The 3 Ps

ACTIVE PILOTING (or how to stay safe in turbulent air)

I’d been flying a full half hour already but could still hear my heart pounding louder than the vario.  “So, this is cross country flying!!” I told myself.  It was my very first XC flight and the flying conditions must have been pretty easy because I really didn’t have any idea what I was doing.  I knew left from right but that was about it.

My best flying buddy, Gary and I had booked a paragliding holiday to the one and only Annecy of the French Alps, and here I was about 7km from launch with the most fantastic view I had ever seen.  If you’ve ever been to Annecy, you probably know that one of the classic flights is called “the small lake tour” – which is probably about a 20 to 25km flight.  Taking off from Forclaz you need one or two thermals to reach “Les Dents” (teeth in English) and there you need to be sure to have sufficient height before gliding across the truly stunning Lake Annecy.  It’s normal to arrive pretty low on the other side where you can soar up Roc des Boefs in the valley breeze eventually getting enough height to complete a small XC triangle.

In terms of our flight plan, the only thing that Gary and I knew was that we shouldn’t cross the lake too low.  That seemed logical enough.  What we hadn’t really considered until now was exactly how high we needed to be.  I didn’t want to mess around close to these rocks more than absolutely necessary.

The last half an hour had my nerves pretty shredded.  I was being bumped around all over the place and was looking forward to getting away from these big scary rock faces and gliding across the lake.   Apparently the air would be nice and smooth on the crossing.

Then it happened. Smack! Bang!  I think that was the wing collapsing and I think it must have reinflated immediately.  I didn’t dare to look, but with quivering hands and a rather croaky dry voice I asked our guide on the radio if he thought I was high enough yet  “blah blah blah blah, Yes” came the reply.  “Yes” was all I needed.  Give me the smooth air!  I immediately turned away from the mountain and started gliding across the lake.  And it was smooth.  Phew, I started to breathe again.
Trying to forget about the collapsing wing.  For now, I was soaking up one of the most spectacular views I’d ever seen.

Active piloting is essential when flying in thermic conditions

Trying to forget about the collapse

For now, I was soaking up one of the most spectacular views I’d ever seen.

It’s funny how we’ll always remember our first cross country; and our first collapse.  That was almost 20 years ago.  At that time, I never imagined I’d be paragliding as a job.  Now I guide hundreds of clients XC every year and teach SIV for several weeks a year.  I certainly never imagined I’d fly PWCs or get a tandem world record.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s quite clear that back then I exposed myself to much more danger than I could possibly understand.   Being close to terrain in turbulent conditions (and all thermals are turbulent to a greater or lesser extent) requires us to have good wing control skills.  Without wing control skills we are just “lucky” or “unlucky”.

From my own experiences but also watching hundreds and hundreds of students, I cannot understate how important wing control skills are.
I am a huge believer in SIV courses. Unfortunately, some of these courses tend to focus much more on what to do when things go wrong and sometimes skip what in my opinion is much more important:  how to stop things going wrong in the first place!

In normal flight, there are only TWO ways we can control our wing.  We can either use our controls (brakes) or we can use our harness.  The goal of wing control is to minimise the chances of getting a collapse.  Collapses can dissipate energy so they’re not necessarily bad, but pilots who are good at wing control will suffer very few collapses, fly more efficiently and most importantly, fly more safely.

There are THREE essential wing control skills: The 3Ps

I believe there are THREE essential wing control skills that we need to master to be able to fly safely in thermic conditions. I call them the 3 Ps   To more experienced pilots the first two might be well known.  The third is often new.  Here they are…

P1: Pitch

This first skill is the most important. It’s by stopping the wing from diving too far we can avoid most collapses. It’s important however that we understand all 3 phases of pitch.

In this article we don’t have time to go into all the detail, but here’s a quick summary. In phase 1 as the wing pitches back we need to give the glider speed by putting our hands up (usually to the pulleys). This allows us more “damping power” in phase 2. Phase 2 is where we need to catch the dive; then as we swing under the wing in phase 3 we need to release the brakes again.

Here are the most common mistakes I see in each phase and how to rectify them.

  1. In phase 1 if the wing pitches back a long way (perhaps on entering a particularly strong thermal) some pilots have the tendency to lean forwards. Make sure you lean back in the harness so you can feel the swing, otherwise you’ll be out of touch and won’t know when Phase 2 is coming. Looking at the wing in Phase 1 will help you to lean back in the harness.
  2. The most common mistake in Phase 2 is catching the dive early. Here, it’s important not to pre-empt the dive. Let the wing start to come forwards to sense the momentum. Don’t catch a dive that hasn’t happened yet! Catch the dive progressively and smoothly.
  3. In phase 3 the most common mistake is to not release the brakes again. This is particularly the case after a vicious Phase 2 dive when less experienced pilots might be tempted to hold the wing. We might feel quite proud of ourselves for having caught that huge dive, but as we start to swing under the wing again we load the wing and if we hold on to the brakes too deeply for too long we could even stall the wing. In phase 3 we need to release the brakes – progressively. By the way, releasing too quickly will see the wing dive again. Think of Phase 3 as accompanying the wing, feeding out the brakes gradually.

