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Learn to Fly

This information is intended for people who have either seen us flying at our sites, or watched online videos and are looking to learn to fly a paraglider or hang-glider as an absolute beginner, completely new to the sport. Most beginners we speak to usually ask our Club the same four questions, which we try to answer, and our Club Senior Coach gives you a pilots viewpoint of the trials and pitfalls of learning to fly.

So…the first question we always get asked as a Club is:

“Can I learn with your Club at Dunstable?”

The simple answer is No. Unfortunately, we cannot teach you to fly here at the DHPC as we are a BHPA Recreational Club for pilots that have already completed their training and passed the BHPA ‘Club Pilot’ rating at a BHPA Registered School. Schools are where you learn to fly and Clubs are where you fly after you leave the School.

To fly with our Club, or indeed any UK Club, you must first pass the BHPA ‘Club Pilot’ rating at an approved BHPA Registered School. You can ONLY learn to fly as a beginner at a BHPA Registered School. You will be taught to fly by fully qualified professional BHPA Instructors, all trained, regulated and monitored by the British Hang-Gliding & Paragliding Association (BHPA).

All BHPA Registered Schools wherever they may be located, in the UK or abroad, follow the exact same syllabus and structure dictated by the BHPA in order to train beginners up to the ‘Club Pilot’ rating. So whichever school you choose you have to pass the exact same practical flying tasks and exams before you can qualify with your ‘Club Pilot’ rating and fly on your own at a club site.

Unfortunately, there are no BHPA Schools that teach paragliding or hang-gliding in our local area, you will have to travel to the where the large hills and schools are based, mainly Derbyshire, the Yorkshire Dales, the M4 corridor around Swindon, the South Coast and finally Wales. One of the closest schools to Dunstable is ‘Green Dragons‘ in Woldingham, Surrey, just off the M25 (Junction 6) and they teach both paragliding & hang-gliding. Many of the pilots in our Club have trained with Green Dragons.

Foreign BHPA Registered Schools in Spain and France are also popular, as flight training can be combined with family holidays, but be aware that the weather can also limit your training abroad, as is the case in the UK, and you may not complete the course and have to finish your training when back here in the UK at another school. Note: if you train abroad you MUST use a BHPA Registered School, if you don’t your rating is not valid in the UK and you will not be allowed to fly at any UK Club’s sites. ‘FlySpain‘ the largest BHPA registered paragliding school in Europe, has a excellent reputation and lots of pilots in our club have learned to fly with them.

 

What is the BHPA?

The British Hang-Gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA) is the governing body for Hang-Gliding and Paragliding in the UK.

The BHPA supports a country-wide network of Recreational Clubs and Registered Schools, and provides the infrastructure within which hang-gliding and paragliding in the United Kingdom thrive by training pilots through the BHPA Pilot Rating system.

By Law, for hang-gliding and paragliding, you need to be over 14 years old to fly solo. Some BHPA schools will often set their own higher age limit, often around 16. Under 18’s need written, signed parental consent to learn to fly. There is no real upper age limit provided you are reasonably fit, but if you suffer from any medical condition such as epilepsy, fainting, giddiness, high blood pressure, heart condition or diabetes you should ask your Doctor’s advice.

Throughout the flying career you must maintain your membership of the BHPA. All Clubs require it should you wish to fly at their sites, due to third-party insurance liability arranged through the BHPA.

The BHPA Pilot Rating Scheme
The BHPA Pilot Rating Scheme has been devised to encourage pilots to progress their personal flying skills and to provide a quick and simple means of indicating their proficiency level to others. Awards and ratings are achieved by completing flight tasks and exams during your School training course and through your Club.

BHPA Pilot Ratings completed within the training School:

The Elementary Pilot (EP) Award

Awarded by Registered School BHPA Instructors during your training to mark the successful completion of the introductory stage, and to indicate your suitability to undertake further training.

The Club Pilot (CP) Rating

This is also completed within your chosen School by BHPA Instructors. Completing the Club Pilot Rating marks the end of your formal instruction and qualifies you to leave the school and fly with any BHPA Club.

After you have obtained your Club Pilot (CP) rating, you can now leave the School and fly on your own with any Club (such as the DHPC). Clubs do NOT hire out gliders and equipment, you must buy your own.

BHPA Pilot Ratings completed within our Club:

The Pilot (P) Rating

The flying tasks and exams for this next rating are completed within our Club and then signed-off by our own BHPA Club Coaches. This rating is the minimum for pilots to undertake Cross Country flights.

