How You Can Become a Better Pilot Over the Winter
Learn to fly better, even on non-flyable days.
Winter weather is notoriously bad for hang gliding. We’re lucky in Southern California to have flyable days year-round, but even here the weather sometimes just doesn’t work out.
This is particularly true in winter, when we’ll have periods of Santa Ana winds (seasonal northerly winds that make launching many of our main sites impossible), rain, and fog.
Even if you’re stuck on the ground, though, you can work toward becoming a better pilot. Check out some tips to help boost your skills and have you flying better—and more safely—once spring flying season comes back around.
1. Read hang gliding and weather books
Whether you’re a brand new H1 or have been flying for 30 years, there’s always more to learn. From improving your understanding of basic techniques to offering effective thermalling tips, cross-country flying advice, information on lift sources and micrometeorology, explanations of flight physics, and more, books can make you a more skilled and well-rounded pilot.
Check out Performance Flying and Understanding the Sky by Dennis Pagen, and The Hang Glider’s Technical Notebook by Finbar Sheehy. Subscribing to free flight magazines, like USHPA Pilot and Cross Country Magazine, can also give you insights into distance flying, equipment, competitions, flying trips, and techniques. Finally, you should familiarize yourself with your hang glider’s user manual and have a thorough understanding of all of your equipment.
2. Practice at a training hill
The wind direction is wrong and none of the nearby mountains are launchable. You can’t fly high, but have you checked your local training hill? In L.A., Dockweiler Beach is usually open and will get you practice in a range of conditions, especially in the variable winter weather.
From no-wind launches to soaring the ridge, to practicing ground handling, flaring, spot landings, and more, heading back to the training hill is some of the best preparation you can get. The training hill lets both beginner and advanced hang glider pilots practice and improve the all-important launching and landing skills so that you’re prepared for the sometimes bumpy spring air.
3. Get your equipment inspected
It’s recommended that your hang glider be inspected every 6 months, and your parachute should be repacked annually. This checks for any damage on your glider that could affect performance or safety, including dents in the metal, sail tears, worn hang loops, frayed wires, corrosion, or any other wear-and-tear that should be addressed before you next take your glider thousands of feet in the air.
The parachute repack makes sure that lines are straight, the rubber bands show no signs of degradation, and the parachute is in good condition and folded correctly to ensure a quick, smooth deployment should you ever need to use it.
Winter, when you’re not flying as much, is the perfect time to take care of these safety items and make sure that your equipment is ready to go when flying season starts in the spring. Get in touch with Windsports to schedule your inspection or repack!
4. Get an RC sailplane
If you can’t fly yourself, try a radio control sailplane. It’ll take some practice (and possibly some replacement parts), but you’ll gain a unique feeling of the air and an enhanced recognition of lift and stall as you watch the plane react to your control inputs. Another advantage is the ability to fly into rotor, get close to the terrain, and fly in other areas that you would avoid on your hang glider, observing the effects without the risk.
Start with a cheaper model, since you may crash at first while getting used to the controls. If you find it useful, consider upgrading for improved flying characteristics, features, and range. You can also take your RC plane along on flyable days to get a sneak peek at conditions aloft before you launch.
5. Build muscle and endurance
It’s true that you don’t need much upper body strength to hang glide. Still, stronger muscles can help you ground handle in windy conditions, handle turbulent air with confidence, and fly longer (and farther) before you get tired. You definitely want to conserve energy for landing—one of the most important and risky times of your flight that also happens when you’re most fatigued—so building up some strength is always a great idea.
Hang gliding mainly works your arms, shoulders, core, and back, so exercises targeting those areas will be most effective. Try push-ups, crunches, planks, pull-ups, rowing, and deadlifts. General fitness activities, like hiking, bicycling, and jogging, also increase your endurance and help you maintain or reach your desired wing-loading (your weight).
6. Ask questions and connect with the community
The hang gliding community is full of pilots happy to share their experiences and advice. L.A. has a great local group of pilots, but there are also online forums connecting you with others around the country and the world. There’s a ton of information already shared on forums like hanggliding.org and ozreport.com; look around and see what you can find! Then, feel free to introduce yourself and post any questions you have, whether about a site, technique, equipment, or anything else. It’s great to connect with other pilots and get their suggestions, but remember not to take everything you hear to heart. Part of improving as a pilot is learning to tell good advice from recommendations that are better ignored, whether they’re not a fit for your experience level or are simply incorrect. It’s a good opportunity to think critically about your flying and to practice good judgment. If you have any questions, Windsports instructors are always here to offer input. Your understanding can affect your safety, so never be afraid to ask for clarification!
