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Progression P2
Posted 12/5/2014

In response to Chris Ballmer's inquiry posted on the SCPA Discussion Forum at
Posted by gracecab Ľ Wed Dec 03, 2014 1:41 pm

Quote from Inquiry / Can anyone point me to links to discussions/logs instructing Novice (P2) pg pilots on a typical mountain progression learning curve? / end quote

Chris, your progression will move forward on three major fronts that are progressively more complex.

  1. your mechanical skills development
  2. your ability to perceive the medium
  3. your ability to evaluate your reach, limitations, and hazards, enabling you to utilize your tools, techniques, and strategies to connect the dots.

All three require some preflight conceptual thought plus post flight reflection to build on your experience.

The one-day students subsidize our activity, so the market dictates that we advertise our sport as a "safe" activity, then as you progress we backpedal on the marketing hype and begin to point out an expanding array of hazards.  Our pilot community is composed of diverse individuals with differing and evolving objectives.  XC Mountain flying isn't for everyone.  We have a squadron of pilots who mostly fly the coastal ridge lift and rarely or never fly the mountains, which is ok because we get to define our own objectives.  This discussion is about progressing as a mountain pilot.  To that end, I'm sure there are many good books and videos, but a couple of my [Comments] about the balance between safety and progression are my 2002 comment on [Balance] and to a lesser degree my 2005 comment titled [SCPA Forum Thread]

The development of mechanical skills is the first task.  At the entry level it is pretty basic, pull left to go left, pull right to go right, and pull both to slow down.  Students can fly solo off the training hill after a half hour of one-on-one ground instruction with launch assistance and radio control from their instructor.  After an introductory teaser lesson we want to start working on the skills that will enable pilots to fly in our local mountains, and the mountains often present "sporty" air.  When I was instructing in the 90s, the Sky Sports students would do 50 to 100 flights at our training hill before progressing to the mountains.  The students flew the mountains on typically soarable days which have thermals, so they needed the basic canopy control skills to handle the conditions they were going to fly in.  Most of my students did their first high flights at either the Skyport (Santa Barbara) or Chiefs (Ojai).  Chiefs would be soarable most days, so a student's first high flight was often their first thermal soaring flight.

If it wasn't soarable in Santa Barbara, we would run 2 or 3 trips up to the Skyport.  We sometimes flew from West La Cumbre and some of the other launches including the north side at Knaps Castle, but the Skyport was a quick turnaround and the students didn't need to pack up between flights.  The glider performance was lower than modern wings and we didn't want students stretching for Parma, so everyone had to do 2 or 3 landings at Saint Mary's before we let them fly over the houses to Parma.  Saint Mary's was more difficult to get into than Parma, so the logic was we wanted the Students to be confident they could land at the small LZ and not feel like they needed to stretch which could equate to backyard landings.  As an instructor, it was helpful to be good at climbing trees and doing extractions.

To prepare training hill students for their first thermal flight and landing in small LZs, we went through our list of training hill stuff that included speed control, slow flight in the mush mode, pitch control, pendulum timing, fore and aft surges, mild wingovers, and tip folds.  Mountain thermal flying will be in bumpy air.  I didn't subscribe to the notion that you need X amount of hours in smooth air before you flew in bumpy air.  We taught students how to fly in bumpy air from day one, and they encountered bumps on their first high flights.  It was my perception that programs that put a lot of emphasis on avoiding the bumps produced a high percentage of pilots that developed bumpy air phobia.  Having stated my perception and methods, I must say that we all like smooth air, myself included.

Still on the mechanical skills side.  Some students come with transferable skills from motion sports and pick it up right away.  Tammy Burcar, Rob Sporrer, Robert Millington, and Chad Bastian (to name just a few) are all more precise pilots than myself in their mechanical execution.  It's not that I don't strive for mechanical proficiency, but some pilots are just naturally better at the fine tuning.  As noted earlier, flying a paraglider is pretty simple at the basic level, but there is a lot of timing and coordination required to achieve proficiency, and sometimes proficiency can make a difference.

In addition to precision control, paraglider pilots flying in the mountains on sporty days will encounter a wide array of large amplitude canopy gyrations.  I'd recommend attending advanced maneuvers clinics to learn the gyration progression of major disturbances.  I used the plural term clinics because you won't attain your comfort potential in a single weekend with a half a dozen tows, but it is a starting point to explore the typical gyration progressions in a controlled and thoughtful environment rather than experiencing your first full stall 100 feet over the rocks.  I haven't attended an advance maneuvers clinic myself because they weren't common in the early 90s, and I've never intentionally stalled my glider from a normal flying configuration, but I've had 8 reserve deployments [Incident Reports].

