LETTER TO A NEW FEMALE HANG GLIDER PILOT
©Helen McKerral 2009
We often read about getting out of the comfort zone, expanding the envelope, pushing through fear/limits/boundaries, racing to win… it works for many confident, sensation-seeking, competitive &/or testosterone-charged alpha-males. But what if you’re not one of these? How to develop into a skilled pilot if your motivation and temperament are completely different?
This letter began as a response to a female pilot whose partner was concerned about her learning to fly. He thought she might not be strong or ‘gutsy’ enough. The letter refines earlier ruminations and incorporates feedback from dozens of male and female, experienced and new HG pilots. It aims to inspire new female HG pilots to trust their own attitudes and accept their own flying style.
Of course, much of this article is equally relevant to many men, and to female PG pilots. New pilots of either sex take from it what you will, and be empowered!
G'Day Jane !
Great that you want to fly !
First let me say there's no reason you shouldn't become a HG pilot, if it's what you really want, and you're not just doing it because your partner flies. If you love the idea of flying for yourself, nothing will stop you. Women who decide to learn only because their partner flies are less likely to succeed, because it's your own dream and desire that gets you through training, not someone else's.
So I'm assuming that you want to fly. Flying is certainly a dream come true for me! I'm not particularly coordinated or athletic, though I'm relatively strong and active. I started learning when I was nearing 40 and I'm 48 now. If you're fit enough to ride a pushbike, you'll be fine. Although I'm tall, I know three female pilots (four if you include ‘MrsPoser’ on the hanggliding.org list) who are below 157.5 cm (5'2"). They're all excellent pilots, because a good pilot is equally about attitude as physical skills. In California, there’s an advanced rated woman hang glider pilot who is 150cm (4’11") and 43kg (97 lbs)!
Don't worry about Physical Strength - Learn on the Right-Sized Glider !
In the air, where we use our body weight to control the glider, women have no disadvantage; in fact, even in competitive XC flying, which is largely about attitude, confidence and strategic thinking, top female pilots (even tiny ones like Corinna Schwiegershausen) can outperform men double their weight and triple their strength!
While learning, small women may be disadvantaged not for any difference in upper body strength, but because glider control frames are designed for men, who for any particular height are usually heavier, with wider shoulders, and longer arms and torsos. This means that the glider sits lower on our shoulders when ground-handling and launching, making both trickier if the glider is even slightly too big. Down tube padding helps, but doesn’t entirely solve the issue. In Australia, the smallest commonly available glider is a Fun 160, when most small women really need a Falcon 145. Our lower body weight (proportionally more fat, lighter than muscle) also reduces effective leverage if the wing area is too big, making it more difficult to influence the glider and learn control inputs.
It’s MUCH harder to learn on a glider that’s too big for you – imagine learning to ride a pushbike with the seat too high! – so, if you're below 157.5cm (5'2") or 55 kg (121 lbs), it’s especially important for you to find a school that has a 160 sq feet glider or smaller.
In fact, although accepted practice is to learn on the school's gliders and to buy your own when training finishes, if you're small, partway through training, and sure you want to continue, consider buying a glider the right size if the school doesn’t have one. You may put a few scuffs on it during training, but you’ll learn more, with much less work. The aforementioned 150cm pilot almost gave up until she got hold of the right glider for training (Falcon 145), after which things went well.
‘MrsPoser’ showed excellent technique on her first high glide and that's no coincidence, just silver lining. Tall men may get away with sloppy technique but short, light women who learn on gliders slightly too big for them are practically required to develop perfect control inputs! A new pilot, weighing just 40 kg (88 lbs), after learning and flying on a Fun 160, said to me after her first flight on a Falcon 145, "Wow, it turns when I want it to!" You bet it does! The best remedy always lies in appropriate equipment, not in compensations by the pilot for poor fit.
Upper body strength does modestly affect ground-handling, when we're not using our body weight to manipulate the glider, but instead leveraging with arm, chest, shoulder and back muscles. Weight training helps, but isn’t essential: good technique overcomes all!
Understand Population Differences.
I believe that women confront other unique issues when learning to fly. The following is mostly opinion, based on my experiences and those of female pilots I know personally or with whom I’ve corresponded. I’m no sports psychologist, but every female HG correspondent has confirmed the nature of these experiences, so they are not unique to me.
The population of men and women comprises overlapping bell curves. Any particular woman can be stronger/taller than a particular man, but if you're an "average" woman, you'll have certain differences from an “average” man, that will be relevant when you learn to fly.
