The 3 most common thermalling mistakes

… and how to thermal better


Round and round “Beep Beep Beep”  The sweet tones of the vario?  Or was that my heart pounding?

Some thermals can feel so sweet, so beautiful, so welcome (and nothing quite beats “the low save”).  But, early on in your flying career, and quite often, a few years down the line, some thermals can scare the “beep, beep, beepy, beep” out of you!

Thermalling with LOTS of pilots!!

My Story

Early in my own flying career, like most pilots, I had a few of those rock-and-roll experiences just to get the idea:  “So that’s what a thermal feels like!!”  Was I supposed to enjoy that?” “I’m supposed to turn in them!!!??”

With more experience and with a growing hunger to actually travel – to go XC, it began to dawn on me that I might have to start riding these fountains if I was ever to go anywhere. And I really wanted to go somewhere, to travel the skies, to go XC.

And so the adventure began!

In my quest to travel XC I knew I would need to don the mental armour required to do thermic battle.  “Knowledge and skill will dispel fear”, I told myself

Whilst many flights fade in my mind, I can still very clearly remember my first bash at thermalling. Unusually perhaps, it also happened to result in my first ever cross country flight.  I managed a not-too-shabby 20km in the French Alps, all by turning in the occasional beep (if I really had to).  Mostly, I tried to stay low. Any higher than the absolute minimum required to scuttle off to the next thermic ride seemed totally unnecessary:  being high also seemed down-right scary.

The most important skill to master for XC flying is the ability to climb faster and higher

In hindsight, I’m pretty sure there must have been quite a lot of lift about as I plotted a course along the sunny Alpine rock faces around Annecy.  Landing less than an hour later (adding an extra 200 meters as I unintentionally overflew the landing field), I started to believe that I had now pretty much mastered the black art of cross country paragliding.  Suddenly everything seemed possible.

It took me a couple more XC experiences (and bomb outs) for me to realize that I’d only just begun to scratch the surface of this black art.

Fast forward a decade or so, and now from honing my own skills through big distance XC flying and the highest level of competition flying I’ve discovered some of “the secrets”.  Guiding thousands of budding XC pilots through mountain and flat land landscapes over the years has also helped no-end.  I get to see pilots hone their skills and grow in confidence, break personal bests and revel in adventure after adventure.

I get to see what works, and what doesn’t.

There are many many ways in which we can all improve our thermalling skills and perhaps that’s part of the draw – the challenge to improve.  It really is an art.

Here are the top three most common mistakes pilots make when thermalling  – and what to do about it

NUMBER 1: Not turning in lift

Passion Paragliding Happy

It might sound almost too basic to be true, but it’s probably the number one reason I see pilots fail to climb or fail to climb quickly.  Somehow many pilots feel they have to know the size of the thermal, the shape, and where the edges are before they can turn and exploit the lift.

Does your curiosity have you flying over the edge?

Having flown (usually at top speed) through an area of lift, many pilots fall out the side of the thermal only then to turn back (whilst in the sink on the side of the thermal) to then head back through the lift and out the other side.  Each time they turn, they are turning in sink.  Sometimes, if the lift is strong enough we might gain some altitude using this technique.

More often than not however, the thermal will leave us behind or worse pinch off to leave us in an even stronger area of sink as we buzz around wondering where the lift went.

Perhaps these type of experiences are a normal part of a pilot’s progression, but the sooner you can master the art of turning in the lift as opposed to turning back for the lift; the better you’ll climb and the higher you’ll climb.

Turning a paraglider means we keep the wing in the same bit of air.  Turning back for a thermal in the sink means we can be sinking pretty badly.  It might well be worth turning back for, but make sure you grab on to it properly the second time.

When you’re low be satisfied with what you’ve got.  Only as you get higher (or it becomes otherwise obvious) should you sniff around for better lift.  You’ll only get so many chances to fall out of a thermal before it leaves you behind.

Turn in the lift and you’ll go up.  Simple, at least as an idea.

NUMBER 2: Not pushing into wind

Thermals drift with the wind.  The stronger parts of the thermals have a stronger vertical vector, so you will almost always find the stronger bit of lift on the upwind side of a thermal.  Not only that, but in circling with a thermal it is often likely that you will tend to be pushed out the back of the thermal. This happens because you are always “falling” through the thermal.  So, whilst you might be climbing in lift you will still be sinking relative to the air around you.  For these two reasons, it’s important to “push” upwind from time to time to find the better lift or even just to stay with the core.

