by Nikolay Yotov, February 2023
Paragliding landings are safer, compared to take offs, where the pilot jumps into the invisible and unknown air. When the time comes for landing, the pilot has already tasted the air and the character of the wind. Still, landings cause many accidents in paragliding because:
- When landing, we’re getting closer and closer to the hard ground, reducing our recovery height from collapses, stalls or sudden sink;
- Various objects and terrain features near the landing zone create turbulence, vortexes, and wind gradient effects. There can be unexpected lift, sink, changes in wind speed and direction;
- We can choose our take off moment, but we cannot choose our landing moment. The more we lose height, the more we lose freedom, the less options we have and less time for react.
Most paragliding landing accidents happen because of:
- Hitting the ground or an obstacle with high vertical or horizontal speed (e.g. downwind landings); a hard fall to the ground from a stall, collapse, strong downdraft, dust devil; landing during a turn or during a swing from pitch or roll;
- Colliding with another paraglider in a small or crowded landing zone;
- Post-landing events – being dragged by strong wind, drowned in water, falling from a tree/building/rock, power line electric shock, etc.
The paragliding landing process consists of:
- Evaluation of general wind and weather;
- Choosing a suitable landing field;
- Constant evaluation of its features and dangers;
- Closer and more detailed evaluation of the landing field features and dangers;
- Committing to the landing field;
- Landing approach for fitting into the field, avoiding obstacles and turbulence;
- Final glide for letting the paraglider stabilize and restore its airspeed after last turns and control inputs;
- Flaring and landing;
- Slowing down the body motion;
- Deactivating the wing after landing.
Landing field – a ground surface used for landings, which is clear from obstacles.
Landing zone – the landing field plus surrounding airspace used for landing approaches.
Landing spot – a small area where the landing paraglider usually touches the ground. For paragliding accuracy competitors a “landing spot” means a target they aim to touch down within 1 cm.
Landing approach – a certain flying path used by the pilot to descend and enter the landing field.
Final glide – the last part of the flight used to let the paraglider stabilize its speed, pitch, roll and yaw from the last turns, corrections, control inputs, turbulence and wind gradient effects.
Flaring – the deep full pull of brakes before touching the ground used for reducing airspeed and converting it into a momentary increase of lift, which decreases the descent rate and makes the landing soft.
Touchdown – the spot where the landing pilot touches the ground.
Post landing control – is stalling or collapsing the wing or disconnecting it from harness via the quick-release carabiner. Once the wing falls onto the ground, the canopy should be deflated and the leading edge deactivated (usually by pulling the brakes or rear risers) to prevent unwanted inflation and being dragged by strong wind.
Wind gradient effect – a sudden decrease of wind speed close to the ground due to friction and turbulence from obstacles which surround the landing field. It may cause a sudden decrease of airspeed, lift and maneuverability (brake efficiency) during landing approach, final glide and flaring.
CHOOSING A LANDING FIELD
Popular paragliding sites usually have an “official” landing field which is well-known to local pilots, with its particular features and hazards. Every takeoff and landing place has its limits. Speak politely with local pilots to get informed about dangers, landing patterns, and other local regulations.
In popular landing fields, some paragliding pilots are obsessed with landing at a particular spot, perhaps demonstrating their accuracy landing skills. You cannot achieve consistent soft landings by fixating on a particular thing. Soft landings require seeing and fitting into the big picture. Let the goal be a soft, safe and controlled landing, not a just static spot in always changeable conditions.
Cross-country paragliding is the ultimate test of a pilot’s landing skills. Spot-landing accuracy competitions are usually done in stable conditions on well-proven landing fields. They teach you how to master the last part of landing, to play with the stall and glide trajectory, but safe landings are much more than that. They require good control of your wing, but also good judgment of weather, terrain and obstacles. Safe landings are an integral part of cross country paragliding decision making, and success.
Throughout a cross country flight, the experienced pilot constantly picks potential landing spots many kilometers ahead evaluating:
- Wind. Average and momentary strength, direction, variations, character;
- Fields for landing which are clear from obstacles. Size, slope, shape and direction of their into-the-wind longest parts;
- Alternative nearby landing spaces;
- Obstacles. Type, shape, size, position (tall trees restricting landing approach; power lines in the middle of a landing field);
- Potentially turbulent, lifty or sinky air zones (turbulence created by buildings, trees or a hill upwind from a landing spot);
- Aggressive landing surface, plants, animals or people (stony terrain, thorny bushes, dogs, bulls, land owners);
- Difficult or risky way out (crossing rivers, fences, gates, crops, cliffs).
