If you read my last blog, you know that the last bit of my life has been putting a lot of energy into learning what I can about powered paragliding and ultimately signing up for lessons.
The price tag that comes with this is steep, but the rewards are rich! The following will document the journey. Photos will be thin in places because quite frankly, the goal is to train not take pictures :)
Day 1 began as most things do. Introductions.. Why are you here.. Sign away your life. This one is quite literal. Things can happen. 'Nuff said.
Now, to help make 'things' happen less, I'd been reading a ton, watched a ton of videos and as far as I can tell, made smart gear decisions. It's very easy to cheap out. I've got my wing and motor and that's great, but a good helmet. A good radio. A wind sock. Relatively small dollar items that can make your day that much better. Things like the wing and motor can be found on Kijiji, but as a new guy, how do I know what's good, what's reliable, what still has life left in it, or what's just plain broken. It's one thing to buy a car like that, but to fly? No thanks.
So, after the in class portion was complete, we did our exam in order to graduate to "Student Pilots". A 50 question multiple choice exam that covered what we discussed in class. Pretty basic. Not so basic that I got 100%, but I'm satisfied with my 96.
Once finished, it was down to the gym to learn a few basics and set up our paramotors - mine was done when I bought it, but it was good to do it again anyway. After this, it was out to an air field where we started to learn how to lay out our paraglider wing, how go get into our harness and ultimately get it off the ground and flying over our heads. With a good breeze and lots of practice, you can fly it like a kite. Practice. Yes, more practice.
All in all, it was a good introduction and nice to see my nice fresh new wing flying over my head, even if it was very briefly before it would come crashing down repeatedly. Oh yes, practice.
Day 2 was much the same as the second half of day 1. Practicing getting into the harness, hooking up and getting the glider in the air. I should mention that in this practice, it is done backwards - facing the wing. In doing this, things are opposite. Pull the right brake and the left wing tucks down. Pull the right brake and the right wing ducks down. I didn't make a great deal of progress until the second half of the day when I learned just how mobile you need to be - at least as a new guy. It's not just pulling the brakes, but keeping your body under the wing if it starts to drift off left or right. By the end of the day, I was catching on and doing fairly ok.
The day ended with a test - with the wing on the ground behind me, I would run forward and see if I could get it over my head, and if so, how far could I run with it under control. Clearly beginner's luck, because I ran the entire 100ish yard field before coming to the end and bringing it down. That felt like a really good accomplishment and I was very happy. Definitely felt confident in the days to come.
With the "glory" of how the previous day ended, I was excited about my progress. I certainly wasn't the best of the group. There were 3 of us and one was definitely a lot more of a natural than me. In truth, I was probably 3rd. Maybe I moved up to second briefly in Day 3, I'm not sure, but there was one thing I did know, I wouldn't be flying today, but Vince would. He already had his motor on his back and was kiting the wing just fine. I'm not sure he knew it, but he did look like he was ready to go.
Day 3 was all about lifting the wing up, turning around to face forward, and kiting the wing forward as if launching. I had a couple of these where I was in complete control, but the rest were pretty disastrous. I had a fake throttle in my hand to get used to having it while kiting forward, but I really didn't need it. The times I kited successfully, it was probably more due to luck than skill - or maybe the wind was just very smooth. The wing would typically fly for maybe 15 or 20 steps and then come crashing down - always on my right. I would get advice to help compensate for the wing moving, but the corrections I made didn't last and again it would crash down. Very demoralizing. How could I go from a 100 yard effortless kite to just utter fails. By late afternoon, I was tired, sweaty and very little progress of speak of. I had clearly slipped back to 3rd as Art just completely dominated his wing. Very effortless - he was a lot of fun to watch because he just looked like he belonged under his wing.
Sometime during my trials and fails, Vince had his first flight. You could see he was nervous about it but to be honest, his launch looked pretty effortless. Keep in mind that flying these things means strapping a motor on your back, exceptionally difficult to run with, yanking a paraglider over your head, steadying it, then giving the motor gas which pushes you forward thanks to the propeller. Fun sport huh? If all goes well, the wing generates more and more lift until you lift off the ground and eventually pull yourself into your seat. If it goes badly.. well.. Chances are you go screaming into a field at 30km/h and eat a face full of dirt with a motor on top of you and hopefully the wing settling down somewhere away from you.
Anyway, fired up the motor he did, and up he went (why am I talking like Yoda?)! It was quite a sight to see. As the first of us to fly, I was ready with my camera and a long lens and got a few hundred photos. Coming down, his landing was effortless. A gentle landing on his feet - what more could anyone ask - I hoped mine would go as well. He admitted later that it was scary to fly around - I can only imagine. Way to go Vince!
Day 4 was much like day 3, except no throttle to hang on to. With virtually no progress on Day 3, I had to take a number of things back to basics. In the process, I had Andre, our instructor, pretty much to myself and it helped a lot. He taught me several things including straightening out the wing on the ground without having to go up to it and extend it out by hand. He also taught me how to fly it backwards. This way, rather than running to the end of the field then carrying the wing back, that you can actually fly backwards. I suppose I knew it could be done, but I certainly didn't know how. I'm seeing now how helpful it is to learn to get better at ground handling.
Progress in the morning - he gave me a lot to process and by the time our break came and the wind was getting sketchy, I had a few hours to think about what he had talked about back at my room. I had hoped to get some sleep because the night before was just sweltering inside - but that was not to be. Good thing for "5-Hour Energy" shots. I don't like taking those things but you just can't do some things if you're not on your game.
