If paragliding was broken down into a few fine arts then certainly, the finest art would be the launch/no launch decision. In a close second place would be the amount of brake a pilot should pull for every given situation.
The launch/no launch decision has the power to define us on every given flying day and there's no such thing as too much soul-searching when it comes to making this call.
The question of how much brake to pull at any given moment starts to be answered in our first days of kiting and is ultimately never answered. Like a golfer always works on his swing, we always work on our brake pressure. We never quite figure it out but we always work on it. This is one of many things that makes paragliding interesting.
As we begin this journey, we are quickly reminded that we have to be diligent in the addition and subtraction of brake pressure in order to keep the glider above head and open depending on the condition. It goes without saying that there are a few magical conditions where the glider will just sit above head without too much maintenance. However, this condition is not very common.
The other factor that complicates this matter is that a paraglider is a pendulum and by definition, it demands one input from the pilot in one moment and a different one next. It demands that the pilot add brake pressure and then subsequently released before again adding brake again – all flying day long.
Of course, the timing of this addition and subtraction of the brake is essential but over the years we have realized that even poorly timed brake inputs are better than no brake inputs.
Somehow most correct responses in paragliding also end up being counterintuitive. New pilots that first fly through turbulence normally just put their hands up. They are also inclined to grab the risers when they are in turbulence because the risers give them a false feeling of being steady. This causes them to completely lose their link with the glider and invites deflation. These are two examples of how the intuitive response also ends up being the incorrect response.
We are also up against the prevalent aviation logic that says that speed is your buddy. It is said that if we poll a few hundred airplane pilots, skydivers, paragliders and paramotor pilots, and then ask them to indicate if they think "hands up" is the key turbulence – more than half will do so.
This remains the case after people learn how to kite – instructors can quiz a student about what the best response would be if landing in some sort of rotor and they will generally defer to the logic that letting the glider fly is the answer. This is why an instructors work is never done. This is also why pilots are reminded to continually seek out continuing education.
Quite clearly a judicious addition and subtraction of the brakes is the best method for preventing deflations. This is one of the many reasons why students are advised to spend 35 to 50 flights with instructor supervision before they start exploring on their own. During those flights, instructors can check and then recheck that not only the students understanding and intuitive responses are correct. Instructors check to make sure that students understand that pulling brake prevents deflation.
This makes for very challenging and also rewarding life's work. I have personally devoted my entire adult life to teaching people but specifically teaching people to add and subtract the correct amount of brake in the correct way.
Alas, paragliders evolve over time and in recent years we've even found that while high above the ground and on glide to the next thermal or ridge, we can let off the brakes for the most part and even engage a little bit of speed system. We find that the glider remains fairly solid above the pilot's head. Still, we know in our heart of hearts that the glider is ultimately more prone to deflation when the speed system is engaged and when the wing does deflate while on speed bar we know that the recovery will be more complicated, altitude consuming and dynamic even if we let off the speed bar immediately.
It's worth mentioning that pulling brake while using the speed system makes the paraglider into an undesirable shape that is also more prone to deflation. Some modern canopies do allow for rear riser(s) modulation while on speed bar. Please do your own due diligence on this subject as it pertains to your experience level and your glider.
With the advent of new technology, we trust the gliders a little more and depending on the quality of the air and we find more and more moments where we can justify allowing the glider to fly and engage some speed system.
It goes without saying that there's also the possibility that a pilot can over brake in certain situations. Pilots that frequent the gym, who engage in activities like rock climbing or who perform manual labor are particularly cautioned that this is a risk for them especially during a malfunction.
Here is the important part. New technology does not free us from our obligation to keep a tight rein on the glider during moments when we are kiting, launching, close to terrain, thermalling, and landing. The average pilot will spend more time in this mode over the years than in any other mode.
Furthermore, the moments that define us over the years will not actually be the moments when we are on a long glide and comfortable air. We will be defined by how we manage the brakes and how we behave during launch, if we make a mistake and fly into conditions that are not favorable and if we experience turbulence on approach to landing.
This will be especially important for pilots flying in areas characterized by high altitude, distance from oceans, dry climates and areas subject to the influence of the jetstream manifesting in daily high wind situations.
Pilots flying near oceans, those closer to the equator and those flying in humid climates will not suffer as much from the misguided release of brake tension in situations where the conditions aren't trustworthy.
Why? you might ask, is this message so important right now. Your answer is that it is always an important message but recently, highly regarded and characteristically trustworthy industry specialists, glider designers and competition pilots are increasingly advocates of flying with little brake pressure. This is fantastic advice when taken in context and with appropriate disclaimers and caveats but lousy advice for a recreational pilot trying to stay out of harm's way.
We have a responsibility to adjust our technique in response to common pitfalls and we know exactly what the common pitfalls and dangers are. Our statistics show that over the decades and without exception pilots are suffering deflations during critical moments of the flight and suffering grave consequences. In the majority of the cases, an inadequate connection with the trailing edge of the glider is to blame. Poor response to deflation is also to blame but that's a separate subject for a subsequent discussion. We know that there is a misplaced trust in speed system is a primary accident cause and we know that while some pilots release the speed bar during a malfunction, others do not.
Please notice that this article speaks to both sides of the brake pressure equation. It makes the case for letting off the brakes sometimes but advocates feeling the brakes most often. All good technical information regarding technique speaks to the entirety of the subject and is presented with appropriate disclaimers and caveats. Be very cautious when single-sided advice is given and work with your trusted instructor to make your own picture of how things work.