We want to use this page to collect from everyone a list of simple tips for those people wanting to go XC. Many tips emphasise preparation, and getting mentally prepared, as well as more technical tips. Please do add your own tips as comments below; we will incorporate these into the main section.
Prepare before the flight: look at the airmaps, have a rough idea of what your route is, and see what ground features there are, like lakes, towns, etc. Even with airspace on your GPS, and flying with an airmap, it’s a lot easier to work out these things on the ground than in flight. Make sure you have water, and chocolate bars or sandwiches. Make sure all your batteries are fully charged.
Get a GPS: Navigating in the air with just an airmap is incredibly difficult – it’s very hard indeed to know exactly where you are. With a modern GPS it is far simpler. A GPS which is MapSource-enabled, so it can display graphical maps, takes a lot of the pain out of navigation. Even better, you can download onto it – free – the UK airspace, so you know exactly when you are about to fly into that ATZ. And it also makes retrieves a lot easier, if you are being picked up and you can give an exact location. And after the flight, you can upload your track logs, view them in Google Earth, etc., as we do on our XC flights page.
Get a radio: on the hill, I think radios are an essential safety feature. Over the back, especially when gaggle flying, they are really useful for exchanging information about climb rates, etc.
Fly first, chat later: get your kit ready first, get ready to fly, then chat to your friends on the hill; otherwise you’ll be watching people climb out whilst you are still getting ready.
Get in the air early: you won’t go XC if you are still on the ground. If it’s soarable, get in the air and stay in the air until you can get that thermal.
Don’t launch into cold air: on a light or nil wind day, suddenly the wind picks up for a short time, but is cooler than before. This indicates the thermal has gone through, and launching into it is launching into sinking air. This isn’t always necessarily true, and timing is everything – you can still get into the back end of the thermal, and get enough height to give you the opportunity to explore other parts of the ridge.
Practice skills when you are on the ridge: Set yourself targets when you are just flying around which will help you when flying XC. For example, try to get to 1000 feet ATO three times on a soaring flight, practice using your speedbar, switch your vario off to see how thermals ‘feel’.
Always go over the back: on a good soaring day, you can easily fly up and down the ridge all day. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Whereas going XC can mean a 20 minute flight with just one thermal, and you lose hours of soaring on the ridge. But that 20 minute flight can teach you more – and be a lot more exciting than – hours of ridge soaring. And you’ll have a lot of one thermal flights in the early days (and even when you are an experienced XC pilot). But as you get better at XCs, you’ll get longer XCs. And the only way to get better is to do a lot of them. Save the ridge soaring for winter.
Leaving the ridge: it’s quite difficult at first to go over the back. Mentally, it’s a bit of a leap of faith to leave the ridge, and it’s often like there’s a piece of elastic bringing you back to the front. The reality is that you almost certainly will not be at base before you commit to leaving the hill, especially on a PG where penetration back to the front is limited. Novice XC pilots will often lose the thermal on the ridge because they are, consciously or not, reluctant to follow it over the back, so they fall out of the back of the thermal, so then they have to come back to the front of the ridge ….. so they never get away. It’s really important to break the mental link to the ridge and have the confidence, or faith, just to stick with the thermal and let it take you over the back, away from the ridge – which is when the fun really starts!
The lift/drift ratio: going low over the back isn’t good. You don’t get very far and you can potentially get into rotor if you lose the lift low and then sink out behind the ridge. A strong thermal will climb more vertically than a weaker thermal which will drift more. You can take a strong thermal over the back lower than a weak one. With a weak thermal, it can pay to fly back to the front and step up, using various thermals to get enough height to go (if you are confident it’s more than a one thermal day!).
Watch out for soaring birds, especially on light wind days: on very light or nil wind days, experienced XC pilots look for signs before launching, scanning left and right to see what is happening, e.g. swifts suddenly appearing in front of launch, indicating lifting air, or other birds thermalling.
Some tips on thermalling: thermals are often preceded by rough air. Push upwind to find the thermal. If you lose the thermal it’s worth flying upwind to find it again, most of the time you fall out of the front of it, rather than out the back.
Thermals shift in rising air as the surrounding air changes temperature, be aware of this. Similarly, climb strength can vary as the air temperature around the thermal changes with altitude. Because the climb rate gets less doesn’t necessarily mean that the thermal is petering out. It can become much stronger again as the air around the thermal cools again.
Pimp off others: if other people are going up, fly over to them; if you leave in a gaggle, keep a close eye on what others are doing, and, at least in your early days as an XC pilot, follow their lead, rather than rushing ahead yourself.
Be patient: it’s not a race, except in comps. Be patient, stick to any lift you have. If you have zeros, you are in lifting air, and covering more kilometers. Once at base, stick with it, especially if there is some drift; you don’t have to immediately rush off to the next cloud. Just drifting with the cloud is covering ground and can be a good tactic if there is nothing else obvious to glide to. If you are hitching a ride under a cloud, fly to the sunny and/or downwind side of it.
Plan ahead whilst thermalling: when climbing in a thermal, when you’re secure in the lift and are confident about getting to base, think about your next move. If you wait till you get to base, you can’t see the sky very well at that point; so well before base you should be looking around at the clouds, thinking where to go next, keeping an eye on other gliders; by the time you get to base you should have a clear idea of what to do next (even if it’s just stay with the cloud you are under, to see if things get better).
Finding the second thermal: always the hardest one, since getting away from the ridge is relatively easy, but you never really know what the day is like till you go. You need to be in a pretty good, solid, climb when you leave the hill, and/or pretty high, preferably on your way to base. That means you will be able to spot the next cloud to go for whilst you are still climbing out from the ridge.