Each of above factors or their combination determines if a given clear field can be used for landing or not.
Do not choose a small risky field (e.g. power lines, turbulence), because it’s closer to the road. It’s better to pick a bigger and safer field, even if it’s further away. Laziness is a common cause of accidents.
If strong wind is an issue, then choose a landing field in front of big obstacles like a hill, which blocks/deflects flow and reduces wind in front of it. If the wind is turbulent, then it’s better to land on slightly rising terrain, which makes the wind climb, suppressing downdrafts. Beware traps of terrain which accelerate wind (hill tops, mountain corners, narrow valleys) or collect downdrafts (deep valleys, lowlands). If you’re stuck in the middle of a valley, it is better to land higher on its steep, bushy or stony slopes with stable winds, than at the valley bottom where winds are often strong, sinky and turbulent. Also, at the valley’s bottom vegetation fights for light, and trees grow taller.
As a rule of thumb, we should always have at least two potential landing fields within our gliding range. Usually, one is ahead and the other is behind or sideways, so if strong wind surprises us, at least one of the landing fields will be possible to reach.
There is a certain period of time when we can have a choice between two or more landing options, but as we continue flying cross country in a given direction, we lose some old options and need to find new one. Every climb gives us access to new landing options, or at least gives us extra time for better evaluation of the available one. The more height we lose, the sooner we’ll be committed to chosing something. Progressing in a certain direction can increase or decrease our landing options, but sooner or later we have to make our choice and pick one of them.
Experienced pilots can estimate accurately where their current glide trajectory will bring them, which field is reachable and which isn’t. This is an automatic visual habit based on comparing two or more snapshots along the flight direction. The idea is to identify various objects and observe their change:
- the closer an object gets to us, the quicker it grows in size and the faster it moves relative to other objects behind/around;
- the more distant is an object, the longer it stays small;
- objects ahead, which we’ll overfly, move down in our vision field; objects which cannot be reached move up, closer to the horizon;
- when we have two nearby objects, one in front of the other, then if the front one grows and obscures the back one, this means we cannot reach the back one. If the front one moves down and reveals more of the back one, then we will manage to overfly the front one.
Experienced paragliding pilots can accurately estimate their stationary spot, where their current trajectory would bring them. The stationary spot is the zone in the consecutive field of view snapshots ahead, where objects visually don’t move relative to other nearby objects. This is similar to motor biking, where with the increase of speed the stationary spot shrinks and becomes obvious and clear compared to other objects further away, towards the periphery, which become more motion-blurred. In the slow flying and far from ground objects paragliding we don’t have this motorbike’s tunnel vision effect, but the stationary spot is there and the experienced pilot keeps an eye on it all the time. It is a subconscious process which allows for conscious corrections, matching the stationary spot with the desired gliding goal. The stationary spot works not only in large scale, telling us which field is reachable and which isn’t, but also on small scale, telling us where we would touchdown once we enter the landing field.
LANDING FIELD COMMITMENT
Once we lose other landing alternatives, we are committed to the available one and focus on it.
A common mistake is to fly on until we’re so low over the ground that we have space for only one turn against the wind and land. This makes us vulnerable to hidden dangers like sudden sink, lift, power lines or a change of wind. Choose your landing field early and arrive at it with sufficient height, to give yourself plenty of time for assessing its wind and details, mentally visualizing and practicing possible landing approaches, for corrections and emergency options.
If a landing field has lifting air nearby, then it’s good to take it, to gain time for studying wind and avoiding of turbulent cycles. Time is a tool. Luck favors the prepared one.
Once committed to a certain landing field, we get closer and may find out new details which threaten our safety. As we don’t have an engine to fly away to another field, or to go around for a second landing approach, we have to accept the situation and play it the best possible way. We should have a list of safety priorities and choose the least harmful one:
- Remember that your health and life come first, the expensive equipment is second;
- Power lines are the worst; landing on a tree is almost always harmless;
- High speed downwind landing on a meadow can be safer than a slow and soft landing in water;
- Strong wind landing on an open stony terrain is worse than a bush landing, which helps to deactivate the canopy and prevent being dragged and bullied by the objects you pass through;
- Pine trees are made to let the heavy snow fall down, while a thorny acacia tree can embrace you and prevent a hard impact with the ground.
