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