Earning the USHPA Basic Instructor Certification

In support of the new book project I decided to go through USHPA’s Instructor Certification Program. I’m writing a book on teaching paragliding, this would be a powerful addition to my experience and improve perspective. The original, interviewing top instructors, would have worked, but there’s nothing like watching them in action and trying to learn what they do.

I signed up for Bill Heaner’s instructor course in Salt Lake City (SLC) at Point of the Mountain Flight Park. Bill is passionate about instructing, has great results, and I’ve worked with him before — he’s the star of Master PPG’s “Advanced Ground Handling” video. Plus, the Point has a higher concentration of grade A free flight flight instructors than any other place in the country and I wanted to apprentice under as many as would have me.

This is a log of that Journey.

Oct 4 – 6 Bill Heaner’s Instructor Clinic

There were 5 Instructor Candidates, Tom, Mike, Kevin, Ron and myself, all very experienced and all but me were flying Tandems.

Oct 4 Tue

AM at the South Side. Three students, oh so gracious victims, er volunteers, of our instructor-in-trainingness showed up to let us learn how to help them learn. The fleeting though of a biology student in Gross Anatomy class cursed my mind: that these kind souls had volunteered to be on the dissection table. Ick. Trash that thought. Lester, Daniele, and Trista were GREAT sports with a fun, open-minded attitude that made the process much easier than it could have been.

We started right away, going over a very few things first then heading up the hill. Bill would go over what we would be doing, show us what it should look like, then have us try, coaching as we went.

The drill started off walking up the first part of the hill, having the student set up for a forward, then helping them succeed at bringing the wing up, run down the hill and flare at the end. Bill had already briefed and showed them hand positions for all this. Initially, we the instructors would stay behind them during the first part of inflation, push slightly as needed, and dampen the wing’s rise so it didn’t front tuck as they accelerated down the hill.

As the wing picked up a bit this became much easier.

One main part of Bill’s success is only talking to the student about what’s necessary. Less is more. They don’t need aerodynamics now, or details about the wing or other distractions. Right now they need to learn posture, arm positions, the feel of an arcing wing, running even as the harness lifts, the risers and so on. So many lessons for us as instructor wannabes.

Everyone in the group has done some kind of instruction, me in airplanes and powered paragliders, but one of the reasons I appreciate Bill’s program is that he gets human factors: how humans learn to interact with machines. Even more is that he has a great record of students who don’t crash. That’s the biggest reason I’m here. My goal is to share the philosophy and techniques that create such success.

After some repetitions of that we moved up the hill a bit and now the exercise got them airborne for a few seconds. How cool. They thought so too. We went over steering some more, about always holding the input for a few seconds before easing up–not stabbing at it. We kept on practicing, one instructor candidate (IC) helping on the run, another doing instructions on the radio, until thermal turbulence made it unwise. We went down and packed up, going over glider storage instructions.

The afternoon was spent doing classroom work in Bill’s living room. He provided each applicant a notebook with forms document that we would go through methodically with discussion of topics as necessary. I video recorded much of these sessions for later review–it will help condense key points into the project.

Oct 5 Wed

AM at the South Side. This time there was no wind and even some occasional downsloping ooze. We were to work on helping students through forward launches and radio work from higher up the hill: they would be flying. First we did a demo. When Bill asked for a volunteer I jumped. Yeah, it’s a 12 second flight but it’s a flight and it served the purpose of being very deliberate and clear in all my actions. It felt good to fly.

We worked on a different technique for helping them even though they really didn’t need much help–it was mostly for us to practice the physical skill required.

The whole idea of making sure the wing comes up, gets checked with brakes either by the student or instructor, then has a standup landing is to have the student feel what success is and practice it. Failures happened, of course, but not many. Bill’s motto for instructors is “Create Success, Repeat, Celebrate” and it works.

Philosophies of instructing abound–some instructors, for example, don’t like physically helping the students much. There’s merit to that since the student must obviously learn it on their own at some point. I get it. I remember airplane instructors who incessantly applied control pressures to the point where I couldn’t learn. “Is that you or the air?” I would tactfully ask.

