BIG EARS, ARE DANGEROUS?
It is, apparently, a basic and quite discrete manoeuvre, but it suddenly came to the hurricane's eye in the world of international paragliding. It all started in a PG discussion forum in internet, a few months ago: somebody reported a lethal accident suffered by a pilot after trying to release big ears near the ground. Soon, the case had generated discussions in diverse PG forums all over the world, although it was never proved that the accident actually happened. Apparently, it was nothing more than a hoax, but it triggered an interesting debate about this manoeuvre and how we should perform it better. We have rescued some of the most important points of the subject:
To find out more about these questions we have surfed through the most active and arguer paragliding forums on the web, gathering al lot of info and comparing it with our own experience in free flying, to get a better understanding of this manoeuvre and its risks.
What are they? We should start by saying that "Big Ears" is a manoeuvre for fast descent in paragliding, in which the pilot pulls the outer lines of both A risers to fold down the wingtips of the glider. This way, we put the glider out of its normal flying configuration and we obtain a higher sink rate, since the glider's span is shortened and we have a smaller flying surface. Also, the glider's speed lowers down due, in part, to the added drag induced by the folded tips and the smaller surface. It is a manoeuvre particularly used to stay under and out of a cloud, whilst still keeping some glide and speed, or when you want to lose some altitude.
Big Ears are popular because it is a relatively easy to perform manoeuvre and, apparently, involves little risks. We must remember, however, that a paraglider flying with big ears in is no longer flying in the way it is designed to do it and, therefore, in certain situations it might behave in an unexpected way.
One of the main risks of using big ears has to do with the speed. With big ears in, the speed of the glider is slower than its normal trim speed, which puts the glider nearer its stall speed (the minimum required speed at which the glider stops to fly) -a potential danger. The minimum speed at which a glider can fly differs from one wing to another and it depends on its original trim at the factory and the actual in-flight weight the glider is carrying. If any extra circumstance lowers the glider's air speed a bit more -like applying more brake, a sudden change in the wind speed, turbulences, etc. - we will almost surely put the glider in stall.
"Big Ears and BIG EARS" We must distinguish between big ears and big-BIG EARS. The firsts are the ones we obtain when pulling only one line from each side of the glider. They usually reopen on their own in most gliders and in some it is even necessary to hold the lines so the tips will not reopen immediately. Small Big Ears slightly raise sink rate and reduce the glider's speed.
BIG EARS: Most of the present gliders have 3 lines in each A riser so if the pilot pulls 2 lines from each he will be actually hanging from the centre of his canopy, with only about 4 cells open. Big-big ears do increase sink rate a lot and also reduce the air-speed of the glider, putting it dangerously close to stall speed, the main cause for incidents. This is why it is advisable to use the speed bar simultaneously with big ears.
Every pilot should learn to perform and control the use of big ears because it is a manoeuvre that can give us security and comfort to the piloting, but there are a few more things we have to keep in mind before using big ears for just anything...
Feeling and progression: Changes in the flying characteristics of your glider can be very noticeable when using big-big ears, but can be almost imperceptible with small-big ears and to inexperienced pilots. For this reason, we recommend to practise big ears in order to get to know the particular characteristics of the glider we fly and learn all the answers to questions like these: How much does the glider reduce its speed? Does it reopen without brake input? If it is necessary to use brakes, how much pumping is required? And so on.
Be smooth, do not pull the lines or brakes aggressively; make your movements gradual, and progress step by step. These are some essential security issues.
Mistakes? The first very common mistake is to pull both A lines at the same time and using too much energy… and causing a front collapse. This kind of collapse tends to recover quickly with a smooth pull of the brakes, but it is not something we want to do. Some people think it is best to pull one ear first and then the opposite, to avoid the possibility of a frontal collapse. We have to pull the lines in a solid way, but do not exaggerate the strength you use.
Reopening the Ears is another fact we have to consider. Brake pumps must force the air to re-enter in the cells of the folded parts so that the glider reinflates, but never forget that we are flying at a speed which is slower than normal, so our pumps must not slower the glider even more. Depending on the air conditions (if there is strong face wind, if the place has significant wind gradients, if it is turbulent, etc.) we may choose to pump one side first and then the opposite, using short quick pumps and letting the wing recover its flight before braking the other side.
Beginner pilots should practise this frequently (and very high) to acquire the necessary smoothness in a safe, progressive way.
