Thermalling techniques: How to thermal your paraglider better
Welcome back to our blog paragliding lovers! Today, at Overfly Tenerife we want to talk about the best thermalling techniques and how to thermal your paraglider better. We will explain the following thermalling techniques in order to assist instructors, coaches, and students as a training aid in the development of good soaring flying skills.
Instructors and Coaches should be familiar with the concepts and be competent with these thermalling techniques before teaching them in practical flight training. Also, students should understand the concepts before putting them into practice during their training or an in-flight demonstration.
Furthermore, if you are interested in learning more about paragliding, we strongly recommend you to visit our blog and read our posts. For instance:
Off we go, adventurers!
Our 6 favourite thermalling techniques
Finding the best lift in a thermal is one of the most vital skills in paragliding flying. We could say that in terms of paragliding competition, half of the competition flying is about ascending the fastest, and just the other half is about gliding. The first thing that you have to bear in mind is that thermal flying is not easy, due to the lift is invisible and there is not an easy way of knowing where to find the best core.
Down below we will explain two different thermalling techniques that you must know in order to improve your thermal flight.
The count and turn technique
Fly into the lift, count for about 4 seconds and start a 360 turn. This is a basic thermalling technique, so it is one of the greatest ways to start your thermal paragliding career. Moreover, it is always useful in strong narrow cores.
Shifting Circles Technique
You must get centred on the best lift by building on the thermalling technique that we have mentioned previously. If you perceive that half of your 360 turn is in a poorer lift, you shift the 360 turn towards the better lift. As you turn back into the stronger lift, straighten up for one or two seconds and restart the 360 turns.
The classic thermalling technique
When you approach a strong thermal, you can feel how it absorbs you. What you are actually feeling is the air flowing towards the thermal. If you are flying into a headwind, then it is suddenly easier to penetrate into the wind. However, if you are going downwind, your groundspeed will increase as the thermal absorbs you.
This absorption only happens if you are flying in really strong winds and strong thermals, but it happens before you actually enter any lift. It is a sign that means it is going to be a good thermal.
When you enter the lift, the variometer starts to beep. Then, you will have to be careful and pay attention to the feedback you get through your harness from the air as the wing rides the thermal. You will have to turn one way or another so, when you hear the beeps of the variometer for the first time, you need to decide which way you are turning to.
If you feel that there is more lifting under one side of the glider and you feel how that side of the harness lifts with pressure building in the brake line. Consequently, the centre of the thermal will be off that way too.
The best way to thermal is to turn around the core where the lift is strongest. Regularly, when you enter a thermal, the variometer indicates a weak lift. Don’t turn right away — what you have to do is feel relaxed, try to concentrate on visualising the shape of the thermal, and make your first turn where you guess the core is located.
As you fly towards the core, the lift gets stronger at times, so the variometer sings out. Before turning, you have to wait until you have flown past the place where the lift is the strongest. In a strong core of 4 metres per second plus two seconds past the core brings you back to circle around it.
Remember to pay attention to your paraglider wing in order to decide how firmly you have to turn. If you notice that the pressure is uniform, you can allow yourself to draw a large circle. Nevertheless, if it feels punchy and it rips up one half of the wing, you can crank it up.
The step climb technique
One of the best ways for gaining height whilst staying over a major trigger such as ridge is step climbing, even when the wind is blowing you away. It is a great thermalling technique for getting high in readiness for a big into wind transition.
The original step climb technique involves drifting for a few 360 turn before making a longer into wind glide to hopefully connect with the next thermal pulse from your chosen trigger. In this technique, you have to remember to take big steps when there is light wind and small steps when there is a strong wind.
The reversal turn thermalling technique
There is another useful technique that we sometimes use. When you enter a thermal and you are not sure as to which way to turn, it often means that you are exactly in the centre of the core. It doesn’t matter if you do a left or a right 360 turn — either way you are going to fall out of the side, especially if it is not a big thermal.
Hence, what you have to do is making a quarter turn to the left as you enter the core. Then, reverse the turn, leaning hard right to immediately make a right hand 360 turn. The quarter turn will enable you to alter course just before the core, so your first 360 turn can be better centred on the core.
The grim determination thermalling technique
If you decide trying this fallback technique, you shouldn’t do it in broken thermals. In that kind of thermals, you can’t do a 360 turn in lift without falling out. Probably, the most important element is that you turn firmly on the best lumps of lift, even if it is just a quarter of a turn. After straighten up in the fall, you will have to turn again in the lift. Remember to evaluate constantly your climb using your altimeter.
