My Path From Hang Gliding to Paragliding
My first exposure to paragliding other than brief glimpses from articles and photos in Hang Gliding Magazine was on a trip I was making in the Summer of 1988. This trip was very important to me. It was a trip back into flight, my rebirth into minimalist aviation. I had been one of the pioneers of modern hang gliding. I started flying in 1972 and had been heavily involved in the hang gliding movement of the '70s and early '80s. I dropped out for personal reasons, and raced bicycles for a while. There came a point where I realized that I would never win a bicycle race, and couldn't afford the personal sacrifice of training 20 to 40 hours a week. I also realized that I missed flying. So I loaded my old hang glider on a pickup truck and drove to Colorado and Utah. I made some flights in Colorado then stopped by Point of the Mountain on the way to Oregon.
I saw Fred Stockwell teaching paragliding on the South Side, and he even offered to let me fly his paraglider down to the bottom. I had just been flying my hang glider from Mamouth Slide at Teluride and had my appetite whetted for a soaring flight at the Point so flying a big parachute from a 300 foot hill down to the bottom didn't really appeal to me. I thought about it for a little while then declined politely. My trip was successful. Contrary to Thomas Wolfe's opinion, you CAN go home again. I resumed flying hang gliders, began teaching again and even did my first real cross country flight.
In '90, I flew at the Teluride Flyin and Aerobatic meet, and watched the paragliders fly with me to 17,999 feet though I seldom flew near them as I was busy zooming around the valley working towards my Gold Lilenthal Award. My impression then was that paragliders were much improved over the ones I had seen at the Point of the Mountain. Unfortunately, they seemed to have to scratch right in front of the hang glider launch interminably to get up. In only noticed this because I was in a very long line of hang gliders waiting to get off as soon as the paragliders cleared launch. Not their launch. Our launch. But all in all, that was the only adverse thing that I saw releated to paragliding at Teluride. I had heard that one of their number had hit the side of Mamouth Slide while doing the close stratching and had to be carted off to a hospital, but this had no negative impact on me, because injuries to friends and acquaintances were a way of life in early hang gliding.
I saw some more paragliding at the Hobb's XC meet in '91, and I wondered why a pilot would kite a canopy in the winds out in front of a hanger instead of going flying. Wills Wing had a team there trying to set a paragliding XC record. Unfortunately, I didn't have long to wonder before a life altering event happened to me early in the meet. I broke an arm under tow, probably due to an injury the week before, lost control of my hang glider and crashed. This put me in the local hospital where I could only listen to the meet on my business band radio. It was very frustrating to hear pilots talking to their chase vehicles while cruising along at cloud base heading for a goal 100 miles away while I was doing my cruising in a hospital bed.
My arm was broken very badly, and my frustration continued for quite a long time as my arm failed to heal. I went to the San Jose, California area on a business trip and watched hang glider pilots and paraglider pilots fly at every flying site I could reach by rental car. I began to wonder if paragliding offered me the opportunity to fly which hang gliding could not, until my arm healed much better than it seemed to be doing.
I had continued teaching hang gliding, and this offered me the opportunity to buy a hang glider harness and parachute reserve. Unfortunately to get it I had to also take an old hang glider, a UP Condor. I didn't really want the Condor. I found out that Ken de Russey of Santa Barbara used UP Condors for training gliders, so I called and offered to give it to him rather than throw it away. Ken had read about my accident and asked how I was doing. I told him not so well. He suggested that I take PG lessons and offered to give me PG lessons in trade for my old glider. I told him I was interested and that I would think about it.
About this time, I had been hearing stories about how top rank hang glider pilots had been getting hurt flying paragliders. I was concerned about this and put a lot of thought into taking up paragliding. But, I really wanted to get back into flying again. I had students who had reached H2 and had never seen me fly. I quickly acquired a parglider and planned a trip to Santa Barbara, just 1400 miles up the block from my house in Allen, Texas.
