Flying the Crowded Skies

Having a whole mountain to soar over by yourself can be a glorious solitary experience. Most of us prefer having at least a couple of flying mates up there with us. At the other extreme, some competition pilots actually love flying in a dense gaggle of gliders all sharing a thermal. But most of us don't really enjoy flying in a thick swarm of gliders.

By Paul Klemond

Paragliding is becoming popular here in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. At my home site (Tiger Mountain in Washington) we're seeing some real problems from overcrowding. Some of the hang glider pilots have been flying here for decades, and sometimes they understandably feel invaded by the hoards of paragliders. Long term we need to open more flying sites, but meanwhile I think there are some easy solutions that will ease some of the tension. First let's look at some of the specific problems. Maybe these are familiar to you at your sites too:

  1. Mid-air collisions become more likely as more aircraft fly in the same airspace. It's more tense and less fun.

  2. Boxed-In: It's stressful when a bunch of other flyers "box me in" against the terrain.

  3. Thermalling versus Ridge Soaring: Tension mounts as thermalling pilots and ridge-soaring pilots fly in traffic patterns that conflict with each other.

  4. Hang Gliders versus Paragliders: Tempers flare as hang glider pilots and more and more paraglider pilots of varying experience levels all share the air. Co-operation and harmonious flying is made difficult by differences between the mindsets of some paraglider and some hang glider pilots, but also by inherent differences between their respective aircraft.

  5. Landing Squeeze: The LZ starts looking dangerously small when two, three or more gliders all descend to set up approaches and land at the same time.

  6. Launch Etiquette: the wind dummy is "coring up" and twenty pilots all want to get into the air RIGHT NOW but some bozo has laid out his wing right in front on launch, and he isn't even clipped in!

  7. Screaming and even violence in the LZs and Launches: some pilots are used to crowded sites, but some are new to it and it sucks. Tempers flare as pilots blame other pilots. No one likes to take the blame. Egos butt heads. The resulting caveman behavior is just not acceptable.

Most of these problems and more are also happening at other sites all over the world. Besides making flying more stressful and less fun, some of these problems create dangers and may lead to injuries, fatalities and the loss of the privileges of being allowed to fly at a given site.

So, what do we do about it?

I have a few ideas. (I hope you'll write to this magazine to fill in the holes in this list!)

Attitude

  1. Everyone is here to ENJOY flying. We're not defending our country or our honor, we're RECREATING. So don't get too serious. Keep a light heart.

  2. We all share the same privileges of flying at a site, no matter what kind of aircraft, and no matter how much or little experience. (Pilots must still meet sensible minimum requirements for some sites.)

  3. Start with respect for your fellow pilots. Assume they care as much about safety as you do. Give the other pilot the benefit of the doubt, and stay calm as you discuss incidents. Confrontation closes minds, respect and cooperation open them. Becoming defensive loses a valuable chance to learn. Don't assume your point of view is the only correct one.

  4. Wake Up! Go ahead and indulge those profound feelings you get from flying, but above all else stay alert and aware of everything in the air around you. You are flying, and flying demands your responsibility and awareness.

  5. Never put your lust for lift ahead of safety.

  6. Mental Preparation: challenge yourself to identify potential problems way ahead of time, and plan contingencies. This will help avoid panic when things go wrong fast. At every moment, ask yourself "What would I do if..." ("What would I do if the paraglider 30 feet above me hits big sink? Takes a left collapse? A right collapse?" "What would I do if that guy continues his turn without seeing me?" etc.)

Skills

  1. Fly under the radio supervision of an instructor until you have the required minimum rating for the site you're flying. Don't jeopardize others by flying without this qualification.

  2. Clear Your Turns. This means turn your head to look where you're going before you start to turn your glider. Looking 90-degrees to the side is not enough - you must look 135 - 180 degrees behind you to be sure your turn will not create a hazard - even if you have the right of way.

