Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Why have rules, standards, conventions of conduct? Aren't we free to do as we wish? Why should I give into the establishment, get ‘the man’ off my back; I don’t need no system nor your doctrine. That's the lament we hear these days. Each generation utters the same plea as it seeks to find its place, by defining its order of things. Challenging the agreed protocols, that keep the highway of human existence flowing. Then, over-time, through experience, we comply. Why? Let me muse on a possible explanation.
I used to paraglide. You know, that aerial sport during which you launch from a hill attached to a nylon wing by thin lines. No engine, minimum equipment; only you, and the forces of nature and possibility of flight. I flew for over 15 years until gravity exerted its power - one too many times - on my fragile human body. Broken wrists, two fractures of the spine plus many bruises convinced me to give up. An angry wife venting (again) in front of an entire emergency room can also sway your thinking.
People come to paragliding seeking adventure. It struck me they always spoke of freedom - as free as a bird - soaring on thermals, climbing high with a Black Kite. A serene experience. No motor to disturb the peace. The power comes from a large fusion reactor sitting 150 million kilometres away, as it heats and churns our atmosphere.
Paraglider pilots have a self-image of the maverick. We’re rule breakers, who don't stick to conventions. A breed apart. It’s not a characterisation that holds up. Scratch the surface to reveal the laws that anchor the whole business. With clear boundaries, written rules and unwritten rules, and strict adherence to convention. You don’t want to be that new guy on the hill breaking the community order. It’s terrible for your health, ego and the chances of getting more airtime.
Paragliding is dangerous. That’s an understatement; it's incredibly hazardous. Primarily, if you don't follow the rules. From the set-up on launch to the landing, you operate in a domain of shifting parameters with many unknowns.
Get it wrong and you can go from ‘hero to zero' in seconds. Mistakes are not forgiven. Although, when it all comes together, it’s a thing of sublime contentment, mixed with exhilaration. You enter a state of meditative flow.
Yet, for this to occur you need to have complete faith in the guy in front and behind. Everyone needs to recognise that the situation is hazardous, with potential for collisions. It’s a three-dimensional dance with limited air-space. Each must keep separation and move in the same circuit. No sudden turns, no overtaking to pin a wing against the ridge without an escape route. No close over-flying, keep clear of wash.
Then, etiquette demands that you give pilots struggling for height, space to climb. It’s poor form to block them.
All it takes is one guy to reverse direction, move out of sequence - then the whole structure starts to break up. Pilots lose height; pushed out of the lifting air, forced to curtail their day's flying.
One thing is sure, the guy who caused it is going to get a mouthful. Execration reigned down on him. By dissing the group code, he’s isolated. He won’t be getting offers of a ride to take-off or pickups at the landing field. No one will tell him when its flyable or offer advice.
I flew Queenstown, New Zealand in 2009. Arriving at the take-off, looking down on the majestic Lake Wakatipu, I took my site briefing from a pot-smoking hippy. His guidelines - actually rules - came over in a short direct presentation. Later, as we loitered, he gave me a lecture on the new world order of embracing a non-judgmental ethos. This he asserted would make us prosper.
Later still, he laid this lesson aside to berate a visiting pilot for landing on the wrong rugby field. A drill sergeant’s tirade poured forth from my hippy friend. Impressive.
As a paraglider pilot, you take complete responsibility for your own life. And, that of other pilots with you in the air. Paraglider pilots seek to live by the same code, so that when flying actions are mutually predictable. Head-on with another wing, I know he’ll break right. Likewise, I’ll overtake a slower wing on his inside, so as not to trap him against the hill.
This shared system of actions and behaviours ensures everyone safety. Pilots know what to expect from others. Thus they act together to minimise risk while maximising air-time. Uncertainty gets removed unless the rule-breaker appears. I’ve seen rage, contempt and physical violence on the few who bring disorder. They rarely repeat it.
When it comes together - with everyone sticking to the rules, respecting each others space, it’s a ballet. The shared system of order produces breathtaking aerial choreography with great purpose.
It’s counter-intuitive, but to be free in life, you need to follow the rules, otherwise its chaos. After all, even the hippies drive on the right side of the road.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.