Ken de Russey welcomed me like a visiting potentate. He pointed out we had something in common. We were two of the three remaining instructors of the first group of instructors that the USHGA ever certified. Dennis Pagen was the third. I just explained that I knew nothing about paragliders except what I had read in the newspaper, and to treat me like a rank beginner. So we went out to his training hill in Santa Barbara and he started showing me the basics of paragliding. He told me that for a beginning pilot ground handling and kiting of the canopy was paramount. I should kite my canopy at a ratio of 10 to 1. Ten hours for every hour of flying until I became pretty experienced. He then showed me as pretty an excibition of canopy handling as it was possible to do. He seemed to delight in kiting his canopy for hours on the bottom, side and top of his training hill. He would do a reverse inflation then switch forward, then switch back effortlessly while I struggled to bring my canopy overhead without a front edge collapse.
Finally, he let me walk up the hill and fly down from part way up. My major error was in failing to look overhead before launch. I was used to a wing which stayed fully assembled after it was once put together. I also had another hang glider pilot fault. I was used to making many minute corrections to my wing as I flew, and I seemed to be forever jerking on or pumping the brakes. Ken yelled corrections to me with his trusty power megaphone, and soon I was flying down the hill and landing safely, sometimes even within 100 to 200 ft of the spot which was designated as my landing place. Soon Ken had me flying from the top of his hill which was a flight from the same height as the one I had distained years earlier at the Point of the Mountain. Somehow after a year of forced inactivity, it seemed like a much bigger deal than before.
Ken taught me the basics. Inflation techniques, launches, how to turn the glider, and he also taught me seat steering, holding constant brake pressure to keep the canopy from collapsing, and to hold my heading in the event of a canopy collapse. One day when the wind was crossed, we went to a park by the ocean and we both practiced kiting the canopy for several hours. He taught me in a slow gentle progression, much the same way as I taught hang gliding students. After a week, I had accumulated about 15 flights, mostly due to the uncooperative winds and my out-of-shape 50 year old legs, and I needed to drive down south preparatory to heading home.
I left Santa Barbara and drove down to Santa Ana to visit Betty Pfeiffer of High Energy Sports. She advised me that paraglider instructors who had come from hang gliding tended to teach entirely differently than those instructors who came strictly from paragliding, and advised me just for perspective, to take a lesson from an instructor she knew in San Deigo. So I tooled down to San Deigo and took a lesson from Marcus Salvimini. Marcus looked at my log which was the record of my training progress and said that he would be happy to work with me. We went to Little Black, in company with some of Marcus' other students. We started pretty early in the day, and Marcus soon had me practicing reverse inflations. He showed me how to do a cross hands inflation which solved a problem I was having turning around after a reverse inflation without losing control of my canopy and usually having it fall down around my head. We spent the morning and into the afternoon practicing canopy handling and kiting then as the day started to mellow down a little, we began flying from the 300 ft. hill of Little Black. Marcus used radios on his students, much as I was starting to do with hang gliding. Soon I launched from the top of the hill. I was doing a wide ess turn to decend to the LZ when I hit a thermal. Marcus immediately told me to pull in about 8" to correct for the surge due to the thermal, then suggested that I turn in it knowing I had a lot of thermalling experience in hang gliders. I did turn, but found that thermals don't give exactly the same cues to their whereabouts when flying paragliders that they do with hang gliders. Yes, you are right. I did not take it to cloudbase. My legs having improved from my days with Ken de Russey, I did get 5 flights that day. Marcus suggested that if the weather was good the next day I was ready for a much higher site. Damn. I had to leave for home that evening. I might have called in to work and said I would be a day late returning from vacation, but I knew from my hang gliding time that as sure as I did, the wind would be blowing 90 mph or the wrong way.