2 of my 4 paragliding reserve deployments were successful.  On the first one I needed a helicopter extraction to get out from the chaparral below Rayes Peak.  On my last successful reserve deployment I was able to bushwhack to the power line service road and relaunch from the Holly Hills, then continue on to Carpinteria.  I was not able to walk away from my 2 failed deployments.  Had I attended an advance maneuvers clinic, or at least watched a video on the subject, I could have avoided getting the canopy under me an falling through the lines in 1998.  There are a lot of tutorials available with analysis regarding canopy gyrations, so in addition to participating in maneuvers clinics, you should read various articles on the subject and watch some of the video tutorials.   I've posted a few [Comments] regarding mechanical control.  You can read through all of them in a half hour, but there are much better sources of information available.

You don't need to attend a maneuvers clinic before flying in the mountains, but you don't want to jump into nasty air until you've build some bump tolerance through experience.  You can attain mechanical proficiency pretty quickly, and today's equipment is much better than what we had in the 90s.  Chad Bastian and I both spent countless hours going back and forth in simple ridge lift because we were addicts, but as tommygun noted in his reply to Chris's inquiry, you want to build your experience and flying at the training hill offers the opportunity to sharpen a number of skills that you don't typically hone flying ridge lift.  Incremental progression beyond your comfort zone is optimal, but we can't order the weather from a menu.  We have to work with what the day offers.  Sky Sports used to fly students off the Rock (1500 foot launch off Gibraltar Road) on post frontal days when it was blowing OTB at ridge line.  We'd launch them early, get them up, and send them downwind for landing at Westmont College or the Polo Fields before the west wind swept through.

Your Ability to Perceive the Medium is a life long endeavor and why our sport is kind to old guys like me.  I played football from little league through high school and loved it, but after high school I didn't know anyone who still played competitive tackle football.  It was over by the time I took my first solo flight at age 17.  Football is a pretty complicated game, and the players that survive physically get better at reading the dynamic scenarios.  Football needs a lot of coaches because the retired 35 year old guys understand what is going on better than the 25 year old players.   The seasoned coaches seem to consistently produce better results than less experienced newcomers, but unfortunately, the old guys can no longer play, they can only coach.  In paragliding we are fortunate that some of us can still play into our advancing years.

Fortunately, we have much better tools to evaluate what our medium is doing than we had in the 80s.  Back then we would watch the Weather Channel, listen to the NOAA weather radio, and phone the Flight Service Station to get a winds aloft forecast.  As Neal Michaelis noted in his article about his [first flight to Fillmore Tuesday 11/25] quote / Flying new terrain is so fun ...  It's mostly problem solving the immediate task at hand. / end quote.  Neal knew he wanted to try and fly to Fillmore when he left home in the morning.  His progression in reading the weather can be noted in his track logs.  His [10/4 spaghetti exploration track] from a couple months ago is evolving into a connect the dots efficiency as noted by his [11/25 Fillmore Track Log].  Neal's track log from 11/25 is much more deliberate than his 10/4 track despite 10/4 being a much better day with more cushion compared to 11/25, but he needed the experience from 10/4 to develop his confidence to move deliberately with lower margins on 11/25.

We usually can't see the medium directly, although there are often signs we can look for.  Part of it is cerebral.  You don't suddenly wake up knowing what to do, you have to get on course and build your correlations.  It's not an exact science (although with infinite computer modeling, perhaps it might be argued that it could be exact).  I've been flying for over 40 years, and have been flying paragliders since the early 90s, but I'd like to think I'm still getting better.  I can't physically do all the stuff I could when my body was younger, quicker, and stronger, but I continue to learn.  I strongly recommend making an effort to evaluate the weather before you leave home, and then do a post flight review.  The tools available today for both preflight and post flight analysis were only a fantasy in the 80s, so the next generation of pilots will continue to develop connections that we weren't able to realize in our brief run.  Even the best weather models are relatively macro compared to the micro conditions that we play in, so there is no college course that will teach you about the many interrelated nuances we strive to comprehend.  There is no substitute to getting on course with an open mind and trying to picture what is transpiring.

Attaining some mechanical proficiency and a degree of medium awareness will enhance your progress in
your ability to evaluate your reach, limitations, and hazards, enabling you to utilize your tools, techniques, and strategies to connect the dots.

