Cross-Country Flying 101
by Will Gadd, with input from many top pilots who patiently and repeatedly
answered the question, "What's important for successful XC flying?"
The first step toward successful cross-country flying is simply leaving the
security of the local hill and venturing out into the wide world. It doesn't
matter if a an XC flight ends one or 100 miles from the start point, but that
it was attempted. For every flight that ends in a new LZ requires the same
basic set of skills: An appreciation of local conditions, constant analysis of
immediate air conditions in flight and, above all else, a safe place to land
at the end of a flight.
The planning of an XC flight is often as or more important than the actual
flight. For example, task committees at competitions set tasks every morning
armed with the best information they can gather on wind speeds, possible cloud
development, barometric pressure, satellite photos and every other scrap of
information they can muster. As your own task committee, get as much
information as possible before setting your task. There are also days that
simply aren't good for going XC; rather than forcing a day to meet your goal,
set your goal around the day. Assuming the day looks reasonable for XC flying
(no thunderstorms forecast for noon or other large-scale problems), a good map
of potential routes is essential, preferably one with airspace restrictions,
mountain ranges, major roads, powerlines, railroads and other feature visible
from the air.
Information from any local source about XC flying always has to be examined
with an eye toward who is giving it, but I like to pump local HG and PG pilots
about where they have been and what happened. For example, they may know that
a local canyon turns into a death venturi about noon every day, as well as
good thermals or areas where the powerlines make landing all but impossible.
After establishing the general conditions for the day and area, the next step
is to set some kind of goal and state it: "I'm going to fly from Aspen to
Leadville." Even if you don't make your goal, you'll still learn something
about XC flying, while you're guaranteed not to learn anything if you're
boating around with 20 other pilots at the regular hill. XC flying in a group
has advantages, but it's often difficult to get anyone to go with you. Break
the herd mentality and go anyhow, but try to tell someone generally where
you're going in case you don't show up later. In many states, a fishing
license covers rescue costs for the purchaser; it's a small investment that
can go a long way.
Because paragliders go upwind very poorly, upwind flying should be kept to a
minimum. Understanding local wind conditions such as the difference between
morning, afternoon and evening valley flows versus predominate winds aloft can
be critical. Using Aspen as an example, the wind usually flows down the
valleys in the mornings and evenings and up the valleys in the afternoons,
often in direct opposition to the winds aloft. If you're flying XC in valley
terrain, generally plan your flight to go with the wind aloft, but realize
that the wind low in the valleys may be very different. The windward side of a
high mountain ridge may well be the lee side of a ridge facing the same
direction in the valley and vice versa; it usually only takes getting rotored
hard once to appreciate this phenomena.
Say the wind is out of the West, and you're flying a valley that generally
runs from south to north, with the top of it at the North end. It's evening,
you're getting low and returning from a long XC, and you're coming down the
valley from the north. A long spine sticks diagonally out into the valley from
the East side, it's in the sun, and it's about a perfect glide from where you
are now. You know the wind is from the west aloft, so you head for southwest
side of the spine, arrive there very low and get hammered because the valley
wind, with a strong valley flow, is pumping down the valley, essential from
the North. You get rotored into the trees, it gets dark, you have a lousy walk.
Although it may seem morbid, I repeatedly analyze my current XC flying
situation by asking myself, "What's the worst possible thing that could happen
here?" This tool helps me choose what I want to do in light of what could kill
me. If there is a set of high-tension wires between me and my next thermal
source, then it's key to get enough altitude to clear them. Every paragliding
flight has numerous situations that could be lethal, but I think being aware
of the possible dangers is critical to avoiding them. For example, scratching
valiantly all way down to an LZ is a good effort, but not if it puts the pilot
too low to glide to a safe LZ (funny how trees tend to get bigger when you
have to glider over them).
Understanding the dangers in every given situation also forces the pilot to
have a plan. I like to think of XC flights as a series of small steps that
connect individual points into a line ending at a goal. If you fly with a plan
and an attitude of success, you won't get bogged down in indecision until you
waffle your way to the ground. Decide what you think will work and then try to
do it; if your plan doesn't work you'll at least learn something about what
not to do instead of suddenly being on the deck for no good reason.
Once in flight, always have an LZ you can effectively use within an easy
glide. While XC gods can get away with diving into areas without LZs, it's not
a good plan to start with. Once you gain altitude and go on glide to your next
thermal source (cloud, ridge, whatever), switch from your first LZ to a new
one. This process will soon become instinctive, but until it does LZs define
XC flying. Like driving an unfamiliar road at night, safe XC flying demands an
extra safety margin for unexpected conditions.
An often-heard XC mantra goes, "When you're high, fly the sky, when you're
low, fly the ground." Clouds are usually the best indicators of lift, so try
to get to cloudbase and then work from cloud to cloud, paying attention that
the cloud you're shooting for isn't developing extremely rapidly or decaying.
"Fly the sky" just means flying from one cloud or cloud street to another,
based on how the clouds are developing or dissipating. It's hard to make the
switch from looking at the ground for thermal sources to the sky for lift, but
the paradigm shift is essential for long-distance flying.
While thermaling up under a cloud, remember to look at the cloud regularly;
it's amazing how quickly you can be hundreds of feet below it one moment and
totally whited out the next. Plan your last turns to take you to the edge of
the cloud, and leave a safe margin so you don't get sucked into the cloud. If
you do get sucked into a cloud, radical spiral diving is often the only
effective method of descent in strong lift. As I approach the bottom of a
cloud, I like to dump trim, step on the speed bar and, if necessary, pull big
ears while blasting out from under it. If the lift is extremely strong, get a
bearing on your compass before you hit the edge of the cloud so you can
navigate out the side in a worst-case scenario.