Having expectations that match reality will help you assess your attitude by an appropriate yardstick – your own. This applies to men too, but is particularly important for female pilots because we're generally surrounded by male pilots, and it's easy to begin to question our attitude if it differs significantly from those around us. Both men and women are likely to have certain traits if they hang glide – extreme sports are called that for a reason! It’s what makes pilots such a fun bunch to be around.
I’ve always viewed men and women as equal and still do, but hadn't realized the implications of certain differences. Those differences were inescapable when I began flying. Nowadays it’s highly politically incorrect to even acknowledge any differences, but I think pretending they don’t exist is counterproductive.
Understand Tolerance of Risk.
Most men are prepared to take more risks than women. This is fact, and thought to be caused by a range of factors, including hormonal. Age makes a difference too, for both men and women.
So when you're learning, or after you have your licence or rating, you may be perfectly happy boating around launch as new male &/or young pilots zoom into the distance. Don’t worry about it. If you've enjoyed your flight, you're doing exactly the right thing. Why do I believe this?
Above a certain level of challenge, the perceived risk is too high for effective learning as fear overwhelms us. Conversely, insufficient challenge creates boredom and lack of progress... but I bet few, if any, female pilots have ever left this sport because they became bored.
Because of our increased aversion to risk, we're likely to feel more fear than men do at any particular new skill challenge. For me, (and, I suspect, most women) the limits within which we learn a high-risk sport most effectively are therefore different than for many men. The concept of pushing through the fear barrier is likely to fail with us if male pilots around us and, dare I say, instructors, fail to recognise that our optimal learning areas are different from men and instead impose their own.
A certain level of fear is normal and healthy, particularly when you’re new and relying on your instructor or mentor, but excessive fear is damaging: pilots who have an "incident" and scare themselves out of the sport are depressingly common. However, my suspicion is that many new female pilots are actually flying an incident every time, even when the flights appear perfect to an outside observer and nothing "bad" has happened. Pushing to the next level of proficiency while still significantly fearful of the current one is counterproductive because the pilot then never experiences true enjoyment (challenge without excessive fear). If fear is too great, the pilot won’t have had fun. Without fun, motivation falls. The female pilot then leaves the sport after a year or two, having developed her skills but without once having experienced genuine fun. The answer is to develop proficiency at every stage of learning, at your own pace. Have fun. Enjoy every step of the journey, and the destination takes care of itself.
Later, a level of fear in new situations is also healthy and useful in your flying, keeping you alert. However, at any stage, only you can identify what is an acceptable level of fear for you, and when you are having fun or ready to move on. More important than your apparent skills, visible to all, is your own confidence in those skills, visible only to yourself. I find that, without external pressure, my learning progress is – yes – slow… but it's also natural, thorough and deeply assimilated. As I become more comfortable and proficient in each skill, I automatically look for new challenges to raise the level of interest. Once I identified and accepted my own appropriate level of challenge, and was sufficiently assertive to ignore those of (male) pilots around me, my enjoyment of flying increased a thousand-fold, accompanied by a deep sense of "rightness." There was some fear, but I was having FUN!
Identify your level of Acceptable Challenge.
As for developing technique, baby steps at my home site works for me; I best learn new skills and expand my envelope in a place I'm comfortable before transferring skills to new situations; I find it difficult and excessively scary to push envelopes in new environments, because the new environment is in itself already a big challenge. Many of my male flying friends are completely unaware that just flying a new site for the first time is pushing the envelope enough for me (even after almost a decade, numerous sites, thousands of flights and hundreds of hours). I love flying new sites, but the first-time newness alone is "just right."
This approach also neatly implements ancient HG lore: never combine two unknowns. A new harness at a familiar site is okay. A new site with all familiar gear is okay. A new glider at a new site is asking for trouble. A new skill or flying technique is also one new thing. Again, this advice is already available in your flying community. All you need to do is ask!
I therefore believe it's essential for every female pilot to understand challenge as it applies to her, and to be assertive in finding her own comfort level, because we’ll scare ourselves out of the sport if we consistently fly by someone else's expectations of where we "ought" to be. Surrounded by male pilots, it's all too easy to succumb to peer pressure and adopt an inappropriate standard for yourself. Resist this local peer pressure, especially if it is unintended and unspoken. Instead read blogs by female pilots such as Corinna Schwiegershausen, Linda Salamone, and Jamie Shelden and be reassured by their honest and undeniably female approach to flying. Although these women are competitive pilots and you are new, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you have more in common with them than with many of the guys in your local club!
