I generally view myself as a fairly careful person when it comes to risk-taking, someone who carefully studies a subject and always tries to make measured judgements before committing to a dangerous activity. This past year learning to paraglide has really shocked me, and made me realise that I still have a lot to learn about myself and managing risk effectively. I still feel raw about this and I've been reflecting on it since taking a break from flying for some months. I'm thankful that the reminder of my cognitive shortcomings has come just in time for another ski season in Georgia, where managing avalanche risk carefully is paramount and difficult, where the decision making process is potentially the greatest source of danger to myself and others.
This post is really about paragliding, but I took liberties to sprinkle some interesting photos from our life and travels in Georgia during this period.
In November last year, I joined some friends to take a 10 day paragliding course with the Georgian Paragliding Federation at their flying site near Tbilisi Sea. We were immediately welcomed into a very friendly and supportive community. Our instructors Gia and Irakli explained the basics, setting us up for extensive ground handling and a number of tandem flights with other experienced pilots before they felt confident enough to let us loose on our first solo flight. About 5 years ago I had taken a day of paragliding lessons near Queenstown, New Zealand and progressed very quickly/naturally to take a short flight from a small hill, so I had some memories and expectations for the learning experience.
For me personally I found the most intimidating part of the course was trusting the tandem pilots who we were paired with in the early stages. For some reason, my mini solo flight from the small hill in New Zealand was much less scary than being strapped to the back of a stranger standing at the top of a much larger hill. No doubt there was an element of language barrier involved in my perception of the situation, another motivation to improve my Georgian language skills I guess. The second most intimidating aspect of the course was the car rides up sitting on the back of the Hilux up a very steep and rough road with a dozen other pilots, but all good fun!
I spent a lot of time during these weeks watching online tutorials and information videos, and reading paragliding books. I subscribed to Fly With Greg, an online Paragliding informational course. I wanted to be as safe as possible, to understand how to do everything correctly.
I was very keen and quickly got pretty big bruises on my chest from the harness during ground handling over a few days. By the time I was told I could take a solo flight, I had a feeling of relief, I was slightly nervous but mostly it was a joyful experience! We practiced landing accuracy, big ears, and correcting a small asymmetric collapse.
I really enjoyed the course, and by the end of it I was convinced that I'd like to keep flying so I decided to buy a wing, harness and reserve parachute so I could take it with me to practice more over the Winter months.
I thought a lot about what kind of wing I should get, whether it should be an EN-A or an EN-B wing. I tried asking different people their opinions based on my flying and what I wanted to do, and decided to try and find a low to mid EN-B. For a harness I really wanted to find something I could hike and fly with, but that would still provide some protection, and have enough storage room for a lower class wing. I didn't have a large budget so I decided to try and find some second hand equipment.
It turns out that the biggest market for paragliding gear near Georgia is in Turkey. I found a second hand wing and backpack style harness on www.yamacparasutu.net, and managed to get them shipped to Georgia fairly quickly and easily. I met up with the paragliding federation to have Gia check over my new gear and take it for a test ride.
On the final days of the course I met Wouter, a friendly and experienced South African pilot also living in Georgia who made some helpful comments on our landing techniques and answered some of my questions about flying. He was selling his reserve to purchase a different one, so we agreed that I would buy his large Beamer 3 reserve if it fit in my harness.
Many of our friends decided to move to Bakuriani (a ski resort in the central part of Georgia) for a few weeks at the start of the ski season, to do some touring and check out the area. As Wouter and his family had been living there too it was a great opportunity to meet up, get the reserve parachute and hopefully do some flights together.
Flying with Wouter
Our first attempted flight together was from Kokhta, I decided to take skis with me, as the mountain was well covered in snow at this stage, to hopefully make the take-off easier and as a backup easy descent option. The weather seemed great as we were climbing up, however as we reached the summit, the clouds closed in. We waited for an opening in the clouds sitting on the North side. The soft wind shifted direction, and finally the sun appeared through a gap in the clouds and we shifted to the South West slope, however just as we were getting our wings out ready to launch a massive blast of wind hit us and almost blew us off the mountain. We scrabbled to regain our composure and reassess the situation. Wouter pointed out that clouds down in the valley were being tossed around by rotor from the large ridgeline further South. We decided that it was time to bail. I was thankful that I had skis, in the end the decision was easy as it was a pretty fun run!
Perhaps we could have observed the behaviour those clouds in the valley and the snow blasting off the distant ridgeline before even getting our equipment out, which would have made us more cautious/hesitant to commit to flying had the soft wind lasted just a little longer to allow us to take-off.
