Sometime in mid-2017, the NSWHPA contacted me to ask if I would run a series of women’s fly-ins on their behalf. I admit that I wasn’t that keen. A staunch supporter of women in paragliding, my view was that we are no different to male pilots and that we don’t need special assistance. However, Kari Ellis and I had put together a women’s team at the last State of Origin competition and I had enjoyed the experience of watching women pilots realise their potential and expand their flying beyond their expectations. I just wasn’t sure what a womens fly-in was.
I decided to reach out to my global female paraglider network and ask what the flock was a women’s fly-in and what did they do on one. The responses I got were super positive but appeared to gravitate around the unique opportunity to simply get together with a bunch of women pilots. Not totally convinced of its value, I decided however that I would give this a go. With the NSWHPA’s support, I saw a rare opportunity to push my own agenda and see if we could make a difference with the right mix of people on board. My agenda was that I wanted to see women confident in their own abilities, taking responsibility for their own equipment, their own flying decisions and generally just owning their shit. The NSWHPA, it appeared, were down with that.
Over the next few months John Brassil, representing the NSWHPA, organised the finances (including a generous subsidy thanks to funding from the NSWPHA and the NSW Office of Sport), came up with a budget for each event, booked accommodation and drafted up communications to attract attendees. I fine-tuned the communications and helped spread the word and we started to get interest. The events were partly subsidised and attendees were still required to contribute financially but those who were interested put their cash down early to secure their spots. The coastal event was filled a few weeks out and I was genuinely surprised. Where were these pilots coming from? I was under the false impression that I knew of most of the female pilots around the state.
The first event was the Coastal Women’s Fly-In held at Narrabeen on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. The forecast wasn’t looking good and I found myself trying to work out what alternative activities would still leave attendees feeling like they had gained some value out of the weekend. I bounced some ideas off John and we came up with a broad plan. The weather was forecast to be windy but mostly sunny. This meant we could still enjoy a lot of what the Northern Beaches had to offer.. just not much flying.
The Coastal weekend was better than I thought a non-flyable fly-in could be! On Saturday morning we went out to Long Reef in the hope that the wind would be light enough at dawn but instead had to settle for an extensive site-brief followed by breakfast at a local cafe. We bumped into local legend, Forrest Park, and enjoyed hearing tales about the flying scene 20 years ago over coffee. We went for a long walk around Narrabeen Lake, learning more about each other, our journeys through the Australian paragliding schools and clubs, and the challenges and successes we had stumbled upon. After a picnic lunch we opted to re-group in one of the cabins, as the rain pattered down, to talk about weather forecasting tools and instruments. It was a chance to ask lots of questions and hear how some of us used these tools. Saturday night we ventured down to Newport for dinner, which resulted in lots of laughs and full tummies.
Sunday morning we were privileged to receive a yoga class delivered by Michelle Thong. Michelle’s partner, Magdy, has been a solid member of the wider paragliding community for many years and so we were able to benefit from Michelle’s acquired knowledge of paragliding and learn about the stretches that would best help wind down from a day of flying. Another breakfast at a local cafe and we then ventured out in the hope that the wind would back down enough to fly. The back-up plan was to visit every site on the beaches for site-briefs. No flying was to be had, but site-briefs were delivered as well as a lesson in setting up a hang glider by Jorj Lowrey, our token hang glider pilot who has many years of flying experience under her belt. We learned how to manage such an unwieldy piece of heavy of equipment without assistance, and also that a bit of assistance makes the process a lot more pleasant! Sunday afternoon was spent farewelling as various people had long drives or planes to catch. It was the happiest bunch of pilots I had ever seen on a non-flyable paragliding weekend!
The Towing Fly-In was another awesome weekend but this time blessed with great weather. Held in Dubbo with the towing provided by Phil Mansell of Fly Dubbo, and expertly assisted by Stephen Noble and John Brassil we descended on the town of Dubbo on a Friday afternoon. We had a little more trouble filling the towing weekend with NSW pilots, so in order to ensure the weekend went ahead we opened up the invitation to all female pilots around the country. On this weekend we had the chance to get to know more pilots from Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and even New Zealand. Kari Ellis provided support on this weekend and I know everyone appreciated the opportunity to get to know Kari a little better. We were also privileged to have Jaimi Joy, an adventure sports photographer, join us. She was stoked to have the opportunity to photograph some women loving their sport. With a great forecast for Saturday, we met for dinner at a local Thai restaurant, got to know our companions for the weekend and had an early night.
Saturday morning we got up early and crossed the street for breakfast in one of Dubbo’s many great cafes (seriously — have you been to Dubbo lately?). Over lattes and poached goodness, we chatted about how the day would proceed and what we needed to do to get the most out of the conditions being dished out. Back to the vehicles and we had a little time before meeting the boys out at the tow paddock so we got radios sorted and equipment packed. A nervous excitement filled the carpark. The pilots were nervous about towing (most pilots do their tow endorsement and then its months, if not years, before they end up using them) and excited to be in the air. I was nervous that we’d get everyone flying and that they’d be rewarded for their considerable effort to spend the weekend in Dubbo. I was excited to see a bunch of female pilots totally stoked to be there, taking responsibility for their sport and excited about the fine details.
