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Common Beginner Mistakes in Competition
While this laundry list of pitfalls is aimed at competitors, many will also apply to cross country flying. If you are really creative, you may even figure out how to apply some to setting the clock on your VCR. In an attempt at organization, the mistakes are grouped under judgment, flying skills, and mindset.
A snap decision
Bad decisions are often made in a rush or without conscious thought. So think ahead and plan the next move before topping out a thermal. While gliding to what you think will be the next lift, have a plan B in case it's not there.
The usual mistake is waiting too long, until the wind has picked up and the lead gaggle is specked out. I like to figure the time it will take to get geared up, launch, and top out the lift before the start tarp opens. Some pilots find extra time waiting for a start tarp relaxing, while others would rather wait on the ground. I once watched Tomas Suchanek repeatedly climb through the gaggle to the top, fly out and spin back down before the start tarp at the '95 US HG Nationals.
Flying too fast or too slow
You have to be prepared to shift gears, perhaps several times in a flight. Flying fast is not so much about stepping on the speed bar all the time as being discriminating about which lift one circles in. Sometimes the winner is the one who first realizes that it is possible to glide straight to goal. Then again sometimes the one who flies conservatively and stays up is the only one to make it. It's a matter of reading the area and the day's conditions.
Pushing it too far gliding in to goal
Paragliders are more prone to deflations at higher speeds, with more loss of altitude and time spent recovering to be expected. It is tempting to come charging in to goal at full speed, but unless the air is smooth and one is high, it's not a great idea.
How worthwhile it is to take a risk of being slowed down by a deflation depends on the scoring system. If there are place points, it may be worth taking a little risk to get there before another pilot. But if there are not, beating someone by less than ten seconds usually only gets you a few points. On the flip side of this, I heard about one meet where Kari Eisenhut and Steve Cox, two of the top Swiss pilots were gliding in together to goal. Steve got a deflation and lost a few seconds. Kari, like the good guy he is, waited for Steve and they crossed goal together. Kari learned a lesson when Steve ended up winning the meet three points ahead of him.
Descending at cloudbase
When a gaggle gets to cloudbase, the pilots glide out on course, pulling ears in as needed to avoid getting sucked up. Getting sucked into a cloud is generally a result of poor planning. But it does occasionally happen. The most dangerous thing in this situation is to spiral or b-line down toward an unsuspecting gaggle of pilots below. It is safer to take a GPS heading toward the closest edge of the cloud and hold the heading, though this is easier said than done. Upon popping out, fairness demands a descent back down to cloud base before continuing on. Of course it is best to stay away from the middle of a sucking cloud and avoid the whole issue.
Competition gaggle flying is like urban driving. It may seem crazy to those not used to it. But along with the increased closeness and aggressiveness, there is a high level of attention being paid. Most of the top pilots realize that they will climb best if they do not get in each other's way, and that it's very hard to make goal while tangled up in a midair.
I assume you know the basic thermalling right-of-way rules: right of way goes to the glider in the thermal first and the one climbing up from below. But there are some finer points of thermalling etiquette. Given the above, it follows that when joining pilots in a thermal, you should slow down, speed up, or turn wider to yield the right-of-way. In rough air, flying directly above someone else is risking a midair, besides which they may not see you. My most common comment in thermal clinics and flying with newer comp pilots is "turn tighter". This can of course be taken to an extreme. Nevertheless, it is mildly annoying to get stuck behind someone turning wide circles. It is not necessarily rude to turn inside someone in this situation. If it is done right, so as not to push the other pilot out of the thermal, there is no problem.
Several times I've flown with apparently self-taught paraglider pilots with experience in other soaring aircraft. They tend to know what and where the thermal is very well, but may be lacking in the glider control department. It is especially tricky trying to out-climb someone who is pitching and rolling wildly, on the edge of deflations, but miraculously going up pretty well. While keeping the glider stable overhead may not be the only way to go up, it is certainly safer and more considerate. This is probably a more rare phenomenon as the importance of professional paragliding instruction has become increasingly clear.
While pushiness may occasionally be effective, it does not go unnoticed. When the leaders strike out in front, they take a risk (of finishing slower or sinking out) in return for the chance to win. But that risk is greatly reduced if two or three go together. Are you more likely to gaggle with the pilot you enjoy flying with, or the rude one?
A trick for dealing with being cut off is to aim my glider at the trailing edge of the other glider that is on a right angle closing course with me. This is the flip side of "leading" a moving object to hit it: "Trail" it to miss it.
While flying alone is excellent practice for being in the lead, there is usually no advantage to it unless one is in the lead. It's hard to beat a good fast gaggle.
Following is excellent practice at first, but must be outgrown at some stage to progress. If you blindly follow, you will eventually either get left behind or stuck in "gaggle drag" with a slow, overly conservative gaggle. Also, should you find yourself in the lead, you may be at a loss for what to do. Chronic following can be seen as rude. Then again, if someone is following you and keeping up, you are probably flying too slowly.
It can be comforting to be high above a group of pilots groveling low. If they find something and get up, you are sure to be able to use it. However, if you divert course from a distance to glide over them and they are still below you when you get there, you may very well be groveling or landing with them.
It's usually best to avoid the temptation to hop back and forth between neighboring cores. You usually lose height doing this, unless you have switched to one rising significantly faster. In addition, the other core will often come to you if you are patient. This can create difficulties if there are two gaggles turning opposite directions.
A glider too hot
While prototypes these days do outperform serial gliders, the benefits only become apparent at speeds over 1/3 speed bar, and are probably less than 10% there. If you are too scared to push the speed bar on a comp glider (or a DHV 2-3, or whatever), then you lose all of the advantage and then some.
I have sat on launch with another pilot before and talked each other out of flying the day's task, even though it turned out to be ok. A few hours of wind, or a few days of rain can get people into a "this sucks" mindset, which makes good performance unlikely.
Say you have a terrible day on the first task of a meet (see my experiences at the Europeans, October's column). Do you take it as evidence that you'll never be any good, or as an opportunity to practice flying faster, since you've got nothing to lose?
This goes away somewhat with time. But then find yourself leading a meet for several days for the first time and it comes right back. Avoiding stimulants before flight may be a good idea: save the energy drinks for the party later.
Thanks to Windtech, Airplay, Serengeti Eyewear, Starkhealth.com, and Ball Varios.