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El Inca Llora (a song about Peru)

First Day Instruction

Copyright © 2005 Don Burns

The USHGA instruction certification program makes an unfortunate inference.  Basic instructors are allowed to sign off Beginner and Novice ratings and have lower qualification requirements than advanced instructors who can sign off Intermediate and Advanced ratings.  The inference is that it requires more skill and experience to teach advancing students than it does to teach beginners.

From my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, after 25 years of teaching hang gliding, I've found that first day students provide the biggest challenges and bring the widest range of difficulties to their first lesson.  The first day of instruction is, in fact, the experience that will set the tone for further instruction (if any) and establish flying techniques that will either work for or against the student's progress.  It takes an attentive and highly skilled instructor to provide the right environment which will allow the student to understand the fundamentals of hang gliding with as little error as possible.

Don't Think, Just Do

Students approach their first lesson as a blank page.  From the first moment they pick up a hang glider they begin to scribble marks on this page.  It is the instructor's responsibility to make sure that these marks paint a clear picture of what it  is they are here to learn.  While some of the instruction is simple dissemination of information (like how to set up the glider, glider preflight inspection, how to put on a harness, etc.), the difficulty starts when the physical activity of learning to fly begins.

What the instructor must realize at this point, is that the exercises he is about to involve the student in have the sole purpose of training physical motor actions.  With that in mind, two important facts must be applied. 1) Only the student can teach himself motor actions.  and 2) Instruction should be limited to how to carry out the training exercise, demonstration of the exercise and coaching for the purpose of attaining success at the specific exercise.

Instructors expecting to "enlighten" the student with a catchy phrase or with observations which cause the student to think about how to carry out physical reactions, will simply detract from the student's progress.  Motor actions are not learned by analyzing them, but rather by practicing them successfully.  For example, hang gliding instructors often feel compelled to explain to the student how to shift their weight to make a correction in heading.  In fact, many well intended, well thought out techniques have been developed with this approach.  "Move your hand to your hip" is a phrase that is often used to get the student to think about how to do a lateral movement was well as controlling pitch to effect a heading correction.  Unfortunately, if this advice has to be given, which will cause the student to "think" about the corrective action, then a fundamental error has been made in the execution of the exercise.  The instructor needs to rework the exercise so that the student discovers for himself, almost unconsciously, how to make the glider respond.

The typical student approaches their first lesson of hang gliding with all the skills needed to fly a hang glider.  In fact, if they can run in a straight line, can lift 50 lb., can do a push up and have ever ridden a  tricycle, they are fully qualified to fly.  The only piece that is missing is the experience of controlling a hang glider.  There is an emotion that is attached to this missing piece named fear.  It is not a fear of terror, just a fear of the unknown.  The student is trusting the instructor to remove this fear by removing the unknown.  This fear will be removed if the student begins to feel that they are gaining control of the glider.  However, if exercises cause the student to become confused and feel as if control is hard to attain, the fear will be enhanced and lead to discouragement, prolonging the instructional period if not causing a complete abandonment of the activity altogether.

The instructor must then provide the student with a set of exercises that will maximize the glider's responsiveness to the student's input.   What follows are a set of exercises that I've used over the years with explanations of how to use them and how to define successful achievement.  The exercises assume ideal training conditions with winds 0 - 8 mph, and a gradual slope allowing progression to an appropriate level by first day students, where flights can last 10 seconds or more, but cannot exceed 12 feet AGL (measured at student's head).  Wind conditions of 8-12 mph will sometimes require alternative methods.

Ground Runs

The ground run is an exercise that is often used only as a low risk introduction to hands-on control of the glider.  Seldom is this exercise exploited as a means to thoroughly train a student to fully control the glider.  Usually, instruction on control of the glider is reserved for first flights.  However, ground runs provide the most fertile ground for an successful introductory experience, and have all the elements necessary to allow the student to have his first experiments with control of the glider. One might even say that ground runs are the most critical phase in the process to learning proper glider control.

