Paragliding Days 101 Through 114, or… An Exercise In Recalibration

One week ago I flew a double-session that in some respects represented the most positive aviation experience I had enjoyed in months. In the morning I headed to POTM’s Southside, found conditions supportive of a gentle sledder, geared up to a degree excessive for the anticipated flight but useful for routinization of procedures in more complex circumstances, had a smooth launch and uneventful flight, and then eschewed a return-ride to the top in favor of an invigorating hike. In the evening I went to The V, had a nice launch, got too fixated on tracking to thermal triggers, allowed this lack of situational awareness to create marginal circumstances for reaching the main LZ, made the relatively conservative yet absolutely fraught decision to land on the fire road, managed the situation of a cross-wind landing in a messy LZ competently, and then had a sweltering hike down to a location whence I could summon an Uber.

After that SS morning I found myself reflecting that this had proved the first flying experience in months where I was not scared. I just showed up, did my thing, and felt competent, safe, and in control through the whole process. Patience, persistence, and diligence were gradually paying off.

During the V evening I got myself into a gnarly situation but, realizing my peril, managed every subsequent step calmly and competently. I heard “that’s a bold move, buddy” from Joey Jarrell over the radio, realized I had suffered task fixation to the detriment of total situational awareness, went into problem solving mode, acted strategically on prior anecdotes from other pilots landing on the fire road, and then made it to a fairly optimal touchdown location. I was angry at myself for getting into a bind but also happy I had the ADM and tactical technique to muddle through.

A couple of quotes from the How To Recover From Frightening Experiences section of Gavin McClurg’s recently released Advanced Paragliding book resonate.

Fear comes from the unknown. If we can analyze what happened and understand the process that led to the accident or incident, the fear goes away and understanding takes its place. To reduce fear, we need to understand. ~ Veso Ovcharov

I think you have to be really honest with yourself and accept the fact that it will take time. … We have to live with the fact that paragliding is dangerous. Sometimes you get unlucky. We have to either accept that risk or go home. I decided I have to accept it. ~ Tom Do Dorlodot

I had been doing a lot of analysis and drilling to sort through the former since my Spring mishap — diagnosis and focused training with Chris Santacroce, SIV with Brad Gunnuscio, supervised flight with Ben White, boatloads of ground handling, as well as serious thinking about my gear, training, body morphology, personal psychology, etc. Nonetheless my amygdala doubtless needed lots of the latter — time and positive experiences — to get past the recency bias we all experience.

And yet recency bias, almost by definition, offers a double edged sword — recent smooth and joyful patches leave us just as over-confident as terrifying misadventures render us unduly timid (woe betide the new pilot yet to experience their first ordeal). I don’t doubt the relevance of this in my fire road landing at The V. Two days prior, likely owing to the smoke cover of nearby forest fires, I had had a preposterously mellow flight there with Andrew Ross and Alex Bogner. The morning prior I experienced a super chill Southside session. And then maybe I got over-confident. On my first ever V flight I was hyper-fixated on being absolutely sure I would make the main LZ, the subsequent two V flights doubtless built complacency, on the fourth one I got myself into a pickle, and on my fifth one a couple days ago I was once again hyper-vigilant about making the main LZ (which was exciting enough because substantially thermic conditions made the LZ feel much smaller than any previous landing). I should have been roughly equally concerned with every flight but damn our monkey brains.

As I zoom out to look at how I’m approaching the sport differently, a few areas emerge:

  1. greater conservatism about the conditions in which I fly
  2. more indifference to the progress of others
  3. improved exposure to serendipitous mentorship opportunities
  4. more skeptical assimilation of the advice of others
  5. bigger focus on drilling versus flying
  6. increased emphasis on understanding weather
  7. versatility of equipment for varying conditions (now 37m, 25m, and 14m wings)
  8. rigorous change control of variables (waited for SS flight to first fly new harness)
  9. enhanced appreciation for being a multi-sport athlete with no urgency to fly
  10. more liberal “permission” not to fly if I’m just not feeling it in that moment

There are people who started flying around the time I did who have progressed to a level I’ll be lucky to match in five years. That’s OK.

I’ve missed a bunch of flyable moments because I was perhaps playing it a little too safe. That’s OK.

I’ve cultivated a habit of asking myself a simple question before every flight — “Do I want to risk the next several decades of flying and everything else I love on this one flight?”

We all come to launch with a wildly different collection of parameters:

  1. Innate personality
  2. Accumulated experiences
  3. Body morphology
  4. Historical injuries/ailments
  5. Athletic conditioning
  6. Life priorities
  7. Perception of risk
  8. Tolerance of risk
  9. Momentary distractions
  10. Financial resources
  11. External obligations
  12. Social network
  13. Living setup
  14. ???

How wise would it be to compare yourself to others in such a high-stakes sport when so many variables govern your experiences? This game is a risk management pressure cooker like few others. Don’t take that lightly.

You have your whole life to fly. Ensuring that that life is not unduly disrupted or truncated is left as an exercise to the reader.

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