Powered Paragliding Pilots “throw down.”
In February of this year, while synchro spiraling with Phil Russman, I flew through his wake—a wake strengthened by the 2 G’s we were pulling. My wing surged below me and took a minor collapse. Even though I recovered quickly, it highlighted the increasing risks and declining margins I was accepting. There I was, doing a precision, high-energy turn within a few hundred feet of the ground and necessarily close to my partner’s wake. Something had to change.
Among the changes was a commitment to recover higher, only do such maneuvers with a reserve parachute and lastly, go to a maneuvers clinic. Chris Santacroce has a reputation, well deserved it turns out, for putting on these over-the-water training courses that he calls “Throw Down Sessions.” Timing was impeccable because Phil Russman was planning one with some of his students.
Steep, high speed, or high G maneuvers (where you feel heavily weighted in the seat) carry enormous risk. Enormous! You can build up to them reasonably safely but, if you’re not already proficient, don’t expect a clinic to make you so. Doing a maneuvers clinic will speed your advancement by showing what works, what’s dangerous, what to practice and what to avoid.
The clinic would also serve to help me conquer some long fears while better understanding this little, uncertified wing that I fly. Plus it’s always valuable to get input from skilled pilots in another realm of flight that I never explore: I wanted to try the SAT aerobatic maneuver. During my first maneuvers clinic, in 2000, I chickened out of the stall and spin. I wanted to change that this time around plus I wanted to see how the spice handled parachutal stall, an admittedly unlikely mode for this wing.
Is it Worthwhile for a Motor Pilot?
Paramotoring seems to be about twice as safe as free flying and that’s probably due to the benign weather we typically seek. We don’t need strong enough conditions to stay aloft and therefore avoid what seems to be the major risks of flying paragliders—strong weather.
Motor pilots are more likely to crash into something (water, wires, trees, another pilot, etc.) through no fault of the weather or collapse of wing but rather their own decision making. If you stick with flying in the benign parts of good-forecast weather days, your likelihood of needing expert skill in handling in-flight collapses or other maladies is extremely low. Yes, you can be surprised by the weather but the majority of paramotor crashes are unrelated to weather. Those that are were nearly always from launches in already–strong conditions where the pilot ignored obvious warnings. If you primarily sky putt up high (nothing wrong with that), then a maneuvers clinic will have limited benefit. It will be fun, it will be eye opening and it will expand your horizons, but it probably won’t actually impact your overall risk much.
On the other hand, if you tend to explore your abilities, doing steepish turns, foot drags, any significant low flying or have a broad range of conditions you fly in, the clinic should be considered nearly essential.
How Much Experience Should I Have?
If you are consistently launching and landing within P2 / PPG2 skills then you’ll definitely benefit. After watching a number of new pilots go through the clinic, and see how much they learned, those minimums seem fair.
For sure you want to have decent landing skills because you’ll be landing on a beach in sometimes confined areas. Having at least 50 flights means that you’ll get more from it than a raw beginner. Having more flights lets you explore steep, higher energy maneuvers. But even new pilots will learn a lot. The courses are tailored to your skill level and you won’t do anything the instructor doesn’t feel you’re ready for. Don’t expect to do spins, stalls, SAT’s or other similar maneuvers but you’ll learn enormously from the ones you do. Those maneuvers are actually pretty worthless, anyway, from a pilot skill perspective. The most useful learning comes from turn and collapse recoveries, pitch oscillations and a few others.
What Do I Need To Bring
What you bring depends on the clinic you attend. But all the clinics that I’m aware of require a free-flight harness with reserve, hook knife and some kind of radio. Chris was able to use FRS or 2-meter. You’ll want to have a speedbar so as to learn on that. If you don’t have a free flight harness consider renting one. I don’t know if they do that or not.
The instructor will tell you what else will be required as some things depend on the locations.
Bring the wing you fly with the most. If that’s a motor wing then use it. If your wing has any special limits, like some of the reflex wings, let the instructor know about them. He may or may not be familiar with those, especially the dynamic nastiness some reflex wings display with speedbar deployed and trimmed slow. That condition is common in free flight and some maneuvers coaches (instructors) may not be aware of it yet.
Go with an open mind. Don’t plan on impressing anybody with tales of derring do, just sit back, soak it in and learn. No matter your level of experience there is a lot to learn.
The decision to launch is all yours. If you don’t feel comfortable with a situation, don’t go. There were occasions with our group where hasty decisions led to launching in conditions we probably should not have. The more experienced the pilot, the more latitude the instructor will give you. Remember that the one fatality during a clinic resulted from a gust front that blew a participant into power lines.
The decision to do a particular maneuver is all yours. But once started, you must listen intently and react as instructed.
The clinics seem to enjoy a good safety record. According to Steve Roti of the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, there has not been a reported fatality during a formal clinic. The wire accident was only related to the clinic in that she was a participant but hadn’t started doing any maneuvers. A number of pilots do go in the water, maybe one in 3 clinics has someone go in the water, but that’s not a huge deal. With a dry change of clothing, you can be flying in a couple hours.
I can highly recommend Chris Santacroce‘s clinic although there are numerous others that have earned sound reputations. His easy, unassuming demeanor left the ego behind and presented a good environment for learning. He has done about every maneuver in the book but, more importantly, he’s probably seen them all including their undesirable permutations. That makes him most likely to call the correct recovery when poop meets fan.