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 lapa.

"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 free fall.

"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 height."


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.

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.

Laura Nelson
23 December 1999



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