Episode 68- Nik Hawks and weighing the risks

Nik Flying Blossom when things are going well- photo Phil Russman

Nik Hawks returns to the Mayhem to share two pretty scary close calls that ended well, but came with a LOT of lessons that every pilot can learn from including: coming back from “fear injuries”  by using the big 4, time, building exposure, and pattern recognition; how to get better at self-assessment (wingovers, exit from 360, exiting and entering spirals cleanly, avoiding and handling collapses, etc.); how to ask older/better pilots for help and the best way to approach mentors; when a pilot is really ready to go XC and what risks that involves; what groundhandling can…and maybe can’t help with; the safest ways to fly and practice and approach progression; training vs. equipment; eating for mental performance; the lunacy of spending money on gear before training and a lot more. This is a critical episode for pilots who are just beginning their journey to the most experienced pilots in the world. This one will save lives, make you think, and make you a better pilot. Spread the word.

A buck an episode, that’s all we ask.

Support me via Patreon

Subscribe to the Cloudbase Mayhem Podcast on Stitcher Radio, Google Play, Tune In, or ITunes!





Show Notes:

  • Fear injuries- what are they, and how do you recover?
  • Intermediate syndrome- how to walk the line
  • Avoiding dangerous positions- what is safe for one pilot scratching is different for every pilot
  • Self assessment- how to do it better and why it’s so important
  • Being a student of the sport
  • Foundational skills that nearly all pilots don’t have well
  • Stalls and SIV- what’s important and what isn’t?
  • Where are you comfortable flying? Understand the jump it takes between flying different places and different situations. How to keep fun as the priority
  • How to approach mentors and learn from the more experienced pilots
  • The questions to ask- 1) What do you see? 2) What do you think about the conditions? 3) Have you seen these conditions before? 4) What happened?
  • It’s a lot cooler to be a better pilot on lower performance gear than a lesser pilot on a wing beyond your ability
  • Developing a routine and a mental framework for “bringing it” and being confidence
  • Be a professional pilot
  • Saving it for a better day and listening to your gut- think in decades, not in days
  • Thoughts on Groundhandling- where it can, and possibly can’t help
  • How to train to stay calm and mentally train yourself to manage fear
  • Visualization- what you can do to imagine your flight going well
  • Optimism vs reality and positive self-talk (the positive power of negative thinking)
  • How to develop a progression plan- write it down, journal, make a plan
  • Eating for performance

Mentioned in this episode:

Ben Abruzzo, Bill Belcourt, Adél Honti, Matt Beechinor, Marko Hrgetic Hrga, Brad Barlage, Trey Hackney, Fabien Blanco, Jocky Sanderson, Nate Scales, Russ Ogden, Josh Cohn, Theo De Blic, Will Gadd, Jon Sylvester, Bruce Marks

Nik and I spoke about his friends input in the show. Excerpts from those emails are here (these are REALLY worth reading):

From Brad Barlage (listen to more in a recent podcast he did with Nik on the Paleo Treats podcast)

