Big ears a simple and stable descent technique.

It is easy to do it and should be learnt by beginners along their first big flights.

How to do big ears:

  • Look at outside A-line. It’s usually attached to a separate riser and often both the line and its risers have different color than other lines and risers. Still, it’s better to follow visually the line and check if it’s really the outside A-line. Sometimes beginners mistaken the outside  A-line with the outermost line of the paraglider – the stabilo line, which can also be with a recognizable color, but is used to clear cravats, not to do big ears. Deep pull of the stabilo line is dangerous as it can stall the wing.
  • After locating the outside left and right A-lines grab them as high as possible and pull down as low as your arms allow. The highest grab of A-lines may require stretching upward and even standing up your body in the harness. Wide range of pull is needed to collapse the wing tips properly and bring them in the stable “big ear” position. Too shy and insufficient downward pull of A-lines may just deform the wing and still keep the wingtips fly and feel odd. Don’t be afraid, but confidently pull and fold the wingtips down. Even without watching, you can easily recognize the “big ears” by the sudden reduction of pulling force. It’s considerable in the beginning, it’s needed to reduce the angle of attack, but after the collapse point, below zero degree angle of attack, the airflow helps to fold the wingtips down and backwards. As with other paragliding maneuvers, it takes more efforts to achieve them and less to maintain them.
    • Symmetry or Assymetry – Big ears can be pulled both symmetrically or asymmetrically. The symmetrical pull is slightly harder as you have to overcome the internal pressure of the wing on both sides. The asymmetrical pull can be more elegant by collapsing one wing tip first and using the light roll motion and the momentary decrease of internal pressure to collapse the other wingtip about a second later. For beginners ASYMMETRICAL pull is recommended  – in case the pilot is pulling the wrong line he can recognize the mistake early and additionally the glider experiences lesser drop in speed than with the symmetrical pull
    • With or without brakes. The wide range of pull for proper big ears should be done without holding the brakes as their pull may stall the wing. So, identify outside A-lines, release the brakes, grab the A-lines as high as possible, pull them down one by one and hold them down. Many paragliders don’t need too wide range of pull of A-lines to collapse wingtips, so brakes can stay in pilot’s hands while grabbing, pulling and holding A-lines. This allows quick recovery of collapsed wingtips (when landing for example) or preventing tucks (frontal collapses) in turbulent conditions. In case of an aggressive forward surge of the wing, the quick pull of brakes is combined with simultaneous release of outside A-lines. This may open the collapsed wingtips and after the brake pull, the outside A-lines can be re-grabbed and pull again to keep the big ears.
    • Increasing the big ears. The size of big ears depends on the range of A-line pull, especially how high we grab them initially. Just after the collapsing moment A-lines become slightly loose for a while and then it’s possible to grab them higher and pull them lower. Extreme version of big ears is pulling the outer two A-lines and letting the inner A-line and the central part of the canopy to maintain the flight.
  • Controlling direction during big ears is done mostly by energetic weigh-shifting but it’s quite slow. Increasing wingtip collapse on one or another side for higher drag helps but doesn’t increase maneuverability much. High aspect ratio wings are much easier for directional control by weight shifting, compared with beginner’s wings and tandems. Increasing the big ears (the folding of the collapsed wingtips) improves the weight-shift control.
  • The exiting of big ears is easy. Just release the outside A-lines and wingtips should unfold and recover by themselves. The symmetrical release is slower as it needs more internal pressure in the canopy to fill each wingtip. So it’s best to release one side first and a second later the other. Some paragliders keep may keep the wingtips collapsed even when A-lines are entirely free. Then, “pumping” with the brakes with one or two pulls is enough they to re-open.