  3. Learn and obey the rules: the cardinal rule, the rules of the ridge, and thermal rules. (See sidebar.)

  4. Be Aware. Your life depends on knowing exactly where all the aircraft around you are at each moment - where they're heading, and how fast. Look around and tune in. Don't be caught off guard.

  5. Make eye contact. Other pilots need to know whether or not you see them and are predicting their actions. Turning your head helps.

  6. Respond Early and Obviously: If you don't have the right of way, don't wait until the last moment to begin your yield actions. Try to turn gradually not abruptly. Give others clues about what you're going to do, and time to alter their course smoothly. Hang gliders fly faster than paragliders - if we paragliders don't yield early enough when a hang glider has the right of way, the hang glider is forced to yield to avoid an accident. The hang glider pilot gets justifiably angry. Do your part and yield early.

Hang Gliders Versus Paragliders

Hang gliders and paragliders often encounter some problems when they share the air together. This might be an understatement - sometimes the rift between the more hotheaded members of the "airbag" and "plumber" communities makes the feud of the Hatfields and the McCoys look like a group hug by comparison.

Understanding some basic differences and correcting some bad habits can reduce conflict and tension. The big differences between hangs and paras are speed, turning speed, aircraft size, and pitch control. Let's look at these.

Tandem and competition flying aside, most recreational paragliders generally fly at remarkably similar speeds with each other. They have a relatively small range of speeds, and they rarely pass each other, so they often don't readily empathize with those who pass them.

Hang gliders generally fly faster than paragliders, forcing the hang gliders into a passing situation - all the time when flying with paragliders. Passing someone requires more care and responsibility than being passed by someone else.

Paragliders generally react slower to turn initiation, and rotate more slowly into the turn.

These speed and turning differences often result in a paraglider feeling like they can't react fast enough to stay out of the hang gliders' way, so some pilots sort of resign themselves to watching the hang glider do all the collision avoidance.

This isn't fair, it's just something I see happening. Paragliders need to understand this, to fly more courteously, to do what they can, especially initiating avoidance actions early. Hang glider pilots need to recognize these differences and not expect paragliders to do some things that only a hang glider can do.

The worst paragliders go so far as to blow off the right of way rules, partly because honoring them would require a lot of foresight and initiating yielding action much much earlier than they are used to. Some use this as an excuse to rudely hog the lift. This is unacceptable behavior and needs to change.

Next difference: hang gliders have pitch control, paragliders really don't. This gives hang gliders a bit more liberty and options (and therefore, responsibility) when sharing the air and avoiding collisions.

Last difference: when I fly my tandem paraglider, my aircraft is a whopping 33 feet tall. I've often seen hang gliders flying very close together in a thermal - they love it. There's just no way to put a 33-foot tall slower paraglider in there without causing some disruption. I'll avoid it if there's other lift to be had, and when I can't avoid it we both need to just calmly work around each other.

We have a choice: we can keep our "clan mentality" and complain about each other, or we can just adapt and go fly and make the best of it and enjoy it. If you really want to understand another type of aircraft, talk to someone who flies both and is passionate about it. I have a standing offer to give any rated hang glider pilot a tandem paragliding flight, free of charge. I hope we'll all benefit from more understanding and some courtesy.

Rules for Sharing the Air

CARDINAL RULE:

Do not force another pilot to avoid a crash. Keep your options open and actively avoid the crash yourself, no matter who has the "right of way."

RULES OF THE RIDGE:

  1. The pilot with the ridge on his/her right has the right of way.

  2. Yield to any pilot turning away from the ridge.

  3. Any pilot lower than you has the right of way. Yield to anyone below you.

  4. Maintain at least 50 feet of separation in all directions from all other aircraft.

  5. Passing: WARNING: This rule varies between sites and even between aircraft types! Learn the local protocol before flying any site. At some sites, faster aircraft should pass on the outside (away from the ridge). Be prepared to yield in case anyone you're passing turns away from the ridge! It could happen suddenly! At other sites, faster aircraft pass on the inside (between the ridge and the aircraft you're passing.)