This is what XC is all about.  If you fly only Bates, you will need to evaluate a variety of scenarios, but if you get on course and fly to Bates from the Skyport, then you will be exposed to a much greater range of issues that require decisions, strategy, commitment, and adjustments.  I've flown to Fillmore maybe a hundred plus time (just a quesstimate) but each journey was unique.  You can't rely on a flight computer to tell you if you can make a connection, and just because you made the connection with the same altitude last week doesn't mean you will be successful today.  Some days it's easy with plenty of cushion, but more often you will need to draw from your tool box of techniques and strategies to make go or hold decisions.  Going without adequate resources can have varied consequences which include flight termination, but taking on extra calories (altitude you don't need) can slow you down.  Ideally, I like to launch early, go fast, avoid getting stuck, and land late.  This subject is arguably more complex than the first two because it requires judgment, which comes from experience, which comes from exercising poor judgment.  As Eddie Rickenbacker (our first US WW1 Ace) noted, anyone can learn from their own mistakes.  A survivor learns from the mistakes of others.

As a P2 pilot with only a few sled rides from the mountains, this subject my seem beyond your experience level, but it transcends many aspects of the sport like calculating how to set up an approach for landing in varied conditions, and whether to commit to turning tight on a core close to the terrain with the risk of hitting the hill, or opting to figure 8 at the expense of venturing out the sides of a bubble.  It's something you start doing from your first day at the training hill.

In Summary, as a 1 year P2 pilot living in Ventura with a number coastal ridge soaring flights and a few mountain sled rides

Follow up added 12/8/2014

Progressing Instruction

I'm posting the following excerpts from an email exchange Chris Ballmer' because it is personal justification for my excess.

As an advancing P2 pilot flying the mountains your instruction is less formal. You arenít being radio controlled turn by turn, but it is good to have someone keeping an eye on you. Decision making is a huge part of the activity. You need to make your own decisions, but reviewing some your decision both preflight and post flight is valuable. You get that review both directly from instructors but also from other pilots at launch and at lunch.

Having a GPS track log can be helpful, but the track log doesnít record the whole picture. You need to correlate it with a number of variables like the weather. You can review your track log with friends and or ask for a professional review from an instructor. Doing a formal review of your GPS track with an instructor is a new tool not yet fully embraced, but with screen sharing through on-line web sessions, the technology is available if not yet broadly implemented for that specific task. If you want to do a web review of your track log, it is sort of like taking piano lessons. You need to compensate the instructor for their time, which might vary from a half hour at a minimum to more than several hours for one-on-one review and analysis of a particular flight.

At the training hill level, an instructor doesnít need to be an outstanding pilot. They donít even need to be an advanced rated pilot (I think the requirement is P3). Their interpersonal skills and implementation of basic instructional fundamentals are much more important than being an accomplished pilot. As you begin to venture around the mountains, the actual on course experience of an instructor becomes more relevant.

You have to recognize the revenue model. Our bus service to launch and some of the infrastructure is subsidized by the training hill students and equipment sales. At the training hill, capturing the revenue is transactional, but as an advancing pilot your payments for the ongoing support you receive is more often less direct and often in the form of customer loyalty. If you go out on the internet and order a new canopy directly from a European supplier, then it may be difficult for a local business to make ongoing discretional investments in your continuing progression. Iím an experienced pilot and when I need to replace or add equipment, I donít try to figure it out on my own. I trust our local schools to point me in a good direction.

From a business model perspective, the schools need to capture most of the revenue early in a pilots career, which may not seem balanced, but you have to consider that advancing pilots also need much more guidance early in their career than they do as a more seasoned veteran. By the time pilots have been flying for a number of years, they recognize the need to contribute to their community which includes the schools. There are some sacred rules. Donít stiff the bus or the ground crew. It may go unnoticed, but you need to maintain your karma. Regardless of oneís religious beliefs, I think we all recognize there is are realities beyond our ability to perceive.

You donít advance very far by racking up hours at Bates, or flying in smooth air. If itís not soarable, then doing several sled rides from 3 different launches in the Santa Barbara mountains on a Saturday will be more valuable for a P2 pilot than watching a football game, but ultimately, getting on course is what will light the mushroom. Getting on course will require a lot of decisions, and some of them will be wrong which can terminate your flight, so you need to initially balance airtime with experimentation and be conservative in your connection attempts. You can shave your margins as you gain experience and still avoid the blood.


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