Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Paul Briggs

xxxxxxxxxxxxxPaul Briggs, ready for take-off, Day 1. Parowan

Paul Briggs is a friendly, easy going man who is eager to learn. He works at Brycon Construction as a Project Manager. The owner of Brycon is one of our club members, Bill Lemon.

Paul was born in California, grew up in Maine and moved to New Mexico 7 years ago from Colorado. He has been married to Patricia, a native of Sante Fe, for the past two years.

Paul started in aviation by flying paragliders 7 years ago. He was on a Mount McKinley climbing rescue team at the same time a French group of paragliders attempting to bag all the highest peaks in every continent. He saw them soar off the mountain and through the clouds. He decided that was cool, and thought flying paragliders would be a good addition to climbing at the time. Ten years went by before he took paraglider lessons. x

This interview took place in Parowan, Utah at the Region 9 soaring contest. Paul has been a sailplane pilot for only two years yet he bravely entered the contest. His experience is worth reading for both neophytes and seasoned pilots.

Parowan, Region 9 Contest, June 22, 2008
Day 1. x


Paul, how did you get into flying gliders?x

I was flying paragliders for 5 years and I had an accident, I broke my back, not too badly but I couldn’t fly paragliders and really wanted to fly. My mother was driving me around because my back was so messed up. My paragliding guru said, “If you want to fly, it is hard to fly paragliders in the summer here. If you want to fly anything in New Mexico, sailplanes are the thing to fly.” x
So I went to see Rick at Sundance Aviation. I looked at the cockpit of a glider and I said, “With my back messed up, I can get in but I don’t think I can get out.” I told Rick that I would start lessons in a couple of weeks when I was able to get enough mobility that I could sit in the cockpit. I started lessons 2 years ago.x

Is this your first glider contest?x

This is my first glider contest, though not my first contest. I flew paragliders in contests down in Brazil and also in Mexico.x

How does this compare to paraglider contests?x

They are very similar, of course the starts are on a hillside with a paraglider and everybody gaggles up and you’re basically hanging in a lawn-chair and you can yell at somebody if they get too close. Here you are flying at 60 miles an hour or more and it is a little more intimidating because you have blind spots in a sailplane that you don’t have in a paraglider. x

The tasks are similar, but in paragliders you don’t have the multiple choice tasks (MATs) which are extremely challenging to figure out. And the glide ratio in a paraglider is 5 to 1, while a glider is 40 to 1. That’s a big difference.x

This is Day 1 of the contest, what is some of the advice you have been given?x

Some of the rules, I mean they tipped me off to a bunch of the rules. Although I read the rules over and over again and thought I understood them. When you actually come to pay attention to them and have to fly to them there is big gaps between what you read and what you remember. x
For example, 17,500ft MSL is the maximum height you can fly. I did not remember that so I would have busted that repeatedly along with the start cylinder. x

Some of the advice I got about how to handle the start cylinder was coming out the top or staying within the lower level for 2 minutes and then coming out the side. There are a bunch of strategies. I spend a bunch of time in the beginning just getting comfortable with the day and am not flying as well as I do later in the day. So knowing the start cylinder is really important.x

How does it feel in the beginning when you are waiting for the start and you are in a gaggle?x

You know that is not too bad for me. I thought it might be a little intimidating but once I get into the cockpit I am pretty focused on the tow-plane and my flying. My world becomes my world and the rest of the distractions don’t matter to me. Once I am in the plane I am ready to go.x

I have heard a lot of pilots say they tried to leave a thermal at 17,200 ft but were pushed up to over 17,500 on the way out. What is your strategy for staying under 17,500 ft MSL? x

I start looking at it early on and judge the lift. And try to time my circle so that when I come to the back side of it I can really plant my stick so that I can pick up all the energy I possibly can coming out the front side where I know the sink is going to be so that I am already plowing through it. x

What is the difference between a MAT and a TAT?x

(Laughter) You better ask somebody who knows what they are talking about. That’s classic, because that’s the thing, I have an idea what the MAT’s are and I know what the AAT’s are, I mean I have read this stuff, but to actually go out and fly it… I am basically trying to figure it out as I go. x

You can’t just read how to do it, you end up making mistakes. For example, you are up in the air and you are trying to get the multiple choice turn-points. How do you figure that out? You have a PDA where the screen is so small, you zoom in and there’s about 1,000 turn-points. So you look at your chart and you really don’t have a good sense of it. There are a lot of challenges that way with the MATs. x