LANDING ZONE CHARACTERISTICS
There is no other aviation activity which uses such a big variety of landing fields as paragliding. They come in all kinds, shapes and features. Still, they all have common elements, which determine their landing suitability:
- Wind. Strength, direction and character;
- Height of nearby obstacles plus their shape, size, position and formation;
- Turbulent zones. Sources, size, strength, effects and position;
- Field size, shape and slope. Some are restricted by high obstacles around; others are enormous open spaces like steppe or savannah. The field size determines how much maneuvering space there is inside the field.
The field size and shape in relation to wind direction determine how big is its into-the-wind longest side? Can a nil wind final glide fit in it, considering the height of last obstacles before entering the field? Don’t forget to add some margins in case of sudden sink, lift, or change of wind. It would be good to have clear sideways strips if wind changes direction.
Stronger wind, sink or low downwind obstacles shorten the final glide and allow for landing in a smaller field. At the same time, strong wind and high and solid upwind obstacles create significant turbulence, which makes part of landing field unsafe and this requires a bigger landing field. Solid upwind obstacles often produce lift in front and compensating sink behind them, which also influence length of final glides. The slope of terrain can also prolong or shorten the final glide.
Experienced pilots are good at imagining different landing approaches, recognizing where the dangers are, what is possible and what isn’t. When exploring a new take off in difficult terrain, they usually first visit the potential landing fields, feel its wind and decide if it’s OK for landing or too risky even to try. Beginner pilots should visit various fields, imagine how they would land on them and compare this with the landings of other pilots. Walk around the field, sense and study the wind to find out the smooth and the turbulent zones. Watch trees and vegetation around to see the bigger picture.
There are two types of landing approaches: S-turns and box.
The box landing approach, also used in general aviation, has a descending zone, downwind leg, cross wind leg and final glide. Popular landing fields usually have either left turn or right turn box landing approach, depending on local features, nearby obstacles, terrain, slope, wind direction, etc.
The descending zone is usually upwind and slightly aside from the landing field, allowing a quick shortcut entry in the landing field in case of unexpected sink or change of wind.
The downwind leg is close to the field and parallel to its longest into-the-wind section.
After reaching the level of downwind side of the field, the pilot turns 90⁰ starting the cross wind leg (base leg) at the base of the landing field.
Just before reaching the central line of the landing field, the pilot turns another 90⁰, flying into the wind for the final glide.
The touchdown landing spot is usually aimed at the end of the first 1/3rd of the field, because over shootings are more common and riskier than under shootings. Overshooting often occurs when ground is sloping away. Another common reason for over shootings is the wind gradient effect, which reduces wind close to the ground. Upwind vegetation, bushes and trees greatly increase the wind gradient effect. Bigger upwind obstacles create a turbulent zone behind them, so it’s better to land before it.
Box landing approach is commonly used in crowded landing fields, because it allows more paragliders to join the approach from different directions and land one after another. A paraglider using only S-turns landing approach blocks the downwind zone of landing field for other landing paragliders.
Box landing approach shouldn’t be used in strong wind as flying downwind, along the downwind leg, can bring us too far away from landing field, unable to come back to it against the wind.
In moderate winds, keep in mind that the downwind leg is fast with good glide ratio, while the final glide is slower with poorer glide ratio.
In light winds or nil winds, downwind leg, crosswind leg and final glide have similar glide ratio. Then, box landing approach can be built in such a way that throughout the whole approach the pilot sees the touchdown point at the same angle. This constant aspect landing approach (constant glide ratio to touchdown spot) is useful for beginners who cannot judge well when to start the approach and when to make their turns between downwind leg, crosswind leg and final glide.
Beginners often rush to the touchdown spot, and then they realize they’re too high, the paraglider still needs to fly somewhere to lose height. Inexperienced pilots may panic; freeze and crash into surrounding obstacles, or turn sharply and land with high speed, or stall their wings and fall hard on the ground. That’s why throughout the approach, keep an eye on the touchdown spot as a reference, but also look where you can lose height, before the final glide into the wind.
Paragliding landings are one of the slowest and easiest landings in aviation, but still things may seem too fast and overwhelming for beginners. The whole landing approach consists of consecutive elements. Focus on each one of them; correct deviations; use it as a reference when it’s time to start the next one. In windy conditions, staying in the descending zone requires constant corrections, flying into the wind for a while, to compensate for the drift of each circle. Choose well when to finish with waiting and descending and when to start the downwind leg. Don’t forget that the descending manoeuvres like circles consume time and height to complete. Try to imagine where and when your current maneuver will end. Do you come too high, too low or too far for the next one?
