Friday, February 07, 2014

The Dirty Little Secret of Paragliding Manufactures

This place has been neglected. There are cobwebs in the corners and dust all over the place. Quite frankly, I don't have the free time that I used to. When I do have free time, I'd rather spend it flying. Long written posts will become more rare, but I'd like to continue to share photos and videos from my flying life.

This chapter of my flying life hasn't showed up on here, but I've learned to paraglide and have been doing it for the past few years. Paragliding is kind of like aviation crack in that it's highly addictive and more fun than any other sort of flying I've experienced, but you can't make a whole lot of money doing it. I credit Brian Thivierge and Jason Shapiro for giving me a free sample of the crack. I only knew Jason through Facebook until he eventually offered me a tandem flight. Why me? I have no idea, but he was compelled to share the magic on a clear January day in Coloma, CA. Brian and I were also Facebook friends. Eventually he offered to show me how to kite a paraglider (control the paraglider/wing/glider on the ground). Why? I have no idea either. I didn't realize that he was essentially teaching me how to fly a paraglider.

I've only been flying paragliders for a year and a half, but I've gone through five different wings in that time span. As a lightweight pilot, I've had to learn some things that my heavier friends don't really have to think about a whole lot. I hope that sharing this will help lightweight (under 150 lbs/68 kg) pilots so that they don't have to go through 5 different wings when they don't have to.

 First I had a vintage Swing/Wills Wing Mistral (the very first one) which was a training tool that taught me how to kite the wing on the ground. I ended up calling it Spaghetti because after kiting it (ground handling) after a few times, nine lines decided to snap and flop in the wind. When I got it, I was expecting to be able to fly it, but I quickly learned that it was a death trap. A slight twitch in the air would cause dramatic deflations.

 Then it was the Niviuk Hook 1 (26 square meters flat), which I quickly realized that even though I was inside of the certified weight range, it was too big for my weight. Unlike the Mistral, I did fly it, but I could barely penetrate into moderate winds. The way wings work is that in general, the heavier they are loaded, the faster the wing will move through the air. It's obviously a lot more complicated than just that, but that is a good general rule. I was worried that I'd eventually get blown back behind the ridge where nasty rotor would slap me out of the sky if the wind speed picked up while I was flying. It was a pretty wing, but was too big. I had two flights with it and accumulated less than 30 minutes of air time.

The next wing was the Paratoys Momentum Microlite (25 meters flat), which lasted me longer than the previous two wings. It was fun while it lasted, but I outgrew the wing after one flying season. I realized that it was still too large for me.  My fear of getting blown back still existed, but it was more manageable. More importantly, this wing taught me that speed is essential to being able to climb up and stay up. If I'm facing a strong headwind and in an area where the lift in the air is less than the sink rate of my paraglider, I'm going to loose altitude while not moving forward over the ground a whole lot. 

At the ridge soaring sites where I tend to spend a lot of time flying at, the lower you get, the lighter the winds are due to the wind gradient. Essentially, the lower you get, the weaker the lift is and the harder it is to climb up. If you loose enough altitude, you pass a point of no return and have no choice but to end your flight sooner than you intended. Being able to penetrate through the wind in order to get to areas of stronger lift is key.

After I grew out of the Momentum Microlite, I went from 25 square meters to 24 square meters on a higher performance wing, the Ozone Rush 3. The Rush was a huge contrast from the Momentum as it's design is ten years newer. After the switch, I was constantly overshooting my landings and felt like the wing was less likely to collapse in rough air (partially due to greater wing loading, partially due to newer wing design). I probably only put 20 hours on that wing because even though it was faster, had better glide performance, and a better sink rate than the Microlite, it still sucked at penetrating winds.

At this point, I was in the middle of the certified weight range, but my heavier friends with their larger wings, who were also in the middle of the weight range somehow were penetrating better. I was baffled by this for the longest time until Lauren Martins, a lightweight and more experienced pilot explained it to me. Paraglider manufactures send their smaller gliders to the certification agency excessively large because they fly slower and are easier to certify. They do not spend enough time optimizing the wing to be safe and efficient for smaller pilots because smaller pilots make up less of the market. Manufactures know that pilots associate certification with safety and even though this isn't entirely true, they sell wings to undereducated pilots that believe it is. When you sit down and look at the various sizes of a particular paraglider and divide the wing area by the certified median weight, you will discover that this is true.

The Ozone Rush 3 is gone. I'm now flying a LittleCloud Goose at 20.7 meters. I've lost 5.7 square meters of wing area and gained a few kilograms of weight with added equipment and sizzling sexy muscle (hehe). I finally feel like I'm at the wingloading that I'm supposed to be. Having said that, Thomas Bourdeau, the designer of the LittleCloud wings, tells me that I'd benefit being heavier loaded. LittleCloud has a design philosophy that I can get behind. They believe that you don't need to have big wings with a large aspect ratio in order to maintain performance while also preserving safety. My fear of getting blown back is gone, my ability to penetrate winds is great, and the maneuverability of this glider is incredible. I've gone from driving a bus to a sports car and am having more fun than I've ever had in the air.

Below is a video of my first flight on the Goose: