As a child on a family holiday about 20 years ago I did a tandem flight above Morzine and since then I have expected to learn to paraglide at some point in my life, but had always assumed it would be much later in life and I certainly had not considered learning in 2021. However, due to a knee injury our mountaineering options were limited for our September holiday, so Becky suggested that we learn to paraglide as one of our friends had recently learnt in France and was raving about how fun it was.
I am sure that people normally decide to paraglide and choose a flight school with more than 3 days notice, which resulted in us drawing a circle around Munich and looking for any flight schools within an appropriate distance which were also doing ground courses on the first Saturday of our holiday. We found a couple of schools within an appropriate distance of Munich and ended up selecting Cloudbase in the Zillertal. Given our experience on the course, this seemed to turn out as an excellent decision as it was a great valley to learn to fly in, very flexible and within an easy drive of Munich.
This blog post documents the journey from complete novice to qualified pilots with our first few flights outside of the flight school.
The first two days of the course were in a training field in the valley, this took us from complete novices to complete novices who could put a harness on, clip in and forward launch, but still with no knowledge of landing, as the only way to practice landing is to fly and land!
The first day was in a very flat field with very variable winds which made for hard work in the heat, and we were absolutely broken by the end of the day. It is amazing how hard it was running around an almost flat field!
The second day took us to a slightly steeper hill, which helped us learn the differences in impulse during the start of the launch as the slope gradient changed as we progressively moved higher up the hill. The increase in gradient and vertical hight also allowed us to get the first small amounts of airtime by the end of the morning. Despite this small airtime, it still didn’t help with landing as we were never high enough to practice landing for the very short flights. The larger hill was certainly felt while walking back up it in the bright sunshine, and by the end of the session we were all suitably exhausted.
Over the next few days my legs become progressively more sore, to the point that standing up was difficult, which was certainly a surprise given that at this point in time I could do successive eight hour mountain days without feeling tired!
At the end of the second day we were taken to the landing field so that we could see it from the ground, and the landing patterns were explained to us for the first time before we were then taken to the classroom for some theory, which thankfully involved learning how to land (theoretically)! The strange thing to get our heads around is that it is impossible to actually practice landing a paraglider, as to practice you need to be airborne, which means it isn’t really practice!
Feeling slightly apprehensive we left the theory session with an early start the next day in order to make the most of the calm conditions before the valley wind kicked in later during the morning.
On thehe next morning it felt a bit strange as we were standing at the launch, 650m above the bottom of the Zillertal, having previously only launched off a 10m hill. Thankfully we were in great hands with our instructor and she instilled us with confidence. Everyone in our group made successful launches and enjoyed their first flights back down to the valley, some of the group even managed to land on their feet on their first landings!
The instruction over the radio was great and always made us feel safe, especially on the first few flights when there was only one person in the air per radio frequency at any given time. Over the course of the next few flights we continued to practice landing, and all started to build up confidence and learnt the timings for the final flare.
Over the first 15 flights we progressed from doing gentle individual 360 turns, to faster linked 360 turns and then starting to land without radio assistance (but not without supervision). We then progressed quickly through the other manoeuvres of big ears, roll control (rollen) and pitch control (nicken) which were needed to pass the exam. After about 25 flights we had learnt all the manoeuvres and were practicing them all on each flight.
It was soon time to think about equipment and we both settled on similar but different equipment. We elected for semi-lightweight harnesses and canopies. We both chose the Advance Easiness 3 harness, as we could test them during the course and knew that they fitted us well. I ended up selecting a “low b” rated Skywalk Arriba 4 and becky selected a en-a rated Skywalk Masala, both of which being semi-light wings which are capable of hike & fly and thermal flying.
After a few days our landing in Zell changed to a smaller field which while less good for beginners, was good experience for getting out in the real world as the only landing field as nice as the one we initially learnt in that I have found so far is not an official landing field!
After a few days of flying at the new landing field we had to change to a different launch as well due to extensive muck spreading! The new launch was above Fügen, which was less steep but nice and wide which meant that lots of people could setup at the same time. This also meant another new landing site, one of which involved landing with right turns due to power lines preventing a standard left turn aircraft approach, which was yet more good experience for getting out in the real word.
Before our last flight we had to do a theory test, which involved lots of learning, but in the end we both had very strong passes during the exam. On the final day of flying we started with our exam flight which involved doing everything with no radio assistance, and then we were taught some other manoeuvres on the final flights such as partial collapses.
