Nik Cook of Ultra FIT Magazine takes to the Peak District skies with Peak Airsports
I often see paragliders above the Peak District hills when out running and biking. They hang like swarms of multi- coloured jelly fish in the sky, whilst soaring along the ridges. It looked like such a magical experience, I just had to try it.
The real joy of the sport is its simplicity and portability. Park up your car – load your wing, harness and kit on your back in an easy to carry rucksack – and head on up the hill. Spend a few minutes running though safety-checks, raise your wing and your off into the sky.
Paragliding is the most affordable, fast to learn, convenient and accessible air sport there is. It’s also (if you’ve been taught properly) incredibly safe with modern canopies that want to fly and wont drop you out of the sky. Most of the accidents that are reported involve ‘unqualified pilots’ who have bought a second hand canopy on-line and have tried to teach themselves!? Following a course with a BHPA (British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association) approved school, will teach you (typically in about 10 days) the skills and knowledge to fly safely and responsibly. Your learning doesn’t stop there though, as once you have gained your Club Pilot rating, you’ll be continuously in contact with experienced pilots who’ll play an active role in your further development.
Learning to Fly
Mark Bosher is the Senior Instructor and sole owner of ‘Peak Airsports’ and his experience as a pilot, club coach and Senior instructor, is second to none. He has flown paragliders and hang gliders in the Peak District for over twenty two years. So, having spent an evening discussing the sport with Mark and being reassured that I wouldn’t maim myself or worse, I was fired up to hit the skies but, as with so many outdoor activities, it was now a waiting game for the weather.
My first taste of the sport came a few days after our initial meeting with a tandem flight. Despite less than ideal conditions we managed to get airborne and had two fantastic flights. Highlights included popping up over a ridge and seeing my home village and hanging within touching distance of a hovering kestrel! Rather than just being a passive passenger, Mark was constantly telling me what he was doing and was starting to prepare me for learning to fly for myself. Joining us on the hill were several other of Mark’s protege’s, who were all well on their way to achieving their Club Pilot rating. As well as flying with me, Mark was constantly instructing them and was like a proud parent as they all took off, soared apparently effortlessly back and forwards along the ridge and softly landed. As with the tandem flight, Mark involved me in their checks and flights and was constantly drip- feeding me with information and familiarising me with the kit and correct procedures. By the end of the day, I was truly bitten by the bug and couldn’t wait for my own taster day course. Unfortunately the vagaries of the Peak District weather put paid to my flying ambitions for a couple of weeks but finally, with a crisp and clear forecast, I got the call from Mark and it was on.
Meeting up in a local cafe with a cup of tea, we went over important safety information and some flight theory. I was joined by another trainee pilot who was about half way to gaining his Club Pilot rating and was looking for some consolidation of the basics before joining Mark for an intensive week of flying in Spain. We then set off to the flying site and after a short hike carrying our kit, we reached a magnificent grassy bowl that was to be our training field. Having set up a wind-sock, Mark then went through how to assess the site for hazards and how to appraise the wind and weather. Next up were parachute rolls. Although you normally land incredibly gently on your feet when paragliding, knowing how to safely roll out of a bad landing is a very useful skill to have. Getting the wings out, I was totally bemused by the expanse of fabric and the seemingly incomprehensible bird’s nest of lines. However, as we worked through the safety checks, and what was attached to what and it slowly started to make sense. I then learned how to put on the harness, attach myself to the canopy and the eight-point safety check to make before every flight – helmet strap, chest strap, right attachment to wing, right hand clip of waist strap, left hand clip of waist strap, left hand attachment to wing, the emergency parachute handle was secure and another check of my helmet strap.
Mark then swapped places with me and gave a couple of demos of what he expected from my first flight’s. This focused on the three position flaring procedure of landing, where both controls are pulled right down to purposely stall the wing. Mark then attached a long rope to me to aid take-off and I stood facing down the slope. Despite Mark assuring me that I’d barely take-off and it would just be a series of hops, as I set off and felt the pull of the inflated wing behind me, adrenaline surged through my veins. With each hop I got a bit further off the ground and with the last one, soared to the dizzying height of about 10ft. Mark talked me through the 3, 2, 1 landing sequence on the radio and I was back on the ground. I then collapsed the wing, and Mark showed me how to rose it up into a neat bundle and we trudged back up the hill. We went through the process six or seven times and with each flight, I gained a fraction more height, became more autonomous in the checks and pre-flight routine and felt more comfortable in the air. When Mark was happy I was comfortable, we moved a bit further up the hill and I was reaching heights of about 30ft with each flight. The sense of freedom in the air was amazing and with Mark’s constant instruction and reassurance, I never felt nervous, scared or uncomfortable with what I was doing. Every small flight was a progression, consolidating on the last and introducing new skills, such as having to compensate for a bit of drift due to the wind.
After lunch, we moved further up the hill again and I was now taking off without the help of the rope. Mark had already said that more height made things easier as you had more time to think and relax. Although initially sceptical about this, he was completely right and being 50ft off the ground gave me the time to really think about the techniques of flying and control. Landings were now becoming second nature and I wasn’t rushing or panicking to get back to earth. By now I’d probably made about 15 flights and the sun was beginning to set on a perfect autumnal afternoon. For my final flight of the day, Mark took me almost to the top of the hill and I launched with confidence really wanting to make this one count. Once up, I let the controls rise to allow the wing to fly and I rapidly gained height. Mark looked tiny below as I rose to over 70ft but he constantly coached me over the radio and I felt completely in control. With enough height he suggested I try a couple of turns so, having checked over my shoulder as if driving a car, I gently pulled the right toggle and allowed the left to lift. The wing turned beautifully and after flying this new course for a while, Mark instructed me to turn back to the left and approach to land. Mark then calmly announced over the radio that he would let me make the landing on my own without his countdown. 10ft off the deck I started the landing sequence pulling both controllers to shoulder-height, at 5ft down, to forearms parallel to the ground and finally, 2-3ft before landing, to an arms extended down position. I touched down with no more force than stepping off a kerb. I was elated and exhilarated from the flight. Mark came down and asked, was I a pilot? I thought for a while, I’d taken off, flown, turned and landed so (in a very embryonic way) I guess I was!
Not bad for my first day!