Let's start with a close analysis of launching.  Generally,  launching a hang glider can be broken down into two steps:

  • Get the glider flying
  • Transition to weight shift control

The first of these is the most important and the second is the most complex.  If the student can learn to float the glider such that it is balanced, level, and at an angle of attack that will allow it to plane without nosing over or settling, then the rest of launch is simply a matter of acceleration.  To this end the first exercise in which the student must demonstrate success is the ability to get the glider flying.

For all ground run exercises, use a target upwind in the direction the ground run is to take and at a distance far beyond where the ground run will end.  Instruct the student to carry out the exercise keeping their eyes focused on the target.

Exercise 1 : Getting the Glider Flying


The purpose of this exercise is to introduce handling and preparation of the glider for launch, but most importantly to demonstrate an ability to get the glider flying properly.  Success is demonstrated when the glider is accelerated such that it raises off the student's shoulders and continues planing for several dozen feet in a straight line, and the student can take their hands completely off of the control bar.  If any of 1) the glider never leaves the student's shoulders, 2) the glider's nose pops up, and the glider settles, stopping forward motion of the glider, 3) the student doesn't let go of the control bar, or 4) (but of less importance) the glider does not fly in a straight line, the exercise has failed.


Take the opportunity to demonstrate how to pick up the glider, how to point it into the wind, how to control pitch, and how to feel equal loading of the wind on both wings, then how to correct an unequally loaded glider.  If there is no wind or very light wind, demonstrate level wings.  Explain that the nose should be raised to allow the glider to lift off of the shoulders.  DO NOT HOOK IN.  Hooking in detracts from the purpose of this exercise.

Note : Most existing hang glider pilots hold the nose of their glider too low when preparing for take-off.  A discussion of this topic is out of the scope of this article, but the practice of holding the nose low will have detrimental effects during first day training.  This will become obvious in this exercise as it is impossible to hold the glider's nose low, accelerate, then release the glider without the nose popping up and stopping forward motion of the glider.   This subtle change in angle of attack during the launch run is one of the primary culprits causing compromised control and confusion in the mind of the student.  I highly recommend practicing this exercise before demonstrating it in class.

Execution and Evaluation

While the instructor may assist the student in learning to hold the glider, he should not assist during the run.  The student must be allowed to experience those forces that keep him from accomplishing success at this exercise.  They may include tail heaviness of the glider, pushing on the control bar,  letting go prematurely or starting with unevenly loaded wings.

Each of these can be critiqued with a suggestion for a solution and another demonstration.  But always allow the student to carry  out the entire exercise with no physical assistance from the instructor.

When observing the student carry out the exercise, watch the glider, not the student.  Look for a smooth acceleration with a constant angle of attack,  a few moments of free flight in which the glider would continue to progress forward with no tendency to settle (mush) or roll off to one side.  Keeping the glider in a straight line is of lesser consequence than getting the glider planing happily along.  If all else looks correct, but the glider wanders to one side, pass the student explaining that corrective directional control will come when he is hooked in to the glider.

Alternative for 8-12 mph winds

In winds above 8 mph, it becomes difficult to try and "accelerate" a glider to get it flying as this amount of wind is sufficient to fly the glider.   Substitute the above exercise with exercises which introduce the student to holding the glider in this wind.  Demonstrate how to keep the glider on your shoulders by holding the nose down, then allowing the glider to float up over the head by allowing the nose up and releasing ones grip on the bar.  Assist the student at the front wires so that he doesn't lose control.  Engage the student in methods of ways of getting the glider prepared for launch by getting both wings evenly loaded, and finding ways to correct when the wings are unevenly loaded.

Do not move to the next exercise until this one has been mastered.

Exercise 2 : Ground Runs Hooked In - No Hands


The purpose of this exercise is to introduce the student to hooking in, the hook-in check, and the feeling of accelerating the glider with his weight on the harness (towing the glider), and finally the flare.  Success is demonstrated when the student can adequately prepare the glider for launch, get the glider flying, let go of the control bar, run for several dozen feet in a straight line and produce a flare which stops forward motion and picks his feet up off the ground.  Failure occurs when the student cannot achieve a flare as described.  Directional control is provided by the instructor.

The flare at the end of the run has a two-fold purpose.  1) It gives both the student and the instructor direct feedback about the success of the ground run and 2) It provides the student with his first "off the ground" experience, adding an element of fun to the exercise and encouragement to continue.