The Advanced Pilot (AP) Rating

Also completed within our Club by BHPA Club Coaches. This is the final and highest rating within the BHPA Pilot Rating system and qualified pilots can now enter FAI competitions and the British Team.

The BHPA have a  Elementary Pilot Guide (PDF), which is full of useful information about learning to fly (click the button below to download), or visit the main BHPA website which is packed with information about starting to learn to fly at your nearest school.

Then…the second question we always get asked is:

“How long does it take to learn to fly?”

A difficult question to answer. How long did it take you to pass your driving test? Some drivers only take ten lessons and pass first time, others have to do fifty lessons and they pass their test on the fifth attempt. Flying training is very similar, some people just naturally grasp the necessary skills and learn quicker than others.

You will find that students that have prior aviation knowledge, flying any other type of glider, building model aircraft, and now even power-kiting – grasp the basic theory better than most. People who are naturally well co-ordinated and have good balance will also tend to do much better than average. Balance, technique and co-ordination are very important in the learning process and uncoordinated clumsy people tend to struggle to learn to fly as a rule!

As in my earlier analogy of taking driving lessons, the students who take longer to learn usually pay far more for training, as a result of paying lesson by lesson. This may start to get expensive if you are a slow learner. So to alleviate this problem most schools offer a “fixed price deal to Club Pilot” which enables you to keep training for as many lessons as it takes in order for you to pass the ‘Club Pilot’ rating.

So… you can keep training towards the Club Pilot rating week after week for as long as it takes, all for one fixed price. If you intend staying with the sport this is by far the best and cheapest way to train. If you also buy a brand new glider through the school to complete your training on, you will save even more as you have your very own wing to learn on instead of waiting while other course students tie-up all the school gliders. You also now have all your own equipment ready for Club flying when you leave the school. The “Catch 22” clause is that you usually have to pay up front, before your training starts, so if you drop out the course after a month or so, you might lose out. So, its a delicate balance, slow learners pay far more than quick learners if you pay lesson-by-lesson on the course. More up-to-date information can usually be found on your chosen School’s website.

As for the actual day-to-day training, most students should have their feet off the ground  (and I mean 4 ft off the ground) on the first or second training day, although this will be a short flight from the very bottom of the hill you are training on. As your training continues you’ll get more proficient at launching and landing and your School Instructors will start to let you launch from higher and higher up the training hill.  Eventually, you should be completing your first high (200ft+) top-to-bottom flights of the training hill hopefully within your first week.

You should now have passed your ‘BHPA Elementary Pilot’ award and be ready to start to move on to your next rating, the ‘Club Pilot (CP)’. It now tends to get progressively harder to master the more advanced training, as your own skill and ability, weather and wind speed start to dictate when you fly. On average most students take ten to fourteen flyable* days to reach the Club Pilot level of completing your flying tasks and being able to fly high above the hill and land at the bottom or even back on top of the hill!

( * Note: flyable days are actual flyable training days where flying tasks can be signed-off by the Instructors. These are the days that have reasonable weather with a perfect training wind speed which is suited to your limited flying experience.)

From now on the TV weather forecast starts to dominate your life, and you become a weather geek! You will constantly be watching weather forecasts for good weather training days. Unfortunately –  the actual weather never seems to cooperate or you have to go to a family wedding on the best training day of the year!

The problem is the changeable British weather – If it’s wet or too windy you can’t fly. If there’s no wind you can’t do your soaring flights high above the hill. If it’s a hot sunny summers day the air will to too rough for you to fly with your experience, you will have to wait until evening for the thermals to calm down. To get ten flyable training days may take six months or more of actual time because of unsuitable training weather, so be aware of this when you book your school location. This time delay also helps to wheedle out the students who are really not that bothered in learning to fly – sorting the “wheat from the chaff”, as they say.

These are the days that get frustrating and you’ll be tempted to pack it in, half the students on your course will do just that… but be patient, that special day will arrive when you complete that first wonderful flight high above take-off, and…you will never forget that day for the rest of your life!

(“I did my early training on a hang-glider on the Isle of Wight and thought (as you probably do) I would get it all done in a week. I then had to keep going back to the same school (and paying the car-ferry cost) every suitable weekend for the next nine months before I finished the course – typical lousy British weather. But…I still remember like it was yesterday, the thrill of my first solo flight, and the smell of the cowpats in the landing field…’err – the less said about that the better. You’ll find out!”)

I have also met many pilots over the years who have had perfect weather on their training course and some have finished the Club Pilot rating in ten actual days - but that’s all down to luck…the jammy b******s !!!

