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
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.
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
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
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
DO NOT MOVE TO THIS EXERCISE UNLESS THE STUDENT HAS DEMONSTRATED DEFINITIVE
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
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
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....