The box landing approach seems a rigid thing, but in fact there are plenty of choices and adjustments:
- The moment, height and position you start the downwind leg;
- The length of downwind leg. If you started it lower or if there is a surprising sink, then you can shorten the downwind leg and turn sooner for the crosswind leg. If you started the downwind leg higher or if you pass through unexpected lift, then you can expand the downwind leg by flying along an arc further away from the landing field instead of flying it in a straight line;
- Cutting corners or widening turns between downwind leg, crosswind leg and final glide;
- The length of crosswind leg. Expand it if you’re still high, or cut corner and go sooner for final glide if you’re low;
- S-turns during the crosswind leg for additional losing of height, if you’re way too high;
- Mini S-turns at the beginning of final glide, up to 45⁰ off from its line;
- Slowing down by pulling brakes, during crosswind leg and final glide, in order to worsen the glide ratio if you’re still high;
- Playing with the slope for shortening or postponing the touchdown moment and position by flying towards higher or lower terrain during the final glide. Landing fields are rarely flat and have a changeable slope in one direction or another, so considering and using terrain changes is part of paragliding landing control;
- Playing with the stall technique during the final glide – for experts only!
If you still come too high over the touchdown spot then:
- If the wind is not too strong and if the landing field is big enough, then circle inside the field and land in any direction. If the landing field is surrounded by dense tall trees, then even stronger wind will be weakened below the tree tops, so a downwind landing may not be too fast;
- In strong winds and upwind trees and bushes, beware the wind gradient effect and avoid sharp turns or playing with the stall as the paraglider may spin or full stall easily;
- If over shooting is inevitable and the landing field is not big enough for landing in another direction, then accept landing/crashing in surrounding obstacles (trees, fences, buildings, cars), but chose the smallest and safest one into the wind. Slow-speed impacts lets you use your legs or arms more efficiently and precisely, catching tree branches, jumping, etc. Even when your body is entirely inside the crown of a tree, the paraglider might still be flying and you may still control and use its aerodynamics force. Beware that a working wing can disturb your cozy nesting and you may fall hard on the ground. Hitting a tree with paraglider’s wingtip will make you turn around, which is fine if you’re low, but will eventually deform and stall the canopy, which can be a problem if you’re high. Hitting a tree crown centrally might be a safer solution.
In the case of strong wind, we modify the box landing approach by skipping the downwind leg, which would bring us too far downwind from the landing field. Instead of it, we crab sideways, letting the wind drift us to the touchdown spot and then turn into the wind for slow landing.
Waiting and descending in strong wind is usually done by S-turns as full circles would drift us too far away. It is important to stay in the waiting and descending zone because if a gust comes, then we can land backward into the clear landing field behind.
During cross country flights, paragliding pilots mostly use S-turns landing approach, because of its simplicity and precision for smaller landing fields. Pilots first need to identify the wind direction, then fly to the downwind side of the landing field and wait there with S-turns until they descend for the final glide.
The S-turns require some practice. Paragliding pilots should be able to stay over a certain line with them, or progress forward or backward if needed. Beginners are not very confident with their turns; they usually hesitate to turn tight because they’re not comfortable with their post-turn swings and oscillations. They often don’t notice their progressing forward, ending up too high over the landing field. A good S-turns approach requires disciplined and precise turns. Then, the whole process looks like a skillful helicopter hovering above the edge of the field, regardless how strong or gusty the wind is.
Again, studying and understanding wind is crucial. On your way to the landing field, invest heavily in observing wind signs and reading your ground speed. Arrive high over the landing field to give yourself enough time to study the wind during your S-turns. Being surprised by the wind is entirely your fault and problem.
If wind direction is variable, then take the average wind direction between its extremes and build your average S-turns’ line perpendicular to it, ready for final glide corrections.
If the landing field is not restricted by many obstacles, then S-turns can be built in such a way to allow for two landing field entry points for different wind scenarios. If the wind changes after entering the landing field, it is still possible to change landing direction before and during the final glide. Of course, the closer we are to the ground, the less is the range of our correction. Last-moment corrections during a final glide on a tight field are usually up to 45⁰.
