Paraglider brake usage
by Had Robinson
update April 20, 2023
Here is a YouTube video of how not to use the brakes. Watch the pilot's hands closely and how he turns. The pilot's errors resulted in a stall. He was fortunate that he was not hurt or worse. The video caught the left riser and lines going slack at the time of the stall. There is no warning that a glider is about to stall.
A. Excessive brake
Throughout his flight, the pilot had way too much brake, to say nothing of scratching for lift near the terrain. Constantly having more than an inch of brake means that the glider has less energy and can pitch and surge more dramatically because the glider's profile destabilizes. It means it has a poorer response to inputs, including being closer to stall.
Some suggest this, "...it is always safer to have some brake while flying because it increases the pressure inside the wing and helps it not to collapse." This may have been true in the early days of paragliding when wings had a tremendous amount of drag but it does not apply today.
As Bruce Goldsmith remarks in his book, "50 Ways to Fly Better", keep the hands up with a finger on the brake line, like when fishing. This will help the pilot feel changes in the glider and then, if he is trained well, he will know what to do. If you do not know what to do it is better to keep your hands up (less than a inch of brake) rather than giving the wrong kind of input. Bruce has this short vid on the risks of flying with just 10% brake input.
In addition, fly only low EN-B or EN-A wings which have more passive safety. Many expert instructors, including Jockey Sanderson, note that pilots take much unnecessary risk flying high performance gliders that yield little but more speed and slightly better glide.
The reason all of us tend to naturally apply too much brake is that it gives a false sense of security. "Slow it down!" But it does not improve the stability of the glider but can dramatically reduce it.
"No brake" or "hands up" is an inch or less away from the riser pulleys, just enough to feel inputs from the glider. All gliders give input, some more, some less. An EN-A glider gives little input because of its high passive safety. An EN-D glider gives lots of input to the pilot because of its high aspect ratio (and lack of passive safety). However, it is more important to be aware of what the glider is doing over your head. Where is it? The right amount of brake while flying is "hands up" except for these situations:
- Flaring when landing
- Turning hard while coring thermals (500'+ above the terrain) using leaning and brake at the same time.
- Minimum sink (min-sink) (500'+ above the terrain)
- Recovering from a sudden forward pitch of the glider
- At those times when there are no thermals.
- Turning when flying PPG below 500' – It is difficult to weight shift with a motor but pilots must be easy on the brakes.
Generally, if a pilot is 1,000' or more above the terrain, he can do anything he likes – but should be certain that he can recover from a possible stall or collapse.
B. Doing any sort of maneuver or turn near the terrain
The pilot in the video above was scratching (turning) for lift right off the deck. This is dangerous!
I am sorry to say that yours truly once applied too much brake near the terrain, trusting in my skills. The wind switched directions quickly the glider stalled. There was not time or altitude to recover. As a result, I was injured (not badly) but it was embarrassing because I am an instructor. The only comfort was that I was attempting to help other pilots fly a difficult site. A second time, I was landing in a small and turbulent area that had trees to windward. I made a somewhat sharp turn a few feet off the ground just before landing and got dumped out of the air by a dust devil. It was a field of tilled dirt so landing face down not too bad, thankfully. Had I been in a hands up position, I probably would have not been dumped as badly. We all need to have much greater fear of applying the brakes at anytime near the terrain.
The correct way is simple:
- LOOK where you wish to go – there could be someone else or some object in your way. Do not do what this pilot did. The pilot in the orange glider was aggressive and failed to look where she was going. She was only focusing on thermalling in the gaggle and did not give any attention to where the other pilots were. No one was killed, thankfully.
- LEAN in the direction of the turn – this means to stick your head OUTSIDE the inside riser and as much of your body as possible to the inside e.g. cross your outside leg over your inside leg, if you can. Leaning increases the weight load on one side of the glider and results in more drag on that side which causes the glider to slow down and turn. Increasing the weight load on a glider when leaning increases the stall speed slightly but it does not distort the trim shape of the glider as happens when brake is applied.
- BRAKE – if a pilot leans adequately, he may not need any brake at all.
- Keep your hands up except as noted in paragraph A above. Practice turning without using any brake. Do not be in a hurry to change direction. There is no aircraft that reacts well to sudden changes.
- Do not fly near the terrain when thermals are present (middle of the day).
- Do not be lazy when turning your glider. NEVER YANK ON THE BRAKES OR ANY OTHER LINE WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE STABILO. The stabilo line is specifically designed to help the pilot clear a cravat and you can yank away.
- If you are near the terrain, the glider is flying (not collapsed), and has a problem like a cravat, apply as little brake as possible to maintain directional control until you flare when landing. Head for the LZ as soon as possible.