So far, what is the most intimidating part of this contest for you?x

Probably it’s being around the big guns. The guys who really know what they are doing. And feeling like you could just disrupt the whole operation by screwing up. That’s probably the biggest thing.x

What types of things are you thinking about when you are starting to come back from the task?x

That is another trick. I think in the middle of the task flying fast is pretty easy in Parowan because of the terrain. But the start is difficult and the final glide seems to be critical in sailplane contests. Figuring out how to burn up that altitude or not land out 2 miles away is a real trick. x

How important is it to have a crew person at a glider contest?x

With all the little tricks to come set up I think it would be crazy to come without the support of crew. For example, the last minute, 5 or 10 minutes before launch you have little wishes that you need to take care of to get rid of your nervousness. If you have a good crew, he takes care of it. He may give you a chart that is better than the chart you have in the cockpit. It is very comforting. x


DAY 2, June 23, 2008.x


How do you think your day went?x

Today I started off a little sloppy. I almost made another beginner mistake by coming out the wrong start cylinder but realized that and went back down. x

When I started I hit some severe turbulence and my back-up PDA fell out of my pouch and went down below my feet and I couldn’t reach it. So I was afraid it was going to jam the rudder. But after I got that all settled I started to feel comfortable. After about an hour my flying started to improve. x

What do you think your average speed was?x

I don’t know, I think somewhere in the 90’s (kilometers), a lot slower than yesterday. The lift seemed weaker and I didn’t seem to be as aggressive.x

How was the final glide today?x

I didn’t know how to handle the final glide. Our minimum task time was 3 ½ hours and because I didn’t go deep into the cylinders in the beginning and the later ones just dumped you off in the blue sky. So you would dodge out in the blue sky and then come back into the cloud. x

I dodged into the hillside at Cedar City really low expecting that I would get out of there but I couldn’t go any deeper into the turn cylinder or into the final turn cylinder so I came back with a half hour left to go. I knew you got dinged a penalty for that. I didn’t know if it was all the points or not, I know now. So I got stinking high on top of the ridge with 20 minutes left to go to the minimum task. I was so, so high! I just floated around an extra half hour up there. When I did come in it was bubbly.x

What is the penalty for coming in early?x

I will have to check for sure but I think it is that they take your time and speed and divide it by the minimum task time. So if you had a screaming speed today and finished in 1 hour they would divide it by 3 ½ hours anyways.x

Were you at the minimum altitude for your final glide today? Were you at least 500 ft AGL?x

I was at 5,000 feet! I was so high I had my airbrakes on for 20 minutes. I could have flown over to Cedar Breaks. I could have flown all over the place. x

How did you feel about the tail-wind when you were taking off this morning?x

I don’t feel comfortable with a tail-wind and a downhill runway. The Pegasus has very poor aileron control until it gets up and running. It is worse taking off downhill.x

I seem to be getting the same damn tow-pilot. He comes out and hooks up to me, puts a slack in the rope of about 5 feet and then jerks me. The people trying to run my wing get it jerked out of their hand.x

What did you learn today?x

I learned a bunch! This vario-task stuff is so tricky because you have a radius and you can just tag the way-point and then leave. Or you can go to the actual center which is the way-point or you can go that radius difference beyond. If you don’t do that and get distance in the beginning there is no way you can make it up in the end. So you almost have to take a little bit of a risk in the beginning, go deeper in there so you can hedge your time. x

I came out 30 minutes too early today. If I had gone into the first turn cylinder a lot further…I would have burned up that task at top speed and would not have come in so early. But, the turnpoint area lift looked kind of dicey and I wasn’t flying as confidently today. x

June 24, 2008. Day 3.x

Paul, how did day three go for you?x

Today was fantastic but challenging. x

I had another downwind launch and take-off. I find those disconcerting. We scraped along the ridge for a little while. That was hard. But once I got up high it was a beautiful day. It was just fantastic flying.x

What do you think was the most difficult part of the task today?x

The difficult part was when the cloud streets ran out. x

I was a little nervous coming onto the final turn-point, because the cloud street ended quite a bit sooner than the final turn-point. But I had enough altitude saved up that I could make it into the cylinder about 3 or 4 minutes before turning out. It turned out pretty good.x

How was the gaggle in the beginning?x

I felt comfortable because RX was in there. And BG which I know is a real good pilot. I was probably the weakest of the 3 pilots in the gaggle. I knew they were probably watching out for me. I feel pretty comfortable with gaggles. I checked in with RX and he said I did OK.x

How many people are in a typical gaggle in a paragliding contest compared to a sailplane contest?x

There can be up to 60 people in a paragliding gaggle. It is so deep that you are only paying attention to about 10 people.xx

How many people are normally in a sailplane gaggle? x

So far, the most I have been in is maybe 5. But again, two of them may be really low, two may be really high, so you are really just flying with one person.x

What do you think your average speed was today?x

I think it was substantially slower than even my practice day. Because I was out there fumbling around trying to get high, making a jump at the very end. And it wasn’t necessary, there was a consistent lift and I just botched it by spending too much time floundering around in the beginning. My speed was probably in the 80’s or 90’s (kilometers.)x

What did you learn today?x

My PDA went on the blink and I couldn’t figure out how to punch the MacGready in there. I will have to take it home and figure out how to do that. It just fritzed out on me. What I could do yesterday I couldn’t do today. x

This is the third day of the contest. Do you think your skill level is increasing?x

You know I am getting really comfortable with the glides. I look forward to the glides, so I think yes, my skill level is increasing. It has probably doubled from what it was a week ago.x

Did you have a good time today?x

Incredible! Yep. I did not put as much pressure on myself. I think it is just a matter of staying consistent. I botched the first day so I am really out of the running and can’t hope to achieve much. I can just be consistent.x

June 25, 2008. Day 4.x

Paul, how do you think today went?x

It went very good. Except for the fact I didn’t know how to push the stick forward very well. I was catching thermals in the blue areas by reading the terrain below. I am pretty happy about that. But I stayed in the ratty thermals too long. I wasn’t willing to make leaps out into the blue space without getting as high as I possibly could, which meant I spent way too long in ratty thermals.x

So the blue skies are a little bit intimidating?x

Not too bad…because early on I got a good sense that there was going to be a bunch of thermals. And to the north you could see the cumulus developing so you had to assume that the thermal activity was as good down south, it just wasn’t reaching dew-point. It wasn’t too bad.
Again, reading the terrain around here makes it a little easier because you can follow the ridges and you have to believe that things are going to bubble up the ridges.x

What was your lesson for day 4?

Fly faster! Do not stay in ratty thermals. If it is not going up, or it is starting to fall apart, get out of there. I stayed in it way too long so I had the slowest speed of the entire race so far.x


June 26, 2008. Day 5.x



Paul, tell me how day 5 was different from the other days.x

It was a blue day and it was extremely difficult flying conditions for me. After seeing the other flights it seems that other people had better flights and did a better job than I did. x

I had a real difficult time getting away. I got off tow and I couldn’t get high. I just bobbled around 10,000 feet. Sometimes I got up to 12,000 feet, which is the top of the start window and then I’d just get slammed back down. x

About 45 minutes after start I got as high as I thought I could get, which was something like 12,500 ft., and started off down course. x

I headed off down course and immediately found nothing. I kept getting flushed, and had to spill off the ridge over towards Panguach airport. I was thinking I was going to land at the Panguach airport right after start which was really discouraging. I dodged it to the cliffs and found lift and wind. The whole day went just like that.x

Two of our club members landed out today. Did you come close to landing-out?x

A couple of things happened that were pretty new to me. I found myself following a plane across the valley. I followed him to what might have been a good idea of going into high terrain but in the back of my mind I knew it was leside. I got over there and I got hammered. I kept trying to follow the mountain around in 600 to 800 ft/per minute sink down hoping to round the terrain into the lift. x

I kept following it around and started to chant “I’m backing myself into a corner, I’m backing myself into a corner.” Again, I had to turn and follow the terrain down towards the fields.
I got so damn low that my only safety was to dodge into a field. I was aiming for some hot rocks and I caught a little altitude that brought me right over this little tiny ranch airport that was hardly discernable from the air. You could just tell the grading in the ground that it was a ranch airstrip. I circled around it setting up for a landing. I was so damn low I could see the backyard of the ranch and the BBQ. It was bad, I was probably at 8,000 ft MSL (about 1,000 ft above the ground.)x

In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently?

