Seven Steps to Dealing with Fear in Paragliding

Over the 17 years that I have been flying, I’ve had my own share of fear to deal with. Between two accidents that resulted in hospital, and an incident which didn’t actually result in physical injury, but left me with emotional damage, I’d say it’s been the biggest factor in my flying performance and pleasure, the piece that has taken the most ongoing work.

When I feel frightened in the air, it is debilitating. I spend most of my energy dealing with it, rather than the task at hand of observing what is going on around me, making tactical decisions and having fun. I land exhausted.

My first accident was landing on a powerline – a single strand running down the side of a rocky, tree-covered hill. Although this was probably the most dangerous and potentially fatal incident I’ve had, it had a happy ending, in that I started sliding down the line with my glider and eventually had the wing reinflated by a thermal coming through – and it left no long-term scars.

The second accident occurred on tow, when one of the tow points unclipped and I was dragged into the ground. A few X-rays later I was released from hospital – nothing broken, but in pain all the same.

My most frightening incident occurred at 5,000 m in Spain, at the seven-hour mark of an exhausting flight, when I was in danger of being sucked up into clouds. I was on a new wing, and when it went into a parachutal stall after an incorrectly exited B-line, it didn’t respond in the same way as my previous wing. The result was a long cascade of G-force and terror-inducing events and thoughts about promises made about coming home safely. Eventually, using the last of the physical strength I had left, I pulled on a full stall and held it on as long as I could – when the glider recovered, there was a moment of calm. A calm that I had experienced about four times in the previous minutes – only this time the calm remained. When I eventually landed safely, I broke down and cried. And then it took about five hours before I was picked up by the retrieve bus. Five hours of being alone in the middle of nowhere, needing to deal with the trauma alone.

A month or so later, while flying high in the Austrian Alps, I had a huge collapse close to the trees, and threw my reserve. It opened just in time, but my impact with the ground was hard. After a ride suspended in a stretcher below a helicopter, I found myself in hospital. Once again nothing broken, but almost, and internal organs shaken severely. Seven days later I emerged sorely from hospital – after much soul searching I had decided to keep flying. Judy Leden’s book, Flying with Condors helped me decide.

Fear and Fantasy

That all happened over 11 years ago – the fearlessness that marked my earlier flying days was gone forever. Since then I have come up with a strategy that helps me deal with fear. It is a synthesis of talking with people and working on myself.

Coming back from those two incidents took a year of focused effort, to get myself flying close to the levels I had before they occurred. Lots of short flights, so that my ‘courage quotient’ didn’t get too drained – I found time on the ground built up the courage quotient, and time in the air drained it. A new wing. Studying myself using the skills I was learning in my psychology studies. Talking to other pilots. Sessions with a therapist and a sports psychologist to work through some of the trauma. Years down the track I find myself going through phases of high levels of fear every now and again, and I do more work, study more, talk to more people until eventually I work through the next piece. Then I come back to loving being in the air again and being closely in touch with my glider when things get a little rough, rather than semi-freezing and just wanting to land.
The first thing I am saying is, you can do something about the fear you feel. You don’t need to just ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. There are things you can do to help yourself. I have seven basic steps I use to deal with fear. Five of them occur when I am in the air, feeling afraid, wanting to land to end the horrible experience. The final two steps take place on the ground.

Before I go into the seven steps I want to talk briefly about fear. There has been much written about it and there are books such as Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway that deal with the subject. I’ve often come across descriptions that include the word Fear as an acronym of Fantasy Expectations Appearing Real. Many of the strategies that are suggested for working through this are excellent, not only for dealing with fear, but for dealing with life.

However, in paragliding there is a real difference – fear is not only fantasy expectations appearing real. Sometimes that is the case, and I will at times refer to this as ‘irrational’ fear.
Other times, we really are in danger. There is no fantasy, there is no appearing real. We are in danger. It is real. This fear I refer to as ‘rational’ fear.

Step 1: Notice you are afraid

That might sound obvious, but unless you’ve just had a big collapse or find yourself without a glide out to a landing field, it often creeps up on you. There were times that I did not realise I was afraid, until I found myself wanting to land. Get to know yourself: how do you know when you are beginning to feel afraid? Do you start breathing more shallowly? Do you tense up? Do you find yourself looking constantly at your wing? These days I’m getting better at noticing it. One of the first signs is that I pull my feet up, so they are at right angles to my shins. Or I find myself sitting more upright in the harness, rather than relaxing back and letting it hold me.

Catching it early is important, so that you can address it before it’s gone so far that landing is all you can think of.

Step 2: Breathe deeply

Right into your belly. Three times. We start breathing more shallowly when we are afraid. This deep breathing in itself will ease the tension somewhat, and once you’ve used this seven-step method a few times, will mark the beginning of the fact you are about to do something about your feelings of fear, rather than just ignoring them.