Take the opportunity to explain how to properly hook-in to both the main and the backup hang strap on the glider.  Explain the purpose of the hook-in check and demonstrate the best way to accomplish this, followed by an auditory "Hooked in!".  Allow alternatives for students who cannot lift the glider high enough.  Demonstrate a launch preparation, a smooth acceleration to get the glider flying, let go and run with your hands by your sides for several dozen feet, place you hands on the back of the down tubes, palms open at face level, flare and continue running.

Execution and Evaluation

Assist the student with directional control.  Do not, however, assist with preparation of the glider for launch, as this should have been thoroughly practiced in the prior exercise.  Run beside the student, coaching him when to let go of the glider, encouraging him to accelerate and providing the right moment to effect the flare.  Provide only occasional directional corrections if needed by moving the sidewire up or down accordingly.  If the glider is being towed correctly by the student, this correction should be nearly effortless.  Do not provide any directional control if the glider is tracking in a straight line.

Success of this exercise is reflected directly in the flare at the end of the run.  If all steps of the exercise are carried out correctly, the flare will result in lifting the student off the ground with the wings level and stopping the forward motion of the run.  There are many reasons for failing this exercise.

  1. Student may not get the glider flying correctly.  This will usually result in the glider not leaving his shoulders, or the basetube swinging back at his knees or shins when he lets go (use the side wire to avoid actual contact with shins/knees), or the glider getting ahead of him.  Revert to previous exercise or remind student of the steps in the previous exercises taken to get a smooth acceleration of the glider with constant angle of attack.
  2. Student may forget to or be unwilling to let go of the control bar.   Stop the exercise and correct this, providing a demonstration again if necessary.  This bears repeating for emphasis: the student must let go of the control bar during the ground run. This exercise cannot be successful if the student is holding on to the control bar.
  3. Glider may veer off to one side.  This is the instructor's fault for not providing directional control.  Apologize, assure the student they did nothing wrong and repeat the exercise.  Directional control is not the responsibility of the student yet.  Attempting to explain how to correct at this point will only confuse the student.
  4. Student may not run fast enough to stay ahead of the glider.   If this is due to a physical limitation, suggest waiting for more wind.  However, a small, subtle corrective move on the instructor's part, by pushing the side wire near the control bar forward, raising the nose of the glider, can cause the glider to slow down enough to allow the student to get ahead of the glider and feel the tow of the glider.  This will accomplish the purpose of the exercise and usually set the student up for a good end flare.
  5. Student may stop running and jump into the flare, sometimes grabbing the control bar.  This often results in the glider dropping to its wheels.  This is the proper time for this error to occur rather than later when the student is flying off the hill when consequences can be greater and correction to the problem can be far more difficult.  Suggest that the student continue running as they push the control bar out and up.  "Make the glider stop you" is a good phrase to use here.  Stress the importance of always keeping your feet underneath you during these exercises and even through all flights on the training hill.
  6. Student may  not push the control bar out enough during the flare.  Results will be obvious in that the glider will never stop.  A simple suggestion of extending your hands forward and up will usually solve the problem.

Alternatives for Winds 8-12  mph

In winds above 8 mph, this exercise becomes easier to do as it occurs at a slower speed.  Alter it only by instructing a more gentle approach to stopping the glider than a full flare.  The "gentler flare" should still result in lifting the student off the ground.  More care needs to be taken by the instructor to providing directional control in higher winds.

Exercise 3 - Ground Runs - Introduction to Directional Control


The purpose of this exercise is to allow the student to feel the response of the glider when he provides a directional control.  When accomplished successfully the student will demonstrate independent corrective actions and be able to carry out a ground run complete with a full flare at the end of the run without the physical assistance of the instructor.  The student may have their hands on the control bar for most of the run, or may put them on the control bar only when corrective action is needed.


Demonstration is optional at this stage and only appropriate if review is necessary.   Two approaches may be used for this exercise.  1) Have the student get the glider flying, and let go for three or four steps into the ground run as before.  Then, place both hands on the downtubes and pull through the control bar, accelerating toward their target.   2) Have the student get the glider flying, then run hands-off as before.  If and when the glider feels as if it is wandering off course, reach up with one hand, pulling the appropriate downtube toward themselves.  Once the correction is made, release the control bar again until flare.

