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XC Tips

These are some things I wish someone had told me before I had to work them all out myself the hard way...

Some of the biggest XC mistakes- a work in progress

1./ Emotional "thinking"- this is the critical one. To be an effective XC pilot, you need to completely eradicate emotion from the decision making process. Fear, elation, impatience are the three vices which have ended countless flights. None should ever enter unfiltered and unexamined into your rational evaluation. This is not to say that intuition is unimportant, just that the soaring pilot should be able to honestly and rapidly evaluate whether the intuition is due to deep-seated imprints laid down in logical pattern or is being created by emotion. For example- is the intuition to push through this weak climb over a spur a positive choice because I have subconscious patterning which stores information about the type of day, the topography, about the feel of a dying cycle, or the strong development of a cloud shadow just ahead that my conscious brain {short term memory} hasn?t focussed on, or is it a negative choice as a result of the fear that the sharp, rocky spiny ridge below creates? Evaluate the fear as well- How high am I? If I am low, is there no doubt whatsoever in my mind that I can keep the glider flying? Is the air too turbulent for my experience level? Are there better triggers close by? Is this the end or the beginning of a thermal cycle? The short-term memory of human beings can only hold between 5 and 9 {average 7}bundles of information at a time, and in the heat of a competition, or a complex XC decision point, this is quickly filled up, often with the white noise of emotion and outside interference. One way to remedy the situation is to deal with the white noise, as discussed below in section 2. The other way to increase evaluating capacity at this point is to build subconscious knowledge, to imprint deep knowledge. But you can only trust this knowledge to help you to make good decisions if you have eliminated emotion from your decision making process. {Not that you should eliminate it from your flying experience- elation and fear are common and natural emotions. What matters is consciously filtering these emotions prior to making decisions.} You have to do this rapidly- the late HG great Michael Champlin, a highly experienced world record chaser, once reportedly said that if you aren?t making 2 or 3 decisions a minute, you aren?t thinking enough. Experience and trusting the menial work of flight to muscle memory is a large part of this- one has only so much attention and brain computing power to deal with almost infinite stimuli and information, all of it useful to the flight ahead. Being able to concentrate and plan and look around while thermaling is critical to this freeing up of computing power. Ideally, only the most broken of thermals should require near full attention. Always filter fear- sometimes it is justified and keeps us safe and sane. But irrational fear can be crippling. It needn't kill your XC flying, there are ways to deal with it and harness it in helpful ways.

2./ White Noise The second obstacle to XC flight is external white noise. Sometimes this is obvious- radio chatter, trying to find a lost retrieval driver while flying with one hand, worrying about road networks, inconvenient outlandings, mentally reviewing your love life, and thirst, hunger, or cold. Part of meditative quality of XC flight is displacing all of these with full concentration of the complex problems that XC process poses. Take a Camelbak of water and easy to eat snacks, and set yourself a schedule to ensure that H20 and blood sugar levels don't drop. I almost never remember to deal with these two factors and have made some very poor decisions unconsciously as a result. Set a timetable-a sip every 1/2 an hour, something to eat every hour, or better yet, every so many miles, to increase focus on the flight. The same goes for Oxygen use. Write down a consumption level per minute for every 1000ft above 12000ft and stick to it! Oxygen makes a huge difference in keeping you warm, sharp, alert and charged up. A large proportion of the planning process must be made towards and after the top of each climb- what is the upper level drift, what are the cloud shadows doing up ahead? Now that I am high, what weather patterns and changing air masses can I see on the distant horizon? What altitudes were the inversions, if any? What are the appropriate height bands to fly for the day? Given the climb I have just taken, what is the appropriate speed ring setting to choose for this next glide? All of these decision need to be made quickly after a long, exhausting climb, when you are cold and sometimes hypoxic. Keeping fit, hydrated, oxygenated and fed is essential in optimizing decisions. Go through a checklist at the top of each climb, and take care of your body. Your brain is a computer that needs fuel and the right environment to function well. Use a cockpit so that everything is directly in front of you and you can work through it- Oxygen, GPS {what is the drift at altitude}, Camelbak, food, radio {communicate position from altitude to you retrieve crew, if you have one.} Get a stirrup and a very comfortable harness or you'll have tight stomach muscles and will tire much easier. Keeping fresh is your highest priority- all big cross country will use much of the day, and as the day starts to wind down the need to stay alert in tricky conditions only gets greater.