Having been directed to the selected tow paddock we made our way out to meet the Fly Dubbo crew, about 20 mins out of town. Tarps were set up quickly and with Kari testing out the winch and wind direction with a first tow, we were all systems go. We worked together to assist each other and ensure there was always someone ready to hook in. We made our own weak links, assessed after each tow if we had the number of strands correct, checked each other’s tow bridles and took turns fluffing in the considerable heat of the tow paddock.
Even though it was early autumn, we had temperatures in the mid-30’s so a tow paddock with a tree for shade, chairs and tables was very much appreciated. All part of the Fly Dubbo service. Everyone got as many tows as they wanted with Carley, Elissa, Lucy and I getting away on XC. Lucy had the flight of the day, pushing out a respectable 65km. With everyone helping out with retrieving we were all back in town, showered and ready for dinner at a very civilised 8pm. Dinner was at another of Dubbo’s great restaurants and we were all buzzing from the day’s events. We had a chance to celebrate the day’s achievements and debrief where things went differently than expected. No need to suggest an early night this time, as everyone was keen to rest up for the next day.
Unfortunately, Kari irritated an old injury with an awkward launch later in the day on Saturday and had to head home early, so Sunday we were sans-Kari. Everyone stepped up however, now confident with the routine and once the obligatory Dubbo-style cafe breakfast was done we were on our way to the tow paddock once again. Sunday’s conditions were a little more difficult with climbs more elusive. Elissa, Jane and Lucy managed to get away but with a storm brewing on the horizon they enjoyed what the day had to offer and then landed safely. Again, everyone had as many tows as they wanted before we called it a day and said our goodbyes.
We had hoped to run a Women’s XC Fly-In also but were unable to schedule this in. However, off the back of the Towing Fly-In I put together another Womens Team at the 2018 State of Origin in Manilla over Easter. Team Guns N’ Roses consisted of myself, Carley O’Connell, Susy Goldner, Elissa Jack and Jane Birch. Kari was still out injured but my good buddy, Martin Joyce, stepped in to assist me in coaching. He may not be female, but his ability to fly and coach at the same time contributed enormously to the team.
The State of Origin competition is held over Easter every year at Manilla, generously hosted by Fly Manilla. I have been through (almost) every stage in this competition over the years — from nervous-novice pilot, to ecstatic-intermediate pilot with a new PB, to helpful-advanced pilot to non-participant-but-flying-anyway advanced pilot to team-captain advanced pilot. I think I can identify which stage every pilot is in now, just by looking at them :) I have to say, however, that by far the most rewarding stage is team captain, and I think the secret is to plan early and hand-pick your team. I knew all the pilots from the towing fly-in and that they were super keen and fully able to string a few thermals together, plus I had a feeling for what each pilot needed. These pilots also knew how I operated and that I was focused, ready to have a laugh but ultimately keen to see results. We worked amazingly as a team, with pre-launch briefings, on-launch discussions and plans, in-sky encouragement and excited retrieve banter. To help a newer pilot smash their PB, or even just to be able to spiral down over launch and talk a newer pilot up a thermal is the closest you’ll get to that excitement you felt it was your PB being smashed so many years ago or when you reached cloud-base for the first time.
So here we are at the end of the season, two Women’s Fly-Ins and one Women’s State of Origin team later and I’m amazed that, just 9 months ago, I wasn’t convinced that we needed any kind of Women’s events. What I have learned is that when you are in a minority group, it’s easy to feel that you are just not cut out for this sport because the way that almost everyone else deals with certain challenges doesn’t feel right for you. Sometimes, all you need is time with a group where you are not in the minority to realise that there are many ways to deal with such challenges. It’s the opportunity to ask questions without feeling silly, to gain inspiration from pilots who have overcome specific hurdles, and for everyone to feed off that energy that emerges when the barriers fall away and we all realise each other’s potential.
With so few women in this sport, I think it pays huge dividends to invest in these initiatives to remind women that their gender does not make them lesser pilots. Remind them, by creating the opportunity to spend some time with other skilled women pilots, that free-flying is definitely a women’s sport and one that women can and should be passionate about. Men and women are different in many ways and we approach some challenges in life differently. If we can just find the confidence to solve issues in our own way we can be rewarded with the joy of being able to share the sky with other pilots, of any gender. There are many benefits to progressing in your flying and the work is so worth it. I can’t wait to see what next season holds for us :)
Special thanks to John Brassil and the NSWHPA for the initiative of putting together the Women’s Fly-Ins, to the NSWHPA and the NSW Office of Sport for their generous funding, and to John Brassil for his tireless work behind the scenes to deliver the Fly-Ins seamlessly and professionally. And for being able to convince me to do anything I’m not initially that keen to do :)