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FreeFlight Advice: Launching with Long Strides

Originally published in Hang Gliding and Paragliding Magazine

HG401: Advanced Techniques and Concepts
Making Strides


As babies we learn to crawl, then walk, then run.  It’s fair to say that by whatever age we begin learning to hang glide, we pretty well have it down.  And that, in a nutshell, is a problem.  Running with a hang glider isn’t quite the same as just plain running.

Let’s take a look at how it’s different, the reasons why, and what to do about it.  First, there’s the fact that we’re balancing this thing on our shoulders.  Unless it’s windy, we start every launch supporting the weight of the glider.  This raises our center of mass much higher than we’re accustomed.  That’s a fancy way of saying “we don’t balance right”.  Most instructors teach around this by teaching the walk-jog-run launch, which works quite well.  It works so well, in fact, that few take the time to explain WHY we do it.  With our center of mass much higher, starting into a run as we have our whole lives, we tend to accelerate out from underneath the glider above us, rather than getting everything moving as a single unit.  Since we are in contact with the control frame, speeding out in front of the glider raises the nose and the angle of attack.  By spacing the acceleration over a few steps, it helps keep everything moving at the same pace.  Some instructors also teach that the first step should be a “falling forward” one.  This works the to the same result, because moving our shoulders- and the glider- forward before we move our feet keeps everything balanced and moving as a single unit.

Small or light weight pilots often get lifted quickly and lose contact with the ground.  Here we see Desiree Voight doing an excellent job of controlling her pitch to keep her feet within reach of the ground as she strides off launch in Chelan, WA.

There is a lot of content to cover as a beginning hang glider pilot, and getting into the mechanics of why we walk-jog-run isn’t a good use of time, so I’m not at all faulting instructors.  Yet as advanced pilots, we rarely give it a second thought.  It has become a habit stored in our muscle memory.  For the most part that’s a good thing, but there are certain situations where having a deeper understanding of why we walk-jog-run can be helpful.  One that has come up locally is launching from a short ramp.  Pilots are eager to ‘get up to speed’ in a short number of steps, and we see an increased risk of popping the nose.  If we understand that we need to get the glider and our upper body- our center of mass while supporting the wing- moving forward before our legs and feet, it is much easier to maintain the proper angle of attack.  By gaining a deeper understanding of WHY we walk-jog-run, we can find new ways to accomplish the same goal in fewer steps.

Another thing that is different about running with a hang glider, as compared to the way we’ve run all our lives, is the lifting force as we increase our speed.  Except for towing, we launch running down hill- and if you’ve ever run down a hill in your life you’ve learned that there’s a limit to how fast you can run.  If the hill was long or steep enough you might have even “over-speeded” yourself and tumbled over.  This knowledge is embedded deep in our subconscious, and it shows itself when we try to launch a hang glider!  We think that we know exactly how fast we can run, and our brains create a strong aversion to going any faster.  On beginner wings, and/or with a nice headwind, this is plenty fast and not an issue.  But again, as we advance as pilots specific situations can arise.  Launching a high performance wing, flying with a higher wing loading, launching at high altitude, or launching in no wind or even a slight tail (not condoning that behavior!) are all examples where we probably must run faster than our bodies would normally be capable of.  Luckily we’ve got this giant wing helping us out!  As we accelerate, we create more airspeed and therefore more lift.  If our angle of attack is set correctly, that lift should be pulling up and forwards, which helps us continue accelerating.  As we are reaching our body’s physical limit of running any faster, we should have sufficient airspeed that the wing is lifting pretty well, if not most of our weight.  At this point we must do something different than the way we have run all our lives!  In regular life we equate steps to speed, and the faster we want to run the faster we move our feet- like the Flinstones in their car.  But at this point in a launch, with the wing lifting and helping support us, we need to take fewer steps.  And no, that is not a typo.  Less steps to go faster I say!  The principle difference being that these steps need to be very big- in fact let’s not even call them steps, let’s call them STRIDES.  And the secret to getting sufficient airspeed in these challenging situations is LONG STRIDES.  In between each stride we are putting our full weight into the glider, which increases wing loading and causes the glider to fly faster.  Assuming we are not yet up to an airspeed where we can just fly away, the glider turns altitude into airspeed and “settles” a little, which just so happens to set us up perfectly for our next long stride!  Essentially what we are doing is supporting some of our weight in between strategically loading the glider to keep it accelerating, increasing airspeed, and increasing lift until we fly away.  It’s important to note that this only works if we are loading the glider through the harness- holding on or pulling down on the downtubes will not work well.  Instead use a loose grip to feel the pitch and pull in as needed to keep your legs within reach of the ground so you can continue your long strides until you have “extra” airspeed for safety and security.

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A look at the INFAMOUS Mitch McAleer taking long strides launching from “Inspo” on a hot Utah summer day.


Every pilot has their own touch of ‘style’ to how the perform the same tasks, like launching.  But in looking at these images of various pilots who have learned and trained in different areas, we see a lot of similarities.  All of these pilots are taking exceptionally long strides- with the stride starting with their foot well ahead of their body, and continuing the stride until their foot is well behind them.  We can see that they all have a fairly aggressive forward lean as they are accelerating down the hill, but they appear to bend at the waist in order to get their foot ahead of their hips at the start of each stride.  In fact, it looks like a very similar movement to pushing a skate board or scooter along, just using alternating legs instead of the same leg repeatedly.

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