Step 3: Ask yourself what you are afraid of

Is it the bumps? Or the clouds? Is it that little or big tuck you had? The rustle? Is it because you are so high? Or so low? Name it. Out loud, as though you were telling someone about it. When I was first recovering from my accidents I would find myself having made the decision to land, because I was afraid. But once back on the ground I couldn’t actually say what I was afraid of. So for a while I took a voice recorder with me, and I would speak into it when I was feeling afraid.

Clarifying what the fear is about, rather than just leaving it as a nebulous feeling, is important. Even if it’s just a vague feeling, concentrate on it, guess what might be causing it. Dismissing it as ‘silly’ or similar, without really knowing what is behind it, is not helpful.

Step 4: Are you in danger?

Having named the fear, step four is to ask the question: are you actually in danger? An interesting discovery I made here is that sometimes I didn’t know. After all these years of flying, I didn’t actually always know where the ‘danger zone’ was. Sure, being right under a big cumulonimbus cloud is dangerous. But how about if it’s a cumulus congestus? How close is too close? How close is okay? Take the time to read the books and talk with experienced pilots about these things, and work out where your own safety margins lie.
There are three answers to the question, Am I in danger?

In my “Yes” category I include big clouds, rain and the associated gust front, strong winds and no glide out to a safe landing.

Being high and being alone however, fall into my “No” category. These are good examples of irrational fear. I sometimes feel frightened in these situations because of past experiences I’ve had. The feeling of fear is just as intense as if I was really in danger. However, I am not in any danger – unless I stop thinking clearly as a result of feeling frightened and then do something that puts me in danger.

The “I Don’t Know” category can contain all of the situations included in the “Yes” category above, if I don’t know what my safety zone is. More about this shortly. I would also add strong turbulence into this category – others might put it in the Yes category. Each of us needs to find our own answers to this question.

Step 5: What are you going to do now?

Having established whether or not you are actually in physical danger, the next step is to come up with a strategy to deal with the situation you are in.

If you are in danger then your highest priority is to get yourself safe. The details of how to do that fall outside the realms of this article, however I will touch on them briefly here. If you don’t have a strategy for dealing with these situations, make it a priority to find one, by talking to people and reading books, watching videos, attending clinics etc. This will not only make you a safer pilot, but will also give you peace of mind, which in itself may reduce your levels of fear.

Big clouds: fly away from them, and if you need to land to be safe, fly away from them using speed bar and big ears. If you are under one, big ears and speed bar to the edge of the cloud, having taken a GPS direction reading so that in case you get into the cloud you know which way to keep heading.
Rain: I have a personal policy not to fly with a wet glider, however mild the rain is. So land before it gets wet, and if it is wet, land asap, remembering the glider may become more prone to going parachutal, so keep the glider speed up.

Gust fronts: if you can see one coming and can’t land in time, one philosophy is to stay as high as you can and ride it out that way. I don’t even like to think too hard about that possibility – it’s too scary. Yet think about it we must. Another philosophy is to fly in the opposite direction of the gust front, and find the largest, widest part of the valley, if that’s what you are in, and pick the biggest paddock, free of powerlines that you can find to land in. All of these topics are worthy of an article in themselves. Best of all however, don’t get caught in a gust front – learn how to avoid that happening.

Strong winds: landing safely here is the key. Find a big, obstacle-free field, free of powerlines, ideally with other fields downwind in case you get blown back. Set yourself up at the upwind end of the paddock, face into the wind, and fly from one side of the paddock to the other, a little as though you are ridge soaring – like a squashed figure 8. When you do land (and remember you won’t need to flare), you need to be able to control your glider. Learn how to do that in strong wind.

No glide to a safe landing: if you have flown too deep into a hill, and don’t have the glide out find the line to the closest field that maximises your chances of lift or finding a thermal – normally by flying down the windward side of a ridge. It is tempting to take the most direct route to the landing paddock, but that may put you in the heaviest sink. If there is no way out, and you are going to land in a tree, do the thing you learned at paragliding school – pick a big bushy tree and then land in it like you would on the ground.
The key in all these instances is to have thought about the scenarios beforehand, and the strategies for getting yourself safe again. In the moment of danger, you need to know what to do, so you don’t add to the fear by needing to work it out at the time. Think and talk it through beforehand. This has the added advantage of probably putting you off putting yourself in such a situation in the first place.

If you can, remember to breathe deeply and visualise yourself getting out of the situation. Visualisation has a strong effect in the middle of a dangerous situation – it sets the determination to get yourself safe. It replaces the frightening images of what could go wrong with a positive one. My body immediately relaxes somewhat and the determination to find a safe way out increases.