Our second attempted flight was from the side of a large hill down the valley closer to Borjomi, taking off from a clearing between burnt out pine trees. Difficult to verify, but I'm told the fire was started during the most recent conflict with Russia. The take-off zone was a little tricky, as there wasn't a whole lot of room on the ground to run 5-10m maximum depending on direction before hitting a mess of burnt out logs and small bushes. Some directional precision was required to avoid getting snagged on the few remaining blackened tree skeletons during the departure.
While planning for the flight we were concerned about the valley wind, however upon arriving at our destination the wind was barely enough to assist us with our short runway. We decided that I should launch first, I managed to get up and airborne fully committing to it. I made some turns, waiting for Wouter to join me, but he tripped or slipped on the uneven ground at the end of his runway. He seemed to be up and walking and shouted up to me, the crash didn't look serious, so I decided to proceed with the flight. With limited safe landing zones on the hillside with my skill level, I suppose there wouldn't have been much else I could have done anyway! I wish I had a radio (I had previously been borrowing from the paragliding federation), however we both had InReaches and cell phone reception, it was an item I had neglected to buy, and which is pretty difficult to purchase on a whim in those parts of Georgia.
The landing field had plenty of mud, but in one corner was a convenient house sized patch of snow, which I managed to place my wing on, avoiding an unpleasant cleaning job! I sent Wouter a message, he was fine, it took him a while to extract himself from the bushes and soon he joined me at our landing spot right next to the car. Thinking back, it seemed like we needed just a little more wind to make our chosen take-off more comfortable and safer, but how much more?
The next day I was free, but Wouter was busy, the conditions were almost identical in the forecast, but with slightly more wind, so I decided to give the same flight another crack. This time the wind direction was different, requiring a tighter line between two dead trees close to the take-off. Again even though there was a tiny bit more wind, it didn't seem to be enough, and I only just made it off the ground before it turned to a mess beneath me. With the resulting high ground speed I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to avoid the tree stumps to my sides. At about the half way point during the flight I felt a bit of a bump on my wing, I didn't panic and it recovered itself immediately before I had time to think about it. I was a little worried that it might get worse despite there being very little wind, as I didn't (and still don't) have the experience or skills to deal with a serious collapse, but I tried to keep plenty of room between me and the ground for the rest of the flight.
Retrospectively again perhaps I should have turned around at the launch site this time, the wind was still not enough to make a comfortable launch, and I don't have the experience required to execute a precision launch like that safely and reliably, but I was too eager to make another flight, and somehow I was latched onto the idea that too much wind was the only problem I needed to worry about.
Most of all, we really appreciated getting to know Wouter and his lovely family during this period, and I hope we will meet once again!
The Winter months slid on, and I began to embrace ski touring, not finding opportunities or time for flying. At the start of Summer with the snow mostly melted, I found myself in Kamchatka, hoping to make a flight there. Anya and I made a visit to glampstory camp on the beach with our friends Anya and Sveta. The wind from the Pacific was at a level which made ground handling on the beach fun, but also challenging.
After a couple of hours practicing, I felt like I was ready to try and make a flight from a nearby hill which has an established launch site cut between the trees. Already I was thinking that it might be too windy, but the identity and scarcity cognitive traps had me completely. I wanted to "be a paraglider pilot", not having any flying for several months, and this location was difficult for me to get to again without a car, I didn't feel confident flying from the only other established flying location I knew about near Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky which is from a hill in the city with limited landing options. Hiking to fly alone in a different, probably more suitable location outside the city holds its own risks with the very real threat of bear attack, and I also didn't have any flying buddies in Kamchatka yet to hike with. The rules about flying in unknown locations around Kamchatka are also uncertain for me, there are definitely locations where it would get a person into trouble for flying over a military area (of which there are many). I was definitely suffering from a scarcity type of cognitive bias!
We stood at the launch site and, while the wind was coming from an optimal direction it was obviously feeling too windy, like down on the beach, but I thought, "I'll just get my wing out and see what it's like to handle". Somehow in my mind I was also overcompensating for how much wind is safe to launch in based on my previous experiences. The launch site has a sharp lip such that the wing on the ground is protected from the wind until it pops out suddenly out in the power zone. I observed this, holding the rear risers carefully in anticipation, but stupidly decided to continue, it was difficult to control and I immediately brought it down, that should have been enough, but I really wanted to try to fly, so I tried again several times, until the wing pulled me back 10 meters or so and it got caught in a tree. This snapped me out of a trance I said "Okay, now that's a sign I shouldn't fly!".
