the FASTEST way to get good at XC flying in 2020

A ring-side seat

“Competitions aren’t my thing!”

….that’s exactly what I used to say.

Paragliders are to aviation what skateboards are to wheeled vehicles. So isn’t the whole idea of racing bits of floppy cloth through the skies a slightly ridiculous idea anyway?  And more importantly, isn’t the absolute freedom that paragliding represents at odds with competitive behaviour?

About 15 years ago, I used to fancy myself as a pretty handy XC pilot. At the same time I also cunningly avoided competitions, reasoning fairly early on (having been subjected to those daring-do stories) that they were probably for the marginally unhinged, and definitely not for me.

Whilst enthralled with the adventure of XC flying, and in my quest for bigger and bigger distances, and probably in a semi-trance state, I found myself being unwittingly convinced by an overly enthusiastic friend of mine that I really should give this comp thing a go. So I did. I gave it a go.

Fast forward a few years and after competing in one or two competitions per year I surprised myself by flying a tandem distance world record.  A few years later I started to do well enough in competitions to qualify for PWCs and there I did well enough to be selected for the British Team.

Thermals aren’t always quite THIS busy!

What happened?

At that very first competition, did I suddenly discover that competitions were in fact my thing?

Well, not really.  As much as I liked the parties, when it came to the flying I found plenty of things not to like (more of which in a moment).

However, what I did recognise, quite quickly, was that I had unwittingly stumbled upon…

THE fastest way to improve XC flying.

I should also add that this came at the cost of a quite painful self-diagnosis: I was nowhere near as good as I had previously assumed.

When you bomb-out having failed to connect with any thermal whatsoever as everyone else “specks-out” to cloud-base; as you expertly core your thermal only to see others screaming up past you in some magic part of the thermal that you hadn’t noticed; as you glide down and others glide up – it’s difficult not to be disheartened.

And therein lies the crux!  It’s that humbling realisation that there’s so much more to learn – In no other arena is this more evident than in competition.

Whilst I’ve begrudgingly learnt to love competition flying, my motivation was really always to improve my XC flying.  But, it’s in competition flying, that we find the best crucible for learning and for me it proved to be the best way to sharpen my XC skills.

Conspiring together

Forgive me if I digress momentarily into the philosophical.  Did you know for example that the word “competition” derives it’s meaning from the Latin word “competitionem” which literally means “to strive towards a common goal” or “to conspire together”.  Somehow that made everything sound much more palatable; to me at least.

There’ll always be those that hitch their happiness to your failure.  We might call them “overly competitive”, or something else!?  Those pilots are few and far between and easily ignored.

Of course it’s admirable to want to do our best, but that in no way conflicts with the idea that by “conspiring together” we can achieve something even greater for everyone.  No pilot for example will ever fly as fast or as far as they can when flying together with other good pilots of a similar level.

But XC Flying is not the same as Competition Flying

I’d be the first to admit that cross country flying IS indeed different from competition flying.  There are different skills, BUT I have to say the overlap is huge.  Having a bash (even if only at one or two)  remains THE FASTEST way to get good at XC flying.  I’ve seen the results, not only in my own flying, but countless other pilots. It’s not the only way, but it is the fastest.

Here’s what you’ll learn faster:

1.You’ll SEE the air

With a hundred pilots thermalling in just two or three thermals, you can SEE the air. You’ll quickly get the big picture, and you’ll get the picture like never before.  You’ll see the core going up quicker, you’ll see that there are almost always several cores, you’ll see the thermal slowing down, you’ll see the inversion; you’ll see the top of the thermal; you’ll see how the thermal pumps and then calms only to pump again, you’ll see the thermal drifting with the wind.  You’ll get the whole picture.

One of the biggest skills that defines any XC pilot is the ability to visualise the air, to understand how it’s flowing, where the thermals are coming from, where the stronger cores are, where the edges are and so on.  Of course you can learn some aspects of this by reading a book, but ours is a practical undertaking.  Flying with, and watching for real, this big multi-coloured spectacle of gliders, will ram home your understanding of how our medium, the air, is moving – like nothing else ever could.

