the side of under correcting rather than giving the wing too much input – except when ground handling – and you should understand why.
- Weather theory. You will develop an interest in this as a cross country (XC) pilot, and you will continue to develop it as you progress. How well you have a feel for how each influence contributes to the aerology of an area is the essence of cross country flying. Develop a strong spacial awareness, reading a topographic map is an important part of analysing local weather. Understand physical concepts such as latent heat and how heat is transferred. Develop your observational skills and continually test and develop your mental models.
- Confidence. Managing your confidence to an optimum level and good self-control and decision making is the third part of being a pilot along with understanding your wing and understanding the weather (and various hazards). Know the rules (such as airspace and local arrangements) and develop a way of interacting that inspires confidence with fellow pilots and the community. As a pilot you have a responsibility to take on board all information but the onus is on you to make your own decisions and have the final say.
- Ground handling. Flying is easy, paragliding is inherently stable as you fall beneath the wing. The dangerous part is when you’re near the ground – practice ground handling your wing and do it all the time, the objective is to be completely comfortable on launch. If you enjoy ground handling more than soaring you are on the right track. Ground handling enables you to learn to subconsciously react to sensitive situations (such as feeling the stall point and the wing surging) in a safe environment.
- Wingovers. While there are other manoeuvres worth trying, wingovers are the best for teaching you about managing the energy of your wing. They are also a lot of fun. In my early flying days I should have spent more time on the coast in easy air, the logistics are much better for getting airtime and playing with your wing so you’re completely comfortable with a range of dynamics, and developing an automatic feel for timing and how much input is required to bring your wing back to straight and level. Acro is the next step but wingovers are almost all you need.
- Landings. This is crucial for confidence in going cross country and landing in places you’ve never seen before. If you are lucky enough to have access to a site where you can repeatedly take off and land over and over again, do it. Of anything I think making a landing approach is the most technical and requires the most conscious thought, so practice it as much as possible so most things are automatic and keep your mind free to concentrate. Slope landings are the easiest to repeatedly practice but a variety of conditions will widen your experience, skill set, and basis for judgement. Develop good habits – get your landing gear out as soon as you think of landing.
- Turbulence. Out of paragliding school you will be taught that there are certain times and places which are safe to fly. You need to extend this envelope on an incremental basis, managing the line between risk and learning. A key part of this is becoming comfortable understanding and dealing with turbulence, expanding your experience as safely as possible. This eventually comes with cross country flying but you should explore a little bit and try to prove yourself wrong rather than just flying standard routes with textbook thermals.
- Navigation. I have a strong outdoors background based on tramping in New Zealand and travelling in mountains around the world. Being proficient at managing yourself in the outdoors and understanding what is involved in getting around is really important if you are moving into flying vol bivouac. Always knowing where you are and having the experience and knowledge to get out of the hills on foot is an essential to your confidence in successfully flying remote areas.
- Fitness and kit. Get familiar with your gear and realise its full potential. Your body is an important part of your gear – you are the undercarriage. Know your gear and be able to set up to fly in minutes – it often makes a huge difference to your day. Be fast and nimble on the ground, be able to safely launch when no one else can. Monitor how you feel while airborne to make sure you’re not burning energy with tense muscles. Touch down like a parcour athlete. And don’t be afraid of carrying your gear from wherever you might land, remembering that it’s always better to land and walk than land badly and not walk.
- Attitude. In the air you need to be calm and collected, getting a feel for things through unlimited observational stimuli and making good decisions. Being completely comfortable in your abilities to manage situations is a foundation to developing an attitude of exploration and learning. A willingness to outland will dramatically improve your XC flying, cutting the umbilical to the hill and giving you the confidence to carry out good decision making. Becoming a good pilot is about managing your confidence, balancing learning new things with staying injury free and keeping an open mind to determine how to go about improving your flying. Identify and eliminate fear and you will increase your options. And remember the most important thing is to have fun along the way.
Progression to going vol biv roughly follows the steps above. I’ve said that paragliding is already a sport of intense highs and lows, and going vol biv amplifies these consequences and emotions. The next step is the X-Alps where vol biv is intensified yet again with a focus on speed…
Flying a new area
- Planning and maps. Build up experience on a gradual basis. Find out what gear you need and what you can do without. Make small adjustments to your kit so you can develop good habits to manage yourself and your gear effectively and efficiently. Spend a lot of time looking at maps. Address (pun not intended) navigation by air and navigation on the ground independently. Develop a feel for navigating and don’t get distracted by details or your instruments – as I say it’s much more important to be approximately correct than precisely wrong.
- Start with a walk. Most of my vol biv trips start with a walk. You’ve got a chance to feel how things are working on the ground and make observations. You can test your kit and get a feel for how easy it is to move around. You start developing a familiarity with the area. And you’ve already put some experience in the bank, a nice hike is a lot better than sitting around on the hill waiting to fly.
- Every time you launch. Leading up to launch is generally the most stressful time for me. I’ve made all my observations and I am 95% sure of my judgement of the conditions… but I won’t know for sure until I take off and fly. Before flying I remind myself not to get carried away with the distraction and drama of doing something new, and remind myself of the basics. What are my landing options, what places am I going to fly to on the way, what are the possible outcomes, how will I make decisions and weigh up the various options.
- Going on glide. I am one of those pilots who always needs to ensure there is a landing within comfortable reach. As I glide I am always updating my base and replacing one landing option with another – so it follows that having more landing options means I can relax a bit more and focus on other things. Knowing I can land well in tight spots is a great help but this also depends totally on my confidence that I understand the air well.
- Landing and walking. Flying vol biv is about walking too but flying is far more important because you cover much more distance much more easily. But it’s important that you are very careful when selecting your landings as seconds and minutes in the air could make hours or even days of difference on the ground. Having really good prior knowledge of the areas is invaluable but it’s also possible to develop a feel for how to get around on foot and what is important. You often won’t have time to make a plan until after landing but if you can think about your options before touching down you could save a lot of time. It’s important to switch modes from flying maximum distance and remember that there are other options available, such as landing and waiting between rain showers, or even to check the map. Flying is usually faster but walking over a pass may be a solution if you’re stuck. It can often be worth waiting for hours for the wind to drop for a long evening flight, but on the other hand, sometimes you can move a relatively small distance to fly without waiting for conditions to change. You also have to be careful that conditions don’t change for the worse while you are on the ground. This interplay between flying and walking is what makes vol biv intriguing and different to standard cross country flying.
I’ve always wanted to be a well-rounded pilot and I think the wide range of skills and vol biv flying demands is the perfect fit for a rewarding pursuit. Paragliding is perfectly suited to vol biv with light equipment you can easily carry and the ability to land almost anywhere opening up huge potential for exploration. Flying distance is great but the paraglider is the slowest aircraft – its real advantage and the most rewarding moments are when you are in an otherwise inaccessible place discovering something unexpected and unique.