Ratings and skills introduction

Flying is a skill that few people get to develop. Among those who fly, only a tiny fraction learn how to fly like a bird, launching from their feet, exploiting the movement of air to stay aloft, and at the end returning to earth once again on foot. The skills needed to fly the way we do are very specialized, yet essential for us to be able to fly safely.

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In the early days, pilots learned through trial and error, hoping to survive the mistakes long enough to learn the skills. Many did not. The early years of hang gliding were a time when the sport gained a reputation for danger which it has yet to overcome. Risk is still present today, but our knowledge of how to avoid accidents and fly safely has made the risks manageable. The training and rating system we have now is built on the sacrifices of those early pioneers and the knowledge gained over forty-plus years of teaching our sport.

Today’s training emphasizes incremental steps, from running on flat ground with a wing and harness, through short runs down a shallow slope, to steeper slopes and higher ground that offer seconds to minutes of airtime. A student learns the basic skills in a gradual sequence, each skill building on those that came before. As the skills are mastered in progression, the student gains the ability to fly with confidence and to handle more challenging conditions. This learning process never stops, even for Master-rated pilots with decades of experience. Good pilots are always learning, always studying how to be even better fliers – this is, after all, how they got to be good pilots in the first place!

At some point though, you want to know how you measure up. Are you a good enough pilot to fly at a given site? Do you know enough to be able to make that judgment? This is one of the things that the rating system is for. Another reason for ratings is to give other pilots a basis for estimating your skill level and ability to fly. This might not matter so much at your home site, with your regular flying buddies, but when you venture to a new locale and meet the pilots there, you’ll need to give them a way to evaluate you.

USHPA Rating Program

To help pilots track their progress, USHPA has developed a five-level rating program, completely described in SOP 12-02 Pilot Proficiency System. The programs for hang glider and paraglider pilots share many common skills, though some are specific to the type of wing. As a rough guideline, this is what the various rating levels mean:

H-1/P-1 Beginner Pilot

This rating identifies a student who has demonstrated the basic ability to fly in a straight line. The beginner pilot is not yet ready to go out flying independently, but can take off, fly straight and land. She also understands the basics of glider setup and breakdown.

H-2/P-2 Novice Pilot

A novice has learned about turns, maneuvering and how to estimate where he’ll land. He has flown from higher ground under supervision and demonstrated confident handling of the glider in flight, as well as operation in stronger winds. He’s had some training about meteorology, air movement, clouds and other environmental factors, and the legal “rules of the road” that govern our flying. He may be approved to go out and fly with more experienced local pilots at easier sites, but has not yet gained the level of experience needed to operate independently.

H-3/P-3 Intermediate Pilot

The intermediate pilot has gained further experience and training in flight skills and decision-making. With the basic mechanics of flight fairly well worked out, an intermediate pilot’s focus is on refining her ability to make good decisions and correctly interpret the site and conditions for flying. She has received more training about weather forecasting, micrometeorology, airspace regulations and our internal rules that govern our sport. She’s now skilled enough to make her own decisions, and (we hope) wise enough to consult local pilots when venturing to a new site. Though she may be able to make independent decisions, she wisely flies with a friend for safety and greater fun.

H-4/P-4 Advanced Pilot

Pilots at this level have accumulated the flying experience and judgment necessary to handle conditions at a wide range of flying sites. This doesn’t mean that they can fly every site! A part of “judgment” is knowing when a site or conditions are beyond the pilot’s ability to handle them safely. Advanced pilots know when and where to fly, as well as when and where not to fly. They often serve as mentors and role models to less-experienced fliers. At some sites, advanced pilots are empowered to close the site or limit flying if they feel conditions are unsafe for lower-rated pilots. Some may also obtain instructor training and go on to teach the next generation of new fliers.

H-5/P-5 Master Pilot

A pilot with a Master rating has, in addition to all of the flight experience and knowledge, demonstrated outstanding skill in flying over a long period. She’s flown many different sites, in varying conditions, on a broad range of different wings. He’s practiced different launch methods (towing, for example) and has acquired specialized skill signoffs. She’s flown safely for a long time and has the endorsement of other pilots for her rating.