As you gain regular airtime and flights, your envelope will automatically expand as you seek new experiences from a position of confidence. Make your barometer, "Did I have fun? Am I satisfied with my launch and landing? Did I learn something new today? Did I do something better today?" It's helpful to build those first 20 hours as quickly as possible, flying often so muscle memory can establish.
Find the Right School and Mentors.
I've been fortunate with excellent instructors who tailored my instruction to suit my needs, advancing me at a rate that suited my confidence and personality, and I urge you to seek a school that teaches to the individual and not the schedule. One pilot described it this way: "…the fly or die schools [are] unwilling to make concessions for women or [less confident] men. Throughput means income. The schools act as a filter for certain personality types. Some only pass the Mo'onia Gerrards of the world." Conversely, a flying school that simply charges for additional lessons beyond the "standard" course will accept whatever pace you set for yourself.
Family nearby can hinder while you're learning and many correspondents have strongly recommended that partners absent themselves from the training hill, even – or especially! – if they’re pilots themselves. Partners may be supportive, but any distraction during training is detrimental. And there’s often too much emotional involvement for partners to be objective about any comments given or heard.
For all pilots, continued support in the first few years after they get their licence or rating is equally important: a number of insightful, experienced mentors were crucial in maintaining my confidence after experiencing setbacks. Surround yourself with such empowering people.
Nor should learning more advanced skills be terrifying! Although we all become independent and self-reliant pilots, it’s perfectly valid for us to learn new skills (everything from first top landings to first XC or even aerobatics) from more experienced pilots who say "follow me" or “like this” to bring big challenges into our optimal learning range. Experienced pilots also help new pilots to avoid unsafe options. Such mentors are a great way to safely advance skills beyond lessons, and a genuine mentor will be unconcerned about "missing" a few opportunities because a new pilot needs safer options.
Good mentors exist in every flying community. They will welcome your questions and your desire to advance. Seek them out and don't ever be embarrassed to ask for their advice. Don’t avoid asking because you think it’s demeaning, weak, dependent or "girly." It’s not. Every good pilot – male or female – always seeks to improve in whatever ways suit them best.
One correspondent pointed out that very young female pilots are a minority within a minority, who may face particular social challenges in communities where many of the men are old enough to be their fathers. In this case, your new flying community may initially seem like a boys’ club of Old Farts, but remember that, as a pilot, your day job, share portfolio (or lack of one!), religion, race and, yes, age are irrelevant. Only flying is relevant – and that’s why you’re there. View yourself as a pilot, let them see your commitment to the sport, be patient, and the differences will melt away.
Remember that Caution is a Strength, not a Weakness.
I also believe that women, because of this more cautious attitude and approach, make particularly safe pilots. FvS has, I've been told, never broken a DT. I've broken just one DT in about 700+ hours and 2000+ flights. I've had bruises and scrapes, but no broken bones. Even a female world champion like Kari Castle says she wouldn't fly over tiger territory like the men and it was only when comp rules became safer that she started to compete. One correspondent recalls a King Mountain meet many years ago when Kari and he were on launch: "There was a storm brewing out front and to the left. [Kari] said something like, ‘This is stupid. If we were free-flying, we'd be driving down the hill to get beer by now!’ I agreed, and said (loudly, so many pilots could hear) that I was breaking down now. She started to do the same. We were the only two to do so. About the time we got our gliders folded (but not flipped over), we had a gust-front go through. 3 mph to 60 mph in less than 15 seconds! Kari and I helped the other pilots break down their gliders, since it was all they could do to hold them down. The point is that even Kari, one of the top pilots in the world (not just among women) was willing to do the cautious thing."
Current world champion Corinna wrote last year during the Women’s worlds that she found the small LZs intimidating and wasn't prepared to fly over an unlandable area; another day in the same competition NONE of the women set up as the men (in the rigid category) started to rig – the day was called.
In fact, although I believe that women can and should compete side-by-side against men in competitions, and fly with them as part of the local club community, attending a gathering of female pilots, be it a fly-in or comp, is uniquely valuable, especially for new female pilots. For years I viewed myself as a ridiculously timid pilot, and it was enormously empowering to discover that I was actually quite confident in female risk-tolerance standards! It was a complete validation of my approach to flying! I finally understood that what I'd previously viewed as shortcomings, were also strengths; I didn't need to become something I was not, to be a "good" pilot. In their feedback, other female pilots have echoed this epiphany. Most male pilots, as part of the significant majority, attend a fly-in of peers every time they come out to the hill, and are less likely to understand the value of women-only fly-ins.