As soon as I got back to Texas, I set up an appointment with some Texas PG instructors Nancy Stanford and Marie Osowski for tow instruction and so I could complete my class I PG rating. I had competed all of my requirements except for my spot landings and a few flights, so I decided to finish them from tow. Now, of all the things I had done so far paragliding, towing paragliders seemed to me to have the most similarity to hang gliding. Lockouts, weaklink breaks, following the towline were all as familiar and comfortable to me as an old shoe. Nancy and Marie, though aware that I had experience towing hang gliders, ran me through their training just like any other paraglider pilot. The training almost totally agreed with my hang gliding experiences and the differences turned out to be a matter of point-of-view. My sense of comfort never waned. I got a number of tows and did catch a thermal and soar. The only really odd thing was that one of them said the conditions looked "thermik"that day which was a term I had never heard used before. It turned out that they had learned to fly paragliders while on vacation in England, and it was the European way of saying that the conditions were really kick ass.
From there, I started a steady progression of accomplishment and accumulation of airtime, up to the point that my arm started acting up again. Soon my doctor had scheduled surgery on my arm, and then 18 months after my accident, my arm was in a sling again. Eager to become a paragliding instructor, I went to an instructors certification program not able to fly and not knowing if my arm would heal enough for me ever to fly again. I passed the instructional part of the ICP but couldn't demonstrate flying skills nor do the flying needed to get my Class II rating which was now being required to get an instructors rating. I was told that I could teach but would have to let certified instructors rate my pilots. I began teaching one pro bono (that's LA LAW terms for a student that doesn't pay for lessons.) paragliding student, co-incidently a woman who had broken her arm in a hang gliding lesson a few months after I broke mine but who was determined not to quit flying. She did very well, and with assistance from Nancy and Marie, was soon a Class I pilot. Meanwhile, I kept teaching hang gliding, and after 9 months I was cleared to fly hang gliders and paragliders again. In October. I went to New Hampshire for a USHGA BOD meeting and went to Morningside Flight park to resume my career as a pilot. I got a half dozen flights from the hill on my paraglider and then flew Mount Ascutney about 10 miles away on a borrowed hang glider. Meanwhile at the BOD meeting, the instructor requirements were jacked up once again to 200 flying days and 300 flights as well as a Class II. Further, I needed to apprentice 40 hours with two different instructors from two different schools. How would I ever get that?
Suffering from severe flight deprivation, I was forced by my wife to fly to Los Angeles in January of 1994 to spend time flying at Mt. Kagel in the San Fernando Valley. I was staying at a house in Sylmar, about 10 miles from Northridge. Promptly at 4:30 AM, after the second day I was there, the earthquake turned the San Fernando Valley into a disaster area. Not only was it a major tragedy to the people who lived there, but it also boded poorly for my flying for the two weeks I was scheduled to stay. Rob McKensie sprang to the rescue. He invited me to fly with him at Marshal. So while the whole of the San Fernando Valley was digging itself out from the rubble, I was commuting to San Bernadino to fly. There was no promise that the winter flying would be any good but Rob McKensie sort of took me under his wing, and I ended up getting over eight hours of mostly thermalling time and a lot of practice doing things like top landings and spot landings which I completed totally outside Rob's field of vision. I also demonstrated a 40% assymetrical collapse about 2000 feet above Marshal Peak for my rating and for Rob's benefit to insure him that I did, in fact, have some flying skills for which Rob duly signed me off.
I was finding, at long last, that my thermalling skills which I had learned hang gliding were also useful paragliding, but it took me a long time to force myself to turn as aggressively in a thermal in a paraglider as I could in a hang glider. On the other hand, on a dreary overcast day, with the ceiling about 600 ft. over Marshal Peak, I took off in my paraglider only to find that there was 600 fpm. lift all over the place. In order to avoid the possibility of going XC in a cloud, I had to find a way to stay down. I tried a combination of big ears and my speed bar which worked so well that I soon found myself at about 1000 feet in front of the mountain. I encountered a thermal and soon was back up above launch. I pulled big ears again and did a very competent top landing which once again Rob didn't witness. I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn't having to thermal up in a cloud to avoid accidently impacting Crestline Ridge which extended 600 feet above cloud base. Then I borrowed Rob's hang glider. Soon I found that it was even harder to stay down with the hang glider than the paraglider. Using the 20 years of experience I had in hang gliders, and every trick in the book, I managed to get down and land at the LZ only 45 minutes after I took off. I came to the conclusion that there was more advantage to flying paragliders than I had thought.
