How to Ground Launch
Your Skydiving Rig
The Green Way to Fly
by Brian Germain
Learning to Take Off
Skydivers are the only pilots in history that don’t know how to take off. To become a complete pilot, we must learn how to get ourselves into the sky without outside assistance. Most skydivers find ground launching their skydiving system to be an incredibly rewarding experience, and very good exercise. As a training tool for canopy piloting, it is akin to the significance of a wind tunnel for skydiving technique. By spending a great amount of time actually doing the activity, we are better able to get the feeling for what we are striving to learn.
Ground launching burns no fossil fuels. It does not pollute the atmosphere. Best of all, ground launching is absolutely free. You can’t beat that.
You can ground launch any skydiving canopy if you have enough slope and some up-slope wind. The heavier the wing-loading, the steeper the slope has to be. I don't recommend flying anything higher than 1.2 or so until you get some experience. Airlock parachutes can be inflated completely prior to launch, but most open-nose wings will pressurize well if you have a bit of wind or a skillful launch technique. A wing with a flat glide ratio will work best, and those with elliptical planforms will be easier to steer with harness input, giving the pilot more options for maneuvering. Paraglider fabric is more rigid, and therefore inflates easier without distortion. It is significantly heavier, however, and may not lift up as easily in zero wind conditions.
There are some great ground-launch-specific wings out there, as are there some amazing harnesses. Lightweight paraglider harnesses with their low attachment point allow the pilot to lean all the way to horizontal. While a bit weird to fly at first, this allows the body drag to be minimized, while contributing to the aerodynamic lift at high airspeeds. The efficiency benefits are proven, and well worth the learning process.
A helmet is a necessity, and many sites have rocks, requiring you to wear adequate body armor such as knee and elbow pads. A good pair if hiking boots with healthy ankle support is also essential. Have a cell phone and a friend in the event that things don’t go as planned. Danger requires us to plan for both the best and worst case scenarios.
Bring lots of water and a snack. Climbing the hill is hard work (you will want to do this over and over again), and you will want to be in good form. Have a flashlight in the event that the flying goes into the evening, and a rudimentary first aid kit isn’t the worst idea.
First, choose a location that is smooth, steep and without obstacles. A big rock can really mess up your day. Sandy hills facing a large body of water create the safest, most stable conditions. Remember that trees create turbulence too, so a wide slope with a clear, steep launch site will give you the best chances for success. As with any take-off, this is not 100% safe, and you must be afforded a great number of options for plan “B”.
The wind MUST be flowing directly upslope, and should be less than 15mph until you have a number of flights. If you fly in high winds or turbulence, you have a higher probability of having bad things happen. If you wouldn’t fly a kite there, don’t launch your parachute there.
Take several minutes to stand on top of the hill to feel the wind. Throwing a bit of grass in the air is a good way of seeing the exact wind direction. Note that there is often a bit of variance in the direction and velocity. If it gusts up quickly, you should keep your wing in the bag. If the wind is pushing your body as you stand on top of the hill, stay on the ground. Always look for the reasons why you should not fly. Better to be in the ground, wishing you were in the air, than the alternative.
Make sure the owner of the land gives your permission, or cannot see you fly. ;) Remember, trespassing still is a crime according to the law in most countries. Not all, fortunately. The moral issues of experiencing something this beautiful weighed against the reasons to follow local legal regulations are for another discussion.
Ready For Launch:
No Wind or Low Wind: ‘The Charging Bull’
*Remove the bag and pilot-chute and stow the slider all the way down, or remove it altogether. If you have an old harness without a reserve, you won’t have to lug your reserve parachute up the hill over and over again.
- Unstow the brakes before launching.
- Lay the canopy out upslope from your container, in a horse-shoe configuration with the end-cells closer to the rig than the center cell, so the center cell will inflate first. The nose must face up, but the canopy should be on its back. Check all the lines for sticks, line knots, and for continuity.
- Put the rig on, while facing downhill. Some people forgo the chest strap to allow them to lean all the way forward in the harness, but make sure your leg straps are tight and properly routed.
- Drape your risers over your arms, and grab the toggles, paying careful attention to the continuity. Take your time and get it right.
- Reaching under the risers, grab the front risers at the connector link. Some wings, particularly cross-braced parachutes with the nose sewn shut may inflate better if you hold both the front and rear risers to prevent the nose from folding over.
- Take a moment to collect yourself and prepare for flight. Relax you mind, clearing your head of all doubts and fear. Observe the situation and visualize your flight with clear, positive intension. Consider the possibility that you will fly much further than you originally expected. Have options.
- If there is very little wind, you will need to get a bit of running speed before you hit the end of the lines and bring the canopy up, so start by backing up toward the canopy. Clear a channel in the lines so you can stand right up next to the tail.
- When you are ready to fly, run AGGRESSIVELY downhill with your hands up in front of you, with you elbows straight, with no slack in the front risers.
- When you hit the end of the lines, the canopy will go "WHOMP!" and will pull your shoulders back a bit. Keep running! Look downhill as you run with complete commitment. Watch where you are going. Run straight into the wind.
- Do not apply your brakes until you have lots of speed, otherwise the parachute will retreat behind and prevent your progress like an airbrake.
- When the parachute is fully over your head, release your grip on the front risers, and keep running with concerted effort.
- If the canopy drifts to one side, do not try to steer it back over your head. Run slightly toward the side that the parachute has drifted toward so that you end up back under the canopy. Continue running.
- Look up at the canopy as you run straight downhill to check for proper inflation and line continuity. If something looks wrong, stop running and pull your toggles all the way down to abort the launch sequence.
- When you have adequate running speed, apply the brakes to 1/4 or so. If the wind is higher, you may find more success by adding a bit if rear risers instead.
- Look straight downhill as you run to assure a straight take-off run, and to avoid rocks and other obstacles.
- Keep running as fast as you can until you find yourself running in the air. Flaring and jumping into the air will not work, and is equivalent to an airplane pilot pulling back on the power and yanking back on the yolk to get airborne. This may work for a moment, but the lack of airspeed will drop you back down to earth.
- Never do a 180 back at the hill, and always land across the slope or downhill, if the slope mostly flattens out.
- Do not fly into a tree, ski lift or other object.
- You may still die.
Higher Wind Launches: Reverse Kiting
- Set up the wing as if you are preparing for a straight-ahead “Charging Bull” Take-off Method, with the front risers and your brakes in your hands.
- Rotate 180 degrees to face up the hill, and your wing. This will require you to throw one riser-group over your head so that you are completely “Crossed”. It takes a bit of practice to get used to flying your parachute in reverse, but it will eventually feel natural. The controls are backwards, but everything still works. Remember which way you rotated so when it comes time to launch, you spin around the right way.
- In high wind conditions, it may be helpful to hold both wingtips just behind the “A” lines and inflate the parachute in an arched horseshoe. Once it is pressurized and looking good, let it go and lean back against the load when the canopy gets to the end of the lines. It will pop a bit and then fly straight over your head. This is a great technique for cross-braced parachutes that are resistant to inflation or have limited space.
- In lighter wind conditions, start by teasing the wing to inflation by “fluffing” the front risers.
- When the wing begins to fly and rise up over your head, drop the front risers and apply the brakes to bring the wing back down onto the ground.
- This is called “Building a Wall”, and is a good way to prepare you for launch, while allowing you to survey the scene and look for reasons why you would choose not to launch: (Gust winds, traffic, wing malfunction or a funny feeling from your higher self). This also is good for preventing wingtip-first inflation, in which the center cell is deflated. Dropping the fronts and stabbing the brakes will pop the nose open.
- Once you have decided you are GO for launch, load up the front risers to lift the wing up. Be sure to get your wing perfectly settled over your head. If it feels like work, the wing is not yet in the neutral position.
- When you are physically stable and mentally calm (take a deep breath and relax), lean back (uphill) and rotate 180 degrees on the body’s roll axis (pirouette), so that you are facing directly out away from the hill, facing the relative wind. Look directly up at your wing immediately to ensure that it remains directly over your head.
- Take as long as you need to now to prepare yourself for the flight. The beauty of a bit of wind and a pilot that is comfortable with kiting is, you have all the time in the world. Get yourself feeling good before taking off. You will be amazed what that does for your flights.
- Feel the wing over your head, play with it a bit. Brakes bring the wing back in the window, rear risers do the same thing but less so because they offer less drag. Front risers will bring it forward. Too far forward and the wing collapses, too far back and it will pull hard and eventually stall. Some wings require a bit of front risers to prevent it from sinking back, while those with less drag may require a bit of brakes or rear risers to keep it from overshooting the window and folding under.
- Once the wing is centered over your head, make yourself light by increasing the wing’s angle of attack until you feel a bit of lift, as you lean forward into the harness.
- Relax into your weight, feeling the wing as a part of you, let up on the brakes smoothly to reduce the drag of the wing, and begin your decisive forward progress directly into the wind, down the hill, increasing your airspeed with complete commitment to fly.
- As you feel the speed increasing, the wing will begin to lift.
- Gradually increase the angle of attack until you get yourself airborne. Do not stop running until you are in the air.
- Hold what you have for a moment, to ensure that you are stable in ground effect.
- Gradually nose the wing down to allow it to increase in speed and lift off into flight.
- From there it’s your sandwich, put on it what you like.
- Flying straight out away from the hill will allow you to effectively fly out of the lift if you are gaining too much altitude on a windy day.
- Making a 90 degree turn will allow you to stay close to the hill, and will keep you in the “Lift Band”, the region with the greatest amount of upward wind flow to increase the duration of your flight on a low wind day. Smooth 180 degree “S” turns will allow for a long, beautiful ride down the lift band. Remember to always look where you are going.
- Just try not to hit anything, anyone, or any planets.
- Have a wonderful time.
Brian Germain is a parachute designer with over 13,000 jumps and over 20 years of ground launching and skydiving experience. He is the author or several books including Vertical Journey, The Parachute and its Pilot, Transcending Fear and the new book: Greenlight Your Life. These books can be found here: http://www.bigairsportz.com/publishing.php
Brian is also available for canopy flight courses: http://www.bigairsportz.com/education.php
and keynote speaking: