Just last week I was launching from a new site, in conditions that were very top-end for me. I wasn’t quite sure that I’d be able to deal with the strong wind and be able to launch without being dragged or plucked from the hill. It was one of those days where the wind was steady and just a tiny bit too strong to bring the wing up. When the lull in the wind came it lasted about ten seconds. That meant I had a ten second window in which to try the high-wind launch technique that I hadn’t used since last flying season. Fortunately I had been flying just the day before and practiced exactly this technique, so all went smoothly.
About a month ago there was a tiny weather window and I got some flying in when I expected none. I discovered to my annoyance that if I store my solar-powered vario in a dark cupboard for months it simply doesn’t start. Fortunately, I have a backup vario.
What happens during the off-season?
For every week that goes past since we last flew, a few things happen. Our motor skills -our muscle memory- slowly fade and our body forgets what it feels like to be in a harness and to feel the surge of the wing through the risers. Your hands forget the flow of your pre-flight checks and the exact location of the risers while ground handling.
Your reserve slowly settles into its folded form in your harness and the creases slowly set into the fabric of your wing. The batteries in your vario gently lose their charge and the smaller items of your flying gear either become gradually buried under piles of other equipment or are progressively shuffled further into the back of their storage boxes.
This means that there are three areas in which we need to prepare for the new flying season:
Get your mind in the right place by thinking about flying. Watch flying videos but don’t watch blooper or crash videos. Re-read your logbook (you have a detailed logbook, right?) and remember the flights from last year. Think about what you did right, what you did wrong, what you learnt and what you hope to improve on.
Set yourself some objectives for the new season. A suggestion: make your first goal to have the first few flights as easy as possible. Your next goal should be to go through the whole season with no scares, no injuries and no damaged equipment. Once you’ve made that safety contract with yourself you can move on to add performance items such as flying for longer than you have done, logging more kilometers, more height gain, more total hours for the season, gaining the next level of pilot licence or possibly doing the manouevres you’ve not yet done.
Write these things down and go easy on yourself. The first few flights should aim to achieve perfect pre-flights, safe controlled launches and accurate landings.
Your body is easy to train. All you have to do is start reorganising your flying gear and using it and the muscle memory will come back.
…but think beyond just the flying. Are you fit? Are you healthy? I’ve noticed, for example, that as I get older I’ve developed both hay fever and a tendency to get motion sick. That means that an essential part of my flying day is now to take anti-motion sickness and anti-hay fever pills. Think about how you’re going to feel when you walk up the hill. If the idea of walking up fills you with dread, maybe you should get fitter. Arriving on take off so exhausted that you can’t breathe is not going to set you up well for the flight.
Do you have any niggling injuries? Weak knees? Dodgy ankles? Think about anything that’s happened since the last flying season that could have an effect on your ability to safely launch or ground handle. Do whatever you need to to make sure that these factors are dealt with, be it strapping, bracing, treatment or simply more lýsi. Make sure that you’re not standing on launch with a nagging worry about your body.
The great news is that the final part of body preparation crosses over nicely with the equipment preparation. It’s really very simple: practice your pre-flight until it’s perfect, then go out and ground handle. It’s true that the pilots that are best at ground handling will fly most, simply because they get away cleanly from launch, don’t waste time blowing launches and certainly don’t have the season curtailed by damaging themselves or their equipment.
Be serious about your pre-flight. If the ground is dry and the weather good, then do it at the start of your ground handling sessions, but you don’t even need to wait until then. You can do your pre-flight indoors without even opening out the wing. Write down your pre-flight routine and you’ll suddenly realise how many things are involved: my routine involves a least twenty-five separate steps. Practice it indoors and don’t stop until you get every step right.
While you’ve got your gear out you should use the chance to check it over. Repack your reserve, fully check your wing, check the line lengths and check your karabiners for wear or cracks. Charge your batteries and play with your vario. Remind yourself how it all works and how to set the right height before take-off. Check your harness for wear and make sure the back protection is still in place.
There really are only three ways to get your muscle memory back for flying:
- Ground handling
- Ground handling
- More ground handling
…by which I mean do it right. Don’t just fluff around reverse kiting with your hands on the brake lines above the pulleys: that’s too easy. By all means start like that, but aim at the only type of ground handling that actually does you any good: forward kiting. Bring the wing up, stabilise it in reverse, turn forwards and forward kite.
You can judge how good your handling is by how slowly you can do the steps. You should be able to bring the wing up reverse, hold it for at least five seconds, turn forwards and hold it for at least ten seconds without dropping it. It’s a common technique here in the UK in light conditions to bring the wing up and forward kite until you feel that it’s strong enough to launch and stay up.
You’ll know if you’ve got all this right by the way you feel as you walk up and by how you feel when you know you’re about to launch. If you feel relaxed, excited but not scared, you’re on the right track. If you feel stressed, rushed, very scared or even out of control, then you need to ask yourself -and be honest- whether you really are ready to fly. Last year I had a day on which I could have flown but chose not to because the wind was too strong. Instead I went down to the landing field and forward kited for over an hour. I got much, much more from that session than I would have done from some simple flight.
Oh, and one final thing: there’s no substitute for sharing your plans and ideas with other pilots, so get together and plan your ground handling and first flights over a few beers.
Written by Timothy Bishop an ex-military aviator who lived in Iceland for several years but relocated to the UK last year. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him here in Iceland.