We hope this information has been useful in order to help you improving your paragliding thermalling techniques. Nevertheless, if you are not really interested in practice this aerial sport by yourself and you prefer to enjoy a marvellous tandem paragliding flight, we strongly recommend you to visit us in Costa Adeje. If you have any doubt or if you need more information, feel free to contact us. Overfly waits for you in the south of Tenerife!
We want to fly with you; we want to be your wings.
How hard to turn in a thermal paragliding
The 3 most common thermalling mistakes
… and how to thermal better
Round and round “Beep Beep Beep” The sweet tones of the vario? Or was that my heart pounding?
Some thermals can feel so sweet, so beautiful, so welcome (and nothing quite beats “the low save”). But, early on in your flying career, and quite often, a few years down the line, some thermals can scare the “beep, beep, beepy, beep” out of you!
Thermalling with LOTS of pilots!!
Early in my own flying career, like most pilots, I had a few of those rock-and-roll experiences just to get the idea: “So that’s what a thermal feels like!!” Was I supposed to enjoy that?” “I’m supposed to turn in them. ”
With more experience and with a growing hunger to actually travel – to go XC, it began to dawn on me that I might have to start riding these fountains if I was ever to go anywhere. And I really wanted to go somewhere, to travel the skies, to go XC.
And so the adventure began!
In my quest to travel XC I knew I would need to don the mental armour required to do thermic battle. “Knowledge and skill will dispel fear”, I told myself
Whilst many flights fade in my mind, I can still very clearly remember my first bash at thermalling. Unusually perhaps, it also happened to result in my first ever cross country flight. I managed a not-too-shabby 20km in the French Alps, all by turning in the occasional beep (if I really had to). Mostly, I tried to stay low. Any higher than the absolute minimum required to scuttle off to the next thermic ride seemed totally unnecessary: being high also seemed down-right scary.
The most important skill to master for XC flying is the ability to climb faster and higher
In hindsight, I’m pretty sure there must have been quite a lot of lift about as I plotted a course along the sunny Alpine rock faces around Annecy. Landing less than an hour later (adding an extra 200 meters as I unintentionally overflew the landing field), I started to believe that I had now pretty much mastered the black art of cross country paragliding. Suddenly everything seemed possible.
It took me a couple more XC experiences (and bomb outs) for me to realize that I’d only just begun to scratch the surface of this black art.
Fast forward a decade or so, and now from honing my own skills through big distance XC flying and the highest level of competition flying I’ve discovered some of “the secrets”. Guiding thousands of budding XC pilots through mountain and flat land landscapes over the years has also helped no-end. I get to see pilots hone their skills and grow in confidence, break personal bests and revel in adventure after adventure.
I get to see what works, and what doesn’t.
There are many many ways in which we can all improve our thermalling skills and perhaps that’s part of the draw – the challenge to improve. It really is an art.
Here are the top three most common mistakes pilots make when thermalling – and what to do about it
NUMBER 1: Not turning in lift
It might sound almost too basic to be true, but it’s probably the number one reason I see pilots fail to climb or fail to climb quickly. Somehow many pilots feel they have to know the size of the thermal, the shape, and where the edges are before they can turn and exploit the lift.
Does your curiosity have you flying over the edge?
Having flown (usually at top speed) through an area of lift, many pilots fall out the side of the thermal only then to turn back (whilst in the sink on the side of the thermal) to then head back through the lift and out the other side. Each time they turn, they are turning in sink. Sometimes, if the lift is strong enough we might gain some altitude using this technique.
More often than not however, the thermal will leave us behind or worse pinch off to leave us in an even stronger area of sink as we buzz around wondering where the lift went.
Perhaps these type of experiences are a normal part of a pilot’s progression, but the sooner you can master the art of turning in the lift as opposed to turning back for the lift; the better you’ll climb and the higher you’ll climb .
Turning a paraglider means we keep the wing in the same bit of air. Turning back for a thermal in the sink means we can be sinking pretty badly. It might well be worth turning back for, but make sure you grab on to it properly the second time.
When you’re low be satisfied with what you’ve got. Only as you get higher (or it becomes otherwise obvious) should you sniff around for better lift. You’ll only get so many chances to fall out of a thermal before it leaves you behind.
Turn in the lift and you’ll go up. Simple, at least as an idea.
NUMBER 2: Not pushing into wind
Thermals drift with the wind. The stronger parts of the thermals have a stronger vertical vector, so you will almost always find the stronger bit of lift on the upwind side of a thermal. Not only that, but in circling with a thermal it is often likely that you will tend to be pushed out the back of the thermal. This happens because you are always “falling” through the thermal. So, whilst you might be climbing in lift you will still be sinking relative to the air around you. For these two reasons, it’s important to “push” upwind from time to time to find the better lift or even just to stay with the core.