7. Analyze videos and your flight tracks
The internet features many hang glider crash and near-miss videos, both minor and serious. Some may be difficult to watch, but each offers a unique learning experience that can help teach you to spot, and hopefully avoid, similar mistakes. Since crashes typically result from a pilot error (or several), see what mistakes you can identify in each video. Your Windsports instructors are also available to discuss your analysis, point out anything you might have missed, and review strategies for preventing similar errors.
You can gain insights by analyzing your own flights, too. Attach a GoPro or similar camera to your glider, then watch the videos to see if you can make any improvements. Focus on your launch, landing, and any inefficient or ineffective movements such as cross-controlling or poorly coordinated turns. You can also check for missed opportunities that affected the course of your flight, like overlooked lift indicators, to improve your chances of noticing them and making better decisions next time.
If your vario records your flight track, you can also use sites like ayvri.com to upload your flight and view the track on a 3D map. Doing so gives you a new perspective on your flight path, areas you found lift, and your ability to use the lift effectively. Next time you fly, try to use this knowledge to your advantage!
8. Get familiar with your vario
As mentioned above, most variometers, or varios, do a lot more than just telling you when you’re in rising or sinking air. Depending on the model, they can relay wind direction, speeds to fly for best glide, airspace warnings, and more—as long as you know how to use them.
You don’t want to be trying to figure out a new function of your vario on the hill right before your flight. Instead, devote some time on a non-flyable day to reading the manual, navigating through the different menus and screens on your instrument, and watching video tutorials that are available online for many standard varios (like this one).
You can also take it a step further and install a sailplane soaring simulator, like Condor 2, on your computer. The simulator lets you practice thermalling and efficient glides between lift, and can even connect to your vario (depending on the model) so you can practice using it in “flight.” Understanding each aspect of your vario will not only lead to less stress before launch and in the air, but will let you maximize the potential of your equipment and your flights.
9. Explore new sites
Not flyable at your home site? Sounds like a perfect opportunity to get out and explore with your hang glider! In L.A., north winds shut down our main launches, but can make for great ridge soaring conditions at sites like Avenue S in Palmdale. If you haven’t flown there before, be sure to join our next Windsports trip for a site introduction!
If you want to venture even further, consider visiting popular U.S. winter flying locations like Florida or Arizona, or check out trips to Valle de Bravo in Mexico or Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. Visiting new sites is a fantastic way to build on your skills as a pilot and stay sharp during the off-season (and make all your grounded pilot friends back home jealous).
10. Plan a spring flying trip
Get ready for spring by organizing a flying trip (or several). Whether a day trip or a longer adventure, there may be quite a bit to plan, especially if it’s somewhere you’ve never flown before.
Once you’ve selected a site, check the basics: site rules or club membership requirements, access to launch and the LZ, wind direction, and local hazards. This can often be done by finding the club website associated with the site, or by contacting pilots in the area.
It’s also a good idea to look at maps. Sectionals will familiarize you with any airspace rules or other areas to be aware of, while geographic maps will give you an idea of the terrain for both flying and finding potential places to land.
If you can, get a site introduction from a local pilot or from a friend or instructor who has previously flown there. Even for experienced pilots, a brief overview of the site can point out important dangers or rules that you may not have been aware of.
Besides the actual flying, carpooling (for pilots and gliders) and places to stay for longer trips are also important to consider. A well-planned trip will make you a more prepared, safer pilot, give you an opportunity to fly with friends in a new place, and—hopefully—inspire them to organize even more flying trips!
If you’re not improving your hang gliding skills over the winter, you’re missing opportunities to become a better pilot. From gaining a deeper understanding of your glider and the weather, to perfecting core techniques on the training hill, to making sure both you and your equipment are in top condition, there’s so much you can do while still on the ground.
With all this preparation, you’ll be more than ready to embrace the upcoming flying season and show off your new knowledge and skills gained from your winter days at home. Learn as much as you can, and get ready to have some of your best flights yet in the spring!
Written by Erika Klein