I think the only thing I could have done differently is not back myself into a corner by walking around the edge of the mountain. I probably shouldn’t have gone across. I knew the ridge was working well and I had already flown up it, I could easily have gone down it. I found myself coming too close to backing myself into a corner, leaving me no options. I was ground skimming and could see each individual sagebrush. That was too close.x

June 27, 2008. Day 6.x

AM. What is your strategy for today?x

Today they predict blue skies. I am just going to start the day as a new day. I am not going to look back on the other days. I am not going to say, “Well, I am going to modify my strategy to make it different from yesterday.” I am just going to go up, I am going to try to do the same thing I am suppose to be doing. I am going to get up, stay high and go far.x

PM. How did the race go today?x

Today was fantastic. It was predicted to be a blue day and it was not. There were nice beautiful cumies up by Bryce or Wayne's World, whatever it is called. x

I had a good start and I stayed high the whole time. I got to fly a little faster and never had the worries of landing out. x

How fast do you think you went today?x

As far as the rest of the guys, not real fast, but for me, faster than I had been the past few days. Well, maybe not as fast as the practice days. x

I noticed you made it back in good time. Were you able to complete the task?x

I completed the entire task and I really watched the computer this time. I am not sure if I came in under or maybe a few minutes over. Figuring it out on my watch I should be plus or minus 5 minutes. I will be disappointed if I blew the time.x

What did you learn today?x

When you are having a good day and the thermals seem to be popping up you need to change gears and push even harder. Billy told me that if you are on final glide and you’ve got a little lift don’t try to pull up at all, push forward and just burn it up. I did that on the way home and it was great fun screaming across the ground. x

What are your predictions for tomorrow?x

I think it is going to be fantastic! We had cumulus clouds and moisture moving in this afternoon. We weren’t supposed to have any. Tomorrow might start with more cumies. It will make for a real easy flying day so we can go far and fast. x

How do you like the classes they have every morning before the meetings?x

I was just telling my crew John about that. That is probably the most valuable part of the day for me. I get to go out and practice what I heard the first half hour of the day. There are so many little tips that you just would never stumble upon in a million years. It just seems to be common tribal knowledge among these guys. A lot of it was exposed this week. I can’t wait until next year to try it all again. x

How do you feel about the learning curve in a contest like this?x
(Laughter). I thought it would be a sharp curve and I thought I would be at the beginning of it, but I realized that it is way sharper than I expected. I have got a long, long way to go. There is so much to learn. It is so complicated that this is going to be fun for years and years. Aviation is like that.x

June 28, 2008. Final Day. x
(Paul landed out and did not make it back to the airport for the final interview. This interview took place in Taos on July 11, 2008.)x

Tell me about your last day in Parowan. How did it start?x

I felt really good about the day. I thought I was going to be tired but I woke up and felt full of energy. x

I had a great start. I had great thermals. I watched the time. I came out of the start cylinder probably two minutes after it started. x

I got sky high and went off. I stayed high. Hit the first turn point and felt like I was flying really fast. I was following the textbook, going through the lift band, hitting 11,000 ft and getting back up again. I did that over and over again. I was very happy because I wasn’t stopping in any garbage thermals like I had been this week. x

I started heading down towards the second turn point and realized it just didn’t seem right. It seemed as though the PDA was not sending me to the right place. I couldn’t see the PDA very well so I put on my cheater bifocals and looked at it and thought, “Son-of-a-bitch! I have yesterday’s task in there!”x

Oh No! What did you decide to do after that?x

I was already into the task an hour and 15 minutes. I plowed into what I thought was the first turn cylinder. I was thermalling really well, centering really easily, and then things fell apart. Then the radio started to blink showing me I had a low battery. So I turned the radio off.
I changed PDA’s. I found out that I had set up the backup PDA just like I did the first. I spent a lot of time looking. I spent too much time in the cockpit. Then all of a sudden I lost my thermalling ability. I was down south and it wasn’t quite as good. I pulled back and said, “Screw it, the day is over.” I decide to just finish the rest of the task as if I just started it. I just manually punched the turn points into my PDA.x

Do you think that realizing you plugged in the wrong task affected your ability to soar?x

I am still thinking about that. Because I think, yes, initially I was upset and I thought, “Damn-it, this would have been a good day! “ Then I said to myself “Put it aside, move on. You’ve already blown the contest on the first day. You are going to do everything you possibly could well. Do it well from this point on.” x

Then I tried to refocus but in the back of my mind I was wondering, have I lost focus because I am not thermally well? x