But in paragliding, not helping, especially in the beginning, can waste lots of time as they struggle with flopping wings or falls. Plus, failing isn’t much fun. Like sooo many aspects of life there is balance. I would explain to my volunteer student that some of what I was doing was for me, so I could practice controlling the wing using their hands in ways that were to me. They were so understanding.

With no wind trying to help as the student ran quickly away down the hill was really tough. That’s one area where I’ll just need practice. Bill did it–the practiced prance of a thousand repetitions made it look almost easy.

The afternoon was again classroom work at Bill’s, including going over USHPA material, discussion of how to handle various situations and finally the test. It’s amusing about these tests; it seems there are always a few questions that nobody knows the answer to or at least the logic of what’s supposed to be the right answer even if they understand the subject. I’ve developed a several tests and find that, if instructors are complaining about a particular question, it’s probably a bad question. Thankfully there were very few of those.

Tom asked his wife to help with the ground school presentation portion of our clinic

 Oct 6 Thur

Our last AM at the South Side provided a perfectly timed breeze that let us work on kiting. This was the good stuff, really, because we really got to work with the students on ground handling. One technique that flummoxed was helping the student kite reversed while I stood in front of them controling their hands. That’s harder than it sounds. I can reach around and do it (as I’ve done before), and I can control the brakes by pulling above the pulleys but that doesn’t help the student. They need to learn what to do with their bodies and hands. So the instructor’s challenge is

Ballerina Ninja Cat

Bill has a funny saying to remind pilots to be smooth and economical in motion, to move like a Ballerina Ninja Cat. Of course that sounds ridiculous but gets the point across. A similar Billism is “Half the speed, twice as efficient.” It’s a reminder that I took some pointers on myself. The goal is grace. It results in being more effective with less motion which is a common theme in just about every physical endeavor. Like good ground handling: the least amount of hand and body motion that gets the desired result.

Miniwing Rating

After it got to strong for students Bill let me fly his Skywalk Miniwing. OMG is that fun. Eventually it got strong enough that I could soar it but first he challenged me to do some ground handling in a gulley and I felt like a kid in the candy store. He also gave some pointers.

These things are so much fun but sooo utterly unforgiving, too: a half inch of brake pull incites an eruption of bank that could easily prompt an oscillation with only two cycles before impact.


I built up slowly, first flying down to the bottom of the hill, knowing full well of its rapid roll rate. I was very cautious on that flight since Bill had warned me about its responsiveness and, if Bill warns you about a wing, that’s significant. I have flown maybe 5 other miniwings including an 11 meter model some time ago at Beach Blast but those were relatively benign. Relatively. Two of those were under power. After getting on this one I marveled at the roll rate but this one, in spite of being slightly larger (12m), was even less stable in roll.

Bill did a demo showing how smooth, fluid motion wins the day. Ballerina Ninja Cat.

The lot of us after finishing hill training on Thursday.

Oct 7 Fri

Morning at the South Side gave me opportunity to shadow a number of Instructors and work with Blake Pelton who was instructing a paramotor pilot to free fly. He had me do some radio work with a student learning to ridge soar which was a welcome opportunity. That student, an experienced motor pilot, hardly needed radio coaching by this point but he was gracious and I really got a lot out of it.

Mid-day Super Fly Classroom & Simulator

Ground school items covered: Posture, checklist items,

Simulator items covered: Posture, weight shift turns.

Evening at the North Side, watching and working with Chris Santacroce, specifically a student who had flown before but was here brushing up. I helped him with light wind reverses. He was really hard on himself in spite of significant overcoming which required a different tact, a bit more encouragement but mostly repetitions.

Oct 8 Sat

Morning at the South Side was spent working with various instructors including Blake Pelton, Dale, Alex and Bill.

Mid-day Blake Pelton Classroom & Simulator. Wow was this informative. Among the many things we did with Bryan West and his motor students was hang in the simulator and practice getting back in the harness after launching with no leg straps. Cool thing: Blake has the simulator hanging in his living room. Awesome.