These pitch control skills are fundamental to everything that is paragliding. Most of us get pretty good at playing with small pitch movements but actually that’s not so important.  It’s the big ones that we need to practise.  Unless you are an expert these should only be practised over water with a life jacket and a rescue boat, that’s to say a Wing Control or SIV Course.

P2: Pressure

This second wing control skill is “feeling the pressure”.  It’s not really “pressure”, but rather its the tension on the trailing edge (but we needed another “P” – and most pilots call it pressure anyway).  What we’re basically trying to do is maintain equal pressure, the amount is usually no more than about the weight of our arms and where we feel one or both sides go soft it’s important to apply more brake until we feel that pressure again.  Sometimes this will be both sides at the same time, but often in turbulent air it will be one side or the other.

To feel this tension in the trailing edge, it’s important that we get rid of any tension in our arms and shoulders.  By being relaxed (even in the turbulence!) we’ll be able to feel what’s happening more easily.  Many pilots get pretty good at this skill as long as the turbulence is mild.  In more turbulent conditions we might need to use maximum brakes to find the pressure again.  As long as we release and let our arms be pulled back up again then we’ll be flying safely.

Some pilots say that applying brakes forces air forwards and that’s what prevents a collapse.  The reality however is that there’s very little air in the trailing edge of a paraglider and what we’re really doing with pressure control is momentarily increasing the angle of attack on the wing.  This rapid and dramatic increase in attack angle is what prevents the wing from collapsing.

To be absolutely clear, we are not talking here about what to do with a collapse, but rather what to do to prevent one!  Make sure that with particularly big pressure drops that as you apply pressure on the wing you look up to be sure that you have indeed saved the wing from getting a collapse.  That way you’ll be ready to adapt and react correctly depending on each situation.

P3: Position (or Potato)

When teaching this skill I sometimes call it “Potato”.  The expression “sack of potatoes” in English describes the state of being totally relaxed. A sack of potatoes has no muscle tension.  It will slump as gravity dictates.   (Potato also begins with a P!!!)  The only thing we can do with our body to effect wing control is choose how we load each half of the wing, so this third P is all about wing loading and roll control.

As technologies develop we’re seeing the aspect ratio of wings increasing all the time.  As the aspect ratio of wings increases, the importance of understanding and applying this third skill has become even more important.

An unloaded wing is more likely to collapse. Therefore, as we’re flying through turbulent air and we feel one side go slack we’ve hopefully already reacted using the brakes (second P!) It is however equally important that at the same time we let our body fall to the unloaded side.  (IMPORTANT DISTINCTION:  This is to avoid a collapse!  If the wing collapses we might need to load the other side (i.e. the flying side) in order to avoid the wing turning towards the collapse)  By relaxing our body we’ll keep the wing equally loaded across the whole span.  Many pilots do this without thinking.  Others seem to want to keep their body totally vertical to the horizon.  We could compensate by applying even more brake to the loose side, but the correct response is to let yourself – your body – go with the wing.

Remember the ultimate goal is to keep the wing loaded equally across the span.  Go with the wing!

More experienced pilots might decide, in the gentle turbulence at least, to do almost the opposite.  Their goal is to control the roll.  By keeping the wing stable on the roll axis it will be much more efficient as it glides through the air.  I tend to focus on this on long glides when I’m looking for maximum performance, but when it gets too turbulent, I let myself “go with” the wing – to keep the wing loaded – to avoid the collapse.


If you put the 3 Ps into practise when flying you’ll be displaying excellent wing control and limit your chances of suffering a collapse.  These skills might become intuitive when gliding, but make sure you’re also putting the 3 Ps into practise as you thermal, controlling your pitch, reacting to the pressure and keeping both halves of the wing loaded throughout the turn.  This will not only help keep you safer, but also lead to more efficient thermalling.  Putting all three Ps into practise when thermalling might not come naturally at first, but keep them in mind the next time you go flying and you’ll start to feel more and more in control.  As always, the most important skill comes before we even launch, so more important than any of this is your decision to fly.  If it looks too turbulent for you, deciding not to take-off is the bravest decision of all.

All those years ago, on my very first XC flight in Annecy, the memorable highlight was the smooth glide across the lake.  I found out later, that my guide didn’t know which wing I was flying.  He hadn’t seen me and I was in reality perhaps a little too low to be making the lake crossing.  (I try to know which wings my clients are flying when I’m guiding!!) Despite my rather perilous crossing I did just make the other side of the lake.  Having crossed the lake (in Annecy you can normally arrive just a few metres off the ground and still climb in the valley breeze) I was able to climb again and even completed the task.  I must have made that crossing a hundred times since then.  Nowadays I battle those thermals with much more confidence and always climb higher before crossing that lake!

If you really want to to take your own flying to the next level, you’ll need to roll up your sleeves.  Particularly if you agree with the idea that developing wing control skills is essential to being a safe pilot, find a well run SIV programme and develop your skills properly. Reading this article is just the beginning.

Toby Colombé

December 2017

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