So although I said you shouldn’t necessarily find the thermal edge (especially when low), you should however be inquisitive and you should always be hungry for a faster ride.  Usually you’ll find that faster ride by pushing into wind.  Not only will being hungry for a faster ride ensure you climb faster, it’s actually even more important than that…

You might be happy enough with a 2m/s climb, but if there are 3m/s cores in the same thermal you should take them – not only to climb faster, but just to stay with the thermal.  The weaker parts of the thermal will fizzle out sooner, so finding the stronger bubbles means you can climb higher and will likely stay with the thermal for longer.  Think of climbing faster as an added bonus.

Flying with other pilots is the easiest way to understand where those stronger cores are.  A group of good pilots will always fly faster together than alone.  Being able to see those stronger cores is a huge advantage.  If you are alone, use your imagination and try to feel what your glider is telling you.  By relaxing we can “feel” more.  Most EN-B wings will even pull you towards the better lift.

NUMBER 3: Not turning tight enough

My business, Passion Paragliding runs a lot of SIV & Wing Control Courses.  I really prefer to call it a Wing Control Course (or “pilotage”), because the emphasis should, in my opinion, be on controlling the wing.  Managing incidents (collapses and so on), is of course very important, but if we as pilots can get good at controlling the wing, we can also get good at avoiding collapses in the first place.  It’s interesting to see students on our Wing Control course, often hesitant to turn tightly.  They are often quite understandably wary of spinning their wing.

However, the problem of turning too widely can often mean that we fail to hang on to the core and if the thermal is small we can even lose the thermal altogether.  The vast majority of pilots turn too wide. They therefore fail to climb quickly or worse, lose the thermal altogether.  Turning tighter can be the difference between climbing high and landing.

So how can we turn tightly WITHOUT spinning the wing?  The answer is usually to bank the wing up.  Use weight shift to roll the wing into the core and if the core is trying to push the wing out, be more aggressive with your weight shift.  Throughout the turn you should “stay in touch” on the inside of turn – in contact with the harness, ideally always adjusting your weight shift to keep the wing at a fairly constant angle of bank.  If you do that, you won’t need so much inside brake to turn tightly and you’ll be thermalling safely – staying well away from the spin point.

The other way to avoid inadvertently spinning your wing is to be both sensitive to the pressure on the inside control and very aware of the pitching of your wing and loading changes as you turn.  If turning tightly, you should always be ready to adjust the amount of inside brake you use in order to avoid spinning your wing.  Remember, the spin point – or the amount of brake required to spin a wing will depend on the wing loading.  In more turbulent thermals your wing loading can be changing all the time.  Perhaps in more turbulent thermals you’d be wise to fly faster, particularly if you lack the sensitivity and awareness to avoid spinning your wing.

There’s one final hint that can help you turn more tightly and that’s releasing the outside brake.  Even when thermalling I generally have some outside brake applied.  By releasing the outside brake I can speed up my rate of turn.  I do this to help bank up the wing and hang onto the core.

Learning to turn tighter in thermals requires good wing control skills.  Develop those feelings with care: ground handle often and learn how to control your wing on a wing control course. Do this not only to improve your safety, but also your skills.  By being more “at one” with your wing, cranking it round and climbing fast and safely will become intuitive, almost automatic.


If you’re like me, one of the biggest adventures that paragliding has to offer is cross country flying.  Thermalling is the number one skill we need to master (or at least get reasonably good at) if we’re to travel the skies with ease.  If you’re in lift and it’s big enough, TURN!!!  If you’re in doubt push upwind, to find that thermal again or find the stronger core. Always be hungry for the stronger core and if you can turn tighter onto that core, ride the fontain.

Of course it’s all about practice, but learn to “ride the fountain” and you’ll fly far!  You might even learn to love the beep beep beep, at least most of the time.

Toby Colombé

June 2016

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Fly with PASSION in Ager

Lots of chances to practise thermal flying in Ager

(Spring and Autumn 2018)

World Record holder and British Team member will be showing you how:   Toby Colombé:

  • Understanding what makes good XC weather and how to plan flights
  • How to find thermals
  • How to climb fast and efficiently
  • Gliding efficiently between thermals
  • Speed to fly (made easy!)
  • Psychological tricks to help you perform at your best
  • Dealing confidently with turbulence
  • How to read the clouds and stay safe
  • Advanced strategies to fly further

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