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I remember my first day on the training hill is Santa Barbara. I was progressing pretty well, but crashed on my last flight of the day. I was approaching the ground with the wing banked. Concerned that I was going to hit the ground, I pushed out aggressively. The glider of course, did a wing over and came straight down on its nose, bending the keel. I think I banged my knee. At the end of the day my mighty instructor took one of the gliders to the top of the hill for a flight. I sat at the midpoint and was in awe as he flew by across the hill at my altitude. I'd been a licensed pilot for over 9 years, but watching Jim Woods fly by was a spiritual inspiration.
I loved the simple joy of being airborne. I'd try to fly everyday, mostly after work, hoping to get in a few soaring passes. Took a lot of sleders. When it was soarable, I'd go back and forth in the same little fishbowl for hours. Over the first few years, we encountered a wide variety of conditions. Hang gliding in the early eighties was more sane than the 70's, but it was still maturing. We had little interaction with other seasoned forms of light aviation, the hang gliding community was learning how it worked by OJT. The community didn't really tap into the knowledge base of sailplane pilots and the general aviation community. Fortunately for the PG community, there is a healthy cross flow of soaring knowledge from the HG community.
The sport attracted a different segment of society then. Before the X-Games and roller blades. They made gliders you could rig in 5 minutes. I bought my first glider (old but refurbished and airworthy), a new harness, and my lesson package for $600. I remember my first post frontal day at La Conchita in the fall of 81. About 50 pilots from all over Southern California converged on the 300 foot MSL launch for the ride to Ventura. Now a days, we're lucky to get a dozen. Wills wing had this cool add with a station wagon cruising out of town, against the rush hour traffic. It hung on my wall for years, until my wife took it down.
Aviation has been around for about a hundred years. There is an old saying that claims there are no old bold pilots, but of course it was coined before aviation had seasoned. I must admit that when I watch extreme sports on TV, it appears everyone is pretty young.
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes for exercising poor judgment. I've had my share of experience, and feel lucky to be hear today. I have a 3 year old son, and the thought of him following in my footsteps is frightening. Yes, my bones do break when I hit hard, and I've hit the ground hard more than a few times. I've had 8 reserve deployments, 6 of them successful (I didn't walk away from the other two).
Paragliding is a hazardous activity, particularly so when the conditions are strong. I'd like to think that my skill level and experience will keep me out of harms way, but I continue to make mistakes. On most flights I make hundreds of decisions based on my perception of what's going on. I think my odds of surviving are good, but I realize that life is finite. I recognize that I could die a lonely death on the rocks, or worse, be irreparably broken and confined to finish my life in pain and suffering. Like a love / hate relationship, I am passionately drawn to my addition, but dread the terror sharp air. I definitely want to share life with my family for as long as I can, but I dread burying my child more than having him bury me.
Fortunately, we get to define our own goals, and I often change mine several times during a typical flight. I can remember racing home after work to get a 10 minute sleder, and loving it. I've been fortunate to survive 30 years of aggressive bold flying. Due to my experience, I'm playing a different game than most weekend warriors. Pilots have been hurt trying to do as I do rather than as I say. I am no longer commercially active, and accept only limited responsibility for the actions of others. I don't ever tell anyone to "fly safe". There is an obvious commercial benefit to promote the idea that our activity is "safe", but in my opinion it's not. An objective numerical analysis indicates our activity is hazardous (there have been countless twisted ankles and knees from pilots stepping in squirrel holes on landing). I do stress that pilots fly with focus control. Be patient and enjoy the acquisition of basic skills before moving on to more challenging scenarios. Be open to new ideas. Eddie Rickenbacker said that anyone can learn from his own mistakes, a survivor learns form the mistakes of others. I guess I can be a slow learner. Adjust, throttle, and manage your focus to fit the task at hand. There are some hard gray lines lurking out there that can spank us sharply when we get caught on the wrong side.
Paragliding is a recreational activity. If you're not having fun, back up a couple of notches. If the craving doesn't return, then maybe it's better to move on to something else. There are different levels of intensity. Competitions are an excellent growth experience, but try not to measure yourself against the accomplishments of others. There will always be participants that have more or less of something, but we are unique and special unto ourselves. Our new experiences will always be more valuable to us than someone else's noteworthy accomplishment.
I taught paragliding professionally for 5 years. There were rumors that my program wasn't safe. I made my share of mistakes and was clearly a better instructor at the end of my tenure. I would argue that my program was aggressive, sometimes more than optimal, but struggling for balance. Rather than stressing long politically correct do-not list, I tried to give my students a taste of the action and equip them with the tools to understand the hazards rather than memorizing them. I had students get hurt, and ultimately I felt it was my responsibility for their lack of understanding some concept, but I always thought it was better that they get exposed to some bumps and bruises under supervision so they may avoid harder hits after leaving the nest. I will argue strongly that my students have as good a safety record as any.
At the advance level, the more tools we have, the better we can cope with varied scenarios. I encourage growing pilots to go cross country. It sharpens their focus, and forces them to read and understand what's going on. We need to understand our limitations, and recognize the margins. Some are more intuitive than others, but I know many good pilots today that made a lot of mistakes early on.
The paraglider pilot population still seems pretty young, but the best hang glider pilots are grumpy middle aged men. I suspect most of the x-games champions are young because the older ones are broken. Fortunately, our leaders get saltier with each season.