While it's important to fly the sky, sooner or later you either end up low or
flying on a day with no clouds. First, while you are high and on days with
clouds, try to connect the cloud to the feature or area that's causing the
cloud. Try to find patterns to thermal development for your area for
particular types of days; on days with strong winds, thermals more often come
off spines; low-wind days generally result in thermals from bowls, while areas
where multiple ridges come together are often very reliable. While every
pilot has theories on what works for thermals and what doesn't, it's essential
to develop your own models and check their accuracy, because in flight you've
only got yourself.
If you get low, pick a likely spot in the sun, one that meets all your mental
requirements for what a likely spot is, and wait for a thermal. If you get to
a suspected trigger point and find no thermals but zero sink, wait and things
will probably get better. You wouldn't leave your local site if a thermal
didn't come through in thirty seconds, so treat your likely thermal spot the
same way. Ridge soaring is one good but often overlooked trick for staying in
the game while flying XC; you can use valley wind flow on a ridge to soar
until a thermal comes through, just be careful to establish wind direction early.
Watch the vegetation, dust and trees to determine local wind direction. For
example, dry grass leans over in line with the wind, while leaves will flip
upside down with the wind. In addition to establishing wind direction, these
changes often indicate that thermals are lifting off near the disturbance.
Dry, dark areas of ground produce better thermals than wet, lighter-colored
areas, with moisture content more important than color. For example, dark, dry
fields are usually very active thermal generators while green grass seldom is.
In general, height is safety in paragliding, both in case you put your wing
through a maneuvers clinic and also so you don't land early and watch all your
friends fly over your head at cloudbase. Be patient with the day while flying
XC, which means waiting for good conditions to develop, and also flexible,
meaning that it's not only OK but often imperative to modify your goal as the
day changes. Flats generally take more time than mountain ridges to start
working, as do deep valleys or shady hillsides. If there's no development for
the next ten miles of air, get under a cloud and just wait for the sky to
improve. Likewise, unless you're at cloudbase, don't fly over shady areas.
Thermals come from the sun, so no sun almost certainly means no thermals, no
matter how much try.
Fight to the bitter end to stay up, but always accept your fate early enough
that you can still make a good landing in a safe LZ. Allow more room for error
than you would at your local LZ; think about how carefully you looked at your
local LZ the first time you flew it, then think about having to establish the
hazards and problems of a brand new LZ from the air. Look at the ground for
strings of telephone poles (visualize the wires running between the poles both
in straight lines and at right angles to unseen poles), ridges that could
cause mechanical turbulence, drifting smoke, wind on lakes, dust blowing and
any other clue you can find for wind direction and hazards in your LZ of the
When choosing an LZ from the air, pick one shaped like a runway rather than
one shaped like a square. All other things being equal, long and narrow is
better than short and wide because you can line up on final and not worry
about needing to turn near the ground if you get unexpected lift or sink at
the last minute.
I like to land fast rather than boating around waiting for something bad to
happen, especially in strong mid-day conditions. If I'm landing in a baking
field, I usually pull in two lines of big ears and come in hot, only flaring
as my feet almost hit the dirt. I've seen too many accidents where people come
into an LZ and float aimlessly around, until they get hit with a strong
thermal cycle or dust devil close to the ground. Although I'm not sure why, it
seems like landing in a field often precipitates thermals out of that field. A
wing in serious big ears coming in fast is extremely stable and more likely to
simply slam through small, violent thermals than be slammed by them.
If youre committed to an LZ and you suddenly see powerlines in your path,
it's better to crash downwind, stall your glider or B-line to the ground than
to hit most powerlines in LZs. If the electricity doesn't kill you the fall
out of the lines will.
Remember to radio your potential landing position while you still have a line
of sight or communication with other pilots in the air. Your signal goes much
farther from 500 feet above the ground than it will once you have landed.
Equipment for XC flying
-A wing you feel totally comfortable on. XC flying puts enough demands on a
pilot's skill without having to learn how to fly a difficult wing.
Competition wings do have good glide and speed, but it's more important to
trust your equipment in the lee of a big ridge or while landing in a
tree-encircled LZ than to glide a little farther.
-A map of where you're going and where you could conceivably end up. Most
hunting stores sell these nifty clear map holders you can strap to your leg. I
put my cheap compass in this clear case so I can navigate out of clouds should
I get sucked into one.
-A first aid kit fortified with industrial strength painkillers. If you crash
a long way from a road, your only chance may be to take good painkillers to
help prevent shock and keep you clear-headed enough to talk to the rescue helicopter.
-Radios, both yours and the chase crew's, should have adequate batteries. I
like to carry a spare clip of alkalines that I can plug into my radio in an
emergency. Agree on a frequency and write that frequency down so that if the
dial gets pumped you can remember which channel to use.
-A GPS is a great tool for judging wind speed, landing position, air speed and
distance. Two GPSs are especially handy when flying over featureless areas,
one for you and one for the chase vehicle. "I'm over the brown field"
generally won't get you retrieved, while Lat. and Long. coordinates will.
-Cell phones are increasingly useful for retrieval, especially if you fly with
a list of numbers for all your flying buddies with cell phones.
-Water and food, especially water. You can walk two or three days without
food, but you're dead without water.
-Matches, a signal mirror and flag tape are also all useful.
Bio: Will Gadd flew more 1000 total XC miles on his Edel Energy during the '95
season, and hopes to fly many more this year. The opinions above are gathered
from his own experience and comments from many other pilots.