Crazy XC!
How to fly cross-country, with a difference

So you're tired of lying in the 'turkey patch' (directly below the takeoff site, where flightless birds collect) watching your peers glide away. You're tired of peeking out at the perfect cross-country sky and wondering why you are on the ground, when there is so much sky out there? Are you angry? Very angry? Good, then maybe it's curable. Seasoned cross-country pilot Greg Hamerton offers some aphrodisiacs to add to your flying diet that will GET YOU UP and KEEP YOU UP.

The most fundamentally important thing is to go flying. You can't learn to fly cross-country by sitting in that armchair reading this article. Throw it away, and go flying if it is at all possible.

You're still there? The weather's that bad? Well let's get on with those tips I was offering.

1. Launch at the wrong time
The 'skygods' arrive at launch, always go up, and disappear over the back of the mountain. They seem to sense when it is the right time to launch, but there's nothing different that you can see about that particular moment that they chose, and the moment you choose which sends you gliding like a rock to the fields below. How can you cultivate this timing sense? Pretend you are ObiWan Kenobi, the Jedi Master in StarWars, and "feel the force" of the thermal rising up the mountainslope. It's okay, no ones going to see you, because you're pretending.! When you feel its the right time to launch, wait. When you feel its completely wrong time to launch, then GO. Why on earth? Am I crazy? Yes, but you're not getting up and away with the launch cycles. Which means you've probably been responding to the wrong signals, like nice strong wind (the thermal is passing - its too late usually to launch, you just drop out the front of the thermal). So this technique turns your timing on its head. If it works, may the Force be with you, always. If it fails, dismally, you can curse me (not yourself) and you know for certain when the wrong time to launch is.

An extreme case of timing misjudgement is seen as 'Ridge Posing' and is usually attended by the pilot having all the latest gear, flying suits, variometers, gadgets galore - but never launching. Its based on the fear of 'dropping out', and thereby slipping down the ladder of ranking in your peer group, from your customary elevated position. And to be fair, sometimes the retrieve cycle can be long and cause hesitation on launch in light conditions. But on the same day you'll see student pilots, bursting with new-found enthusiasm for the thrill of being airborne, look about them perplexed, wanting to know why no one is flying. "It's not good enough yet," mutters one pilot, and returns to his latest issue of Sport in the Sky. The enthusiast lays out his glider, runs, runs, and floats down to the landing once more, his third flight that day. What's my point? Someone here is flying, and learning how to stay up in light conditions - and its not the one sitting on his butt.

2. Fact or fiction?
Air currents are, most of the time, invisible. Any ability to predict where lift (and turbulence) lies is based on our ability to visualise where it should be. In our modern television and film age, the ability to visualise is something which gets little training, for everything is painted out in brilliant clarity across the screen. But take out a fantasy novel from your local library, and your powers of visualisation are stretched to their limit. Evil gargoyles come alive at night and prowl through the darkness. Sorcerers fire blue bolts of magic at each other. Even the most contemporary fiction is filled with imaginative characters who only exist when your imagination wields its conscious paintbrush. Sometimes the writer will astound you with their insight - the best bit of flying instruction I've read is offered in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, by Gandalf the Grey : "Fly, you fools," he cried, and was gone.

3. Blind as a bat, up to cloudbase
Many pilots fly with two-way radios, and these offer a superb tool for extending your ability to sense the air currents. You need a friend, who'll stand on the launch-site for a while. Then you fly out, and in an un-crowded area of sky, close your eyes. Allow your friend to guide you through the lift and sink. This will increase your sensitivity to the subtle movements of your wing, and allows your imagination to work overtime, for you can't see where you are. Open your eyes every minute, to re-orient yourself, and to check that your radio comms haven't failed. It's crazy, it's a little scary, but it's loads of fun. You may even get to cloudbase. If your don't, you can blame your 'friend'. Now it's his turn.