I was told once that women pilots worry about what might happen, whereas male pilots worry when it's happening! Often, I won't venture somewhere because I think, "What if the wind changes, where would I land?" And at the same time, a male pilot with far less experience and skill than me, blithely heads exactly there! A female pilot wrote that her first rule of flying was not "Can I launch?" but "Can I land in these conditions?"
In other words, we fly more carefully than men, just as we drive more carefully than men (as car insurers and actuaries know!). Of course, there are plenty of safe and highly skilled male pilots – identify them and make them your role models and mentors instead of the alpha male risk-takers.
It’s also important to differentiate between caution and indecision. An experienced pilot writes, "In hang gliding, you can be very cautious and still fly well. But you do have to be decisive. I've seen people hurt themselves because they wait too long to decide. An acceptable decision now is often better than a perfect decision a few seconds from now." The same correspondent adds that it’s essential to identify yourself as the ‘boss’ on launch and landing: "…understand that you are in charge of the glider, not the wind. Technique is the cure, not muscle, but you do need to be [decisive] in actually using that technique and not waiting excessively."
Remember, our lower tolerance of risk is a disadvantage only initially as we are trying to overcome fear and learning to fly, but an advantage in the long term as our caution makes us pilots who make safe decisions.
Differentiate between Rational and Irrational Fear.
Mastering your fear is integral to learning to fly. Falling is a primal fear tiny babies possess, before they understand what falling is. Both men and women have this fear but, because women are more averse to risk-taking behaviour, our desire to fly must be correspondingly higher to overcome that aversion. Accept that learning to fly does involve fear but that, when you choose your instructor wisely, you're in safe hands. At the earliest stages of your flying, you just need to have complete trust in your instructor, knowing that
1. The instructor is more experienced than you in knowing what you are ready for and
2. The instructor would never launch you if he or she thought you weren't ready.
Your fear is less rational, the instructor’s knowledge more rational. Believe and trust that the instructor knows, and that you don't. Remind yourself that every pilot experiences fear to some degree and must overcome it. If the desire to fly is there, you WILL overcome it.
Once you get your licence, you’ll likely notice other pilots convey information differently. There’s no instructor telling you what to do. As pilot-in-command, it’s your decision, and yours alone, to launch. Over time, you’ll learn to assess the suitability of conditions yourself but initially you’ll make that decision based on advice from trusted experienced mentors. Rather than asking, “Should I fly?” your question should be, "What do you think about conditions (for me)?"
Because you’re making that decision rather than having the instructor make it for you, you may at times in the first six months or more find yourself pinned on launch by irrational fear, even in perfect conditions, and packing up at the end of the day feeling miserable that you didn’t fly. No one will tell you to launch, because that’s your decision. However, something that worked for me early on, was a self-imposed rule: if I was on the hill (therefore in good physical and mental shape to fly) and my trusted experienced mentors said that conditions were good, then my decision would be to launch, no excuses. Not to launch would be a decision based on irrational fear. Best of all, with every successful flight irrational fear incrementally diminishes, until only pleasurable butterflies of nervous excitement are left.
Don't Compare Yourself.
Men and women also process visual-spatial data and navigation differently. Men use landmarks differently and those jokes about women parking and turning maps upside down are based in truth. Some researchers suggest that these differences are due to generations of selection for men going long distances hunting game, peering at distant landmarks to find their way home, and throwing spears at running antelope, while women gathered nuts and berries (we're much better at remembering where the keys are). In my opinion, these differences come into effect when you begin to plan landings in 3-dimensional space (with training and experience, our skills equal those of men and all differences disappear).
For a long time when landing I had no idea whether I'd hit the paddock, let alone the landing spot. It was like driving up to traffic lights and braking, but not knowing whether I'd stop before, in or after the intersection. I only knew where I'd end up, when I ended up there! I couldn't comprehend how male pilots could so easily hit the mark. Even when I'd been flying a year, I'd see fledglings do what I'd only just begun to learn! Fortunately, practice overcomes any disadvantage. It's hare and tortoise: natural pilots who learn effortlessly but don't fly often, are overtaken by less naturally talented pilots who fly regularly and hone their skills.
Because I was comparing myself to male pilots, I was disappointed in my landing approach progress and later that I didn't actually want to explore. I thought I'd never learn, but I was actually learning exactly right… for me. I finally discovered a different "way" to landing approaches that I later realized was more tailored to the way the female brain processes visual spatial information. You’ll see experienced pilots glance repeatedly at the spot – this repetition allows them to identify changing angles in their approach path, and to make constant corrections. I use this technique now, but my initial breakthrough came when I broke the angles into a series of invisible points, combining them into an imaginary 3D road, culminating in the spot I needed to be to enter final. This technique may or may not work for you.