It felt a but surreal walking away on the final day having a paragliding license and being able to fly anywhere, alone. As I finished a bit earlier than Becky, I made my first flights in the Zillertal from Spieljoch. It was great to be out on a beautiful day, however the landing field was horrible as it was very short and on a slope which was less than ideal. Despite the challenges of the landing field I was pleased to walk away with three good landings from three flights.
Ideally we would have been able to continue to use uplift for our early flights in order to quickly gain experience, however we qualified as the lifts were all beginning to close for the autumn maintenance period. This meant that after my first day of lift served flying at Speiljoch, it was then onto hike&fly adventures. Thankfully there is lots of information on the internet with details on easy launch sites and where to land.
I really enjoyed the autumn hike&fly days out, it was great to be out in the mountains and to be able to be back in the valley 15mins after getting to the top. The only downside is having to carry a bag with 7kg of paragliding kit up the mountain in the first place! Thankfully I haven’t had to carry it back down yet as the conditions have always been favourable at the top.
My first hike&fly was above Maurach from Hochiss, the day started off in the cloud, but when it cleared it was a truly magical day. At times I wondered if the wind was too strong, but after returning to the launch site having been to the summit the wind had eased off enough for a nice safe launch and I was lucky enough to get some brilliant photos from Becky. Had I been a better pilot I could have stayed up in the thermals, as lots of people were, but for me it was a straight glide down to the valley and a very thermic landing field!
It was then time to head back to the Zillertal for more flying. I was treated to a taxi uplift as our friend Win was doing a tandem flight in the morning, before doing Klettersteig from Mayrhofen in the afternoon. To top the day off, we then met Becky who was completing her course and drove up to Melchboden where I enjoyed another flight back down to Zell while they ate Kaiserschmarrn.
The next day I was off walking with Win, and while I wasn’t going to take off from the summit and leave her to walk back down on her own, I took the opportunity to take my glider for a walk and took off from a small summit about 30mins before the lift station. This was a wonderful flight as it was my first flight were I experienced some ridge lift and stayed at the same altitude as I was flying.
The next adventure was from Vorderunnütz above Achensee. This was a peak I had been up earlier in the year, and read that it was a really easy take off, so seemed like an obvious choice. I flew from here two weekends in a row, the first weekend Becky didn’t fly as her friend was visiting, so we all walked up together before I flew off. The landing was one of the biggest fields I have landed in so far, despite not actually being an official landing field.
The next weekend was back up to Vorderunnütz, with much better conditions and thermal opportunities. But as it was Becky’s first flight, a simple glide back down was in order for us. Unfortunately I didn’t have a very successful flight photographically, so much to Becky’s annoyance, I didn’t really get any photos of her on her first flight! It was nonetheless great to be out flying with Becky.
Keen to get more flying in, and with Austria going into lockdown we headed over to the Allgäu the next day, before taking our gliders for a long walk just to fly down off the final summit of the Neunerköpfle. This was a delightful flight in the evening light, with stunning views, although we did experience our first wind shear at ~50m off the ground. It was strange looking down at a windsock indicating no wind, with a ground speed of ~10-15kmh, especially as there had also been no wind at the launch.
Part way through the hike&fly season I headed to one of the few lifts which was running near Munich for a day of lift served flying. The forecast was for sunny conditions and low winds, so I was just expecting to get a number of glides back down to the valley. The downside of a good forecast and being one of the only lifts still running was that the launch was chaos with a lot of paragliders. Further adding to this chaos was the wind and the thermals which meant people were failing at launching and also staying up in the dynamic lift and thermals, this did however mean that I did my first reverse launch and that I was able to take advantage of the weak autumnal thermals and have my first two flights which were significantly extended compared to just a glide down.
After the first two thermic flights, the next glide down felt a bit disappointing which was certainly a surprise! Feeling quite tired by this point I decided to call it a day and head home.
After what felt like weeks of bad weather, and then good weather with a persistent cloud inversion it was finally flying weather again. This time however the conditions underfoot were significantly different, with plenty of snow on both the launch and the landing.
My first launch was with skis on, which was certainly a new challenge. It is amazing how easily lines get caught on bindings while setting up! The landing was very easy with skis as you don’t need to worry about killing forward speed as you can ski much faster than you can run!
After Becky had finished her ski lesson, she joined me for an afternoon flight in perfect easy conditions without any wind to worry about, a nice slope with snow which wasn’t too soft or too firm and a large landing field.
After the landing I made a quick run for a final round before the lift stops and enjoyed my first sunset flight to round off our time in Munich before heading back to the UK for Christmas.
I am now looking forward to a winter of flying to gain more experience before we do a thermal flying course in Spring to learn how to stay up as well as glide back down.