3./Need for Speed I won't go into the subtleties of speed ring settings and advanced sailplane speed-to-fly theory. I will propose a simple rule of thumb that I use in XC to maximize distance, for those without a TopNav or similar flight computer. There are a few provisos and special conditions to remember, but the Speed to Fly in Competition flying and in big {Site, national and world record flying- all big XC is racing against the sun} XC flights on a typical modern DHV 2 , 2/3 or 3 glider when high in good XC conditions is absolute full speed. Fly as fast as your glider will allow between thermals. If there is turbulence, back off sufficiently to keep the glider open, and trim the glider with your feet. As soon as you can, get your feet back on the speed bar. Speed-to-fly aficionados will be quick to point out that this is inefficient, that the extra time spent climbing in the next thermal outweighs the small time bonus in getting to the climb sooner. But the simple fact is that the vast majority of pilots fly far too slowly between thermals, and that this is mainly due to a lack of confidence in their glider when accelerated. Choose the level of glider that you would be confident flying full speed between thermals on a strong day at your local site. For Southern California pilots, this means stable DHV 2/3 as a maximum. The full speed rule is a good enough approximation of the ideal speed to fly, and forces focussing on speeding up as much as possible through interthermal sink. There is a reason that comp pilots fly at maximum speed and that is when you set a paraglider's distance speed-to-fly ring setting to race conditions, on a good day, it is as-near-as-damn-it to full speed-bar whenever possible. Indeed, the only rationalization for slowing down in good race conditions is to play the gaggle game, and obviously this does not apply to solo cross country flying. If conditions are good, pick your next trigger, have a plan B, then boot it. You are always racing against the sun on the good days. There are a few important provisos to this rule of thumb- firstly that the day is a good one, with predictable medium to strong thermal climbs, and hopefully occasional convergence and streeting effects {as a helpful but not necessary condition} Secondly that you are running in the higher lift band {above 50% of the way to cloudbase} or on a clearly defined ridgeline, or other consistent trigger that you have good evidence to believe is working well. If you are desperately low then all bets are off, and it is imperative to shift back several gears into work-anything survival mode. Thirdly that you are high enough and far enough from terrain to deal with the absolute biggest blowout you glider could through at you. Allow enough air for a good cascade, plus a potential successful deployment and them some safety margin. Fourthly, that you are not in strong tailwind. If so, choose some intermediate between full speed and trim speed, but as a rule of thumb it is counterproductive to dial in brake on downwind glides unless you have a defined objective {a non-time-specific goal, a trigger to reach, or a cirque to squeeze through in weak conditions, etc.} Fifthly, that you are not attempting to stay up in a lift band that is providing lift in excess of your glider's sink rate at minimum sink, that you would otherwise drop out of. Sixthly, if you believe you have taken the day?s last climb, readjust your speed ring back from race to maximum distance. Ideally this means a long 25% brake glide downwind to touch down at sunset.

Mentally review these provisos as often as is possible. Above all, always be aware of number three- be safe. But the general rule for PG pilots is to focus on speeding up, and always be aware of the need to swiftly change gears. Most pilots only have second and third gears and never leave them. To get better at XC, you have to add first, fourth and fifth gears to your repertoire, and develop the experience to change very quickly between them as conditions dictate. Above all speed is about being realistic about the conditions. It is all about making a few, high climbs in the strongest thermals, ie. thermal selection. It is about being able to look at a terrain and see immediately not only where the climbs are, but where the strongest climbs are, knowing which thermals to use and which to pass by. It is about not speculatively flying through lift in vain hopes of better. Speed is about knowing if there is better up ahead, or lower down or higher up, and acting accordingly. Flying fast is a numbers game- never perfect but we can always improve by bettering our predictions and playing the odds more to our advantage. There is thus no place in this for speculation and hoping for the best. It is about deciding on plans A, B and C, and ultimately our ability to fly reliably fast and thus far will be dependent on the quality and statistical reliability of those decisions.

