(First published 2008)
In case you haven’t seen speed flyers at your local hill yet and have somehow missed all the fast and furious speed flying videos all over the internet, let me give you a brief explanation. Speed flying is a relatively new foot-launched flying sport that involves the use of small, fast ram-air canopies to glide and even soar. Like most evolutionary developments in hang gliding, this one is a fusion of new and old ideas. To me, it seems like speed flying uses the latest paraglider technology to accomplish some of hang gliding’s earliest ground-skimming goals. Interestingly, speed flying also has roots in a skydiving discipline known as “ground-launching.” Much as the name implies, ground-launching is the sport of foot-launching skydiving canopies and then swooping down a hillside at high speed. Speed flying also has a lot in common with “speed riding,” which is a winter sport that combines skiing with a small ram-air canopy and involves repeated transitions from skiing to gliding as you carve down the mountain.
Why speed fly? Because it’s fun! This kind of flying is about the joy of foot-launching, making a simple flight, and landing safely on your feet. I’m sure that some soaring pilots will scoff at the Bobcat’s relatively low performance. To them, all I have to say is: try it before you condemn it. I love soaring as much as most pilots, but I found that a fast terrain- following glide across the cliffs and canyons of my local hill can be every bit as rewarding as an hour spent making passes above it.
Another great feature of the Bobcat is that it’s very light and compact. The small backpack that comes with the Bobcat can easily hold the wing, harness and everything you need for a day in the mountains. I’ve always been an avid hike-to-fly pilot, but carrying my paragliding rig often turns an otherwise pleasant hike into a grueling death march. The Bobcat, ready to fly with harness, helmet, jacket, gloves, cell phone, GPS, lunch and a water bottle, weighs less than 20 pounds! Some of my best Bobcat flights so far have been evening hikes that ended with a sunset-skim down the side of the hill.
OK, so now that I’ve established what the Bobcat is and why you, as a reader of this magazine, might be interested in it, let me try to describe how it flies. First, I’ve got to admit that I’m a total speed flying newbie and that other than a single sled ride on a Gin Nano 2 years ago, the Bobcat is the only speed glider that I’ve ever flown. So, while experienced speed flyers may not learn much from my comments, maybe my fellow speed flying beginners and folks who are considering learning how to speed fly will benefit.
If I had to describe the Bobcat in a single word, it would be: accessible. That’s right. As “extreme” as the YouTube version of speed flying might seem, the Bobcat is easy to fly. Ground handling the Bobcat is easier than any paraglider that I’ve ever flown. I’ve even let some of my beginner paraglider pilot buddies use the Bobcat to work on their strong wind-kiting skills, and it proved to be a great ground-handling trainer.
Launches are simple, whether forward or reverse. For such a fast wing, the Bobcat has very little tendency to overshoot on take-off. The Bobcat’s three riser system is fitted with trim tabs on the rear risers, and I found that trimming the wing slow made launching in light winds easier. Even though its launch behavior is simple, it takes a longer run and a more substantial application of brake to separate from the ground than a regular paraglider. Once in flight, the Bobcat is agile without being twitchy, and it gets a surprisingly flat glide when trimmed slow. Trimmed fast, the Bobcat gets progressively more ground hungry, and trimmed full-fast, it will obediently contour the slope of the hill.
If you use the controls gently, the Bobcat will carve smooth arcs through the sky. Pull harder and the Bobcat will immediately start banking. Pull even harder and it willingly dives into a steep turn. The Bobcat has powerful controls, but it’s not hard to moderate and use that power. Even with its sporty turning behavior, this wing gives a strong sense of stability in flight.
Landings are straightforward. At my home field elevation of over 5000’ MSL, you have to be willing to run it out in no wind. At first I thought that the slowest trim setting would be best for landing in light to nil winds, but later I discovered that neutral trim yielded more flare power and, therefore, softer landings. If the wind is over 5 mph, landings are a piece of cake.
One aspect of the Bobcat’s flight performance that I haven’t fully explored yet is its strong wind-soaring capability. I’ve played with it at our local dune in some fairly strong winds, but I haven’t been able to really soar yet. I have, however, had a great time kiting, crow-hopping and side-hill landing all over the dune. On a breezy day at the dune the Bobcat feels as if it’s half-wing, half-toy kite. It might not be soaring, but it’s a great workout and a huge amount of fun.
So who is a potential Bobcat pilot? Obviously, it will appeal to the dedicated speed flyer, but I think there are many paraglider pilots who would enjoy the Bobcat as a second wing. Of course, any pilot with an interest in hike-to-fly is a candidate for speed flying, but even pilots who always drive to launch could use a Bobcat to spice up those occasional but inevitable sled rides. I also think speed flying will attract paragliding ridge rats who hate to sit on the ground and watch the hangies soar when the wind gets strong. Unquestionably, it will also catch the eye of some ground-launching skydivers.
In closing, I’d like to address the issue of where speed flying fits into the world of foot-launched flying. The Bobcat and speed flying are just one of many evolutionary offshoots of hang gliding. You could argue that speed flying is not hang gliding, but you’d be wrong. Speed flyers definitely hang in their harnesses, and they also glide; therefore, they must be hang gliders. In many ways speed flying is closer to the roots of hang gliding than modern hang gliding is. Remember that our association’s magazine, the same one you are reading now, used to be called “Ground Skimmer.” As new disciplines develop, the edges between foot-launched, gravity-powered air sports continue to blur. New disciplines also mean new folks using our limited flying sites, and sometimes the “new guys” don’t understand the past. That can create problems, but the solution is to welcome the new birds into the flock. They need to be taught about our history and why we have to respect and protect our sites above all else. I hope that we as a community of foot-launch pilots can remain open to all the forms that our sport has taken, and will continue to take in the future. Some of us might choose to fly sleek 20:1 rigid wings, and others find themselves attracted to low aspect ram-air slope-skimmers, but in the end we are all hang glider pilots.
JC Brown has been a foot launched flying enthusiast since 1975. JC currently lives in a small town north of Mexico where he raises goats and packs parachutes.