4. Speed to fly
Advanced flight computers can provide important-sounding beeps and squawks to tell you how fast to fly to maximise your distance, and when integrated with a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a wind-speed meter, can tell you what your drift is over the ground, and even the time in Hong Kong. Do you need this to fly cross country? On a paraglider? Let's be serious, we're talking about a craft with a glide angle of 8:1 at best and an effective speed range of 15km/h ('slow' is 30, 'fast' is 45km/h.) If you don't get up, you're going to land in the field in front of you, if you fly fast, maybe you'll make the one in front of that. But with all that extra equipment which demands your attention, you're unlikely to have made it past the 'turkey patch'. Hang loose, enjoy the flight, and think about where the next lift is likely to be.

5. Lifting the thermal off the trigger points
Pretend for a moment that you have the power to influence the movement of the winds. Look around you for the place where you would like the next thermal to lift off from, and will it to form, imagine it roaring up off the fields, bursting skyward. Wave your hands, if it helps, and mutter 'Abracadabra'. It may be that we are all ignorant magicians, it may just be that you tend to will the thermals to lift off the most intuitively likely trigger points. Whatever the reason, ordering the thermals to form, and flying towards your own creations, often has the desired effect of a wonderful save, and a climb to cloudbase. I wouldn't be writing this if it hadn't worked for me, many times more than it had failed.

6. The Way of the Two Strong Legs
When you arrive at the launch-site, announce to someone that you are going for a Mystery Hike. Then lay out your glider and fly away. See if you can discover a wonderful new hiking route that no one had thought of before. It'll certainly make for a good yarn back at the pub.
There are two routes in the sky - one that mirrors the roads below, and one that mirrors the clouds above. Rarely do these two coincide. The road route generally stops soon after launch, where some inconsiderate road-planner curved his pencil away from the ridge to meet some distant town. The cloud route is fresh every day, demands that you remain airborne, and is generally longer and more satisfying. The landing site becomes the beginning of the Mystery Hike. May you be home in time for tea!

7. Goals for Heroes
Frighten yourself with your audacity. If you're best flight is to the 'turkey patch' below launch, vow to attempt a flight to 5km down the road. When you've achieved that, make it 50km. The more ridiculous it sounds to you, the more you'll be able to laugh at the prospect. Laughter is often the key to excelling at cross country flying. Taking it all too seriously, striving to constantly better yourself, can often drain the fun out of a sport which is, in essence, laughing at gravity.

8. Songs for Flying
By acting in control, you can often bring yourself back to a position of control. When the sky is falling on your head, and your knuckles go white in fear - SING! Reggae tunes, an old Beatles number, or even The Ride of the Valkyries can help to fill the void of fear which is knotting your stomach. Just don't sing anything by Dead Can Dance.

9. Wet Chess
Cross-country flying, and especially competition flying, has a large tactical element to it. If the only time you get to practice tactical thinking is while your altitude is rapidly diminishing, you're unlikely to perform brilliantly. Fortunately, there are ways and means which can be employed on rainy days such as today. A game of chess with a pint as the prize for the winner. The winner soon gets too sozzled to know the difference between his queen and his bishop, and his pawns wander all over the show. This allows the loser a victorious comeback, and a fairly equal amount of ale.

10. The BUT end of the flight
The most common cause of a limp cross-country flight is the underachieving 'but' word. As soon as it is uttered, a perfectly good cross-country flight becomes a small failure. "I could have flown 100km, but my vario batteries went flat". "I was going to go over the mountain, but then I remembered I had a dinner appointment." "I could have gone cross-country, but I didn't have a map." Sheepdung, frog's droppings, and stool of cow. Every time, you never get as far as you should have / would have / could have. Use the word the other way around : "I was going to land at Joe's Farm, but I hit a thermal and landed here!" This way, you always out-perform yourself, and soon it becomes habit. Better still, don't use the word at all, and rejoice at every airborne moment.

I would have been flying cross-country today, but I had to write this article.