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Paragliding Crash Landings – Perfect Piloting Under Pressure
This is what a perfect landing looks like – a wide, grassy field, a light wind pulling the windsock towards you, you land on the spot, beaming at the perfect height and smiling at the handsome BBC reporter. Advanced pilots find it easy to gently touch the grass blade where they want it, without bending it. But what happens when everything goes wrong while you’re in the pilot’s seat? When there’s no ground, you’re hovering behind trees in turbulence and your glider just decided to stop flying? How can you land safely?
1. Checking the lay of the land
It’s a pretty basic idea, I’ll admit, but it’s often overlooked in the excitement of finally finding a jumpable hill. Always visit your landing field before flying. By keeping a windsock in the field you reduce the elements that can go wrong – at least you know the wind direction. The wind is particularly variable on warm, thermic days. On my last approach I plowed a good field with my nose when the wind changed in thermic conditions. A windsock would have spared the field some injury.
2. Always have a little on the side
Do you have a Plan B if the Sink Monster (a large column of descending air) decides to send you rushing to Earth? No matter how desperate, your flight plan must include an emergency landing area (in a very light glide). Estimate your approach to both fields (primary and emergency) as you fly so you don’t have to think when turbulence hits you.
3. Small farm, big ears
To land on a small meadow in the middle of a forest of tall pine trees, a variation of the normal landing setup may be necessary. The challenge is that your normal glide angle is very low – even if you approach the field from the bottom edge, clipping the tops of the trees with your feet, you’re going to overshoot the field and into the forest in the distance. Pulling your wingtips (big-ears) inward increases your glide angle. Before your final approach, tuck them a hundred feet above the trees. Use weight shift to get the glider into your normal landing pattern, lower your altitude on the lower side of the field, and come in on final glide. To lose as much altitude as possible, you may want to make a final S-turn below treeline.
4. Sheer flying terror
As the field is surrounded by trees, there is a shear layer (interface between two wind-systems) passing through your glider. Turbulence may try to collapse your wing, but with larger ears, you’re less likely to collapse further due to higher internal cell-pressure. You have to be careful about the stall because of the high angle of attack. Be prepared to trample on your speedbar if you can’t feel the wind in your face (you’ve stopped moving forward). It is important not to drag the brakes too much as you pass through the shear into the wind shadow below. A glider must increase its airspeed to maintain aerodynamic performance. Allow the glider to dive if you have enough altitude to dive. Once the glider is level, you will glide farther because you are sheltered from the wind. This often means sliding off the ground and into the trees, so keep the big-ears on and light them only on the final landing flare, about a meter off the ground. A hard landing (softened by parachute landing fall) is better than overshooting the field and flying into a tree trunk. Besides, they will forever call you ‘woody woodpecker’. Unbearable.
5. Butterflies land softly
I needed the butterfly landing technique for the first time in Italy. Flying around Lake Como, you often pass large houses with limited landing areas. We just got into a task in a tandem glider and had to fly down a small street, turn left at the end, and put in a small, tiny field. Everything was fine until the last second when I noticed telephone lines running across the field. There wasn’t much wind and we were going to hang from the phone line with big ears. So I turned the glider inside out. I slowly pulled the brakes to 3/4 on both sides, then released quickly, then reapplied the brakes to 3/4, continuing in a rhythmic, flapping motion. The ‘flops’ are about two seconds apart. You can cause almost vertical descent. The danger is that if you hold the deep break too long, you can stall the wing. You are close to the ground. So here’s a tip you can use for every crash landing – imagine the parachute landing fall position before you hit the ground. With the legs pointing towards each other and down, the knees are slightly bent and the legs are turned 45 degrees from the direction of movement. Landing gear down – no worries.
Don’t panic when you realize you’re going to land on a tree. Remember to close your legs! Aim for the thickest part of the tree. Flare (pull brakes) 2 meters before the tree and stand in it. Be careful not to start the fire too quickly, as you’ll be falling through the weaker outer branches – you want to get to the center of the tree, where your chances of injury are greatly reduced. Secure yourself to the tree as quickly as possible, remembering to keep the glider under control as it re-inflates in the air and pulls you from the branches. If you will be flying around a lot of trees, the necessary equipment is a long, thin cord (for pulling the rescue rope) and a wire-saw to cut your glider from stubborn branches.
7. Water is water everywhere
First – stay away from water. It is safer to land on the rocks rather than in the shallow surf. However, if a water landing is unavoidable, undo your legstraps (if you have time). Land normally with a large flare to ensure the glider and all its lines don’t engulf you. Once the legstraps of your harness are undone, you can slide off the bottom of your harness and swim down and clear of the lines and glider. If the site you choose to fly is prone to water landings, always carry a hook-knife on your harness so you can cut yourself without getting caught in the water.
8. Unpleasant surprises
The danger with strange obstacles is that pilots will change their landing technique and brake to avoid any unfriendly appearance by landing with a tight turn or large pendulum close to the ground. If you have to land in a bad place like a junkyard, treat it like a normal landing. Pick a clear spot or object you’re going to hit, set up with a normal approach, come clean and fast on your final glide, and flare correctly at a normal height. Even in zero wind conditions, proper landing flare will almost stop your wing. It’s easier to overcome obstacles with slow, straight momentum than with a body swinging to avoid everything in its path.
9. Target fixation
The tragic story of an accomplished pilot who crashed into a 5-foot-wide canal in the USA and drowned tells it all. Unless you consciously choose a safe landing spot, you’ll hit a dangerous obstacle just because you’re looking at it. Once you’ve identified a dangerous obstacle, locate a safe place and look for a safe place. You’ve seen an obstacle, it’s not going anywhere.
The only exception is when the dangerous obstacle is a Spanish fighting bull, in which case I recommend learning how to run.
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