If lift hits you during your S-turns or if wind weakens, then to prevent overshooting tighten your turns and move your average S-turns’ line backward.
If sink comes during your S-turns or if wind increases, then to prevent undershooting loosen your turns and move your S-turns’ line forward, ready to enter the field earlier.
Tightening or loosening S-turns and using the wind is an efficient way to control your average gliding trajectory. It can be vertical or even backward without wind being strong.
On a very narrow field, the main focus during the S-turns is how to squeeze your body and wing tips very close to the last obstacles, when entering the field as low as possible.
Some landing fields have obstacles, which don’t allow for S-turns’ waiting and descending at their downwind side. Then, S-turns can be made somewhere nearby, perhaps at the side of the field or further away, but then the pilots become more vulnerable to the mercy of the wind. They needs to focus when and where to end their S-turns and how to perform this longer landing field entry.
Some landing fields are still challenging, no matter how perfectly the landing approach is executed. They might be too small, sloped, surrounded by high obstacles or having surprising winds.
The classic problem after entering the landing field is to realize that you’re still high and the final glide would be too big to fit you in the remaining part of the field. And it’s not only the final glide. Efficient flaring for soft landing requires a prior speeding up of wing.
There are four ways to worsen and reduce your final glide ratio:
- Doing mini S-turns. Just initiation of S-turns, up to 45⁰ off from the course line;
- Increasing pilot’s drag. Using drag parachute, or standing up in the harness;
- Slowing down the wing. Below its trim speed but above stall speed;
- Playing with the stall technique.
Playing with the stall (a.k.a. pumping of the brakes, flapping, butterfly flare) is the art of landing on a tight field in difficult conditions. It requires a good understanding, experience, observation; sensitivity and even intuition about the paraglider’s stall behaviour, wind character and surrounding air. Accuracy or spot landing competitions are a good practice. Still, they’re done in big open fields, while real-life landings require more dramatic and longer lasting playing with the stall in more demanding conditions. Also, real-life tight landings are usually done on high performance paragliders which are easier to stall and more difficult to recover.
The idea of the playing with the stall technique is to stall the wing, let it drop and use this drop for self-recovery by its inductive ability. The initial vertical drop from the stall could be held for a while, but it shouldn’t be allowed to develop into a full stall, during which wing surges backward, driven by the inductive ability of the trailing edge roundness. Full stall is dangerous as it may throw the pilot onto the ground, falling on his back or neck. It also consumes a lot of height and time to recover and this process engages chaotic vortexes, making it surprising and uncontrollable. The playing with the stall technique is more like playing with the initial drop, without losing the wing’s potency to recover the lift force and forward motion. The attention is toward the breaking of the flow, tearing it away from the profile and its readiness for self-recovery. The use of brake’s resistance and position as a feedback from the wing shouldn’t be rigid as stall can happen at different moments in different conditions. The “feel” of the wing comes from brakes but mostly from acceleration in harness (sensitive buttock) and airspeed in face and ears. During the play with the stall, the pilot focuses on the wing and its readiness to “glue” and “unglue” to the airflow.
During a play with the stall, the wing shouldn’t be allowed to shoot aggressively forward, risking a big collapse or hitting the ground hard in a pendulum swing.
In windy conditions, playing with the stall looks like a vertical descend with a series of drops (vertical accelerations) and pauses (decelerations). The pilot is working (pumping) the brakes in a very specific way. Everything matters and is interconnected – the amount of pull, the paraglider’s drop holding time, the speed of brake release, the moment of next pull. The wing deforms its profile and makes noise from the canopy’s depressurizing and pressurizing with air, from the stall vortexes running along its top surface.
In light wind conditions, the same brake inputs result in a step-like descent trajectory. The horizontal part is the self-recovery of flight from inductive ability, without letting the wing swing much forward. During the release, there might be a secondary micro pull to prevent overshooting of the wing.
The biggest challenge of playing with the stall technique is doing it in gusty and variable in direction wind. Any change of angles of attack or sideslip can make the stall to come sooner and recover later, even to develop into a full stall. That’s whydon’t play with stall during a wind gust or in sinking air.