2.You’ll learn to thermal better

Well, this might start with you realising that there are lots of pilots thermalling better than YOU!  But suck it up and battle on.  Watch those good pilots and marvel at how they climb past you – then go and ask them HOW they did it.

You’ll find most pilots are only too happy to share.  I remember in the early days of flying competitions, if I ever bumped into a thermal (often inadvertently!) I’d doggedly stick with it even as other pilots climbed past me.

Gradually I grasped that multiple cores are very common and it usually pays to take your money off one and replace your bet.

Reading this, you probably understand intellectually, but you’ve got to see it to believe. You’ll learn quicker than ever before, and you’ll take those skills straight back to your XC flying.

3. You’ll see those lines

I remember good pilots always talking about getting a good line.  What’s that all about?  Once again, you’re going to get a ring side seat.  As you glide off to your next thermal with your eyes peeled, watch as gliders carve subtly different tracks through the sky.  We’re in the realms of the black art here, but even in your first comp, things will start to click – subconsciously you’ll be harvesting all this information and you’ll notice the quality of your XC decision-making improve.

There are so many other reasons for having a go and it doesn’t have to be about learning all the time.  For most pilots entering a competition it is also a good excuse to meet people, explore a new venue, be assured that your retrieves are all sorted and get some very cost-effective airtime.

The reasons (and excuses) not to compete

I fully believe that before you enter your first competition you should have some XC experience under your belt.  For the lower level competitions you don’t necessarily need an awful lot, but you do need some.  You’ll also need to be fairly self-sufficient on launch and as always the better your glider control skills, well, the better.  Here are the most common reasons or excuses (you decide) that some pilots use for not giving it a go:

  1. Won’t the launch be crowded?

    The answer is yes or no. It’s up to you. If it’s your first comp (or umpteenth!) there’s really no shame whatsoever, in taking off last.  Whilst you’ll probably learn more by taking off early (usually flying with the better pilots); as with XC flying, it’s always YOUR decision.  Treating the flight as just another XC flight (with maybe lots of gliders in front and all that information) is a totally valid approach to take.  You probably won’t win the day, but hey only one pilot ever does.  Meanwhile, you’ll have a more relaxed flight and still get most of that visual benefit we were talking about.

  2. Won’t the gaggles be too busy?

    This is a very valid concern.  Your focus should be, as always, on safety.  If you don’t feel comfortable flying with lots of other pilots then, don’t.  Early on, I used to find a thermal of just 3 or 4 gliders a bit too much.  Flying with just one other glider (and preferably a “friendly-looking” one!) was my ideal.  Even now, I find that big gaggles can get quite intense, but often that’ll be dictated by the conditions and even my mind-set on a particular day.  So, once again, you get to choose.  Gradually, with experience, you’ll start to become more and more comfortable flying with other gliders.  Take that journey at your own pace.

  3. Will I be OK even if I’ve got no idea about how to use a GPS?

    I wrote another article about how to use your GPS in competitions, so I’ll simply say that the power of the GPS is not to be ignored.  Most of what helps us make good XC decisions is pretty simple.  In your first competition the chances of making a GPS error are very high…. but that’s all part of the learning, and once again you’ll take that back with you into your XC flying.

A final thought

As you probably know I’m the organiser for the GIN Wide Open competition.  I believe it to be the best first comp you could choose. When I set up the GIN Wide Open 7 years ago, my overriding motivation was to share this learning environment with as many pilots as possible.  I wanted it to be an international event, but most of all I wanted it to be fun; and I wanted it to be less serious and even more fun than a normal competition.

If you’re wondering whether or not to have a go; then go on, give it try!  Look at it as a laugh, a social event AND a chance to improve.  Most importantly, ENJOY what is a very unique sport indeed and even if racing skateboards through the sky never really becomes “your thing”, at least you’ll have had a go.

After all, the real winner, IS definitely the pilot having the most fun!

Toby Colombé

Want more?

There are lots of other ways to improve you’re your XC flying (or even start flying XC).

In 2020, I’ll regularly be sharing flying hints and tips and things of interest to all paraglider pilots.

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