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Unlocking Your Thermaling Skills: The Power of Intuition Over Technology

I firmly believe that mastering the art of thermalling is a pivotal skill for any pilot striving for success in cross-country flying and competitions. In some instances, a single better climb can define a World Championship. It’s a skill that deserves serious attention.

Reflecting back to 2004, when I first learned to fly as a middle school student, resources were limited, and a GPS or variometer was a luxury. Consequently, my initial thermal flights, cross-country missions, and even competitions were flown without the beep of the vario. Over time, I developed my unique ways of navigating my climbs – from basic techniques like terrain comparison and observing birds and fellow pilots to more intricate methods like feeling pressure on my brakes and seat, and even triangulating my height gain using cloud bases on the horizont.

a single better climb can define a world championship. it´s a skill that deserves serious attention


I became so accustomed to flying varioless that I resisted its use, even during important competitions. It wasn’t until my mentor, Mark Watts, practically insisted that I borrow his helmet vario at competitions, arguing that I was at a disadvantage against others. It took a few flights to adjust to the new noise, but the rewards quickly became apparent. Suddenly, I could core much better high on the flats, take better lines, and efficiently explore thermals.

However, the advice here may not be what you expect.


Nurture your intuition and keep it sharp before relying on technology as your primary advantage

Years later, I asked former World Champion Russell Ogden about his secret to consistently outperforming others, especially in weak conditions. He shared that during his role as a test pilot, his helmet vario ran out of battery one day. Despite intending to replace it, he realized he didn’t need it anymore. From that point on, he noticed a significant improvement in his climbing abilities. While he still uses the vario at competitions, combining that instant intuitive feeling with technology proves to be a massive advantage.

Following that revelation, I decided to return to flying without instruments around the time I began doing tandems professionally—a perfect balance! From fully intuitive flying on the tandem to fully equipped racing mode on the weapon (Enzo 3). Personally, I find this balance works exceptionally well for me, allowing me to comfortably keep up on climbs with the world’s best pilots.

The underlying message here is to nurture your intuition and keep it sharp before relying on technology as your primary advantage. Remember, the beauty of what we do in the air is best appreciated when we are fully present.

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