What I'm writing about here is in contradiction with what some XC gurus have to say about XC flying.
On the surface level I’m talking about the difference between not having a plan or a goal on an XC flight and between having a plan or a goal to aim for on an XC flight. On a deeper level I’m talking about the difference between being alive and in the moment in our lives on one side and being on a carrot chase on the other. There are worlds of difference between the two although many may think that living for or towards something will get them to a better place in life. If you are one of those, let me tell you something: the best and the only place to be in life is right here, right now and when you find yourself living the dream it’s still right here, right now. So, here we go…
I almost never have a plan. And when I do my flying isn't as relaxed and in tune with the moment as when there isn’t a plan or a goal in the back of my mind. Why? Well, being in the moment means there’s nothing else going on than what’s presently going on. What was that? Let me put it in other words… Having a plan or a goal will inevitably color the present moment with an intention and there will be a program in the background running. Being in the present moment means being empty from all thoughts and emotions and being here and now and it also means feeling it all… feeling what my 5 senses are telling me about my environment and what and how I feel inside: feeling the air around me, feeling my breathing, my abdominal muscles, the tension in my legs pushing against the pod, the warmth of the sun on my skin and the chill of the wind, the tension in the lines and whatever the glider is saying to me… all of that and more.
When I’m being in the moment up there in the sky, I’m going with the flow and I’m flying with an empty mind, allowing my intuition to tell me things, relying on my “gut feeling”.
You see I'm not saying I don’t intimately familiarise myself with all the options of a long XC flight. I'm saying I know my options but do not force them into a plan. Even if the plan has A, B, C,... variants. Instead I allow myself to "forget" those options, empty my mind and become present in this very moment.
Don't worry, you can't really forget anything. But you may find out that getting all that mental crap out of your head and being in the moment is the hardest thing you will ever do. It’s like “loosing your head” while making love to your loved one. Everything else ceases to exist, you don’t know who you are anymore, there’s only the dance of love. You are out of control yet you don’t feel fear anymore. It’s the best feeling in the world. The second best feeling in the world is that low save, being at cloud base again, when 5 min earlier you were about to land somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Like most things in life, getting there is a process. It takes some practice, good will and good old trust to do. That and never giving up. Ever since I've started flying like this my flying has improved immensly.
Most PG pilots are men, and what us men seek most is control. Letting go of it seems contra productive and not a safe thing to do. “What if…” is the constant Devil’s voice inside our heads telling us we need to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario. But trust me… the worst-case scenario is not being present in the moment when things don’t go the way we wanted. Control is nothing but illusion anyway. It doesn’t exist, it never did, and it never will.
The second thing us men want is recognition… someone recognising our value in this world. We are constantly comparing ourselves with others in terms of evaluating our place in the world, hence all the competitive behaviour. But the funny thing about being recognised is, the more recognition we get, the more recognition we need. It’s like a drug and it’s hard to let go of it. That’s one of the reasons I don’t fly competitions. I know my ego and also know that when it takes over I’m nothing but its puppet. Being in the moment while the ego is running the show is impossible.
Some experienced pilots say having a goal keeps them motivated. The way I see it is that if you need any type of motivation other than the joy of flying you are not flying because something deep inside enjoys the feeling of freedom up there in the sky. No, you are flying because you feel there’s something missing inside you and you are searching for something to fill that emptiness. Let me tell you something… flying isn’t going to do the job. In fact, nothing is. As soon as you need any kind of motivation, you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. There’s no reason I’m going flying, same as there’s no reason I’m living but life itself. I’ve dreamt about flying ever since I was a kid and when the first opportunity came along I started doing it.
I go out there to fly, have fun and enjoy the moment. I let kilometres take care of themselves. And they do. It’s funny… when you let go of wanting something it comes to you naturally.
There is one thing that happens as a side effect of being in the moment… It’s “being at the right place at the right time”. Some people call it luck, some people call it good timing, but regardless of how we call it, it’s a crucial ingredient of every good flight. You can be the best pilot in the world, if you came somewhere in between cycles and there’s no lift around, you will be on the ground shortly after.
Here are a couple of steps I take in the process of going out to fly...
Always one step at the time:
1. Choosing the right take off on the day... I check all different weather models for different areas first. Most of the time I will also check with local pilots on what they are up to. After that I will choose one of the take offs that simply “feels right” for no obvious reason whatsoever. Mind you, I’m one of those pilots that don’t mind being on a take off alone. If you don’t have enough experience, skip this step and join other more experienced pilots.