A classic problem with playing with the stall is wind gradient – the change of wind strength and direction with height. It is very pronounced close to the ground, especially when landing field is surrounded by trees. One of the most challenging scenarios is landing in a small clearance within a dense and tall forest with strong wind above it. There is usually not much wind below the tree tops, so the wind change zone is very pronounced. There might be sink and even back wind inside the clearance, so the pilot should be prepared for a sudden loss of airspeed and resulting stall. The landing gap in the forest can be full of “dead air” – a mix of random vortexes like Jacuzzi bubbles. They make the air „soft“, greatly reducing paraglider’s ability to recover its airspeed and lift force. Depending on wind properties and size, density and shape of upwind obstacles, the pilot should project and estimate the plane with most significant wind gradient change; the border between the “healthy” wind flow and the “dead air” underneath. Playing with the stall should be done only in the “healthy” flow. It can still work under level of tree lops but prepare for longer stalls.
The playing with the stall technique requires good sense of paraglider’s stall point in various conditions as it’s different in free air, in ridge lift, on flat ground, in turbulent air or in wind gradient. It should be practiced first on flat ground (during ground handling exercises), then on a gentle slope, less than 1 meter above soft ground (thick grass or sand, no stones), preferably under instructor’s supervision. The harness should have tick back protector. Air bag is not enough as it protects mostly from underneath. Gradual learning means safety. Master one element, exercise, or environment before you go for variety. Don’t play with the stall before you’re proficient in ground handling (you should be able to go around a car while keeping the paraglider in the air).
The simplest version of playing with the stall technique is gently slowing down to minimum airspeed, well before the stall point, and gently regaining trim speed. It is often sufficient to worsen your final gliding trajectory and fit you into the landing field.
The extreme version of playing with the stall is to be in stall most of the time with regular short exits up to minimum speed, just to recover canopy’s pressure, shape and vital airspeed.
FINAL GLIDE AND FLARING
In easy places and conditions, the final glide is the last section of landing approach, when the paraglider turns into wind, slows down its ground speed, enters the landing field and glides to the ground.
In more demanding conditions, the last section of landing approach includes techniques like mini S-turns and playing with the stall, which are dedicated to place the paraglider at a certain spot, to reduce excessive height, to make last-moment adjustments. After them, the paraglider enters its final glide.
The purpose of the final glide is to let the paraglider recover from last control inputs, to regain its airspeed and lift force.
During a landing approach, some tandem pilots release their trimmers halfway up, making the wing fly faster. This reduces wind gradient effect and danger of speed loss and stall, when entering the field. It also helps for quicker restoration of airspeed and lift force for the final glide.
This healthy airspeed is needed for the last part of the flight – the flaring.
The flaring is a controlled and prolonged stall entry, which purpose is to deliver the pilot to the ground with minimum horizontal and vertical speed – a soft landing.
The flaring is done by pulling the brakes. The efficiency of brakes as aerodynamic type of controls depends on the square of airspeed V2, which is the reason we need to restore airspeed during the final glide. Good flaring requires good judgment as to when to start pulling the brakes, what rate of pulling to use and how deep to pull.
The pull on the brakes should be smart and sensitive, because flaring involves a specific transformation of air speed into lift force. The pull of brakes is doing two things at the same time – reducing horizontal speed and increasing lift force, which reduces the vertical descent. The pull of brakes also causes a pendulum swing, when the wing slows down and the pilot’s body continues forward by inertia. So, for soft landings, the pilot should also take into account this pitch swing motion. Roughly, the pilot’s reactions take 1 second; the glider response is also 1 second, so if the paraglider descends with 1 m/s, then the pilot should start the flaring at 2 meters over the ground. Of course, the start moment of brake pull depends on different things like wind, slope, current airspeed and mostly on the descent rate – how quickly ground comes to us. The faster we descend, the higher we should start the pulling. The flaring can start at 3 meters, 2, 1, even at 50 cm above the ground. The end of complete brake pull should match the moment of touching down, which is a sign of a full and efficient flaring process. In slow descent or strong wind the brakes may not be pulled hard to the end to achieve a soft landing.
For inexperienced beginner paragliding pilots, it is recommended to start the flaring slightly higher and do it slightly slower, because this widens the margins of touchdown moment.
Some pilots commonly use the brakes as a body support to stand up in their harness. This compromises the work with brakes. You should stand up in the harness earlier, in the beginning of the final glide, focus and use brakes entirely for flaring and soft landings.