Sveta climbed to the top of the tree and we managed to bend it down enough to get the lines untangled. I felt really stupid! I'm sure the result would have been bad if I had fully committed to launching. While walking back I decided to take my backpack off to drink water, I watched it start to roll down the gentle slope but I was too lazy to stop it, much to everyone's amusement it picked up speed and I had to run after it!
Kakheti Ridge Soaring
When we got back to Georgia, I joined the Georgian Paragliding Federation again for a trip to their ridge soaring site at Kazaniani in the Kakheti region. We sat in the East Point mall car park waiting for others to arrive before all driving together to the flying site. It was absolutely baking 40+ degrees Celcius, and we didn't appear to be in any kind of rush, Gia told me that the thermals are too strong there during the middle of the day anyway.
The flying site is very beautiful with a great view over the sweeping plains of South East Georgia. It was was still pretty windy when we arrived. I watched some other pilots take off, and was very excited to see that they were staying aloft, something that I had only experienced once at the Tbilisi Sea site while on a tandem flight. It was something that I had been dreaming about, being able to fly and gain altitude, and really feel like I was flying. I definitely felt a bit of jealosy while watching the others above me. I really wanted to join them, despite the better sense telling me to wait longer for the wind to die down more, I was thinking that if I waited too long there would not be enough wind to stay aloft. I thought to myself that it was less windy than Kamchatka.
I made a botched attempt to launch, and tried again further down the hill with the assistance from one of the experienced pilots. I tried to take a moment to calm down, but adreneline still pumping and a feeling of urgency I probably didn't check my lines well enough for the second attempt, and when I turned around one of the brake lines was twisted or caught, and I had a real trouble directing myself to avoid a parked car and away from the hill before unjamming it. It really was a stupid situation.
After the brief moment of stress, I had a flight for one hour and thirty minutes, more than all my previous flying time! It was pure bliss racing up and down the ridge line, retrospectively, at some points I was using the speed bar, about half bar when it was unecessary. I've since learned that doing so makes the wing more unstable which is a bad idea when close to terrain like a ridgeline unless it is the only option to avoid getting blown over the top. I needed to get down to pee, and made a top landing from the side, but I was still on the speed bar until the last moment without realising, so it was a little rougher than it should have been, but everything was fine. Doing a landing flare with the speed bar active is also a bad idea!
The wind speed dropped a little, and my second flight was a clean take-off, however I got a little too adventurous and ended up departing from the lift without enough clearance to glide out to the bottom landing site, and made a landing between the sparse bushes on the lower slopes. Gia drove the truck around to meet me and pick me up.
The sun was setting, and the group had some fires going roasting food, chomping on fresh veggies and drinking beer. It was a great atmosphere, and the sunset view was unbeatable.
With the heat in Tbilisi getting unbearable, Anya and I decided to spend some time near the seaside. Wouter had told me that the paragliding site in Gonio next to Batumi is a great place, and fairly beginner friendly. After a morning of rock climbing down next to the highway in Gonio with Ryan I took the glider and hiked over to the landing area, observed the beach and a large empty parking area with a high voltage powerline running between it and the beach as a potential back-up. I walked in a sweat up to the cross, the launch site, hoping to get there before the day got too hot. There is a large, flat open area, and the take-off run towards the sea is not intimidating, however there are trees down the slope that would be difficult to clear on a sinky day. The take-off was easy and I landed on the beach! An amazing feeling. I decided to try again, so I ran back up the hill, this time the thermals had started, I scratched around for a while, and then managed to catch my first ever thermal, circling and gaining altitude way up above the cross, and then flying out over the sea before landing. A few days and flights later I stood close to the edge of launch at Gonio, and I did not keep pressure on the wing when turning around and so when I stepped over the edge it collapsed and I slid down into the prickle bushes. I think I spent 30 minutes carefully extracting myself and the wing from the prickly tangle!
On reflection while writing this, of all the places I've flown in Georgia so far, Gonio seems like my favourite. It has a good altitude for hiking, not too long, but long enough to get the heart racing, the take-off is not difficult if there is a little bit of wind coming from the right direction. Thermals are possible to find during the heat of the day, and ridge soaring is also an option when it is more windy. The beach landing area provides a chance to perform some manuevers high over the water that one might not be willing to try over the land.
