16 April 2008

Practice, practice, practice

Today afternoon went to our local "bunny hill" here in Helsinki. The morning rain was gone and the winds were easterly. Moreover the overcast blocked thermals, which in this place is good as it is turbulent enough without those.
This Malminkartano hill is a former dump of construction waste that has been landscaped. It is now an entry in the "our own town" series of the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. The picture above with our Heimo launching on the main south-east slope made it into the printed paper last week.

Anyway, it is a good but challenging place to practice paragliding skills. Unless conditions are very calm the winds are almost always erratic. But the windsocks are very good, and there are 8 of them! There also isn't that much place to launch and in stronger winds it is easy to get blown over the top. Luckily that is not disastrous, the small bushes will catch you. Unfortunately the front, east, slope is rather forested nowadays. Still 5 years ago it was quite normal to launch straight east, you would easily fly over the then small trees. Within a couple of years the east slope will be "no-go".

After this winter with little flying I like all the practice one can get. Non-pilots, and new students, are always amazed at how much we practice ground handling, and on small hills like this. But every paraglider pilot knows that regular practice makes a huge difference. You get better at launching, so you can launch in less-than-perfect conditions, safely. You also get more precise in controlling the glider, which helps in light conditions, small thermals, tricky landings, etc. Above all practice gives confidence, of the good kind. Unjustified over-confidence is the enemy of safety, but true confidence makes you fly more, and fly more enjoyably. So we practice.

Over the last 5 years or so I've tried to be a bit systematic when practicing. I feel it helps, and makes sense, to make things deliberately more difficult at times; but in safe settings. Things like deliberately launching, or landing, in cross-winds even when there is room to head straight into the wind. So that when I am in situation where there is not such room I know what to expect and what to do. I also like to practice "low-saves", i.e. catching a thermal ever lower and see if I can still get up. And then go down again and try lower. Of course only when this is possible and doesn't impose an extra risk. At most of our airstrips here in Finland there is a house thermal next to the strip, so then there is plenty of place to land in case it doesn't work out.

Today the wind was mainly north-east-east and I did a lot of ground handling at the top. In 2 hours I only managed, and dared, to make two actual launches and flights. It required good technique and accurate timing, only after quite some practice I got it figured out. And I've been there many, many times before. What I did was to inflate a bit below the top on the east slope. As I could not really launch there, I backed up backwards and then steered to the right (south) all the time walking slowly with the glider inflated. Once I was on the south side of the stairs, and facing south-east-east I ran forward now with a cross wind of almost 90 degrees and launched. Once clear from the hill I could turn north, back to the slope side and into the wind. And today it was easy to get a bit above the hill again. But it was rough with the wind from this northerly direction, and that did not make it all that easy to stay high. Moving out front as usual only placed oneself into more turbulence, it was best to stay a bit closer to the hill and land on the bottom of the slope. Two hours busy and (only) 2 flights of perhaps 5 minutes each, but lots of fun. And good practice.

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