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Learning to fly

Here's John up and away for one of his early flights.

Here's John up and away for one of his early flights.

There are some sports which can be picked up from casual contact, dabbling by yourself or informal lessons with unqualifed adepts. Paragliding is not one of these sports. While a paraglider is a simple machine in itself, the way it flies is much more similar to other, much more complex, kinds of aircraft than might be obvious. A paraglider’s wing works in the same way as any other, creating lift, drag, being possible to stall and so on. It’s not an overgrown kite. Similarly, the paraglider has it’s own envelope within which it can be flown safely, and that window is probably the smallest among manned aircraft. Paragliders, being both unpowered and so light, are at the mercy of wind and turbulence like no other aircraft. For these and many other reasons, it’s essential that a person wishing to fly paragliders get proper training before doing so.

I don’t think any sane person would try to fly a powered aircraft without an instructor strapped in next to them. I don’t imagine anyone would strap on scuba gear and jump in the ocean without a dive instructor right alongside them. Both are different scenarios from trying to fly a paraglider but both are similar in that they would both require the newcomer to operate unfamiliar equipment correctly and accurately without hesitation. Both of these scenarios would also put the newcomer into an unfamiliar three-dimensional world in which he might easily become disoriented. Why would anyone deliberately put themselves into such a situation? I did once and was lucky enough to escape relatively unharmed, but many are less fortunate. You can read the story of how I started my paragliding career the wrong way here.

I get on average a letter a month asking for advice on where to go learn to paraglide. It’s a tough one to answer and the answers aren’t usually popular with the ones doing the asking. Of course you would think it’d be an easy thing to point the inquirer to one of several good schools which operate from Taiwan’s hills. Sadly, you’d be wrong.

Successful and safe training requires four elements:

  1. Appropriate training program
  2. Qualified instructor
  3. Suitable flying site
  4. Suitable equipment

Let’s have a look at these elements one by one.

Appropriate training program

Paragliding has changed dramatically over the last 15 years during which it has mushroomed. Gliders themselves are radically different from what we were flying back in the ’80’s, and so has the way that they are flown, and naturally the way paragliding is taught has changed a lot since then. An appropriate modern program will consist of some days of classroom lessons, some days of ground school working with the equipment while on the ground, some low training flights and finally some high flights during which turns and figures will be flown. As a rough average from the requirements of different countries, a good program must contain at the bare minimum 8 hours of classroom study, 8 hours of ground school and a total of 25 flights while under direct supervision. In my experience a good school will present about twice the amount of classroom and ground sessions, and up to 40 flights before handing over a novice license. Well, in most of the world anyway. Of course we in the West we had our own bad old days. Back in the ’80’s and even ’90’s a lot of accidents occured due to basically poor instructional standards. Being the West, when people started falling out of the sky most of these accidents were noted, the causes analyzed and (slowly sometimes) the knowledge gained was used to improve training standards. Many countries which began paragliding later than those of western Europe were able to take advantage of the lessons already learned by others.
The best training in the world in my opinion is in Europe, though most of the material is only available in German or French. In the English-speaking world I think the Australians have the best developed program. You can take a look at that in this chapter of the HGFA Operations Manual.

Unfortunately, most modern information is presented in western languages and until the advent of the internet, probably not widely available in Taiwan. Taiwan’s tiny pilot population has not warranted any commercial translation of important books on paragliding into Mandarin or Taiwanese. In my experience, most programs offered in Taiwan consist of only rudimentary ground school, little or no classroom study, and as few as 6 flights under instruction. Even the examination system which the Chinese Taipei Aerosports Association has in place is based on the outdated British requirements of the ’80’s, and even those are diluted to make it easier for the students to obtain the licenses.

Qualified instructor

It’s essential an instructor is himself properly trained to teach paragliding. While there are many naturally talented pilots and instructors out there, no one naturally knows how to present a full course of instruction to each and every student, and no one could have all the knowledge needed to teach that course without having had formal training themselves. Finally, the exams for instructors should evaluate them on how they work with real students on real sites, in real conditions. In the USA, paragliding instructors are required to take the same FAA instructional courses and exams as those who will teach General Aviation.
Of course it’s not all roses in the western world and there do exist some pretty unscrupulous individuals who care more about making money than safety, and more about their own convenience than turning out well-trained pilots. In most countries however there is a system for the review of instructors and their own licenses can be revoked if they fail to implement changes deemed required by the governing bodies.

The situation in Taiwan seems to be a bit different. No one is required to have any kind of license before laying out a glider and taking off. No one has to belong to or be licensed by any association or club before accepting students or calling himself instructor. Unless the land owner prevents such actions there is nothing to stop anyone doing these things. Also, there is no system in place at time of writing by which instructors can be reevaluated, disciplined or censured. Once you pass the (entirely theoretical) instructor exam set by the CTAA, the license is yours forever, whatever you do.

Unfortunately the results speak for themselves. Taiwan is in itself not a dangerous place to fly, but it has one of the highest fatality rates in this sport in the world from informal collection of accident statistics.

Suitable flying site

Taiwan is home to some excellent flying sites. Some of them are even described as world class. Unfortunately most of them are unsuitable for training students.

