Flying in Turbulence, or Proactive Flying
To help those who have difficulties flying in rougher conditions, or who are scared to fly in thermic conditions
There are too many accidents in paragliding. Many of them occur through
under- or over-control, or late control.
I have a strong opinion on these types of accidents, which incidentally worldwide
are the most common causes of incidents turning into accidents. Many pilots tend to panic to a
degree and either over-control or under-control when corrective input is needed.
Most low airtime people try to do active flying (because the senior pilots
promote it), but don't actually know what active flying is. I think active
flying can only come after flying for some time, and one learns it quicker by
first doing proactive flying. "Active" flying is often confused with
"reactive" flying - something happens (the pilot may even first look up at the
glider and then decide what to do) and then the pilot tries to correct it,
with controls which are often a second or more late and too vigorous, worsening
the situation which then rapidly deteriorates further.
Pendulums can start through a bit of turbulence and can then be amplified by
the pilot's reactions. If the reactions are late, the movement gets worse because the pilot thinks he is trying to stop the swinging, but in fact he is aggravating it. He often attributes the increased swinging to more turbulence, which is mostly not the case.
What is active flying? Active flying is feeling and anticipating what is
going to happen, and acting without over-controlling before the glider has a chance to initiate a problem or proceed too far. The difficulty is learning to feel the glider, knowing what is enough input and judging when and how to apply it.
I teach my students proactive flying. Students and low airtime pilots cannot
be expected to do active flying as they do not have the experience.
Proactive flying gives them the chance to feel safe and unworried, and they
can learn to feel the glider and vary their responses. This leads to active
flying. So what do they have to do?
Proactive flying is very simple. The pilot must look out for the
following: glider feeling mushy, strange, there's a funny noise in the sail,
there is no pressure on the lines (one side or both), the glider pendulums a
lot, the pilot feels uncomfortable, anything which is not smooth flying. The pilot pulls BOTH brakes equally to between 20% to 50%. He does not have to and should not first look up
at the glider. If things go really wild or the pilot just feels unsure or
scared, he grabs his carabiners (with the brakes in his hands). The reason
this is proactive, is that one is putting pressure in the cells before
anything has happened yet. At the same time one is countersteering should
there be a collapse on one side. It does not matter which side. One can
never over-control with 50%. In the event of a very wild ride (such as in a
whirl wind), one's hands tend to move up and down inadvertently. By grabbing
the carabiners or the risers just above the carabiners the glider settles very quickly,
because the toggles (brakes/steering lines) are stable and equal. When the glider is stable and the pilot feels more comfortable, he releases the brakes smoothly. Brakes should not be applied or released fast, unless it is done intentionally to induce an extreme manoeuvre.
Another reason pilots over-control is because they do not know where their
hands are in relation to the risers. They tend to work on feel (the toggle
pressure feels low so they pull further to get some pressure on it) and
manage to stall the glider. They do not know how far they are pulling. They
may feel the glider falling backwards, and let their hands go up to the top,
trying to catch the glider when they can see it above and in front of them.
This causes a strong forward dive of the glider, which requires (they think
or feel) a hard pull to stop the dive. Which can lead into consecutive
stalls and dives. And so it carries on.
With working on carabiner height as a maximum and a requirement to check that their hands
are never further down than the carabiners, students learn never to
over-control. They also learn to feel their glider in advance. This
eventually leads to a lessening of the need to grab the carabiners except in
ultra problematic situations, and becomes active flying with hands going 20%
or 30%, even when circling in thermals with hands at unequal toggle heights. One cannot
stall the glider on 50% brakes. Just try it! A glider which pendulums
sideways or backwards and forwards loses height and does not thermal
efficiently, and might make the pilot uncomfortable or scared.
There are many pilots who have used this method to take them safely out of
very scary situations. Ulf Arndt flew into a whirlwind at Rustenburg. He
wrote a note shortly after about this experience, which I copy below. In
1990 Ulf had a serious accident during a similar type of incident which put him out of flying for 18 months. Since then he has become a very good pilot, flies a competition rated
glider, does many cross country flights, and loves flying at Rustenburg because it does not have a ceiling!
"Saturday 5 June 1999, around 14.00 at Rustenburg. Wind was weak westerly.
After a forward launch hung around in front of west takeoff for about half
and hour catching short lived thermals between west landing and ridge,
maximum height gain 210m ATO.
"Steyn also took off, hunting for lift with not much luck and heading over
the west landing area. Steyn was getting some turbulence over the landing area,
1/3 of the wing tucked, he was picked up, got some more asymmetrics and
he opted to leave the area, pulled big ears and ran away from it. Marijke
took off around that time, flying along the ridge heading north towards the
"I turned towards it, suddenly not penetrating anymore. Looking underneath me, I saw
the trees were shaking, and the air felt wobbly. I am about 80m above the ground.
Next I was flung upwards, the vario sounds went wild, I tried to lean / body
steer into the core, then have the feeling that I had been cut loose and was free
falling, indicating a stall or collapse. With no idea what was going on,
I grabbed my risers around carabiner height, glider opened up again, big
swing, and the world started looking normal again.
"Lots of chatter on the radio from the folks who had landed earlier, warning everyone
about a massive whirly. I headed west leaving the whirly behind me and landed
far out in the landing field.
"Marijke also got into the whirly's way (she flies an intermediate glider),
hung onto her carabiners and landed in the field north of the landing area.
"My Vario afterwards shows max up 7m/s and max down 10m/s indicating some
"What to learn out of it: If the weatherman predicts trough over Gauteng, and
it has not rained much or very little,
and there is not a constant breeze, expect whirlies. And if you do not know
what is going on with your glider, grab your risers around carabiner
To get back to proactive flying, the recipe is very simple:
Manoeuvres where brakes are pulled to more than 50% must be intentional, for
example for wingovers, spirals, etc (or landing, of course). The first duty
of the student pilot is to learn to fly as smoothly as possible. Once he has
mastered that, i.e. to control the glider in turbulence, then he can start
inducing manoeuvres which require more brake pressure, UNDER SUPERVISION.
- Pull both brakes equally to stabilise the glider when it feels like something might happen
- Never pull more than 50% brakes/steering lines during flight
- Hold on to the carabiners if the glider does not stabilise quickly or
conditions are VERY turbulent.
- Once the glider is stable, release the brakes smoothly to resume normal flying.
WARNING: Should a pilot have induced a negative spin inadvertently by flying too slowly, or through over-control, or
intentionally, the only recovery technique is to release the brakes
completely, let the glider surge, and then control through the above method.
Do not try to pull brakes before the glider has had time to speed up.
Parachutal stall (which can occur through late release of the risers after a B-line stall as well as for other reasons such as porosity/permeability degradation of the material, as well as occasionally on release of big ears) can also not be fixed with the proactive method above. In that case the pilot has a few options such as pushing hard on the A-risers or to step on the speedbar to re-establish the airflow around the glider.
Hope this helps you to enjoy your flying and have lots of fun in the air.
23 December 1999