Student Types

In my personal view, course students generally tend to fall into one of the following four learning categories: Natural Ability, Careful, Nervous and Utterly Hopeless. The first two being the students who learn quickest.

There is nothing wrong about being a Nervous pilot, some people just need more time to learn the required skills. It takes them just a bit longer to learn at their own pace. Some really good pilots I know came to me for coaching as ‘Nervous’ pilots when they first joined the Club.

Unfortunately, it’s the ‘Utterly Hopeless’ group who are usually most at risk, as they are talked into coming along to a training course by a partner/best friend who doesn’t want to go on the course on their own. These ‘Utterly Hopeless’ students actually have no interest in learning to fly, it’s not in their blood, and are either too embarrassed to admit to their friends that they don’t want to learn, or they go along with it just for a laugh. These are the students who need watching, as they statistically tend to have the most accidents! Hopefully, they soon give up learning to fly half way through the training course.

(“Every now and then a ‘Utterly Hopeless’ perseveres, actually enjoys the challenge and makes it through the school, all Clubs have one or two, in my experience. They can make reasonable pilots eventually but need careful watching and coaching, especially early on in their flying career. So don’t be downhearted if you find yourself in this group – rewards can come if you try hard enough…”)

 

…the third question we always get asked is:

“Hang-gliding or Paragliding, which is easiest?”

A personal insight from the Club’s Senior Coach. “Speaking personally as a pilot that flies both hang-gliders and paragliders, my personal view is that paragliding is far easier to learn in terms of actually getting airtime and getting the thrill of flying when you start to learn at the school. This is shown by its continued popularity and the sheer number of paragliding Schools. Learning on a paraglider you will be airborne quicker and be getting the real thrill of flying much sooner than when you learn on a hang-glider. Hang-gliders fly very fast, therefore, early landing training takes that much longer to learn safely!

BUT… Hang-gliding is ‘real’ flying, you are actually in control of a fast, graceful, exhilarating, flying machine – far superior in speed and performance than their sister paraglider. However, both types of glider have their individual strengths and weaknesses which I will discuss briefly in this article.”

First some glider comparisons…

Hang-glider

The Hang-glider – has an internal rigid framework made of aluminium or carbon fibre tube which the sail fabric is permanently attached to. Pre-shaped aluminium battens inserted inside the wing give it its aerofoil shape and a rigid triangular control frame is used by the pilot to control the gliders speed and direction by weight-shifting left or right to turn, and moving the control bar forwards or back to increase or decrease speed. Flying a hang-glider needs much more pilot dedication and flying skill, which includes ground-handling practice and landing training, because of its weight, fast flying and landing speed, and physical size (30ft wingspan).

Paraglider

The Paraglider – is much lighter in weight because it doesn’t have a rigid metal internal framework, the wing is just two layers of high-tech fabric sewn together with internal fabric ribs. Slots in the wings front edge are used to inflate the wing as the wind passes through, trapping air inside and maintaining the wings aerofoil shape in flight. The pilot sits in the harness which is attached to the wing above by the control lines. The pilot controls direction by pulling down the brake handles, one in each hand, which deform the wing’s trailing edge on either side, which initiates the turn in that direction.

The Hang-glider

  • Hang-gliders can fly in much stronger wind strengths as they can fly at much higher speed than a paraglider –  and you will still be in the air whilst all the paragliders are sitting on the ground jealously watching you.
  • Hang-gliders are far more suited to aerobatics, fly much faster than a paraglider and do not suffer from mid-air collapses, that can happen to a paraglider in turbulent air.
  • Hang-gliders when packed in their travel bag are much heavier than a paraglider, weighing on average about 30kg, which you carry on one shoulder up the hill to the launch point. So if you fly in the Lake District a lot, or indeed anywhere with large hills like Wales, then you have a mountain to climb with it on your shoulder – literally!
  • Hang-gliders need to be transported on a car’s roof rack with a front bonnet support or ladder to support the length of the packed glider (approx 19ft in length).
  • Hang-gliders can take 20-30 minutes to set up and another 10-15 minutes pre-flight checking (this is due to the assembly of the glider and internal framework held together by nuts, bolts and wires which needs thorough pre-flight safety checking for any damage).
  • Hang-gliders however, are much harder to land as their stalling speed to land is fairly high (10-12+mph) and need a planned landing approach as well as a well-timed flair to stop the wing, especially in nil-wind. Hang-gliders have a much better glide angle through the air and consequently they need a larger flat landing area to land in. Landing a hang-glider safely is by far the hardest skill to master!