When we had been in Mestia earlier in the Summer I had met some of the local guys who fly there, and I was excited to return and join them for some flights before a mountaineering trip to Tetnuldi. The popular local take-off site is from above the cross which overlooks the town. On the first morning I decided to hike up, about 1000 vertical meters, it was great fitness training. I waited for the group to join via car, and ate a snickers bar while lying on the grass and hiding from the sun behind the backpack. It was great to have some local advice about how to take off, and where to fly. The wind was light, about 1-2m/s. Based on the observations from someone who was watching, I must have misjudged the wind direction slightly, not being patient and observant enough when pulling the wing up and perhaps being close to the ridge (despite it being gentle) made it deceptive, and I ended up collapsing the wing partially on one side and didn't realise in time to stop, but somehow I still was okay and kept going. I managed to catch a thermal, glide a fair distance, catch another, I was very high above the ground, sometimes it was a little rough but my wing did not collapse. The flight was more than one hour!
Excited by the previous day's performance, and with similar conditions, perhaps slightly less wind and from a different direction, I set up to launch slightly higher up the hill on a slope that was more shallow above a road cutting. As I ran I didn't pick up enough speed before jumping across the road gap, and I instinctively slipped into my harness to clear the downhill edge of the road, which was grassy but still could have contained a hidden rock to ruin my day (and back). It seems that despite having much more room to run, on a nice grassy slope I still did not learn about how much wind is required to make a given take-off safe to attempt.
The flight was even longer, and I found myself exploring up towards the bottom of the Chalaadi glacier, mindful not to get into the lee slope or too far into the narrow valley to encounter turbulence. While I was traversing above a rocky slope, trying to keep more than 100m altitude above it while searching for some lift I hit an unexpected rough patch and experienced a fast collapse, that occurred and resolved itself immediately before I could react. That frightened me, I was too far in the deep end, and while I had studied the theory about what I should do (and not do), practicing in that location did not seem like a great idea. I decided to head back to Mestia. By this point in the flight I had been flying for almost an hour, and it's entirely possible that the wind had changed direction or that there was some local phenomena. I was trying my best to observe the direction based on my track, but I think I don't have enough experience yet for that to be reliable, especially given the cognitive load of all the other things I was in that moment early in my flying experience.
Tbilisi Sea Mistakes
I joined the paragliding federation for another day up at Tbilisi Sea. The wind was fairly strong, and while chatting to Merab, a friendly fellow who is an aircraft pilot for his job, he advised me to wait until the late afternoon before flying. I could see the group up on the hill already struggling to get up, and waiting. I spent an hour ground handling at the landing site and finally when they did fly I was eager to go up and join them. Once again I was sitting at the launch site in conditions that were realistically beyond my ground handling ability, with the venturi effect exacerbating the problem. I was watching other pilots flying already, and when I made my attempt from close to the top I was dragged past another pilot and along the ground when I did not make a sensible timing with the gusts, and didn't control my wing correctly.
Attempting to regain composure, I sat down for about 20 minutes, and talked with Vato who had watched my failed launch attempt and gave me some friendly advice. The wind began to drop, and I set up for launch again, once again I still had some nerves from the previous failed attempt, I was trying to be careful and check my lines. When I pulled the wing up I was lifted off the ground before I could turn around, and without my feet I was having trouble turning around, and became fixated on the task rather than controlling the wing, and wasn't far off clipping the side of the hill as I spun around and flew out. Vato thought that maybe I had swapped turn direction accidentally, and that I should have crouched more when pulling up to help stay connected to the ground when the wing pulled up. In any case, I made some mistakes, and I should have listened to my body which was telling me that I was still nervous and not ready for the task.
While thinking back on the events of this past year I realised that I had repeated mistakes made during close calls, and that I obviously had not learned my lessons. I went in too hard and too fast, something about the feeling of flying makes it so tempting to take extra risks. I've taken a break and time for reflection. Today I'm sitting in Oludeniz, and world famous paragliding spot, I spent the day at a flying site that requires some wind for a safe launch, I waited all day for wind, watching pilots taking off from a different mountain. I watched someone on a tandem flight fail their launch at my same location. Sure I might only be here for a few days, today may have been my only chance to go flying here this year, but this time I was happy just to enjoy the view!
p.s. I did manage a flight in Oludeniz!
p.p.s 2023. Still taking a break from flying, I think I've decided to focus on other sports for now, as paragliding is not a sport you want to be mediocre at, it feels like it demands full attention!