Fear can bind you in a web of limitations which leaches the joy from the sport you once loved. Often you don't even know you're afraid, your only sign is that the fun has evaporated like a cloud above the desert.
'What? me? afraid? I'm a daredevil, I'm beyond weakness! '. But deep down, you know. You've probably thought about some of the points below. Once you've acknowledged the fear, you're on first base. Second base is to understand the fear, third to master it, and finally, to let it go, and you're home, free.
1. What if my glider collapses and I can't fix it?
All modern paragliders undergo rigorous aerodynamic testing, which is focused more on stability than performance. Match your glider to your experience level: a DHV1 for training, DHV1 / 2 for recreational flying (or below 50hours airtime), DHV2 for regular experienced pilots, and cross country flying, DHV2 / 3 for advanced / competition pilots only. The glider should recover by itself, if left completely alone for a few seconds. Added to this, you can practice instability manoeuvres in a structured training program called the SIV course, or Safety Course. You'll learn how to fix your glider from every possible collapse. Keep practicing after the course, to keep your edge.
If your glider is un-rated, then check out the next question, for there is a strong possibility of the glider not recovering properly from some situations.
2. What if my equipment fails?
Load tests are very severe. For a glider to have achieved an AFNOR or DHV rating, it must be practicably indestructible under loads the pilot can induce during flight. So equipment failure is likely to have been due to negligence. It is your job to ensure:
Regular factory checks – at least once a year, send your entire kit to your agent / school.
Daily equipment inspection – before you fly, check each part of your aircraft.
Pre-flight checks – before every takeoff, methodically check the vitals (protection, harness, suspension, wing, weather and airtraffic).
Reserve parachutes provide immense psychological comfort, and will catch you if all else fails.
3. What if I get sucked up and can't get down?
It is fairly easy to make a paraglider descend. A B-line stall induces about 7m / s descent. A spiral dive varies between 10 and 25m / s, depending on the glider and your aggression. A full stall – 15m / s. Only in severe cumulus development, or extremely strong winds, will you find lift strong enough to overwhelm your attempts at descent. So the danger of disappearing into the heavens becomes more a danger of not seeing the developing Cumulonimbus cloud. They do not appear instantly – be vigilant, you'll be fine. A simple rule: don't fly when there are 'Cumulonastiness' clouds developing within 30km of where you are flying, or the weather forecast warns of embedded Cunims (thunder-cells hidden in an overcast sky).
5. What if I have a mid-air collision?
It requires two pilots to have a collision. You are one of them. The principle is defensive flying. All paragliders travel at very similar speeds. By varying the amount of brake you are using, you can synchronize your speed with pilots around you. The easiest way to avoid traffic problems is to follow the glider in front of you, at a safe distance, just like driving on the road. This creates space around you, a safe space within which to fly. Indicate your intention to turn. Check around you before you do anything to alter your course. This helps to maintain your space. If someone insists on driving like a drunkard, and collision is unavoidable (ie you could not fly away, or land), a reserve parachute is vital. Throw it.
6. What if I panic?
Panic is caused by overwhelming lack of experience in an extreme situation. Doing the wrong thing in an emergency can just worsen the problem. Fly the glider, whatever is there. You are the pilot, no one else is. By practicing instability manoeuvres on your glider, you increase your experience of extreme situations, little by little. Do an SIV course. They are designed to improve your safety, not reduce it and should help familiarize you with extreme flying dilemmas.
7. What if I crash?
Accidents on takeoff are invariably caused by poor ground-handling skills. The glider begins to fly you, instead of the other way around. Open, clean strips of ground can be found in any town, if you look hard enough. All you need is a wing, and a wind. Go and practice your ground-handling. Pull up with one riser only. Pull up skew. Pull up blindfolded. Pull up with twisted risers. Then keep the glider there, never let it drop back to the ground. Walk it around obstacles. Let go of the brakes, use only your running to balance and steer. Go play in a turbulent air (behind some trees). Then do it all again on a friend's wing.
Accidents on landing can be softened by using the PLF (Parachute Landing Fall). It is a fantastic method for absorbing the impact of a crash. Practice this at home, first on a mattress, then on the grass. It is not a natural body response, so regular practice is essential. The other kind of skill you can cultivate is the landing setup skill. Pick a stone or marker on your landing field every time you land. Reward yourself if you land within a meter from it! This skill may be invaluable when you only have one clear patch in the forest in which to touch down.
8. What if I crash and nobody sees me?
Every pilot's nightmare – crashing in some remote gully, out of sight. First – carry a radio, so that you can contact other pilots. Carry a mobile phone – emergency services are just a call away. Carry some flares – a universal distress signal, in case the other methods don't work. Fly with friends, they'll know you're missing, especially if you make your intention clear by discussing your flight plan before you launch.
9. What if I land in the middle of nowhere?
Always carry some food (biscuits, dates, energy bars, glucose) and water when you fly. Today might just be the day when you hit that boomer, and whistle over the back, landing 50km distant, lost, happy, and far from civilization. With a bit of sustenance, immense walkouts are possible – ask Bob Drury about his 5 day walkout in the Zanskar Range in his Himalayan bivouac adventure! They may be uncomfortable, but you've nothing to fear – you'll live.
10. What if I'm too rusty and I forget to do the right thing?
Humility is your greatest friend here. Adopt the mantra "there is a lot to learn". If you haven't had more than one flight every month, then you are certainly rusty. Pretend your license has been downgraded – if you're a cross-country pilot, you're now an intermediate, if you were a newly licensed pilot, you are a student again. Find the appropriate guidance, let a more current pilot offer assistance. And just get some airtime in mellow conditions. Keep it simple.
11. What if I just get clobbered?
The risk of being clobbered by a freak gust is assumed, in return for the reward of freedom. We all have this fear, in greater or lesser extent. But very seldom is the gust a freak – bad air is normally caused by something. Either by obstructions to the airflow, by shear turbulence, or thermal turbulence. Increase your knowledge of meteorology by reading so that you don't put yourself in bad air. There are very few freak situations that will overwhelm all pilots, but they do exist. This small random risk of being airborne and the random risk of human nature is regarded by some pilots as a beast called the Sink Monster. If you think it's out to get you, all I can advise is that you go to Church on Sunday.
I hope the approach helps you. In each case, you are not ignoring the fear, you are acknowledging that you have it, that it is a legitimate concern. Then to understand it, you need to explore all the angles of where it comes from, and all the information you have on the subject. If you lack information, ask an experienced pilot. If the answer you get doesn't satisfy, ask another. To master the fear means you have contained it, answered all of its questions. It hasn't gone away, but it doesn't control you any more. You are now ready to let it go – pass beyond the fear, having made all the protection that is within your power to make.