On the other side, as paraglider design evolve and develop, gliders are easier and more accessible. At present, almost anybody can fly and this gives a false feeling of security to pilots who think that if they fly a "safe" glider they will have nothing to worry about. This explains one of the most common errors average pilots make: overreacting, or over-control on the brakes. An aggressive opening of big ears, i.e., pulling the brake more than necessary in time and intensity, can cause the glider to stall, specially if the conditions are turbulent or if we find wind gradient.
It is possible to go down with big ears until very near the ground, but this is safe only if there are certain conditions for it: laminar wind, a place with little or no gradient at all, no possibilities of turbulences, and a pilot who knows how his/her glider behaves and has good experience in all flying conditions.
It is advisable to open the ears with enough altitude to recover possible incidents (more than 60m) and execute short pumps.
Another good way to reopen big ears is by weight shifting consecutively from one side to the other. The wingtips will reopen smoothly with no need for braking, but we have to be experienced in active piloting with the body, and carry an adequate harness that will not limit the use of our body weight.
What's good, it's good… There seems to be a tendency to use big ears when trying to land in a small field. This is something with which many beginner pilots experiment confidently, instead of practising good landing approximations! The right progression should be to learn how to come to your landing point by performing Ss, 8s or even small wingovers, something you achieve after doing as many straight-and-down flights as possible. Big ears should come later. When using big ears, the pilot cannot use the brakes so has less control over the glider's direction, unless we use weight shift correctly -something beginner pilots must practise very often. Besides, near the ground there are other risks we must consider.
Not near the ground! The use of big ears near the ground is advisable only in certain emergency situations. The change of the glider's incidence when we pull big ears is particularly serious near the ground for 2 reasons:
Altitude for learning For this and other basic security manoeuvres, like collapses or B stall, it is advisable to be tutored and with a minimum altitude of 200 to 300m above ground level, and off the cliff. At the beginning, these simple manoeuvres may cause some stress to the pilot and lead him to commit mistakes, such as over-reactions (over control) and its consequences -collapses. In this situation, a DHV 1 or 1-2 glider will turn between 180º and 360º and recover even without any input from the pilot, but it will certainly lose some good metres during the process. It is quite clear that such a mistake when you are only 30m above ground level could have a bad ending.
About big-big ears Once you are experienced enough (which means many flying hours, and hundreds of big ears or other basic manoeuvres) you can try big-big ears. Do it with a lot of altitude the first times and pay special attention to the loss of air-speed since, as we mentioned before, this manoeuvre may place us dangerously near stall speed. At that point, a sudden change in the wind speed can play us a bad trick. The use of the speed bar can reduce the risk. Pull the speed bar after pulling your big ears. Speed, in this case as in others, means security.
In XC or competition flying, it is common and even necessary to be familiar with the big ears technique. Under the clouds there is usually some turbulence and strong lifts. This makes more difficult to go fast, since you have to use the brakes all the time to compensate the movements. In such conditions it is possible to navigate under the clouds, "controlling" the lift and advancing at good speed, if you use big ears and pull the speed bar to the top. Needless to say, it is a technique only for very experienced pilots.
Basic recommendations for big ears:
Emergency situations Some day you will have to make an emergency landing, and in that case it is better to have your ears reopened at the moment of the final flare for the landing. Also, in strong wind or very turbulent situations big ears will give you some extra stability and will reduce the risk of collapses (the glider is collapsed already!). In such situations, it is best to keep the big ears to the ground, as the vertical speed will never be very high.
Possible answers: To summarize, we can answer some of the most debated questions in PG forums (we will not consider the reported case as it seems it never happened...):
What is the right way to reopen the ears? By pumping one side first and then the other you can reduce the risk of stall, but if you do it too aggressively you could induce one side of the glider to stop flying. Watch your glider's behaviour and let it recover its flying speed before pulling the opposite brake. Make your movements smooth and gradual.
Security altitude: Most times it would be better to keep the ears until the final flare or open them at a high altitude (+60m).
Is it the right manoeuvre for landing on narrow fields? Given that there are simpler and less risky ways to approach to a LZ (8s, smooth wingovers) big ears may not be the most suitable manoeuvre, since the pilot cannot use the brakes and therefore has less control over his direction. Besides, there is a higher risk of getting into unwanted situations while trying to reopen them at low altitudes. If there is no other choice, better keep the ears until your feet touch the ground.
Is it necessary to review the certification processes? This is probably not the issue. What is really necessary is to review the instruction given to new pilots. Certifications are guides, indicators about the skill level required by a pilot to fly a certain wing, but they do not assure that "nothing" will happen if we commit mistakes. Paragliding is a sport that involves some risks and we all should make our biggest efforts to keep it as safer as possible.
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