Some tandem pilots go into final glide with slightly pulled brakes and then 3-4 meters over the ground they release them sharply, letting the wing accelerate forward. The pilot’s body follows the wing and swings forward with high speed, brushing the grass. Then it loses speed and just at the beginning of the backward swing the pilot stands up and softly touches the ground. This cool landing technique is very attractive to entertain the crowd around. Especially, if you misjudge the swing and hit the ground hard during the high-speed forward body motion. If you’re lucky and miss the ground during this forward high-speed body swing, then you will gain height, lose airspeed, stall the wing and fall down hard like a sack of potatoes.
Using paraglider’s pendulum swing for soft landings is not a good idea because your luck won’t last enough in long term. This technique requires too much precision and it’s too sensitive from wind, gusts, gradients, lift, sink, vortexes, and slope.
A better version of pendulum swing landing technique is still slowing down the wing but speeding it up controllably by gradual step-like release of brakes, leveling out to keep it parallel to the ground and holding off, avoiding going up or touching down prematurely. This high-speed, long, close and parallel to the ground stage is similar to glider’s landings except for the lack of ground effect, because the paraglider’s wing is too high above the ground. You may need to touch and release the brakes several times to “bleed out” speed, taking out small portions of lift, bringing your body closer and closer to the ground. And then, just before the touchdown comes, flare by pulling the brakes sharply completely down, killing the remaining airspeed.
Pendulum swing or Leveling out (swoop flare) landing techniques are used for light winds, nil winds and even for fast backwind landings. Despite the high ground speed, the additional speeding up and increase of airspeed is needed for efficient work with brakes, and when needed – for an explosive and powerful flare. An extreme version of these techniques is upslope light-backwind landing where the speed system can be used for additionally accelerating the wing. The mastery and the timing goal of these techniques are to match the backward body swing with the touchdown moment, using this short slower-speed landing moment during the overall high-speed motion.
STOPPING BODY MOTION AFTER TOUCHDOWN
There are situations and conditions where even the perfect landing technique brings the pilot to the ground with significant speed.
For example, a sudden change of wind direction or a wind gradient effect may cause a high-speed landing. At the beginning of the final glide, the pilot should stand upright in the harness with his/her body slightly tilted forward, as this is the natural position for running fast forward. The work with brakes shouldn’t affect the ready-to-run body position. Most paragliding landings require 2-3 steps to kill the body motion speed to zero. Faster landings may require 5-10 steps. Before touchdown, the pilot may warm up knees and ankles and prepare legs with running-like motions, which may continue into a real running as it might be difficult to predict the exact touchdown moment. Legs muscles should be fit and fast like springs.
Still, above a certain speed, the pilot may lose balance and fall forward. The best way to fall is the forward roll used in aikido martial art, where the pilot makes an arc with one arm forward and rolls over it, its shoulder and back, landing on legs or even making a second roll. Each arm and leg works like an individual shock absorber. The harness’s protector adds some roundness to the pilot’s back, helps the roll and softens the impact with ground.
The aikido forward roll technique requires some practice. During falls or high-speed landings, the pilot should suppress his natural instinct to protect his body with his arms as they can break easily by its weight and speed. Stretching an arm for protection is pretty useless; it’s better to bend it close to the body and meet the ground with bigger surface. Concentrated impacts do more damage.
The same logic is valid for vertical falls, where pilots use a parachute landing fall. The legs are slightly bent, just enough to unlock the knee joints. The muscles are pre-tensioned like springs. The legs are the main shock absorbers. The upper body is slightly bent and twisted, which adds asymmetry to the fall. Arms are bent next to the body. When the legs finish their initial shock-absorbing job, the body continues falling downwards and sideways, hitting the ground sideways, with a bent arm and then with its shoulder. Paragliding falls are rarely strictly vertical, so the pilot tries to use the sideways motion to transform the fall into roll, distributing the energy of the fall into bigger contact surface and longer lasting impact.
If the pilot feels unfit for rock ‘n roll, or if the landing speed seems too high for safe running, then he can lift up his legs and skid on the ground, using the bottom part of harness’ protector. Legs shouldn’t be lifted too high as this makes the pelvis and the back more vulnerable to injuries. Legs are great crash absorbers and it’s better to break a leg than a vertebrae. During skid landing, the pilot can control friction by putting more or less leg pressure upon the ground. Legs are parallel to each other and slightly bent to unlock knee joints. They are tense like springs, ready to absorb impacts. Body should be slightly tilted and bent sideways – ready to roll if the legs strike onto an obstacle. This also keeps the pilot’s back further away from uneven ground surface.
Avoid skid landing on stony terrain as impacts are quite unpredictable and there are hidden dangers.