Evening at the North Side, watching and working with various students very briefly. Shadowed/Filmed Chris on radio while teaching the Dr. I had worked with on the day before. Saw an impressive save as they walked towards launch.

Oct 9 Sun

Morning at the South Side in strong winds. Shadowed a number of instructors and helped where I could. Spent some time with Ken Hudonjorgensen where I saw him teaching asymmetric inflations where you bring one side of the wing up about four feet higher than the other then straighten it out as it comes overhead.

Later in the morning, with wind building, Bill hooked me into a hang glider and showed me some ground handling. He then did a demo showing what’s possible with a hang glider. Very cool! If all goes well, I’ll come back here to get whatever hang glider ratings I’m qualified for. Mind you, Bill has won a number of Hang Gliding championships so he’s got the moxy for this stuff. And thankfully he still likes teaching it.

This afternoon I went to join Chris Santacroce to learn about Truck Towing. I’ve had probably 20 truck tows and ridden along a couple times, but now the idea was to learn how it was done in more detail, at least how Chris does it. After riding/filming the first tow, it became too rough for the student and Chris suggested they restart in better conditions. So I bought a tow in order to experience the other end of the operation while the memory was fresh. Wasn’t planned but, wow, was that a learning experience. Not because there was anything different about the tow but because I was paying such close attention to details of control I’d never paid before. More is in the sidebar.

Evening at the North Side was not productive because the south wind never turned around enough. The Club had their meeting, though, and I sure did enjoy kibitzing with the folk and festivities. I suppose from that perspective it was productive enough.

Oct 10 Mon

Morning at the South Side was headed for a bust due to really strong winds. I headed down then discovered a whole world of training continued in the lighter wind below. So I joined Alex Taylor and a young woman who was working on basic kiting in a difficult wind at the bottom of the hill. I spent the rest of the morning there, working with that one athletic, motivated girl before having to pack up myself to go home.

Leaving is nearly always bittersweet. I was learning, having a good time, but missed home. I had captured many hours of good material to go over and was mulling another project as an adjunct to this one. We’ll see if that happens. Bill was such a gracious host and patient instructor, who I continue to learn from, and look forward to returning to spend time with again.

Apprentice & Research

This is my log of work done to learn from instructors who are in the field doing instruction. I’ve spent at least two weeks of one to three days working with, observing or interviewing paraglider and paramotor instructors. Much video recording was done throughout the process.

2016 Nov 7, 9, 11 Valkaria Airport with Eric Dufour. Eric started a new student, Uwe Goehl from Abu Dabi. I was there from first briefing to the solo flight that was almost. He soloed that afternoon after I had left.

2016 Nov 17-18, Santa Barbara. Two days with Chris Grantham. Day 1 at a mountain site, day 2 on the training hill.

2916 Nov 23, San Diego, Interview with David Jeb and observing hill training by one of their Instructors.

Talking with Dave Jeb at Torrey Pines

1. Chris Grantham atop the training hill in Santa Barbara.

2. After launching his students he let me fly down which was extremely gracious and unexpected. This trip really was just for being an apprentice, not for playing, but it was oh soooo sweet!

Eric Dufour prepares Ewe Goehl for ground handling practice.

Chris Santacroce works with a pilot getting a refresher on towing and free flying.


Chris Santacroce briefs a paraglider pilot before towing her up for a refresher course. I rode in the truck to see how it was done then I took a tow myself to experience exactly what I just watched. I experimented with some of what I had already written namely that you should track towards the tow line just in front of you. We towed east and there was a moderate south wind trying to drift me north. 
At first I stayed exactly behind the truck, over the road, but the tow line was increasingly arcing left from the right (South) wind. Not surprisingly I was having to pull left brake. 
Chris instructed me to move left, which I did, to what he called the “sweet spot” and the amount of left brake decreased a lot. The line was still pulling me left which made the wing want to bank right and required still some left brake to hold. 
Then I let myself drift left until the line was exactly perpendicular and, sure enough, all turn tendency went away and no more brake input was required. It was again easy to steer with just