Choice of 1 or 2 above depends on wind, and student.  With more wind, hands on is the more appropriate approach.  With students that the instructor suspects may attempt to grab hold of the control bar, using a single hand, then release is the more appropriate approach. The hands-on approach may be used once the instructor is convinced that the student will not grab or hang on to the control bar.

Execution and Evaluation

Provide minimal physical assistance to the student, intervening only if the glider becomes significantly banked or off course.  Ideally, the student should accomplish this entire exercise on their own.  However, if problems begin to occur during the run, it is the instructor's responsibility to get the glider back on track so the student can continue to work on directional control under conditions in which he will find a responsive glider.

Note here that directional control should be arrived at intuitively and should require little "Left" or "Right" coaching from the instructor.  Intuitive training, however, requires a responsive glider in which small corrections can be made early enough to have a positive effect.  Otherwise, negative training can occur.  Do not try and have the student correct the situation in which a glider has become banked significantly enough to be changing directions (in a turn) and the student is leaned over with their head on the upwing side of the control bar and their feet are on the opposite side of the control bar.  Advice such as "Get your hips over" will simply confuse the student.  This is nearly an impossible maneuver from this position even for the most talented advanced pilots.  Advising the student to make smaller corrections earlier and attempt to stay centered within the control bar is a better approach.

Once again, judge the success of this exercise by the final flare.  Student should show three or four consistent ground runs in which each ends in a straight, level, off the ground flare.  At some point the student should demonstrate that they can correct a turn and make the glider go where they want.

Hint: Clarify the use of a target.  The goal of a corrective directional control input is to return the glider to straight flight.  If a turn occurs which is significant enough to take the run in a direction different than the original target, but the student is able to level the wings and continue on a straight course with a new target, this is successful.  Attempting to steer the glider back to the original target usually results in over control and banked glider in the opposite direction.  In either case, praise the student for effecting the directional control and explain the use of new directional targets when off course.

Possible problems that could be encountered here follow.

  1. Any of the skills learned in exercises 1-2 could result in the glider not flying, no acceleration of the glider by towing on the harness, and ineffective flare.  Review these and have the student demonstrate these capabilities again.
  2. Student may grab the control bar when instructed to put his hands on the bar and either pull down or push.  Evaluate this by observing the behavior of the glider, not the position or grip of the student's hands as these can be misleading.  Correct by having the student let go of the control bar during the run, then replace the hands once trim is once again attained.
  3. Student may lean forward and push on the control bar.  Correct this by having them lower their hands on the control bar during the run and attempt to "catch up to" the basetube, always keeping their eyes on target.
  4. Glider may get banked significantly with student cross controlling as described above.  Do not attempt to correct this, but suggest to the student that they make earlier corrective movements.

Alternatives for winds 8-12 mph

Use a gentler flare to stop glider.  Explain that flares should only occur when the glider is flying straight on course, and pushing the bar out when the glider is banked will aggravate the turn.  Restrict exercise to option 1) above, in which the student has their hands on the glider at all times.  Have the student fly the glider faster than trim by pulling the control bar towards himself and targeting.

Exercise 4 - Communication, Terminology and Analysis

At this point in the training (usually the second or third hour of the first lesson) the student is about to begin moving up the hill enough to fly.  It is a good time to take some time and talk about terminology that you are about to use and give the student a moment to reflect on what they've experienced so far and start thinking about how to apply it to future exercises.

Very practical here is the use of a "simulator", which allows you to prop a glider up at a flying angle of attack and  high enough above the ground to allow the student to hang in the harness without touching the ground.  With the student hanging in the harness, have them demonstrate the following and discuss :

Trim - Explain what trim is.  Instruction will often sound like "Trim!"  or "Light touch!" or "Relax!".  Have the student show trim while hanging in the harness.

Directional Corrective Control - Ask the student to demonstrate a left correction.  Student will often pull to the left with the left hand and push from the right downtube with the right hand.  Have them let go with the right hand and do the left correction again, then ask if anything was different.  In a group setting, other students will point out that with the one handed control input, the weight came forward in the control bar as well as over to the left.  Explain how much more effective this is at getting the glider to respond.