POST LANDING CANOPY CONTROL
A soft landing is not the end of the flight. There are serious accidents after landing, including fatalities. The paragliding pilot might be:
- Lifted up again by a strong wind gust, even from flat ground;
- Thrashed around by a dust devil;
- Dragged fast over stony terrain, hitting rocks, walls, obstacles;
- Pulled from a cliff, buildings, trees, power lines;
- Tangled in the glider’s lines after water landing and drown.
The classic problem is landing in strong winds, perhaps landing backwards. After touchdown, the wing is no longer loaded by the pilot’s body weight; it stops flying forward and becomes a source of enormous drag force, which suddenly accelerates the pilot’s body. There are all kinds of stories and techniques how pilots deal with their wings after landing:
- Stalling the wing with energetic series of pulling brakes and wrapping them around pilot’s hands. Pulling, wrapping, pulling, wrapping…;
- Stalling the wing with rear risers. They’re more efficient than brakes, because they work with a bigger surface area from the back part of the wing. Beware that paragliders with shorter risers have a limited range of pull of the risers;
- Before stalling with brakes or rear risers, the pilot should concentrate on the touchdown moment, when he needs to turn around very fast with his back to the wind. This allows him to run forward while stalling and being pulled by the wing. If he doesn’t do so, he cannot run fast backward and the wing will pull and throw him on his back or neck. If you don’t manage to turn around or turn around partially when the wing pulls you, then prepare to roll over your shoulder to soften the fall;
- Collapsing the wing during touchdown by a sharp deep pull of frontal “A” risers. And hoping that the wing will not reopen as it falls down;
- Using quick-release carabiner for disconnecting the paraglider from the harness. One quick-release is enough as two may not open at the same moment and require more attention. A quick-release carabiner is highly recommended for tandem paragliders operating in strong winds as they are very difficult to stall by pulling brakes or rear risers. Tandem landings are especially vulnerable to strong winds, because the pilot and the passenger cannot turn around quickly after touchdown and cannot run with the wing while stalling and deactivating the canopy;
- Assistance of helpers who chase the landing pilot who gives them the brake handles, which they grab and pull them massively by running 4-5 steps backward. This technique is common for tandem pilots in windy places;
- Assistance of helpers who jump and grab the canopy to prevent it further dragging the pilot. Catching and grabbing the wing tip is enough;
- Landing in front of a tree, which will stop a long dragging of pilot by the wing. Landing in thorny bushes can be also lifesaving as they easily catch the brake lines;
- Cutting the lines or risers with a hook knife in case of being dragged;
- Beware that when a pilot is being dragged he may get confused and disoriented. Should he protect himself from ground objects during the dragging, or should he work with brakes and risers to deactivate the wing?;
- Exiting the harness by prior disconnecting leg and chest strap before touchdown. This is a recommended technique for water landings, because the back protector floats up and turns and pushes pilot’s body and head under the water. The prior disconnecting from harness technique shouldn’t be done in turbulent air! Pod harnesses are more suitable than sitting harnesses as there is no tension in risers and the pilot’s body is supported by a bigger surface area;
- Landing downwind in case of water landing, so the wing continues forward after touchdown, further away from pilot’s body and thus reducing the chance of being tangled in its lines. When the wing falls forward on its cells, this traps air inside the canopy and delays water intake, giving more survival time for the pilot. In strong wind conditions water landing should be with cross wind as downwind landings make the wing work like a sail. Its enormous pulling force combined with the back protector floating force will dip the pilot’s head under the water. Even the canopy pulling force alone is enough to make the pilot busy with swimming, distracting him from disconnecting from harness and going away from the canopy and lines;
- Inevitable sea water landings should be done further away from the wave swelling and breaking zone, because this greatly increases chances of being tangled. If, despite all, you’re still close to lines, then use minimal kicking for swimming, swim mostly with your arms to reduce tangling of your legs. Once you’re free from the harness and lines, abandon your paragliding gear and swim away to save your life! Part of wing or harness might be still floating and you may be tempted to save your equipment but the canopy is extremely heavy with tons of water inside, its big surface is easily driven by water currents and the octopus of lines is still there.
Paragliding pilots are very innovative when it’s a matter of life and death, so probably more techniques will evolve.
Don’t relax once you kill the wing. The beast might be still alive. Few open cells or a gust from a different direction may reanimate it again. The flight is over after the wing goes in the bag!