Hang-gliding takes a lot longer to learn in order to be a competent pilot…BUT… you really feel that you are flying on a hang-glider, as you swoop and turn at speeds of up to 70mph in a dive, twisting and circling in the air, they are a joy to fly, whereas on a paraglider you just feel you are dangling under the canopy, barely moving forward and just hanging there at the mercy of the wind!

The Paraglider

  • A paraglider is much more portable than a hang-glider, a paraglider can be easily transported in the boot of a car as they are about the size of a large rucksack. You can even strap one to the back of a motorcycle.
  • Paraglider’s are also easier to ground handle at launch once you have acquired the necessary skills –  but it is far easier to be dragged along by a strong wind if you get the launch wrong.
  • Paragliders can be set up faster for flight, you literally get to the launch point unpack it, shake the lines out, pre-flight check the wing, put on the harness and take-off, all in under 10 minutes. Paraglider’s are ideally suited for late evening flights after work.
  • Paragliders, because of their slow flying speed are more manoeuvrable, can turn tighter and are able to land in much smaller landing areas than a hang-glider. They can also slope land on the side of the hill enabling lots of shorter flights if conditions are marginal.
  • A paraglider being only made of nylon fabric and having no rigid framework, is prone to midair collapses in turbulent air, and these must be recovered by the pilot in the correct manner if an accident is to be avoided.
  • There comes a point on a paraglider when the wind speed when you are in the air, becomes greater than the paragliders top speed (about 15-18mph on an beginners glider) – and should you still be flying at that point, you will then start to be blown backwards with the wind – this is the time to land quickly!

The ease of learning paragliding is why you see far more of them at club sites than hang-gliders nowadays. As for storage, you will need a good sized garage in which to store a 19ft hang-glider, but a paraglider can be kept in a cupboard! This is another main reason why people choose paragliding, especially if you live in a small flat in a city. Where would you store a 19ft hang-glider if you live in a flat?

…the forth question we always get asked is:

“How much does it cost?”

Paragliders…are they expensive?
New paragliders are not cheap, although they do represent one of the least expensive ways to get into the air. A new competition paraglider is likely to cost over £4,000, but a paraglider suitable for a recently trained pilot is more likely to cost around £2,500 – £3,500 brand new, and secondhand canopies can be obtained through the Club for much less. You will also need a harness, helmet, flying suit, and boots. Later, as you become more experienced, you may also want to purchase additional items, such as an emergency parachute or a GPS/Vario/Altimeter flight computer.

Hang-Gliders…are they expensive?
A new top-of-the range carbon-fibre competition hang-glider can cost well over £12,000+ new, but you won’t be buying these type of advanced gliders for a few years (you wouldn’t buy a Formula 1 car the day you passed your driving test!) Sports gliders with less performance, suitable for low airtime beginner pilots are available from around £800 second hand to over £8,000 brand new. You will also need a harness, helmet, flying suit, and boots, and later you may also want to purchase additional accessories like reserve parachutes, cameras and in-flight GPS/Vario flight instruments.

Buying a new or secondhand glider
Always buy new or secondhand gliders through either your training School or through your chosen Club. Speak to your School Instructors if buying a brand new wing, they know you better than anyone what type of pilot you are (nervous, careful or natural ability)and will advise suitable wings accordingly. Do not be tempted into buying a wing which is too advanced for your low-airtime, you may not live long enough to enjoy it!  Seriously… your first wing dictates how well you will progress in the sport and how much enjoyment you will get from it in your early flying career.

Buying through your Club is great for buying a secondhand wing, Club Coaches will know the glider’s owner and full history of the glider. Has it been continually dragged through the mud and neglected? Has it been ripped on barbed-wire fences and is now covered in patches? Or, was the previous owner a careful skilful pilot who really looked after their equipment and kept the wing looking pristine? Club Coaches will know this information and will also test fly the glider for you to make sure it is airworthy and suitable for your skill, before you part with your cash.

Buying gliders on the Internet
Do NOT buy your first glider from auction sites, unless you have done your homework and know exactly what you are looking for…and also make sure you take along an experienced pilot to test-fly the glider before you buy. Some of the wings you will find on these sites can be either non-certified old models which are unsafe to fly, as they may have a reputation for being extremely dangerous; or they maybe old worn-out relics from twenty years ago. Some wings look very tempting indeed, crispy clean and almost new in the advert, with 1-2 hours airtime.  (“They should look new, the seller was too scared of the glider to actually fly it!”)