The student will typically also hold themselves over to the left side.  Take this opportunity to explain how hang gliders respond to directional control input by increasing bank if input is prolonged and how a movement in the opposite direction is required to stop the glider from turning.  Explain that at the training hill, corrective input is used to keep a glider on course, not alter the course.

Speed control - Ask the student to fly faster.  Student should pull their weight forward with both hands.  Talk about hand position on the downtubes and what is most effective for shifting weight.

Flare - Have the student push the bar as if he were flaring the glider.  Have him move his hands up to his ears until he has the best leverage and furthest reach.

If in a group setting, have each of the students take a turn going through these exercises.

Exercise 5 - First Flights



The purpose of this exercise is to introduce the application of all skills practiced so far on a slope.  Runs should begin far enough up the slope to allow momentary flight if the run is done correctly, but not high enough to place the student in jeopardy should he revert.  Success is demonstrated by the student carrying out all steps of the ground run, including the final flare with the addition of acceleration down the slope, and the demonstration of a smooth transition to flying.


A demonstration is beneficial here since it provides the student with a model of the correct execution of the exercise and eases some anxiety that may form from the added altitude up the slope.  It also provides the instructor with information about the choice of location on the hill, conditions, and a first-hand benchmark from which to gauge the student's performance.  The demonstration should begin with preparation for launch, getting the glider flying, LETTING GO of the control bar for several steps, taking long steps as the glider begins to be able to carry more weight, hands-on directional control and a full flare at the end of the run.

Take this opportunity to explain to the student that he should not, under any circumstances, push on the control bar unless he is about to land.

Execution and Evaluation

It is important to demonstrate hands-off  in the demonstration and encourage the student to do the same.  With the introduction of a slope, the glider will tend to accelerate more quickly and be much more sensitive to the student hanging on or pushing on the control bar.  Taking a moment during the initial part of the run and after the glider is flying to take hands off the control bar will insure that the glider will seek the correct trim and a correct loading of the glider during the run.

Assist the student with directional control at the very beginning of the first couple of runs.  If the student is performing correctly, then cease assistance, and instruct the student to start keeping their hands on the control bar through the launch. This is the last time that the student will be assisted on the side wire unless problems begin to creep up.  Do not expend a great deal of energy on this task if the student is performing well.  Move up the hill quickly on each successive run until each run is resulting in a definitive flight.  Monitor the wind conditions to determine how high up the hill to send the student.

Remind the student simply and concisely on every flight of what the goals are.  Monitor the student for fatigue or over enthusiasm.  It is common for the student, having realized that they have accomplished flight, to become anxious to get airborne and revert to 1) not getting the glider flying properly, or 2) pushing on the control bar during the take-off run, or in the air.

Possible problems that could be encountered at this stage follow.

Fatigue -  This is evidenced when the student begins to revert at steps in the preparation for flight or take off run that  you've seen them do well in the past.  Suggest taking a break, eating a candy bar, getting some water, or even calling it a day.  Even after a break, announce a finality to the lesson, for example, "OK.. three more good ones and we'll call it a day", such that expectations are set correctly.  There is nothing more discouraging to student and instructor than spending a great deal of effort to run through these training exercises and then revert at the end of the lesson due to fatigue.  The student may become very confused and the fear of the unknown will return.

Improper preparation or initial take-off run - By this point in the lesson, how to prepare for the take-off, get the glider flying, then transition to loading the glider should be very familiar to the student.  In fact, the student will often have an easier time holding the glider now than they did at the beginning of the lesson.  If any of these steps seems compromised, a less than perfect flight will tend to ensue.  Assist the student on the side wire getting the next flight started, starting lower on the hill if necessary.  It is not necessary to take the student back to the bottom of the hill, unless the mistakes are severe.  Usually, assisting the student to insure a straight take-off at trim will place him back into a situation where the glider is once again responsive to his input and his prior training should take over.

