The First Cross Country Hurdle
The First Cross Country Hurdle
Throughout my first year of paragliding I spoke to numerous pilots who love flying cross country. Each and every one told me how amazing it is, and that as long as you can thermal and connect the dots you can stay in the air. For a year I played with the idea of leaving the home ridge, each time I arrived at cloud base the thought of jumping to another ridge was not only terrifying and stressful but I was left wondering why everyone loved cross country (XC) flying so much. In this post I aim to highlight how, with the help of a coach I was able to pursue my first XC flight.
Defining the problem
My problem with leaving the ridge was landing out in a field with animals. Initially I was in denial about this. It wasn't until I sought help from a coach, that I realised this was holding me back. Once I was able to thermal consistently and get to cloud base, a task was set - Reach 1300m at the end of the home ridge then make the transition to the next ridge.
The coach flew with me, once we were both at 1300m at the end of the ridge we spoke on the radio and started to make the transition.
After leaving the ridge I hit sink and lost height. I felt the gap in height between the coach and I widen, this is when I began to panic. Despite being reassured me via radio that I had plenty of height to make the next ridge I felt unsure and was also aware that I was soon going to be too low to glide back to the home ridge or the designated landing field. On top of this below me was a pig farm and after a friend telling me earlier in the year that when pigs bite they don't stop until their teeth meet I certainly did not want to end up in their enclosure. I turned back and headed straight for the landing field.
In the car and en route back to Algodonales we discussed the flight and came to the conclusion that the thing holding me back is the fear of landing out, specifically in a field with animals. Whether it be bulls, horses, sheep or pigs, I do not want to land with them. The more height I lost the greater my fear became and the louder and faster my 'what if' questions would race though my mind. During the flight the stress and fear became too much, leading to me turning around and ending the flight. The coach highlighted that this fear could result in irrational thinking and potentially dangerous decision making.
I needed to conquer this irrational fear. In order to do this I had to accept a few key points; There is a chance I will land in a field with animals in. There is a chance that these animals might be scared, inquisitive or dangerous. There is a chance that I might get attacked by these animals. I also had to accept that the last thought is irrational. Most animals won’t attack and the most likely outcome is that I will land, bunch up my wing and get out of the field unharmed.
Believing that I will be fine landing out is different to actually doing it. In order to become comfortable landing out I had to get used to animals. Becoming comfortable with animals required exposure, I have walked through a field with cattle in, walked past wild horses and befriended wild dogs. Although I am still not 100% happy being around them I am a lot more relaxed. I also had to get used to landing out. The next two flights ended in landing out. With the coach landing first, leading the way and acting as a windy dummy I felt comfortable and happy to land. The third flight I landed first and by the fourth flight I was happy to land alone whilst the coach watched from the air.
After defining, accepting and acting on eliminating my fear, the coach agreed to take me on my first cross country flight. During this flight he led the way, there were times when I was lower and required a lot of patience to get back up to cloud base. Once both at base we would then push forward to the next thermal trigger and hope to climb again.. There were times when I felt stressed and scared, particularly when I was low and could see horses in the landing options. To overcome this the coach would ensure he was lower than me by going on big ears, this allowed me to change my focus from landing to finding the next thermal. By keeping calm was able to make rational decisions which allowed me to thermal back up to base and continue with the flight. After 20km the thermals seemed to disappear and I had to land. the coach
landed shortly after, we found a bar and had a celebratory drink!
I feel that without the help of a guide I would have taken far longer to make this first step and have conquered the first hurdle in XC flying. I am looking forward to my next XC flight and know that the more I practice the better my fear will become.