Then when I went to zig across back to what would have been the third turn point in the real task and I fell out of the sky. I couldn’t find lift. I did search patterns like I had normally done all week, got through them and moved on to the next one. All of a sudden I kept getting lower and lower. Then I landed out.x

Where did you land out?x

I landed out in what I call the dead airman’s field. I was supposed to be Bryce Woodlands, but when I landed there the guy who came up and helped me, Jim, said no, that was three miles away. It was Crystal Springs RV Park and airfield. x
Did you land on a runway?x

It was difficult to tell. I was coming in and I could see a vague outline of what might be a runway. I kept saying to myself, “Maybe the road is better than this runway.” When I got closer and closer you could tell the runway hadn’t been used for years. I later found out that the guy who had bladed off the runway died 5 or 6 years earlier on an approach to this runway. It hadn’t been used since. x

How long did you have to wait for your crew?x

It was clockwork. I hit the help button on my SPOT and then this guy Jim in a Suzuki drove me up to a place where I could get cell phone coverage. John had already gotten the SPOT message and had the coordinates punched into his GPS. He was assuming he would hear from me, which he did. He got on the road and it took about hour and a half to get me. x
As soon as I hung up with John my wife happens to call. I said “Whoa, you got my SPOT message!” She said, “No, I am just calling.” I said, “I landed out.” She asks if I was OK. I said yes. Then she said, “Oh, by the way, I am at the mall…” She went on talking about shopping and didn’t seem to care that I had landed out. (Laughter.)x

How do you feel about the SPOT?x

It is awesome! It is invaluable. I bought it for my motorcycle and for my fishing. For the glider I have to set it up so that it is sitting on my parachute now. x x

The SPOT works flawlessly. If your crew knows you need help, or if your wife supposedly knows you need help (chuckle), you just push a button to get a retrieve. The GPS in my glider did not give correct coordinates for my car GPS, but the SPOT did. x

Do you have a land-out check list?x

No. That was one of my other beginner mistakes. I went to Parowan with 3 or 4 check lists in my computer. The goal was to laminate them and put them in the trailer, the car and the glider. They never made it there. x

Before I left, Howard Banks told my crew, John that it was likely that I would land out. So don’t forget my wing stands, which I think Mitch’s crew did. That turned his retrieve into a much longer retrieve. With a check list I suppose they wouldn’t have forgotten their wing stands.
There was a day I forgot my cell phone at the cabin. If I had a check list that wouldn’t have happened. x

After flying in a contest for 10 days, you may think you are feeling pretty crisp but you are definitely wearing down. You can make mistakes. Check lists are imperative. x

Your crew member is your brother-in-law, John. How did he do?x

As a beginner you have to have a really good crew. It takes so much stress off from the competition. If you have somebody who doesn’t have a thick ego and is willing to help you out and go the extra mile, it makes the whole contest a joy.x

So he was awesome?x

He was better than awesome! He really was.x

Now that the contest is over and you have a few days to think about it, tell me about your overall experience. x

I have a couple of thoughts that go through my mind. It was an incredible learning experience. It was totally different than what I had expected. It was not a competition, my sister came up with the word, it was a coopertition. The people were real cooperative. A beginner should go to something like this because they will learn so much. x

If you don’t go there with the idea that you will whip yourself into being in the middle or top of the pack, and just go to learn, it is incredible. On the flip-side, being a competitive person I think, well, next year I will have learned from all these mistakes this year. I won’t duplicate them. I know just seeing a little inkling about what racing and this competition is about I can tell that next year will probably be a whole new set of issues. You have to go with the same idea, just go with the idea that it is going to be incredibly fun and do as well as you can do against yourself and the other people are just there to fly with.x

What is your advice to new students/pilots that want to go to a contest for the first time?x

That’s a tough question because there are so many variables. I think the first thing is going with the right attitude and understanding that people are going to support you. It is going to be a lot better than you could even imagine. x

Go in with the right attitude, be real gentle with yourself. Don’t think of it as a competition against anybody else, just against yourself. Take notes, put things in the back of your mind and use it. Because every minute of the time you are flying you’re learning something. x

You learn from the people you are sitting with and talking to before the flight and after the flight. The minute you start flying new things that you would never have to confront in normal day to day flying situations hit you. x

In a competition the rules change. For example, the tow-plane takes off whether you’re ready or not. That never happens at the airport back home. So you better be prepared and you should always be prepared at home. But we get lax, even as a beginner you get lax. You have to be right spot on when you are flying in a competition.


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