23 Jun Relearning to Fly

UPDATE:  I found out a few days ago that I actually won the sprint event!  I’m not really competitive when it comes to paragliding, but as I’ve struggled so much recently with my flying, I can’t help but feel super stoked about this! Results can be seen here June 2015 Sprint Results. I also got a nice write up from the league organizer about my decision making for the day…

“Katie Myers (first in Sprint class for the day) was doing well having opted to wait for later conditions to launch.  You can see the exact moment I mention the mammatus clouds over the radio as she opts to leave her thermal to make a final glide to the turn point and land after also noticing the big cloud development.  It’s important to me to honor pilots when they make the safe decision for themselves regardless of how it will affect their score.  Kudos Katie on playing it safe with those menacing clouds.”

As I’ve been doing most weekends recently, I spent the past two Sundays paragliding at my home site in San Bernardino.  Although I’ve been flying consistently the past few months – at least once per week – I haven’t been feeling very satisfied with my flights as, admittedly, I haven’t really been flying at my best.  Though my dream is to fly long distances and eventually get into vol-biv (A combination of flying and backpacking/camping – Click here for more information) lately I’ve been restricting myself to short flights in the smooth air of late afternoon and early evening.  These flights are definitely fun, but they’re not necessarily helpful in accomplishing my goals, for which I need to practice flying in more active air earlier in the day.

I’ve been having a very hard time pushing myself to do this, though. Active air is more demanding and, honestly, more dangerous to fly in, requiring confidence and a clear head.  I know I have the skills and training to fly safely in these conditions, but it’s these last two qualities I’ve been lacking recently.

The flying community has been hit by several accidents in the past year, including the loss of pilots I have known and called friends. As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve struggled a lot with fear in the air, and this series of incidents has left me even more shaken up.  For a time, I even had to take a step back and reconsider my participation in paragliding. After a lot of thought, I decided that I wanted to continue pursuing my flying goals,but I’ve been struggling to rebuild my confidence in the air ever since.

Two Sundays ago though, I finally had a bit of a breakthrough! A slow day meant only myself, a friend, and one of my instructors drove up to launch. We all decided to fly together, which gave me the needed encouragement to launch about an hour earlier than I had been recently.  It was late enough that the activity of the day was on the down swing, meaning I wouldn’t feel too uncomfortable, but early enough I would be guaranteed some thermals.  I was not disappointed.

Just off launch I entered the house thermal, which was smooth, but strong.  This was my first big thermal in weeks and as my stomach leaped to my throat, I was tempted to leave, head out for the smoother air of the flats and land.  But having my instructor right there with me was a huge help. I forced myself to circle with him, trying to push through my anxiety by focusing on tracking the thermal and keeping a safe distance between our gliders. For a good half hour or so, I remained really nervous and had to continually fight the urge to land.  At the same time, I was starting to get angry.  The previous week my anxiety had won out at Holcomb and I didn’t want that to happen again.  I really wanted to fly and I knew I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t stick with it.

It might sound funny, but this anger was actually really helpful as it gave me the determination that I had been lacking recently.  I could feel my doubts and hesitations begin to fade and rather than just sitting there, feeling like a sitting duck in the air, I began to fly; listening to the air, watching my wing, weight shifting more aggressively into my turns.  And soon thereafter, I was high over launch, soaring above the terrain!  It was awesome!

At about this point, my friend began to sink out so my instructor split away from me to go help him find another thermal, leaving me to fly alone. There were a few other pilots out and about now, most of them well above launch height.  The day seemed to be working well so I decided to fly my own little XC (cross country) course around the area, extending further and further from the LZ (landing zone) as I slowly found my rhythm and my confidence grew.  I ended up flying further than I had in months! This was also the first cross country flight I had ever done without the company of another pilot.  After all the doubt and fear of the past few months, I was ecstatic.  Even as I came into land that day, I couldn’t wait to get back in the air!

My opportunity came the following Sunday, during the June SoCal XC League sprint competition. Low cloud cover with only a few small blue holes kept us grounded until about 4:00pm, when one pilot launched in a brief moment of sunshine and managed to stay up. This resulted in a mad rush to get in the air – a rush that left only two pilots up and a gaggle of pilots heading towards the LZ, when the sun quickly clouded over once again.  In the near distance, I could see that the clouds were thinning though and more sunshine was peeking through.  Instead of launching with everybody else, I decided to wait for this opening , hoping it would provide more thermal heating.

As a relatively new pilot, it isn’t often that my decisions result in a better outcome than that of more experienced pilots, but today was one of those days.  I was rewarded for my patience with one of the best flights of the day!  The sun came out as I had hoped, producing light thermals that allowed me to scratch part way around the day’s course.  The clouds soon rolled in again though, looking more sinister now, and I decided it was time to land.  I left my thermal, but  instead of heading for the comfort of the LZ, I decided that I wanted to land out, something I had never before done by myself.

I put down in a large, flat field behind a subdivision, landing to the cheers of a group of little kids playing in a nearby backyard.  I called for retrieve and began packing up.  A few minutes later, I was greeted by the kids and their dad, who offered me water, Gatorade, snacks, and a bunch of helping hands!  It was really fun! Three of my little helpers carried my glider to the retrieve car for me, chattering excitedly about how they too wanted to be pilots when they grew up.

I didn’t make goal and I didn’t even get that far along the course, but as I climbed into the retrieve vehicle to a round of goodbye hugs, smiles, and cheers, I really couldn’t imagine a better ending to the day!

I was so excited to be flying again and my adorable fan club was just such a great reminder about the amazing things that can happen when we push through our fears and doubts.   Not only do we get to experience the joy and confidence of overcoming our own limitations, but sometimes, we get the amazing opportunity to inspire others as well!