Over the two weeks, I accomplished enough to acquire my Class II. This lead to a trip in the summer of 1994 which acquired me enough experience to flinally get my instructors rating in paragliding in November of 1994.
My impressions of the journey between being a hang glider pilot and a paraglider pilot are that there are many more similarities between hang gliders and paragliders than differences. Where a really accomplished hang glider pilot can get in trouble learning paragliding is related more to the similarities than the differences. A paraglider seems like a really easy to learn hang glider. Because it is so easy to learn particularly for a top notch hang glider pilot, it is also easy to assume that the appropriate conditions are similar. Another instructor told me "Paragliding is easy to learn but hard to master."I take this to mean that there are subtleties that have to be learned which are not obvious nor easy to teach. Further, while hang gliders can handle a wide range of conditions, paragliders can't. For instance, while no one in a hang glider wants to hit severe turbulence near the ground, it is very seldom that a pilot can't recover handily from most of the things that he might encounter on landing approach. On the other hand, a severe canopy collapse 50 ft. from the ground gives the pilot few options. Likewise when flying a hang glider, it is unlikely that a 5 mph increase in wind speed would be really dangerous where as in a paraglider, a 5 mph increase in wind speed may not allow a pilot any options at all but to go over the back. Hang glider pilots have in the back of their minds that if they need to go 5 mph faster, it may be unpleasant but they almost always can. This is not a valid assumption for a paraglider. There is a distinct cut off for as fast as you can go, and no faster. And this speed is below the max L/D speed of a number of hang gliders.
I went into paragliding after a major injury which caused me to be very conservative. I might not have attempted any stupid stuff anyway but this conservativeness got me through the period of time where I was relying on my hang glider pilot instincts to keep me safe and into an era where I attained some paraglider pilot instincts. These, of course, aren't really instincts but learned behaviors that operate at a sub-conscious level and just pop up to remind you what to do in an emergency. They are emergency recovery techniques which have to be pulled out of a hat without thinking about it. Very far into my process of learning about paragliding, I had an accidental 50% asymmetrical collapse. There is no doubt that my hang glider responses would have availed me naught, but because of practice and mental rehersal, I steered and cleared, only turned a little and lost about 100 ft. If I had done anything else, I would have been deep in trouble. There are a lot of things you can do wrong on a hang glider if you get dumped and still recover OK, but on a paraglider, you got to do it right or it's an "E" ticket ride for sure.
I used to like to push the envelope on my hang glider, but on a paraglider, envelope pushing is serious business. That is another thing that many really good hang glider pilots have to learn about paragliding. They're cute, they're easy to fly, they're convenient. Forgiving, they're not.
So if paragliders are so much more dangerous than hang gliders,
why do I fly them? Well, I do not think paragliders are inherently
more dangerous than hang gliders. They just have to be flown within
their proper limits. Most non-general aviation pilots aren't aware
that each airplane has a Vne. (Velocity not to exceed.) Many airplanes
can be flown far faster than Vne. When they are, they become considerable
more dangerous than any paraglider or hang glider. A popular airplane
designed in 1948 or so, the Beechcraft Bonanza regularly fell
apart in clear air killing all passengers. This was because the
Bonanza when retrofitted with a 265 HP engine instead of it's
original 165 HP model could fly about 75 mph faster than was safe.
My dad had such a Bonanza. Even with 10,000 hours in warplanes such
as the Corsair and Hellcat, he never flew his Bonanza faster than
135 mph, despite the fact that it was well known that a Bonanza
with the big engine could fly 210 mph. I am quite sure that my
dad would have survived many years of flying paragliders. But
he would have studied the weather before he flew and been damn
sure that the wind wasn't suddenly going to increase to 25 mph
and he would have had the training and experience to deal with
ugly surprises that unexpected turbulence can bring. The point
that I have to make is this. You learn the limits of your aircraft
and you live by them.