There continue to be incidents of student hang glider pilots launching off the Ed Levin 300 and 600 launches and getting lost or losing control and either miraculously landing safely or crashing and sometimes getting hurt.
In these incidents they are flying fine, then seem to lose track of where they are, what is going on and what they need to do next, and are in trouble. I think this is because flights off the 300 and 600 are longer, farther from the ground and more complicated than any flights they have done. That means there is much more stuff happening, and if there is too much stuff happening and and too many things to think about they can be overwhelmed. When they get overwhelmed their sense of what is going on and what they need to do tends to collapse completely rather than degrade gracefully. They can do fine on one flight and then, with just a little more stress, fatigue, a little stronger conditions or a little more complex flight, lose control of the glider and be in serious trouble.
Skill at controlling the glider is not awareness of what is going on and judgment of what they should do next. In the early stages students can be impressively skilled at flying a very specific flight plan but have little awareness of what is going on around them and no idea how to adapt if things turn out differently and that very specific flight plan is no longer viable.
Judging a pilots skill at controlling the glider is pretty simple, judging their awareness of what is going on and judgment of what they should do next is a very slippery business. It can be very hard for experienced pilots to stay in touch with how limited and fragile a new pilots awareness and judgement can be. Their awareness and judgement are expanding and improving with each flight at this stage, and are very dependent on how they are feeling and doing on any particular flight. Adrenalin and emotion use up a lot of energy, physical and especially mental.
Are they having a good day or a bad day? How are they feeling? How are they doing? Are they getting tired? Ask open-ended questions, like walking up to launch and asking, 'OK, whatta you gonna do? Who you gonna call?' and then let 'em talk. It's better to have them describe a simple flight plan and say to them, 'That's good, fly it.' than to give them a long, detailed and complicated story of everything that might happen and what to do about it. After they fly, don't tell them about their flight, ask them to describe it to you. The detail and accuracy of their description is a measure of how much they are able to think while they are flying. If they cannot describe a flight they just flew how aware could they have been of what they were doing?
In flight students can remember about as many things as the number of their rating. That means H0s (unrated) often forget everything when their feet leave the ground and are usually good for no more than one thing, 2-3 words. H1s can remember one or maybe two things, no more than 4-6 words. H2s two or maybe three things, no more than one sentence. Don't give them a long lecture and expect them remember it all or reduce it to the few words they need. They will not gradually forget things, conveniently starting with the least important. If they are told more things than they can easily remember when stressed and distracted it is very likely that stress and distraction will make them forget everything. It's like building a house of cards; if you try to put on too many cards too quickly the whole thing will collapse.
Anything new and different, a new launch, a different harness, glider or trim, or even landing in a different direction can be trouble. Each different thing reduces the effective rating pilot by 1 or more until they adapt to it so an H2 pilot with a different glider that's trimmed different than the glider they were flying will be at H0. If they are still getting used to the transition from training harness to cocoon, pod or, worse yet, single point harness they can be at H minus 1 or even H minus 2, a recipe for trouble.
Signs of Trouble
• Overwhelmed and confused, as in unable to simply and accurately describe the flight plan.
• Not asking any questions, asking too many questions, or asking questions not related to the flight. Asking a question again after it has been answered is a bad sign.
• Forgetting things, like arriving on launch with helmet unbuckled or missing, or forgetting to check leg loops.
• Distractions, like becoming deeply involved in video camera operation just before launch.
• Sponsor has a bad feeling about it.
• Too eager, too confident, or too hesitant and lagging.
• Trouble ground handling.
• Length of time since the last flight. Skills and judgement newly learned and not practiced evaporate quickly.
• Going from earlier, easier conditions, to later more difficult conditions with more fatigue.
• Different wind on launch than in the LZ.