During the afternoon session, I took turns with Andre and it did gave me a confidence boost to see him having difficulty with the wind conditions. It was swirling and gusty and just difficult to work with, but that helped me. It gave me other things to work with and as the afternoon turned into evening, things got better. Definitely not where Vince and Art were, but flying felt like a real possibility on Day 5 - if it didn't rain. Fingers crossed.
Day 5 - Sketchy Success!
Day 5 was interesting. Knowing in my gut that this was the day to fly, I didn't sleep very well. I had a lot running through my mind. It's one thing to fly a kite, it's another thing to fly a 30 foot kite. It's another thing again to fly it with no eyes. It's another thing again to strap a 60 or 70 pound backpack on your back with a spinning propeller and do all of this at a run.
Well, after a couple of trial runs without too much difficulty, my turn came, I was in line to fly. Ahead of me was Vince for his 7th or 8th and then Art who would have his first as well. Watching Art take off was a lot of fun. Winds seemed to cooperate and he was up and flying very smoothly and was able to get on the radio and talk occasionally. When he came down, he had clearly enjoyed himself so that was great to see. But now, my turn!
After getting set up, the wind was still pretty decent - a little bit off-and-on, but decent. Game on! As I got off the ground, from what I could tell, I was maybe 5 or 10 feet off the ground when I felt myself hit a gust of wind that pushed me side to side. Under a paraglider, you're basically a pendulum. You might rock forward and back a little, or you may go side to side. For me, there was quite a sideways swing. I half expected that because I am new, but I figured it would ease up. I had to make continual adjustments for some pretty heavy swinging. The gusts were surprising. I made a pretty hard turn to the right and things settled down a little while heading downwind and up until that point, Andre, our instructor was pretty quiet on the radio, and I'm happy for that. There's little he could have said that would have helped - I just had to do it and adjust as needed. I wasn't in the air for very long when he announced the wind was too sketchy to fly in and to bring it around and set up to land.
Turning back into the wind, there was still some gusty pushes but not too bad - probably due to the trees below providing some protection; I don't know. After 15 or 20 seconds, I was nearly over the treeline to our field when he instructed me to cut the motor and glide in. With the wind in my face, there wasn't a lot of forward speed over the ground but as I came lower, the ride smoothed out a little and before long, I landed on my feet and my first successful flight was officially under my belt. Total flight time, maybe 10 minutes. Max altitude, maybe 150 feet. I was definitely hoping for more, but for a first flight, something smoother would be much more fun.
Once I was free of the machine and some happy high fives and a photo-op done, we were done for the morning. Too much sketchy wind for a beginner like me, and that's fine.
While some of those swings felt a little hairy, I can honestly say there was probably only one where I felt it might go bad, but I refocused and adjusted to get altitude and try to nullify the wind pushes as best as I could. Was I scared? Not really - when I took a moment to think about how I felt, it wasn't fear. It was definitely exciting to be where so few people can go, and even less still from something resembling a dining room chair.
Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate enough to fly in the evening.
Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate enough to fly at all, so it was a day off. Frustrating as it basically kept me stuck in my room for the day.
After a long day of waiting, bumming around Niagara Falls and basically watching tv, the weather looked much better the following day and because of this, flight #2 was a success.
After 2 unsuccessful launches, the third one was sketchy, but a success. As a new pilot, it's very helpful to have an instructor tell you when to add power, add power, add power. I can feel the wing above me if it starts to shift from one side to another, but I can't tell yet when it is centered and stable above me.
On this third attempt, it clearly wasn't steadily above me when I committed to take off. As well, while the wing was getting lift, it wasn't quite up to speed yet so I leaned back to the seat prematurely and it almost botched the take off. Since I didn't back off on the throttle, I got off the ground, but it was a good lesson to keep running until there is no longer any ground below to step on. Point taken.
With the sketchy take off and some small bumps, I was swinging a little when the time came to get in the seat. It's a funny thing to climb so quickly to a couple hundred feet and then back off on the throttle. Then it's time to let go of the control toggles to pull yourself into the seat. Until that point you're just hanging by the straps so you need to get into the seat. On flight #2 it took a little bit of a deep breath to let go of the controls to get into the seat. Picture riding your bike for the first time and then going NO HANDS!!
Once in though, I enjoyed probably 30 minutes in the air circling the field, playing with some zig zags, climbing, descending.. I learned a lot during this flight, not the least of which is that you can swing forward and back as well as side to side, and when you hit a thermal, you can feel yourself being lifted quite quickly in the air just as quickly as when you come out, you can drop just as fast. It's a little disconcerting, but pretty fun! I can only imagine what those guys flying off mountains feel!
I didn't put much gas in the tank - the rig is a little heavy so after a couple of botched take offs, it's getting a little irritating to carry around. After that half hour it really was time to come down. The landing was at a much higher speed than the last time. On my first flight, there was enough wind to simply float to the ground - in this case when I touched down it was several steps of running before coming to a stop. Quite an experience to go from 0 to full run with that kind of weight on your back having just been a couple hundred feet up moments ago. I'll need to process that one for a bit, but in the end, I still nailed the landing.
Unfortunately that was to be my last flight for the time being. During the evening session, I wasn't feeling particularly energetic and after 3 botched launches, I had a bad feeling about trying for #4 so I called it a day and practiced kiting instead. Now I kind of regret it, but I've had plenty of occasions where I didn't listen to that voice and got hurt so... Whatever. I'll finish my flights as soon as I can - In the meantime, I can practice kiting in the local field. If we ever get any decent wind that is!