While you’re training, though, these issues don’t matter because your instructor will tell you when to make your turns, and for a long time your LZs will be beaches or paddocks big enough to land a Boeing! Men too find landing the most challenging part of learning to fly HGs. So be positive, remember the approaches that work for you and other pilots, be patient and visualize those perfect touchdowns.
Most importantly, remind yourself that every pilot's rate of progress, whatever it is, is the right rate for that pilot. It can't be rushed, and in fact I believe pilots who learn gradually, build a particularly solid skill set. Of course, you could also be one of those "naturals" for whom it all comes easily (LM was like this, I understand, as is my 40 kg friend). Even if you’re not a natural, the skills WILL come as long as you don't give up. The payoff is worth it.
Regardless of the real differences between male and female pilots covered above, remember that you are first and foremost a pilot. The skills you develop and the air you fly in don't care what sex you are. View yourself as a pilot with particular strengths and weaknesses, just like every other pilot. View yourself as a pilot, and others will also view and respect you as a pilot. On the hill, I consider myself 'one of the boys' in the best possible sense: I have many more things in common with male pilots, than I have differences, and even those differences are small in the overall scheme of things. You'll likely have a certain positive outlook, enjoy the outdoors, laugh a lot – your male flying mates are equals who will probably become some of your closest friends.
Anyway, Jane, for me there is nothing better than flying (well, almost nothing!). It's an indescribable joy of living in the moment, more meditation than sport. If you want to learn to fly for yourself, and the memory of that tandem flight replays in your mind repeatedly, nothing but you will stop you from becoming a pilot.
After you get your licence or rating, practical tips to hone skills in ways that are appropriate and enjoyable for women as well as many men include:
1. Maintain a minimum of 3 landings/hour of airtime ratio.
2. Utilise mother-ducking, whereby a mentor flies an overly challenging route or XC with you for the very first time, to bring it within your optimal learning area.
3. Expand your technique envelope in many small increments by practising skills at a home site where you feel safe and confident, rather than by expanding your envelope in huge and terrifying steps.
4. Advance to a higher performance wing only when you have thoroughly consolidated your skills in a novice wing. This is important for all pilots but crucial for short women because physical leverage affects the effectiveness of control inputs that become more critical in less roll-responsive higher performance wings.
5. Seriously consider retaining your novice wing when you buy an advanced one. This will allow you to "dial in" the latter in ideal conditions, reserving the old glider, on which you’re most comfortable, for more challenging conditions. You can then gradually increase the challenge on the new glider until you’re completely comfortable on it, rather than scaring yourself by flying an advanced glider in crappy conditions.
6. Lift weights at the gym to increase shoulder, back, chest, and arm strength, or do simple resistance exercises (e.g. with bungee or elastic straps) to increase muscle strength at home.
7. All pilots should learn to think and plan for themselves, and over-dependence on radio instruction directing every control input will be detrimental to this development. However, limited radio advice from a skilled mentor can hugely boost confidence and be indispensable in the early stages of your flying, especially with more demanding landing approaches, at unfamiliar sites, or when learning new skills.
8. Attend women's fly-ins and gatherings, and talk to other female pilots whenever you can.
9. Build those first 20 hours of airtime as quickly as possible, not just to consolidate muscle memory but to increase confidence – long lay-offs between flights lead to increased nervousness before each one.
10. As you gain experience, learn to discriminate between rational fears and irrational ones. A degree of fear is inevitable when learning new skills and should be expected, even welcomed, and you'll become better at judging whether the fear is manageable or appropriate, and also better at dealing with it as you develop. However, as you gain experience, trust your instincts: the little voice in your head screaming that something's wrong may be a potential problem your subconscious has identified but your conscious has missed. In this case, seek a second opinion from an experienced fellow pilot, or trust your instincts.
11. Be assertive in mapping out your own preferred flying style and approach.
12. Don’t confuse caution with indecision. Be decisive when you fly.
13: Learn the tight-hangstrap/one-hand-up-one-hand-down launch technique for launching a single surface glider in fresh conditions to increase your leverage and reduce strain on shoulders and arms.
Jane, I'll be happy to correspond more once you have your licence. Good Luck and I look forward to flying with you soon!
Cheers from Down Under,