Let’s move now to those situations where you are feeling scared, but are actually not in any danger of physically hurting yourself. This is situation I find myself in most often – and I have a routine (another seven steps!) I take myself through when I am aware this has happened:

  1. Look around
  2. Breathe
  3. Set myself a mini-goal
  4. Use my anchors
  5. Visualise myself landing safely
  6. Talk to people on the radio
  7. Remind myself that flying well sometimes means pushing out of my comfort zone

The first thing to do is to look around. When we get scared we can become fixated, so by forcing ourselves to look around the level of fear immediately reduces. And once again, breathe deeply.

Mini-goals are crucial. They shift our focus from whatever is frightening, to something positive. Examples of the types of mini-goals I set myself are to core thermals well, get to the top of a thermal faster than everyone else or stick with pilot A – don’t let them outfly me.

Focusing on coring thermals has the added advantage of keeping you in what is generally the most formed part of the lift. When we are half-hearted about thermalling we may find ourselves at the edges of the thermal, where it is roughest.

When I was coming back from my accidents, just staying in the air was an achievement. So once I noticed myself feeling uncomfortable, I would set myself a mini-goal of flying for another 10 or 15 minutes. And then go in to land. That way I could feel good about having achieved a goal, rather than just berating myself for landing early.

Similarly, I might say, I’ll go and land after I’ve had two or three tucks, however small. This was a particularly good mini-goal to set myself if I was afraid of the wing collapsing because of the conditions. Inevitably I found that I wasn’t actually getting any collapses at all!

Having set a mini-goal, I then use anchors to change my state from a fearful state to a more desirable state.

I then visualise myself landing safely – I visualise myself coming in above the field, assessing the wind direction, deciding where and how I’m going to set myself up for a good landing, execute that landing approach, and flaring at the right time.

Talking to people is also a very effective way of moving through an irrational fear moment. Get on the radio; ask people how they are finding the conditions. Talk with them about what you are noticing and feeling, and ask them for their feedback or thoughts.

The last thing I’ll do is remind myself that flying well sometimes means pushing myself out of my comfort zone. There are times when the air is rough, or the day is windy. I know I have the skills to handle the conditions safely – it’s just uncomfortable. And chances are it will change, as I move to another part of the flight or as the day progresses. I’ll do this more when I’m competing than when I’m free flying – when my desire to achieve a good finish outweighs the discomfort I am feeling in the moment.

These days, when I am free-flying, I will tend to go and land when I am flying outside my comfort zone – I am in the air to enjoy myself, so if I am not enjoying myself, why persist? This has been particularly important for me, as I have had a tendency to keep pushing myself, and then forget how much I love flying. It becomes more of a chore, another job I need to do, rather than something I love doing.
The last situation that you may need to find a strategy for, as part of Step 5, is when you feel frightened but don’t actually know if you are in any physical danger or not. Is that cloud too big or that turbulence extreme? As you find where that line lies for yourself through experience and study, this will probably occur less.

In this instance the best thing to do is to get on the radio and talk to people: “How is it for you?” Don’t suffer alone – talk it through with them, understand their thinking about it, and then make a decision for yourself about whether it is dangerous or not, and act accordingly.

Step 6: Back on the ground

If you’ve been scared in the air, whether the fear was rational or irrational, talk about it when you’re back on the ground. Ask other pilots for their opinions about the conditions and find out how they dealt with them. Don’t be shy here – people generally love helping out. And if you can, share your feelings: let someone you trust know what it was like and whether you were frightened or found it difficult.

Likewise, be gentle with yourself after such experiences. For the longest time, I felt like I had to be strong and deal with them myself. Or more like it, not deal with the feelings at all, and just move on. Many years after my cascades in Spain, I realised my flying pleasure and performance were still being hampered by the experience I’d had eight years earlier! When I eventually let myself revisit that time and feel the feelings and have the associated emotions, and take care of myself around them, there was a step change in both my flying pleasure and competition performance. Little did people know that the reason why I was standing on the winner’s podium was because of the ‘inner work’ that I did.

Step 7: Other strategies

I’ve already mentioned studying up about what is and isn’t safe, and finding that line. Read and talk to people – increase your knowledge base, get the facts, come up with your own methods for working out where your safety line is.

Flying a glider you are comfortable on is also important. Flying a wing with less performance can greatly increase your sense of wellness and comfort on your glider. And it is surprising how much better you can fly when you feel like you are on-top of things and in control of your glider: your own performance will probably increase, despite the glider’s lesser performance.

Doing an SIV course is a great way of becoming more comfortable on your wing and helps you get comfortable with rapid descent techniques. Knowing that you can get out of the sky quickly, if you need to, will increase your level of comfort and your physical safety when flying. And the controlled collapses will help you understand better how your wing reacts.

Reading books and articles about fear and how to deal with it, may also help you work through your fears – both in flying and in life!

The more you think about your fear when you are on the ground, and the situations that cause it, the more you’ll be able to deal with the fears, become a safer pilot and enjoy your flying.

© 2014 Heike Hamann All Rights Reserved