Flying with wind: When it’s windy, often the thermals are broken low down and can be difficult to find. If you get high, stay high and use the drift to get your kilometers, rather than dashing off on glides which leave you low and scrabbling round to find broken cores.
Flying with others: going XC with others is much easier, as it spreads the load of finding lift and motivates you to carry on too. If you are flying over to others, join the thermal in an orderly fashion. Try to slot in without throwing others out. Always turn in the same direction as others already established in the thermal. If someone thermals up to you (i.e. they are climbing faster than you), move out of the way and join the thermal again lower. When on a glide don’t get into the ‘wedge of failure’.
The wedge of failure: This is a tip from Jocky Sanderson, and good advice indeed. If you are going XC with others they might be on better gliders or might be better at thermalling than you. If they reach the top of the climb and glide off don’t be tempted to follow them before you have got to the top of the climb as well. If you do, you just end up in the next climb even lower, then set off on the next glide half way up the climb and the cycle repeats itself. They will stay high as you struggle lower and lower to the ground, until your on the deck. Better to fly alone high than playing catch-up with others.
Some tips on glides: Always glide to a cloud, ground trigger, bird, etc. Try to avoid going on an aimless downwind dash. Make one of the data fields on your GPS ’speed’ – i.e. ground speed, not air speed. You will be able to tell from how fast you are going if you are downwind (wind direction changes at altitude, so downwind can be different from the wind on the hill you left). Try to find a good glide line so you glide in lift where possible (i.e. under a cloud street). Turn 90 degrees if in strong sink.
Maintain your concentration: going XC is mentally very tiring (and can be physically so too). Losing concentration even for few seconds can mean you lose a thermal – especially if you are low anyway – and put you on the ground. Concentrate on what you are doing, and don’t be distracted. However, the flip side of this is that you need to avoid being too tense, and certainly when you are high again, take a few seconds to have a drink from your camel back (an essential XC item), have a look at the view, move your legs around a bit to stretch them, take a photo, sing a song, etc. Consciously relax, and you will find your stamina and endurance for long flights increases – and a good XC can mean you are in the air for three hours or more, especially if it’s taken you a while to leave the ridge.
Think in thirds: away from the ridge, divide the height between the ground and the clouds into thirds. If you’re in the lower third, look for ground sources and triggers – e.g. ploughed fields and car parks for sources, lines of trees and ridges for triggers. If you’re in the top third, look at the clouds for your next thermal – but beware of decaying clouds. Look for nice cumuli with flat, darkish bottoms, not raggedy edges. And in the middle third, look for both clouds and ground sources.
Never give up: You can be a hundred feet or so above the ground, and still find a thermal which takes you back to base. Think of some of the ridges we fly from, more often than not only a few hundred feet top to bottom; and they provide excellent thermals. So when hunting for a thermal never give up, even when low. But, there is a caveat to this – a safe landing over rules everything else.
Finding a landing field: the most important thing on an XC flight is always to have somewhere in mind to land. This is even more of an issue for hang gliders, which obviously need to be a lot more choosy about landing fields than PGs do. On XCs on my hang glider, unless I’m really high, I am always looking out for potential fields; on my PG, I’m a bit more relaxed about it, but still keep an awareness of what I’m flying over, in terms of possible landing areas. having said that, I’ve never yet had a problem finding a suitable field on my HG – though I have sometimes deliberately flown through thermals to land safely, rather than take the thermal into somewhere where there didn’t seem to be any landing options. On the other hand, many of the official bottom landings at our sites are quite poor, and you wouldn’t even consider them if you’d arrived on an XC, where you’ve basically got the option to land in any suitable field. So what is a suitable field?
- no crops;
- no livestock;
- no wires (look for posts and poles, rather than wires, which you won’t see from the air);
- flat (the higher you are, the more difficult it is to see a slope – look for indicators like rivers, etc). This is especially important for HGs, PGs can cope better with slope landings;
- no obstacles (e.g. hay bales);
- unobstructed, into wind approach (360 to check direction, or look for flags, smoke, etc.).
Another note on birds: Learn to accept and live with the fact that as soon as your feet touch the ground a bird will thermal over your landing field.
Getting back is part of the fun: if you are worried about getting back, you’ll never go XC. The retrieve, or getting back, is part of the XC adventure. Hitching, at least in the UK, isn’t too difficult, and you can meet a lot of interesting people. Carry a “Glider Pilot” sign – that does make a difference, and people who wouldn’t normally pick up a hitcher will pick you up if they see the sign. Take off your sun glasses and smile when hitching. Holding your mobile or radio in your hand makes you look more purposeful. Carry a reasonably detailed road map for hitching – air maps and GPS’s are useless for hitching. And getting back with a PG is really easy, compared with the hassle of a hang glider.
Remember that in your early XC flying career the retrieve story will normally be longer than the tale of the flight, and will usually be much more entertaining too!
A few new ones from Kai Coleman:
- If you are gliding to others in a thermal and they are much higher than you, then pick a land mark where you first saw them climbing as the place to glide to. Don’t fly under them (unless it’s nil wind) as the thermal will have drifted. So use the landmark as the position to start your search for the core.
- If you are a more experienced XC pilot, use late evening XCs, which are probably not long enough to score in the league, for skills practice. Getting used to cross wind glides, flying back upwind through thermals to see how they feel, etc. On an evening XC play with the air – it will help you when you hit a difficult/weak section on a longer mid-day XC.