“Glad to hear you bounced instead of cratered.  A couple of points from my perspective:
  1. Ground handling is meaningless while in the air flying. (my opinion)  Two different things.  In my mind, it would be similar to sitting in a car explaining how to handle snowy spins and loss of traction vs. going out in the parking lot and spinning out in a controlled environment.  My advice is more SIV time – those are the lessons that stuck for me and how I learn.  Everyone learns differently though.  For me, it was a ton of time in glider and when I had thousands of feet of elevation I’d do collapses over dirt to practice.  Granted this is not likely the smartest or safest thing but my thought was that is how I’d learn with a margin of safety.  Everyone’s margin of safety is different.
  2. Ground flying is by far the riskiest part of flying.  Most top pilots I know don’t spend much time near the ground – this is the danger zone where one has little time to react.  Launch, do what you have to but the goal is to get high enough so you have options to sort things out – when the unexpected happens.  I know it sounds simple.
  3. Fear -Spent a lot of my life figuring out how to manage the fear.  In climbing, I am afraid of falling, but have learned to either take daily controlled falls to help instill that things will be OK or care so much about doing the route that falling is far from the first thing on my mind and as long as set safety requirements (gear) are met – GO FOR IT and sort the details later.  Never once been hurt.  Everyone has different ways but for me, it was rationally building up to it with many small micro goals to give confidence.  SIV clinics are sort of like renting skills, it is a great way to learn but how to OWN those skills is the question.  Think of how you OWN skills in other parts of life.  For me,it involves a lot of muscle memory practice, ability to have the skills to remain calm to make good decisions (but those don’t happen without push boundaries at some point).  Some people just have cool heads, most of my partners have better heads than I do, so I have to build up skills and practice a lot more than they do.
  4. Visualization – totally key.  I’d suggest taking a moment to do a walkthrough of the flight and potential issues before each flight.  It might only get you through the first few minutes but the reality is that is when most issues happen.  Stack the odds in your favor.  I’d pick a well sorted mentally prepared man to a physically honed but not mentally SOLID man every day of the week.  Paragliding attacks all types and I found some got pretty far in flying but when it came down to it they didn’t have the skills to really sort out when the shit really hits the fan.
  5. Surround yourself with OG and professionals.  I find this key.  Find the dudes that have a system dialed and watch them.  Belcourt has a system and ritual before each flight, sure it gets glossed over but I know it is going on, constantly evaluating conditions, options and flight plan.  I’m really into this with climbing.  It is a rare day you don’t find me prepared, with all the gear, with a plan, focusing on sending good energy to those I tie in with and also straight up asking for what is needed.   I also realize climbing is many things to many people and what it is in my life also likely really turns people off being way too serious about a sport/hobby.  For me, it is deeper and a reflection of how I live my life and to what standard. I see this in you also.  How you do one thing is how you do everything.  Often times the point of failure happened a while back in the process (not mentally prepared, didn’t read conditions right, not fed enough to have the energy it takes to concentrate fully…)  There is the moment of failure that we all focus on but I like to take a step back and look at the entire episode not the few second scene.  Find an OG pilot and ask him to mentor you for the day, launch or whatever.  Offer to help him with food, beer or some kind of kindness.  I try to climb with many different people for this aspect.  We all learn little bits and can pick and choose what we bring to our own game.
  6. Sometimes everything can go right (or close enough to right) and things just happen- unfortunately close to the ground.  That is the nature of the sport.  No amount of Monday morning coaching will change that.  Learn what you can and move forward with a lesson under your belt.  Perhaps maybe used a bit of luck and gained some experience.  Think what you could do better next time and move forward, knowing you have used a limited amount of luck.  Hence the reason I have not backcountry skied much in the last winters – my luck is all used up and I’m not sure my experience is enough to keep me safe.  A real tough decision and one I think you’ll have to be real with regarding your paragliding.

And another from Chris (more info on him in this interview on the PT podcast here, episode 10):