So although I said you shouldn’t necessarily find the thermal edge (especially when low), you should however be inquisitive and you should always be hungry for a faster ride. Usually you’ll find that faster ride by pushing into wind. Not only will being hungry for a faster ride ensure you climb faster, it’s actually even more important than that…
You might be happy enough with a 2m/s climb, but if there are 3m/s cores in the same thermal you should take them – not only to climb faster, but just to stay with the thermal. The weaker parts of the thermal will fizzle out sooner, so finding the stronger bubbles means you can climb higher and will likely stay with the thermal for longer. Think of climbing faster as an added bonus.
Flying with other pilots is the easiest way to understand where those stronger cores are. A group of good pilots will always fly faster together than alone. Being able to see those stronger cores is a huge advantage. If you are alone, use your imagination and try to feel what your glider is telling you. By relaxing we can “feel” more. Most EN-B wings will even pull you towards the better lift.
NUMBER 3: Not turning tight enough
My business, Passion Paragliding runs a lot of SIV & Wing Control Courses. I really prefer to call it a Wing Control Course (or “pilotage”), because the emphasis should, in my opinion, be on controlling the wing. Managing incidents (collapses and so on), is of course very important, but if we as pilots can get good at controlling the wing, we can also get good at avoiding collapses in the first place. It’s interesting to see students on our Wing Control course, often hesitant to turn tightly. They are often quite understandably wary of spinning their wing.
However, the problem of turning too widely can often mean that we fail to hang on to the core and if the thermal is small we can even lose the thermal altogether. The vast majority of pilots turn too wide. They therefore fail to climb quickly or worse, lose the thermal altogether. Turning tighter can be the difference between climbing high and landing.
So how can we turn tightly WITHOUT spinning the wing? The answer is usually to bank the wing up. Use weight shift to roll the wing into the core and if the core is trying to push the wing out, be more aggressive with your weight shift. Throughout the turn you should “stay in touch” on the inside of turn – in contact with the harness, ideally always adjusting your weight shift to keep the wing at a fairly constant angle of bank. If you do that, you won’t need so much inside brake to turn tightly and you’ll be thermalling safely – staying well away from the spin point.
The other way to avoid inadvertently spinning your wing is to be both sensitive to the pressure on the inside control and very aware of the pitching of your wing and loading changes as you turn. If turning tightly, you should always be ready to adjust the amount of inside brake you use in order to avoid spinning your wing. Remember, the spin point – or the amount of brake required to spin a wing will depend on the wing loading. In more turbulent thermals your wing loading can be changing all the time. Perhaps in more turbulent thermals you’d be wise to fly faster, particularly if you lack the sensitivity and awareness to avoid spinning your wing.
There’s one final hint that can help you turn more tightly and that’s releasing the outside brake. Even when thermalling I generally have some outside brake applied. By releasing the outside brake I can speed up my rate of turn. I do this to help bank up the wing and hang onto the core.
Learning to turn tighter in thermals requires good wing control skills. Develop those feelings with care: ground handle often and learn how to control your wing on a wing control course. Do this not only to improve your safety, but also your skills. By being more “at one” with your wing, cranking it round and climbing fast and safely will become intuitive, almost automatic.
If you’re like me, one of the biggest adventures that paragliding has to offer is cross country flying. Thermalling is the number one skill we need to master (or at least get reasonably good at) if we’re to travel the skies with ease. If you’re in lift and it’s big enough, TURN. If you’re in doubt push upwind, to find that thermal again or find the stronger core. Always be hungry for the stronger core and if you can turn tighter onto that core, ride the fontain.
Of course it’s all about practice, but learn to “ride the fountain” and you’ll fly far! You might even learn to love the beep beep beep, at least most of the time.
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Thermalling: how tight should you turn?
The standard way we measure this is the time it takes to do one full rotation, 360°, to fly a complete circle. It is sometimes possible to set this in your flight computer, to get your average climbing rate (the famous Vz). How interesting to see afterwards the thermal strength you got during your flight, or even to try and get the best average possible while airborne! One consideration leading to another, you always end up discussing the same question over and over again with your beer mates: should you turn tight or wide? Well, let’s try to give a definitive answer.
100,000 flight logs were analysed to make this graph, which shows how many seconds pilots took to fly a full circle while thermalling. The tightest is around 15 seconds, the largest around 50 seconds. Around half the flights have an average circle duration of between 24-32 seconds
Bring in the data
First, data is needed. A lot, actually! So let’s focus on the French Coupe Fédérale de Distance (the French Distance Cup – the national XC league), also known as CFD, to examine all the flights recorded, roughly 100,000. It is not very biased, as the terrain varies between flatlands, high hills (Vosges, Massif Central), and mountains (Pyrenees, Alps), and pilots fly all over the country. That is why to make sure the data was not skewed, we stuck to continental France. As you can see in Fig 1, this gives us the distribution of average circle duration in thermals for all the CFD flights.