Pushing on the control bar - Pushing can occur for many reasons and can have detrimental consequences.  If the student displays any tendency to push, move them low enough on the hill that they cannot get into serious trouble if they push, and have them perform hands-off launches, and stress flight at trim.   (Ask the student if they think they could clap their hands in flight).  Do not instruct the student to fly faster since faster flight followed by pushing is worse than trimmed flight followed by pushing.  No pitch input is best.

Hanging on to the control bar on landing - This can be caused by anxiety or a tense grip on the bar.  Move the student down the hill and practice trim, open hands and pushing the bar out again.

Hints for Better Instruction

The following are a few tips that I've learned over the years that allow me to have helped me to be successful at getting positive results.

Watch the Glider First, the Student Second

One of the key skills a hang glider instructor must possess is the ability to observe and analyze student flights.  Hang gliders conform to the laws of physics 100% of the time, and behave according to some very simple principles.  Often subtle changes in angle of attack or bank angle are difficult to see when focused on the student's hand or body position, and the visual scope only includes the control bar.  Watching the entire glider causes these subtle changes to be more easily discernible.

Analysis of a flight should begin by describing the flight path of the glider, then determining what forces acting on the glider could cause that flight path.  Once the forces are determined, one can speculate as to what actions the student took to effect the forces and compare these with what was observed in the student.

Determine the Cause of the Cause

Corrective instruction is often aimed at repairing a problem that is already too far into development.  A large portion of errors that happen during first flight tasks occur because the student did not get the glider flying properly.  When evaluating a student's flight, focus on the earliest possible error that could have occurred.  Do not focus on his attempts to correct a problem that had already grown uncorrectable, or it will become confusing.  For example, a student drops a wing during the "get the glider flying" stage of launch.  As he becomes airborne, he realizes he is in more of a turn than he has yet experienced and tightens his grip on the bar in panic.  The glider is now veering to the side and the student has leaned over so his head is on the side of the bar to correct the turn, but his feet toward the low wing.  The student falls over and rolls to a stop on the wheels.  What do you tell him?

Instructing the student to move his hips to the high side of the bar is incorrect because by the time the student had gotten to that stage of the flight, the turn was so severe that it would be very, very difficult to correct it.  On this advice the student will come to the conclusion that hang gliding is very, very difficult and may not be for him.

Analyzing the flight from the start will reveal that the error occurred in the first step of launch.  The glider did not float up and tighten the student's harness straps so that he could effect a turn correction early and get the glider back on track.  Focus the student's attention on this fact, reminding him of how easy it is to control the glider when it is flying properly from the beginning.  Remind the student of the first ground runs where he did exactly this.

Expedite Your Words

This article is very verbose and has as its purpose a detailed and thorough analysis and instruction of first time hang gliding students.  The information is for the instructor, not for the student.  Giving the student too much to think about is detrimental to his progress.  However, it is crucial to relay the right amount of information to the student and to do so in a concise and clear manner.  Limit all instruction to the specifics of each exercise being carried out.  Use the following format for each exercise :

  • Explain the purpose of the exercise.
  • Explain what determines successful completion of the exercise.  Sometimes this includes explaining failure as well, but only in the context of comparison for the purpose of clarifying success.  (e.g.  Explaining in exercise 1 above that a glider that does not come off the shoulders or pops up stopping forward progress can help clarify what it means for the glider to  plane successfully above the student's head).
  • Explain what you are doing during the demonstration, drawing attention to new aspects being introduced.
  • Handle errors students make on a case-by-case basis. In other words, don't offer suggestions on solving problems that have not yet occurred.
  • Praise success enthusiastically


The first day of hang gliding lessons is the most critical day in an individual's life with respect to their hang gliding experience.  People in general decide whether or not to get into hang gliding for one reason or another, and it is not usually based on a first lesson.  Students take their first lesson for many different reasons, not always because they desire to get completely involved in the sport.  However, a positive first experience will at least provide the world with another hang gliding advocate and at best recruit another pilot.  Further, if an individual has decided to take up the sport, a proper first lesson will lay the foundation for quality and rapid advancement.  The individual will buy many gliders in his lifetime and will be an asset to the sport.

A successful first day depends on successful first flights, which depend on successful ground runs, which depend on successfully being able to get the glider flying in the first exercise.  It all starts there....