Usage of big ears:

  • Big ears is a safe descending technique used by beginners and experienced pilots.
    • The classic use of big ears is for escaping cloud suck. The descent rate is 2-3 m/s but can be increased to 4-5 m/s when speed system is fully applied.
    • Big ears and speed system technique is even safer as the lowered angle of attack keeps the wing away from stall. In normal flight, the application of speed system increases the chance of collapses and their severity. That’s why, first do the big ears and then fully apply the speed system. For exit of this technique – first release the speed system and then release the big ears, but be ready to re-apply the speed system again if the wing stalls due to flying in rain or due to “pumping” the brakes for quicker reopening of collapsed wingtips. It’s not a problem to do the opposite – first release the big ears and then release the speed system. The higher airspeed when using speed system keeps the wing away from stall and also keeps the internal pressure higher, which helps to re-open the collapsed wingtips. Still, mind that staying long on speed system makes you more vulnerable to collapse – especially when you’re playing with the A-lines and the leading edge of the wing.
    • Quick big ears may save lives by preventing paragliders being lifted up and blown back after takeoff. Some flying sites and conditions have strong wind gradient, which is invisible and difficult to predict. It’s classic scenario to be catapulted upwards by strong lift and then blown backward by the strong winds aloft. Applying speed system after takeoff, when still low over terrain, can be very risky because of collapse, but quick big ears can keep you low in weaker winds. 
    • There is often plenty of lift when top landing and big ears is a useful descending tool together with descending in front of the hill or slightly behind. Mind that the use of big ears reduces your speed and penetration against the wind. Using big ears for top landings requires good practice of pulling and releasing them. The pilot should be familiar with pulling and releasing times and keep in mind that they may vary in different conditions.
    • Spiral with big ears is one of the best descending techniques, better than classic spiral because of lower G-force due to reduced surface. After pulling big ears, the pilot enters a spiral by massive weight shifting. It takes time to enter, but once in there is a plenty of spiral control by weight shift. Not all paragliders can enter a spiral by weight shift, high aspect ratio wings are easier and they’re the one which mostly need it. In case of spiral lock brakes work just fine. Note that pulling a steep spiral dive with big ears put more stress on your glider – in emergency cases it is the best descent maneuver, however bare in mind it could cause irreversible internal damage to the glider in the long term. Lightweight gliders are especially susceptible to internal deformations from increased loads.
  • Big ears is also a safety maneuver, especially for beginners, who don’t know how to cope with very strong turbulence. Reduced wing span, aspect ratio and surface area make the wing less responsive to gusts and vortexes and make it more pitch, roll and yaw stable. The increased wing loading makes collapses unlikely, but even if they occur the wing just drops and starts flying itself driven by its inductive ability. In case of an aggressive surge of the wing forward, the pilot can let the A-lines and pull the brakes to prevent a collapse. This is easier if big ears are made together hands holding the brakes, but even with released brakes it is still possible to grab them or the last risers and stop the surge. If the collapse already happened, the delayed brake pull is still useful to push air inside the canopy and to re-open the collapse quicker.  During the work with brakes, big ears may remain or may re-open and after stopping the surge or opening the collapse, the pilot can pull them again. Big ears may help in turbulence, but mind that they reduce speed and glide ratio, which might be needed to leave the turbulent zone and to reach a landing field.
  • Big ears is also a sign to go down and land.

Big ear problems:

  • AVOID BIG EARS IN RAIN, even if it’s light. Rain drops build up on wing’s surface, change its profile and turbolize the air flow. This may stall the wing without any notice. Especially modern wings with shark nose profiles, but it happened on old classic profiles too. The stall descent rate is significant, about 8 m/s, enough to break your back. The stall is quite stable, even releasing the big ears will not help to exit it. Applying FULL speed system should help, but it takes surprisingly long time to make the wing flying forward again. If the pilot still decides to use big ears in rain, he should do them together with full speed bar and may need to keep it until the landing on the ground (stalling from 10 meters over the ground can be worse than stalling from 500 meters). Remember that rain is having an accumulative effect toward profile and airflow degradation. Prevention is the best cure. Don’t be greedy and land before the rain.
  • Avoid big ears in clouds for the reasons above. Even the tiniest raindrops can accumulate and “distort” the profile. Keeping one exit direction is better; or make a spiral dive if lift is too strong. Again prevention is the key. Don’t be greedy. It’s not good for your health and your equipment.
  • Flapping of big ears can occur with or without speed system and is specific to each wing. It’s just annoying and consumes your energy and concentration.

Big ears is an easy safety technique with many applications. A must for every paragliding pilot.

Nikiolay Yotov, February 2022