This shows us that flights with the tightest turns in thermals take 15-16 seconds to complete the circle; while the largest average circles take 41-42 seconds to make. In other words, one pilot can do three circles while the other only one!
However, most of them are centred around 28 seconds, and a clever observer would have noticed that 50% of the flights have an average circle duration between 24 and 32 seconds. This is the landscape, now let’s have a closer look.
FIG 2, Weak conditions
Vz is average climb rate. This shows that when the climb rate is weaker than 0.5m/s pilots fly slightly wider circles. When it starts to get stronger they plateau at 25-26 seconds
Flat or tight?
First thing you must have heard is that circle duration varies with the mean Vz (average climb rate) of thermals. Some think that when the lift is weak, you turn flat, so you make larger circles, and you tighten when it is strong; and others think the opposite. What does the data tell us?
Fig 2 shows us that pilots tend to slightly broaden their circles in weak conditions, only to reach a plateau between 25 and 26 seconds when the conditions deliver more than +0.5m/s on average. This dual situation says a lot about the importance of staying in the core, without degrading the sink rate too much when thermals are weak. It could also imply that thermals are indeed a bit spread out when they are frail. That’s also captivating, but I have not answered this question yet. Quite right!
Fig 3, Distance flown
This shows that pilots who fly the furthest tend to have the tightest thermalling technique
Now that we have this first fact in mind, we can have a look at the distance, a good proxy for pilot level. Just a quick note before jumping in: the numbers or samples presented in those charts appear only when there are 100 flights or more to support their validity. That way, it is not really possible to be fooled by any secondary effect. That said, we can consider Fig 3.
It is clear that the further you go, the tighter you turn. Even if we imagine that conditions are stronger for the longest flights (higher Vz / average climb rate), we have seen that it has no significant impact on the circle duration. So, you might say that it could be related to the fact that the longest distances are usually flown with high-performance wings, which is true, and that those gliders flying faster than others have a shorter circle duration. Well, not really! Those gliders do fly faster, but not so much when flying circles when compared to other gliders: on average, 3km/h.
They also have a larger mean radius for the circle, which means it takes almost the same time to complete a 360° whatever the paraglider (for the curious readers, the standard deviation is roughly two seconds). There is indeed a linear relationship between the radius and the time to complete a full rotation. Now, you might begin to see where I am heading.
The reason the best pilots turn tighter is because they have learned to zone in on the best lift – they find the core and then turn tightly in it. Photo: Marcus King
How tight is tight?
Ok, to recap, so far the data says that most pilots take about 27 seconds to complete a 360° in a thermal, and that this time does not really change on average once you have decent flying conditions. But one thing sticks out: the bigger the distance, the tighter the turns.
So, it is time to look at the best pilots and see what they really do. We can agree that the CFD winners will do the job, as they are also (mostly) top notch competitors. Here they are on the table (Fig 4) for the last five years, with the average circle duration for the top three flights that led them to win.
FIG 4 – The table shows the winners of the French XC league and their average circle duration for their top three flights in the year they won. The best pilots turn the tightest – because they find the best cores
As you can see, they do turn tight, and especially Baptiste! In fact, when you examine the circle duration of top cross-country and competition pilots, that is really a trait they almost all have in common. Most of the time, they are close to 20 seconds or below.
So, what does it mean to turn tight? Well, from what we have observed, it is safe to say that it means completing a 360° in a thermal in 25 seconds or less. And to answer the question, yes, you should learn to turn tight.
But the “learn” is important, as it is part of the progression of becoming a better pilot. Honorin Hamard, for example, had a circle duration of 23 seconds on average in 2009, but sat at about 18 seconds in 2017. The more you progress, the more you are able to detect and centre precisely the core of the lift, and in doing so you narrow your turns to stay in it, and optimise your climb rate.
You can definitely say then that this number does, a few exceptions apart, reflect your level in paragliding. At XC Analytics, this is something we call a “performance marker”: a reliable indicator of the pilot’s skills, something that you should aim at as you progress in the discipline. It is opposite to what we call “style markers”, indicators that dependably describe the way you behave in the air mass, and that is specific to each pilot. But that is another story!
Martin Morlet was the first pilot to break 400km in France, and runs the website and app XC Analytics. He lives in Fontainebleau, near Paris
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