Nik’s question:
Is my learning ability so rigid that I only pick up things learned through fear and huge consequence?  I’ve certainly read and studied a bunch about what the right thing to do is, and if you’d given me the scenario on the ground I could have talked you through exactly the right things to do.  Have you guys found this true for you?  I wonder if I haven’t achieved more just because I’m too lazy to push hard and learn all the time and I end up just stumbling upon learning experiences when it comes down to the wire.
Chris’ answer:
“Nik, I think this is mainly pattern recognition. I think most things that happen to us quickly, where we make a quick decision are mainly pattern recognition.
The more experience you have, the more patterns you can discern. You can also see the pattern developing earlier. With enough experience (meaning you’ve made some bad choices) you can adjust to the pattern you see developing.
A vehicle driving towards you and crossing over the center line is out of pattern and catches your attention early on. As a seasoned driver you’ll start making corrections the moment you realize something is out of pattern. That doesn’t happen with a brand new driver. They typically aren’t looking more than a few yards in front of their hood. They don’t see the problem developing, and when they do realize there’s a problem it’s right in front of them and they don’t have the experience to drive off the shoulder, into the dirt to avoid collision.
So the earlier you can see a pattern develop (especially something that’s dangerous) the more time you have to deal with it.
If your responses to this are practiced enough it becomes “unconscious competence.” You don’t have to think your way through the solution, you just do the solution. That allows you to focus on seeing new information and finding the new pattern. (The wing has collapsed enough that I can’t salvage this with the altitude I have – throw reserve, or ride it in, or use the remaining time to pump the collapsed side).
If I don’t have to think about how to shoot something – I can just watch for what needs to be shot. The actual shooting takes care of itself.
Brad’s comments about dealing with fear by taking little steps rings true for me also. Much of what keeps us safe is confidence in our abilities. I get that confidence by taking little steps and by controlling as much in my environment as I can. Gear, health, focus, briefing with other people, radio checks, etc. Same idea as Belcourt having a system before he flies. Same idea as Brad having a system before he climbs, and a protocol when he starts to put his harness on for how he’ll tie in, what gear he’ll bring, what mindset he aims for.
I’ve found that most of us are looking for a feeling of competence in a challenging environment that has high consequence.
Study hard. Prep your mind. Prep your gear.”

And finally, after we wrapped the talk, got this message from Nik after he listened to it again with more 20/20 hindsight:
Had a long chat with Ben today and came away with a few more foundational ideas:
1) Paragliding has huge consequence that are not worth the physical risk, those of us that fly have to accept that.
2) The most effective mitigating factors are the “uncool” ones:
-staying on a mid-B wing and in a padded seat harness until you have wingovers, spins, stalls, tail slides, etc completely dialed
-flying in conditions that are at your skill level with potential to go slightly beyond
Of course, those things can also take away how quickly you learn and how cool you look so we tend to ignore them.  Wilfully ignorant and iirrational, but that’s also paragliding.
Hearing Gavin say that “it’s cool to be a better pilot on lower gear” gave me permission to focus on that.
Gavin, I’d love to see you stress that more in your podcasts.
It seems silly/obvious, but “getting permission” or guidance from experts on what’s “cool” can make a huge difference in how we view ourselves and our actions.  More on “giving permission” in this podcast with Shawn Alladio, big wave jetski rescuer and probably the toughest human I’ve met.  Her story of pulling a dude out of a burning car is riveting, and worth the listen just for that.
3) Fear in flying is a guarantee if you’re going to do anything other than soar in laminar air.  Managing fear and fear injuries is easy to talk about and difficult to do, but all of us do it.  Probably helpful for the community at large to build some structure and vocabulary around it rather than just saying the air was spicy or that you were terrified.  Guilty as charged on both of those, by the way.
4) Without question, the safest way to get really good very quickly is the most expensive: Doing SIV once a month or more and getting lots and lots of guided instruction on all other aspects.  Few of us have the money or time for that, so we’ve got to accept that the sport is going to be riskier than it has to be.
5) Finally, the idea that competitiveness in paragliding increases risk.  Flying with buddies (and pilots) you want to be better than will push you into riskier positions.  It’s done that to me, and it’ll do that to every single pilot who flies and has aspirations beyond laminar soaring.  You’ll get better faster, but it’s riskier.
They all seem so bloody simple, but I’m as guilty as everyone else I’ve seen, flown with, or talked to of breaking all of those rules in full knowledge of them.  Maybe that’s the enticement, that we thumb our nose at safety and ride the sky at risk.  Stupid, but by God it can be satisfying when you get it right.
See ya in the sky!

The Navy Seals use the “Big 4” technique to conquering fear and panic


Social Media

Share this post with your friends!
Connect with the Mayhem!