2. Choosing the right moment to take off...
I look around and observe the nature, clouds, cycles coming up the hill, animals (butterflies, cicadas, birds). Again I allow myself to feel what the nature is telling me and most of the time I will get my "feels right" moment quite soon. If I feel "off" for whatever reason I don't launch. Doesn't matter if others are flying or not, if it looks perfect or not. If you are not sure, not feeling right, don't do it. Sometimes I stay just long enough to get the feel for the day sometimes it's longer. It can be anything from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours, depending on the conditions and the way I feel.
3. Finding the first thermal...
Most of the time it’s "right there" and I'm flying straight into it after taking off. But sometimes I need to make split second decisions which way to turn in search for it, especially if the take off is at a low hill and turning the wrong way means being on the ground a couple of minutes after. In those moments I don’t think about which way to turn, I just do it based on my feeling. Naturally I always observe whether there are trees moving anywhere close by or a bird or anything else showing me the way. But in general, the flow of energy in nature will always follow the path of least resistance. I do the same. I turn in the “easier direction”. Not the safer one or the logical one, simply the easier one. You see, thermals usually suck the air around them inside. Especially close to the ground. So I allow myself being sucked in. It requires a lot of experience some will say but I believe a rookie with a good feel for the air and being present in the moment can do a better job at it than an experienced pilot used of following the same routine over and over again. Give it a go and see for yourself.
Depending on the strength, width, shape and drift of the thermal, I will make my first XC decision of the day. If it's a strong one I can core easily and I'm happy with the height I gained at the top of it, regardless whether it's a blue day or whether there are Cu's around, I will commit and head over the back. If it’s weak or broken up or has too much drift or anything else I'm not happy with, I will stick around the hill in search for a better one. Long periods between cycles and/or weak conditions mean I need to be patient and make the most of whatever I get. Turning in zeroes might just be enough to stay up until the next good thermal comes through.
5. The glide to the next thermal away from the hill... is the most demanding part of the XC process (not thermalling as some may think). Some people call that part decision-making.
I never stop observing nature around me and as I reach the top of the first thermal my "feelers" start reaching out in the direction I'd like to fly to. I'm searching for signs that will point me in the right direction. Sometimes they are as obvious as the growing Cumulus in my reach or a circling eagle or another paraglider in a thermal. And sometimes it's up to the “gut feeling” again. Many a times the second thermal is at a known location but the further away from the hill we are the more crucial is the ability to read inner and outer signs. There's a saying that goes something like: "When high fly the sky, when low look below”. In other words… when I'm flying above the half way mark between the ground and cloud base I will follow the clouds and when I get below that altitude I will search for triggers on the ground. But… What to look for? This is where the experienced XC pilots will start telling you about signs and thermal triggers and so on… It’s all valid, but I will go a step further and tell you to “forget” all that.
Instead, I let go of the logical mind and let go of what I know and allow myself to become "funny". I empty my mind (I’m sure if you saw my face at that stage you would piss yourself laughing) and search for something that catches my attention: something that looks more beautiful to me, shines more,... for example I see a paddock that has a colour of green that’s just too green to be true. I feel drawn to it. Then I will commit flying in that direction and keep flying the best lift line in that direction even if I hit big sink I can't escape on the way there. Hitting sink is always a big test.
The biggest mistake most XC pilots make is change their mind because they've hit sink. I'm not saying don't change your mind ever. I'm saying: change your mind only when you've found something better than what you've had until now and not because you want to escape something you've got right now. Changing your mind because of your fear you won’t make it there is not a good way to go. Naturally don’t put yourself in danger. This is the tricky part in the whole story… How do you know your feeling is right when it could be just your imagination and you are in fact doing something stupid? I can’t give you the answer to this question. No one can but you. And as long as your head is full of opposing information and voices you can’t either. It is a process like everything else. You will get there. Step by step.
Have in mind there is always a price to pay for everything and a reward that comes with it. Being in the moment and feeling alive and filled with joy and love is all the reward I need. From that space of abundance I also feel the need to give some of that to others. It’s a natural pull of giving. Very fulfilling.
Most of the time I will get the next thermal close to where I wanted to get it or I will allow myself being led towards it. If I bomb out, well, that's the magic of XC flying. You never know where it’s going to lead you. It has led me to some amazing XC flights in the last couple of years.
At the end there's only one more thing to say... the attitude I have in flying will affect my attitude in all other aspects of my life. Life is not linear. Change one thing and it will affect everything it touches. Change yourself and the world will change. Be yourself and life will be a reflection of who you are.