After a couple of years in this sport I’m beginning realise that one of the hardest parts of paragliding is not the flying, but the art of getting the wing inflated and in the air.
I, like many others that I’ve spoken to, have been dragged, quite some distance in fact, and I’ve got the grass and mud stains on my harness to prove it. I’ve been pulled through thorny bushes, over rocks, and once virtually ploughed a field with my face. It’s moments like these that you realise exactly why back protection, helmets and boots with ankle support are more than just a good idea.
Coming from a skydiving background, where back protection isn’t even a “thing” and trainers are the only footwear most of us use, it took a while to re-align my thinking to this new practice. That’s not to say that parachutists don’t get dragged, they do, but it’s just easier to control and collapse a small canopy than one twice the size. In addition to this, parachutists nearly always land on a smooth, flat, grassy dropzone largely free of hazards and with many trained people in attendance to assist in the event of an injury.
It’s difficult to say which sport is safer, Skydiving or Paragliding? But the one thing that they both have in common is that the ground is just as hard wherever you are. You go up and, inevitably, you will come back down.
Looking closely at the types of accidents that happen in skydiving, they mostly occur under a fully deployed canopy. Meaning that pilot error is nearly always the cause.
So during the past year I would often climb my favourite flying hill and just practice ground handling, even if the only possibility of a flight was a straight top-to-bottom glide. After many sessions trying my wing in different launches and testing my “comfort zone”, I admit I got a bit cocky. I started to think that I could handle situations that were, in hindsight, beyond me, until one day I got the Wake Up Call.
There I was on my usual hill (the one that I know like the back of my hand) desperate to try out my new vario and attempting to launch in winds that I reckon were pushing 20 knots. Of course I didn’t really know what the wind speed was because I didn’t have an anemometer to test it.
Slightly wary of the venturi, (thankfully I knew about that!) I came further down the front of the hill to a spot where I thought it would be ok with reasonable space around me if I was dragged. So I set up for a reverse launch, brakes in hand and ready to pull the wing up.
As soon as I tugged on the risers, the wing pulled me forward with such force that I ended up planted on my face in the grass. For a second I thought that was it, I’d just get up and gather myself and try again. But the wind had other ideas. Within a second I was caught in a cross-wind gust and launched sideways along the front of hill. I was pulled into the air horizontally and then dumped down on my back and “winded” badly. Gasping for breath I used the last of my strength to pull one brake line in and collapse the wing before any more gusts of equal, or greater power, came by.
I managed to crawl through the grass towards the wing and unclip my leg straps, rolling out of the harness and over the ground only able to draw half a breath as I tried to evaluate what had happened. Clearly the conditions were well beyond my skill level and as I lay there in agony on my back staring up at the clouds racing overhead, panting like an over-worked farm dog, I felt… a bit stupid actually. Of course it was painful as I wondered if I’d broken anything important, but the over-riding feeling was one of foolishness and embarrassment.
How could I have not seen the signs? Was I just caught up in the excitement of wanting to get in the air for one more flight? Was it just because I was desperate to try put my new vario?
When I reflect on it now, the warning signs were plain to see, I just chose to ignore them… and paid the price.
Fortunately the price, this time, was not expensive, but on another day it could have been much worse.
A couple of days later I bought small a hand held anemometer which I now keep in my rucksac and take with me on every flying day. I use it routinely to test the wind no matter how light it appears to be.
I’m definitely a better pilot for the experience and luckily I didn’t break any bones. But I am now more enlightened as to the risks that we face in this sport and more aware than ever that these risks are so easily avoided if we just listen to that little voice in our heads.