by Greg Launt
I know we have heard it all before: "We are ultimately responsible for our own safety." Though very true, it’s equally important that we look after one another...because pilots are still getting hurt, or worse. Likewise, we might see things that another pilot does not. The solution: Share what you see, ask lots of questions, be aware.
The most significant safety measures that have kept me (mostly) out of trouble:
1) "Know and understand your equipment"
Get comfortable and confident that your whole kit is ready to go. Inspect your gear carefully. The more familiar you are with your equipment, the better chance you will have to notice if something is not right or out of place. You are likely to be the only one who has the opportunity and motive to really take a careful look at your gear. Too often problems occur simply because the pilot was unfamiliar with his equipment. If you have not flown for some months, you should get all of your gear together and spend some time kiting. Get into and out of your gear several times, and rehearse the preflight and launch sequence many times. Review the last time your reserve had been repacked. Afterward, pack all your gear thoroughly and carefully to simplify your tasks at launch and help minimize the distractions or delays. On the launch, be confident that you and your gear are ready to go. I’ve heard one wise pilot say that he “has never been burned by being ready early.”
2) "Study the weather conditions"
This would include careful, honest, assessment of the launch conditions. Talk to the other pilots. Try not to let your craving to fly overpower your best judgment. Try to imagine what it will be like 30 seconds after you launch…and if you don't think you'll be liking it...don't launch!
Weather is tricky. I've been wrong about it many more times than I've been right. It's easy to review all the predictors but then decide to believe the one that is most favorable for flying. Do your best to be objective. Utilize as many resources as you can. This can involve asking others why they are not launching.
It can be especially valuable to know if conditions are predicted to deteriorate as the time passes. You don't want to be airborne when things turn bad. By the same token, if conditions are predicted to improve, you should be patient and not launch when it's marginal. Are other pilots having difficulty launching or staying up? Maybe a sled-ride is what you should expect. Maybe you should be ready for an aggressive launch, or consider watching and waiting a bit longer. There’s no shame in being a driver either…we love our drivers!
3) "Pay attention to yourself"
No one else will know how you really feel, so you need to ask yourself, “Am I really ready to do this?”
We can't expect everyone to bring his "A-game" every time; but we must bring our "Whole Game" every time. Be focused, especially at the critical times (just prior to... and launching). If you are having trouble focusing....take some time to yourself and reassess. Do not let yourself get distracted by others or your surroundings. Furthermore, hydration is important…inversely, relieving yourself before launch is highly recommended. I always pack extra water and a snack.
4) “Maintain your margins”
Follow the Ridge Rules, and give each other space to maneuver. Ask for clarification on those rules because some people have differing interpretations. Be vigilant, look around you…and even behind you. CLEAR YOUR TURNS…ALL YOUR TURNS…EVERY TIME. The faster wing needs to pass on the ridge side…be aware of a faster wing coming up behind you, and give him room to pass on the ridge side. If the overtaking is happening in front of you, give both of those pilots room.
Give yourselves plenty of margin. Avoid “scratching”. Too often, the conditions seem to be getting light…when they’re really “going cross”. The wind (and associated air currents) crossways on the mountain can have strong and broad areas of sink. Maintain your options for (AT MINIMUM) the bail-out fields AT ALL TIMES. Always know, with confidence, that you can make it to a safe landing area with plenty of altitude to execute a smooth landing at any moment during your flight.
5) "Site-specific precautions”
Generally, you should learn as much as you can about any site you intend to fly. This is of great importance for a site that you have never flown before. Do your homework and contact someone that knows all the particular protocols and characteristics. Try to get the paperwork completed before you arrive, and spend the time with local pilots to take a good look at the landing areas before going up the mountain. While there, visualize and discuss preferred landing approaches and hazard avoidance with different wind directions. Study the location of power lines, fences, and trees. Take note of the slope (or terrain contours). Identify the best landing areas and utilize them. Wind-streamers may or may not be present, so be prepared to determine which way the wind is blowing (or not blowing) as you near the landing field and choose your approach. Know beforehand that there may be many suitable looking landing areas that are off limits.
Some sites have areas where you do not want to fly over. Maybe an area of frequent rotor or turbulence. Perhaps a neighbor has skittish livestock, pets, or privacy concerns. Good pilots are good neighbors. Again, talk with the current, local pilots, and ask them if there are places to avoid. They will also tell you where to find the good lift! Some sites may have a treacherous launch in certain wind directions…and wonderful in other wind directions. Every venue that I have ever visited has characteristics that need your attention, and may change from time to time, day to day, or even within the same day. Get the current information, first hand, from the local pilots and active club members.
Go with confidence! Know your gear, the weather, yourself, the site, and maintain wide margins. My paragliding instructor (some 11 years ago) reminded me that “You can go your whole flight career without incident, or injury…but you gotta be careful…really careful.”