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Eagle Paragliding's chief Instructor Rob Sporrer received USHPA's Instructor of the Year Award in 2002. Every year USHPA issues the award to the person making the biggest contributions to our sport in the United States.


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Launching - We've got to get it right

By Rob Sporrer for Paragliding Magazine

I just got back from the paragliding nationals in Utah. I’m happy to report there were no serious injuries. Susan Dyer and the rest of the launch crew did a great job coordinating and keeping things organized. There were a few blown launches, but I guess this is to be expected. Sometimes we get a gust, or the cycle switches directions and we deal with it as best we can. I would hope everyone’s launches would be almost flawless without getting gusted or having the direction switch. It takes continued practice to keep your launch skills current, especially if you’re not out flying once or twice a week. I’ve seen brand new novice pilots with much cleaner launches than seasoned advanced pilots. The seasoned pilot has spent the last three years flying cross country, but put no time into polishing launch skills and habits. We digress if we fail to put in practice time at the local training hill or park with our pull ups and launching discipline.

We need to put the physical and mental aspects together to find success on all of our launches. The mental discipline is such an important factor. Paragliding allows us to delay commitment to launch until we feel we are in control and everything looks and feels right. We don’t need to hurl ourselves off the hill unless the wing is straight and in control, and free of sticks or knots in the lines. With confidence in our kiting and launching abilities we can manage the wing and fly away from the hill in total control.

It’s important for pilots of all levels to develop good habits. It seems easier to do the right thing if you were disciplined with good habits by your instructors from the beginning. I still don’t understand the whole brake swapping method. It seems silly to include a factor which increases the probability of losing control. Old habits die hard and sometimes pilots and instructors get set in their ways and what they learned first. We should have a playbook of different techniques which we use depending on our launch assessment and the conditions we observe.

We need to be experts at pulling up and launching our paragliders if we want to minimize our risk. My good buddy and paragliding instructor Tom Webster says “Murphy’s Law doesn’t apply to paragliding.” He is so right. We get away with a lot of close calls. How many times have you seen a pilot pull the wing up showing no control and throw themselves off the launch with an asymmetric tip fold which turns them toward a bush or tree? We watch the bottom or side of the harness clip the tree and hear the crowd ooh and aah after the pilot flies from danger. The pilot ends up have a brilliant flight for two hours, and completely forgets about the crummy launch. I’ve seen more people get hurt blowing a launch than I have flying or landing their paraglider. Eventually this pilot will hit the tree or bush and end up with a potentially serious injury.

When you arrive at a launch you can take a few minutes to assess the conditions and observe other pilots who are flying. You can decide if the conditions are within your ability level as a pilot. Often times, we arrive and launch and find questionable conditions. All pilots at launch are at a different level regarding their airtime and ability. You need to decide if the conditions are within your ability to handle as a pilot. There is no shame in driving someone’s vehicle down and chasing other pilots on their XC flights if the conditions look suspect. You can often learn a great deal by monitoring the radio and chasing a group of more experienced pilots down range.

If you are going to launch, you need to get your gear ready as soon as possible. A good pilot is ready and patient. Find a place to lie out your glider and do a line check. Don’t lay your glider out in the prime launch location when doing your line check unless you are the last to launch, or it’s just you and a few pilots. You don’t want to clog up launch and be fuddling to get ready to go while other pilots who have followed protocol by getting ready away from the main launch spot are ready with gliders in a rosette waiting to layout and launch. So make sure you do all your preparation and are ready to go before you step up to the prime launch spot.

We need to take the art of launching more seriously, and work on our habits and choices to increase our chances of safe successful launches. No matter which technique you choose to use your objective should be the same. You want to keep the wing straight and level on the pull up. Sometimes it’s hard to focus when your heart is pumping, and the sun pounding down on you while you’re dressed for higher altitudes. Find your center before you load the wing and pull it up. Take a deep breath, get your head right and focus.

You really want the pace of the wing to be the same on every single pull up. This requires your attention to the energy exchange or load created by the cycle. If the wing pace is too slow it will have more opportunity to turn. If the pace is too fast it will likely overshoot, requiring the pilot to jam on the brakes which can lift us up off the ground in the reverse position and present an opportunity for riser twists or other unwelcome events. We want the pace to be steady so the wing stays loaded on a track straight up into the overhead position. The point we release the A risers will be the same each time if our pace is consistent. The wind and cycles are ever changing. We need to constantly adjust our hand and feet inputs to keep the pace constant. Footwork is a huge part of this formula. If you're in the middle of a pull up, and you feel(load) and see(visual on the canopy) the cycle increasing the wings pace, you should move your feet toward the glider and release a little of your pull on the A risers. We really want to make the footwork a bigger part of this equation, and use our hands to mainly keep the wing straight and level. When I see stronger launch cycles I set myself up further down the slope when I spread out, realizing I’m going to be moving toward the wing as I pull it up. The slope angle will have an effect on how quickly the glider comes up. With a steeper slope the glider comes up faster than it does on level ground or a shallow slope as you back peddle. Conversely, the glider comes up slower than it does on level ground or a shallow slope as you move toward it on a steep slope.

Launching areas come in many varieties. Things to keep in mind while assessing your launch site should be; entanglements, footing, slope angle, wind velocity and direction, altitude, and visibility. If there are numerous bushes and snags around the launch site, you will want to double-check your lines to make sure they are clear. It is our job to scan the lines for sticks and knots when we pull the glider up. Some launches will be grassy and forgiving and others will be rocky, brushy and/or narrow. Your skills at ground handling your glider will be put to the test when launching. Realize you can help keep your wing level on the pull up by taking one or two quick step toward the low wing. The low wing is the wing which is closer to the ground and needs to catch up to the height of the other wing and get things level again. You want to be quick like a cat and get over there fast and the wing will respond. I try to get people in the habit of not chasing their paraglider too far to the left or the right when they are first learning. If things start to get say more than thirty degrees off being level its best to throw in the towel bring the wing down and reset. We don’t want to get in the habit of chasing the wing too far to the right or left. Many launches are narrow with obstacles and bushes or trees on both sides. We don’t have the luxury of being able to move laterally a great distance at all our flying sites. I have my student’s treat every pull up at the hill like it’s a mountain launch and they don’t have more than 3 yards of lateral room. This helps create good habits and discipline in the pull ups. Our nature wants us to try and succeed on every single pull up, but it’s better to try smarter instead of harder and be discipline by aborting if things aren't looking good.


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