THERMAL RULES:

  1. Any pilot lower than you has the right of way. Yield to anyone below you.

  2. First pilot in the thermal sets the turn direction - right (clockwise) or left (counter-clockwise).

  3. When people are turning in different directions (such as when separate thermals merge), be flexible. Try to do what the majority are doing, and don't switch directions often.

GENERAL RULES:

  1. When your path crosses the path of another pilot, yield to the other pilot if he/she is to the right of your path.

  2. If you're on a head-on collision course, break right (turn away to your right.) This is just like driving a car in the US - your "lane" is always to the right of oncoming traffic.

Note to Travellers: Some countries or sites use variations that differ from these rules. When in Rome, learn how the Romans fly...

Thermal Versus Ridge Rules

When thermallers and ridge-soarers cross paths, who has the right of way? Some sites feature both thermal and ridge lift. If you enter a thermal and can safely 360 or S-turn in it without disrupting traffic, go for it. If it's too crowded, let it go. If other pilots are turning in a thermal, don't barge through in ridge pattern. Adapt to both the air and the aircraft around you. If it's too crowded at the "house thermal" or a known lift area, go check out someplace else. Sometimes it's better to explore an unfamiliar area and risk sinking out.

Launch Etiquette:

  1. If others are waiting, choose a clear space well away from areas used for actual launching and top-landing to prepare your wing and clip in. Then carry your wing to where people are waiting to use the launch areas. (Paragliders: if needed, just ask others to help you lay out your wing after you're clipped in.)

  2. If you don't intend to launch immediately after laying out your wing, honor others' request to "push": gather your wing and move aside.

  3. If someone else is trying to top-land while you're setting up, try to use only space that isn't needed for their top-landing. (Sometimes top-landings are emergencies!)

Landing Tips:

  1. Anticipate Rush Hour: if there are a lot of wings in the air, think how crowded (and scary!) a small LZ will be if every one gets "flushed" at the same time. Sometimes it's wise to leave lift early in order to "beat the rush hour" in the LZ.

  2. Vertical Separation: As you descend, look around. If there are other gliders at or near your altitude, no matter how far away they are, you'll likely be squeezed as you converge on the LZ. If the other flyers don't beat you to it, consider increasing your descent rate to gain some vertical separation. Do this early! Talk to your instructor if you don't know how to safely descend quickly.

  3. Share the LZ: It can be tense but sometimes you just have to land at the same time as someone else. If so, keep calm. Most sites have some standard landing pattern - if not, the "Aircraft Approach" pattern is strongly recommended. Look all around! Inadvertently cutting someone off can cause an accident! You will probably land side-by-side, so give your buddy room. Try to do a long straight final glide instead of lots of low late turns. (This is easiest when there is no wind-gradient over the LZ. Talk to your instructor!

  4. CONTINGENCIES: In general, always try to land in the LZ, but if the LZ is looking really crowded, don't force yourself to land there if it's not safe! As a last resort, think about other places where you can safely land. Do this early while you're high enough to have options. Consider checking out other fields on foot beforehand so you know which fields are safe and unsafe. In an emergency, land where you can.

  5. Clear the LZ: as soon as you land, secure your wing then immediately move to the side to maximize open LZ space for your incoming comrades.

These things are all worthwhile, but ultimately a site can really only host so many pilots at one time. If crowding brings on real accidents, it may become necessary to impose a higher minimum rating for flying there. This may seem unfair, but it is a practical way of dealing with a demonstrated safety problem and is common at numerous sites.

There is one more solution that we all should put effort into: opening new sites nearby. I'm working on two sites near Seattle Washington: Rattlesnake Mountain, and McDonald Mountain. More sites means less crowding, variety of scenery, and maybe the ability to fly in more kinds of weather such as different wind directions that render your home site unflyable.

Have fun and fly smart! I hope some of you wise birds out there will write a letter to the magazine and correct all the errors I've probably made in this article!

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