These gliders turn up all the time on auction sites for a reason, the seller is trying to find a gullible beginner who doesn’t know what they are looking at. They also try to sell it for far more than its actually worth to recoup their losses by saying its almost brand new. (Non-certified gliders are worth absolutely nothing).

Be very wary if it’s advertised as ‘like new’ condition and it’s over ten years old (Alarm bells should now be loudly ringing!!! )

Schools or knowledgeable pilots won’t touch them…that’s why they are sold on these sites!! Do you really want to get seriously hurt or worse just for saving a few quid?

Safety Issues

Is it dangerous?

Yes, it is… to the reckless, over-confident or undertrained types - but as long as you follow the training syllabus and learn with professional schools and proceed steadily, you are probably in more danger driving to work every day.

In general, the accident rate is higher for paragliding compared to hang-gliding, mainly attributed to the sheer number pilots that paraglide these days. The most common injuries in both sports are twisted or broken ankles and legs, as these are used as your undercarriage for landing. Back injuries are also common in paragliding, which is why most modern harnesses have a rear airbag protector built-in to them. Good quality flying boots are also essential to protect the ankles in heavy landings. Hang-gliding major injuries tend to be of a more serious nature as the higher flying speeds increase impact forces in a crash landing, especially as the pilot flys head downwards.

Minor hang-glider landing mishaps tend to do more damage to the glider’s aluminium or carbon fibre control frame uprights which tend to get bent on heavy landings, and are expensive to replace. The pilot usually walks away unscathed from these ‘bent upright’ landings. Paragliding minor mishaps are far more likely to be holes or rips to the nylon wing fabric, usually from tree or bush landings or barbed-wire fences. These tears or large rips require a fabric patch repair back with the gliders dealer or manufacturer.

Please be aware that ALL flight based sport is inherently dangerous, especially for the low-airtime, untrained or over-confident pilot.  Every year there are fatalities in this sport and this is a risk assessment that you must consider before starting to learn. The only truly safe way to fly is not to do it in the first place!

Always get professional instruction with a BHPA School Instructor when learning. Don’t buy a glider on eBay and try and teach yourself to fly…you may laugh but people try it. Some of them survive and take up a wheelchair sport afterwards!

This is not a sport for the ‘lets have a go for a laugh‘ blokes in the pub type. Flying takes time and dedication to learn safely, it can take well over a year to learn to become a competent club pilot.

“Aviation does not suffer fools gladly” says the quotation and it’s never been wrong!

As you start to learn you will soon find out how fickle the air actually is. Just like water, the air can be mill-pond calm one minute and white-water rough the next! This can catch out low-airtime pilots and put them in serious uncomfortable situations. Knowing when to fly is vitally important in learning, and recognising the signs of rough air is a skill that needs acquiring. In summer, beginners should fly early morning or late afternoon/evening when the air is calmer. Beginners should never fly in the heat of the day – that’s when the air can get really rough with strong turbulent thermals which throw the wing around and will cause wing collapses.

Safety wise it only takes one bad error of judgement or over-controlling the wing in the air by the pilot – which quickly escalates into a dangerous incident…and as YOU, (the pilot) are up in the air alone… no one else can help you sort out the situation but you. You are the only person able to prevent a more serious accident happening when something else goes wrong, and it will at some point believe me!

This is when experience, coaching and your training kick-in, to sort out these problems safely when everything goes horribly wrong in the air. Every pilot starts with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck!

A thinking pilot is a safe pilot, learn from the mistakes of others and analyse what you are about to do at the launch point. Listen to Club Coaches, get valued advice and progress your flying career carefully. Some beginners as well as more experienced over-confident pilots have scared themselves so badly when flying that they immediately give up the sport and sell all their equipment, others unfortunately never get that second chance.

but…it’s so much FUN !!!

So… if it’s so dangerous, why do I fly? Like a lot of other pilots, it is the danger… the adrenaline rush… and the absolute fantastic thrill – that makes it all worthwhile and part of the reason we as pilots all fly in the first place. If you as an individual are overly worried about danger, then this is not the sport for you.

Most pilots are thrill-seekers who do other extreme sports as well. Ask any free-climber who doesn’t use ropes or wing-suit parachutists who skim the valley walls on the way down why they do it! Risking their neck makes them feel alive, and this brings to mind the famous quote; “Everyone dies, not everyone lives!”

So on Monday morning when boring Bob in Accounts asks; “What did you do at the weekend?” 

You can tell him you were 3,000ft above Bedfordshire on a hang-glider or paraglider!

(Richard Greaves: DHPC Senior Coach, May 2017)