Where Do Ratings Come From?

Pilot ratings are issued by appointed USHPA officials, who can be instructors or observers. Instructors issue the entry-level ratings and do the basic flight training. Once a pilot has earned at least the Novice rating, then he may continue his training with an instructor, and he may also refine his skills with the support of his peers in the flying community. Some pilots may be appointed as Observers, and they can administer higher-level written tests and observe the required flight tasks needed for a more advanced rating. They may also supervise the tests needed for special skill signoffs, such as for Turbulence, Cross-Country or Restricted Landing Field. Observers can rate any skill or rating level that they hold themselves. Basic Instructors can rate any skills they hold, as well as pilot ratings up to H-2/P-2. Advanced Instructors can rate all pilot levels as well as all special skills they hold themselves.

Master ratings are awarded upon application by the pilot, accompanied by supporting documentation and letters of recommendation. A regional director reviews the application and issues the approval.

Why Get a Rating?

Your rating is much more than just a “merit badge.” It shows that you have demonstrated a level of flying skill that has been objectively measured, and you’ve completed a test of your knowledge about the rules of flight and how our wings operate. When you travel outside your local area, your rating card tells pilots at other sites that you have shown a level of competence in your flying. Your instructor’s name is on the card too, along with any special skill signoffs you may have. All of these things give other pilots a reference point to estimate your ability. Together with your flight logbook, your rating card establishes your credibility as a responsible, skilled pilot.

At locations covered by USHPA site insurance, the local club is responsible for setting the minimum rating level needed to fly at the site, along with any site-specific rules that may apply. At these places, you’ll need to have your current membership/rating card to show to the site monitor, as part of your orientation before flying there. Most sites require a H-3/P-3 for independent flying, though H-2/P-2 pilots may fly with supervision from a local pilot or instructor. A few sites (Yosemite, for example) require an Advanced pilot rating to fly, and may also have restrictions on wing type or when flights may begin and end. Some sites may require only a H-2/P-2 minimum to fly, but it just depends on the individual site. A H-2/P-2 requirement is no guarantee that the site truly is flyable by a Novice pilot; it’s just a guideline to give pilots a feel for the skill level needed. In the wrong conditions, a Novice-minimum site can demand skills beyond those of even an Advanced pilot (though an Advanced pilot probably wouldn’t be in the air, having recognized the bad conditions).

Even at sites where there is no club regulation requirement, the local pilots will usually have an informal “site rating” in place to guide visitors. A site’s skill requirement can vary widely depending on the weather conditions. For instance, a mountain might be an easy P-2/H-2 launch before noon, but beyond the skills of many Advanced pilots by mid-afternoon as thermals rip up the face. That same site might be back to Novice again by evening as the sun drops low and the ground cools. Wind from a slightly wrong direction can turn a site from easy to difficult, and conditions can change from benign to lethal in a matter of minutes at some places. Flying with the local experts at a site can clue you in to these details, and expand your base of experience so you can make better judgments in the future.

Ratings aren’t “static,” and good pilots recognize this. It may say “Advanced” on your rating card, but if you haven’t flown in a year, it’s time to mentally down-check yourself to “Novice.” Head out to the training hill for some refresher practice before going off to Mount Whiteknuckle.
Some pilots may “test well” but demonstrate lousy judgment in real flying. A rating official can always revoke a rating he’s issued previously, at any time and for any reason. In addition, any two other rating officials can jointly issue a rating revocation or suspension for reasonable cause. USHPA has a procedure for handling such situations, outlined in SOP 12-7 Policy on Revocation and Reinstatement of Ratings, Certifications, and Appointments.

To summarize, your rating establishes your credibility as a pilot, to other pilots or landowners that you will meet during your flying career. It gives you a measurable goal to aim for as you develop your skills, and tells others what sort of sites and conditions you’re ready for.

So…what’s your rating?

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