4./Patience, Grasshopper Related to all of the above- emotion, distraction, and failure to change gears. The cardinal rule- when low, if you are maintaining and there are no obvious climbs easily reachable, stay there!! Thermals cycle, and sometimes take over 15 minutes to come through a trigger. If it?s a decent trigger that you?ve selected {or should have selected}the light air you are maintaining in probably isn't a thermal-that-won't-get-any-better-so-you-better-run-while-you-have-the-chance. Chances are, it is the wide, amorphous lift that signals the proximity of a core. Look for the core, while always staying within reach of you safety net of zero sink. 15 minutes feels like an eternity, but a core will almost invariably come through and it will be no use to you if you are on the ground. It might be ridge lift, but if you are low, anything that's not down is great. Far too many pilots make desperate speculative decisions hoping to carry on and blunder across a miracle climb somewhere else. Unlikely. If you are low and its weak, your best bet is patience with a source that is sustaining you. Relax, stay focussed on working the light stuff, and patrol like a shark for the core that will eventually rescue you. Above all be patient. This is true first gear, and you should be able to deal with it without frustration or rashness. After the flight, review what decisions placed you in the situation and what could have been done to avert it.

5./ GET A GPS for XC I view a GPS as essential for cross country flying. Some real-life, important applications-

  1. Working out speed to fly and drift,
  2. Using the tracklog to find missing thermals,
  3. Using the compass and map to negotiate cloud,
  4. Finding out which side of a spine is lee and windward, [before you actually dive in],
  5. Picking up the acceleration/decelleration of air around a thermal,
  6. Using the tracklog to compare flights and climbs with other pilots.
  7. Giving retrieve drivers and or rescuers co-ordinates if you go down or need retrieval.
  8. Use the mark function if you need to hide your gear and hike out to safety.
  9. Checking drift and windspeed when you need to land fast in a small LZ.
  10. Early warning- detecting and quantifying increases in windspeed when on a ridge, and potentially averting being blown back.
  11. Use the man-overboard function {Goto-Goto} to mark a spot you want to remember, such as where you dropped something.
  12. A life saver in clouds. Even if you have a compass, this can be spun wildly during turbulence. Set the map to a smallish resolution {2-4km} and focus on keeping the line of your tracklog straight in a particular direction. Often, trying to keep a compass bearing in clouds is difficult, especially in strong drift near a mountain, and you end up overcompensating like a drunken sea-captain because of the lack of a visual point of reference. Watching a nice straight track log in cloud is an immense comfort that a compass just doesn't quite provide.
  13. Review flights on a PC, look at the drift of your climbs and overlay tracklogs to see if particular areas provide reliable or converging lift on everyone's flights {these can be marked as house thermals}

Simplicity is a virtue, but from time to time a look at a GPS is extremely valuable and can be a life-saver. I use a Supair cockpit configuration and can just forget about it until I need it. Differentiating 5 kph headwind from 5 kph tailwind can make a huge difference in glide on long, high transitions. In big, high places like the Owens I have had to look at the GPS a few times to reassure myself I was actually moving?

6./ Commitment

Its been said that 90% of good XC flying is the willingness to inconvenience yourself. There will always be reasons not to go XC. Successful XC flight means being ready to grab every opportunity to escape the paddling pool of the local site, where skill accumulation slows down after a few hundred thermal hours. If you have faith in your capacity to work and get up in almost anything, and land in tight and difficult LZ's, you are ready to cut links with the ground and really fly XC. The routes in the air and mountains very rarely dovetail with those on the ground. In Socal, take a cell-phone, some water and a survival and medical kit, and fly the sky. At the end of the day you can start thinking about finding a way out. If you are serious about long distance XC, this demands a lot of faith in your own judgement, ability and decision making. If you are new to the XC game, start with small, planned XC hops with a defined objective and retrieve, so you don't sacrifice a whole day of valuable practice for the sake of a short XC flight. Have good landing approach skills, a solid understanding of topography, micrometeorology and how it may differ elsewhere from your local hill. Be aware of airspace restrictions, and large, no-road-access desert areas. Plan your flights on a map and have back-up communications planned. Above all, read, ask, pester, and gather information on other's XC flights and the good and bad decisions made. It is true only to a certain extent that experience only comes from making errors ourselves. XC errors can be very serious indeed so we want to minimize potential blunders before we venture far away and out of contact, for it is "out there" that we experience the true exhilaration of knowing that only we can keep ourselves alive and safe. Matt's rule for XC- a good walk with a pack on your back never hurt anyone. PG's were built for XC, so quit boring holes in the sky over launch and use 'em.

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