Ideally, a paragliding school should have access to three kinds of site. One smooth flat area for teaching ground handling with nice grass and no big obstructions around it to cause turbulence. Of course it’s nice if it’s close to food and drink, plus a shady spot for students to take a break and coach to give theory lessons.
The second requirement is a shallow slope down which students can fly within a few meters of the ground. In the first flights the students might need a lot of room in which to take off successfully, and for sure they want a large place to land, free of obstacles, so they can land smoothly wherever they happen to meet the earth again.

In Taiwan, all such land was long ago buried under factories or suburban sprawl. To my knowledge not one student in Taiwan ever learned on such a site. Instead, all training flights are conducted from high sites with any of the following dangers: Cliff launch, steep slopes, heavy jungle or forestation, tiny landing area or one surrounded by dangerous obstacles. You can take a look at the sites page to see for yourself how few sites are suitable in any way for training ops.
The last site needed is the high site. This more advanced site is for wrapping up the beginner lessons with higher, longer flights during which the students will learn to turn smoothly, fly at different speeds and make more complex landing approaches. Of course to be safe they must have a large and unobstructed place to land. Unfortunately Taiwan has only one such site, and even that one has a launch which is a bit advanced and intimidating for beginners.

A further factor is the human one. I find it very important that students come into paragliding with a sober understanding of the possible dangers, but also a confidence that given the right approach, they will have a safe experience. In my opinion there is so much unsafe behavior being practiced at local sites that students are easily scared by what they see everyday on the hill.

Suitable equipment

Paragliders vary in the level of their performance and their passive safety is more or less the inverse of performance. Beginners should fly gliders that are forgiving in their handling characteristics, easy to ground handle and fly. Performance gliders are difficult for beginners to handle even in benign conditions. It’s easy to overpilot a more advanced glider and once they are outside of the normal flight envelope it requires quick and accurate intervention to avoid an accident. A sensible person would not learn to drive in a Ferrari, but instead start with something easier and move up from there if he wanted to.
A great many instructors yield to the temptation to teach on what glider they have, rather than what’s needed.

So how to learn?

My best advice to anyone seeking to learn to fly well is to look outside Taiwan for training. It’s very tempting to listen to those who would tell you it’s cheap and easy to learn locally. It is cheap. I have heard of courses being sold for under NT$10,000. Easy? Well, getting a license is easy, but does that make you a pilot?

Some places to consider in the region are:

Hong Kong. There are no good training sites, but there is a pilot there with an instructor’s license who could at least give you a rating if you learned somewhere that can’t qualify you.

There are two instructors in Bali year-round who turn out good pilots, but neither can give out internationally recognized licenses.
Two Aussie schools, High Adventure Paragliding from the central coast and Alpine Paragliding from Bright, set up camp in Bali during July and August. They run novice programs while there and there are usually places if you book a month in advance. This is in my opinion the best option for a Taiwan-based pilot with limited vacation time.

Japan is expensive and the tuition style makes it possible to get through the course without actually being able to do much for yourself, like take off or land for example. A great many Japanese pilots seem to need hands-on assistance for most of their career. That may be acceptable if you stay and fly at that site forever, but not if you want to go fly out in the real world.

Korea has several schools with acceptable standards but in general the English there is spotty. If you are the learn from theory and then put into practice kind of learner this wouldn’t suit you. Perhaps if you are the type who learns best from doing then this would be okay for you.

There is Nirvana Paragliding in India which seems to be okay. I don’t think they have a lot of western students but they do speak good English and many westerners take paragliding holidays with the help of the school. The school bases it’s courses on the British system but far as I know they cannot yet issue internationally valid licenses.
Gurpreet Dhindsa is active in international competition and offers courses in Himachal Pradesh. He is certified by the BHPA.

A good option is Australia. High Adventure on the central coast have several sites and can operate in a wide range of wind directions. Alpine Paragliding, being in the mountains would give an experience closer to what you’ll find flying in Taiwan. Godfrey Wennes in Manilla is responsible for creating much of the HGFA training syllabus and runs courses in the winter from Mt. Borah.

New Zealand has good schools but British weather. A long way to go for unreliable weather conditions.

California has Torrey Pines Gliderport which turns out hundreds of new pilots per year and very consistent weather. Another in California is another High Adventure out in San Bernadino. Rob & Dianne McKenzie are two of the best instructors I have ever met. They operate at a somewhat more demanding mountain site, but it would prepare you for anything Taiwan could throw at you in terms of terrain and conditions.

If you could make it continental Europe I’d go straight to Switzerland. The French are insane for the most part, so are the Italians. The Germans are in some ways too rigidly organized and ‘by the book’ to turn out pilots with any intuition or common sense. Switzerland has sites for most every wind direction and summer weather is quite reliable. Robair in the east of the country is a great school with many sites to fly and they can teach very effectively in English.

There are some British schools running courses in Europe like FlySpain, mostly France and Spain, which can offer BHPA licenses at the end of their courses.

Going further

Please note that a beginner course is not the be all and end all of paragliding instruction. I’ve just laid out a few ideas here on how to take the first steps. Some pilots are very happy to limit themselves to flying with close support from an instructor, and only flying easy sites in very benign conditions. Most pilots wish to go on to soaring high in thermals, flying cross country or doing aerobatics. Competitions are popular in most countries. Making these steps is naturally faster, smoother and safer if you get some additional training from a qualified instructor. and most schools are able to provide courses to any particular goal.