High Heart Rates

No matter who you are, your heart rate will be high on take-off.

Heart rates during the first five minutes following take-off (FFPP)
Heart rates during the first five minutes following take-off in four flights from the Chabre Open (moderate altitude), six flights in the Karakorum and 81 Flymaster Heart-G tracklogs. 

All the participants in the Phase I flights, amateur and professional, had heart rates above 140 beats per minute at the moment of take-off. Heart rates settled a little during the first minute in the air, but still hadn’t returned to normal after more than five minutes into the flight.

Such high heart rates even in outwardly calm professional pilots were quite striking. We also calculated other metrics, such as oxygen pulse, a surrogate measure of the heart’s output. These too indicated high levels of adrenaline coursing round the pilots’ bodies: a physiological state known as ‘sympathetic activation’.

A similar state of sympathetic activation has also been seen in parachutists of all skill levels before a jump. A British military psychologist called John Leach studied why experienced parachutists sometimes failed to deploy their reserves after their main parachutes failed, falling to their deaths. He found that high levels of sympathetic activation impaired working memory, potentially causing these ‘no-pull fatalities’ but that practicing throwing their reserves could make a difference.

Key messages

It looks like the same phenomenon of sympathetic activation happens in paraglider pilots of all levels leading up to take-off. So, our working memories may be much more impaired than we realise around launch. That means even experienced pilots may benefit from:

  1. Simple measures before heading up to take off, such as attaching the wing to the harness, to minimise cognitive load before flight.
  2. Written pre-flight checklists to help avoid preventable errors in the moments before take-off.
  3. Relaxation exercises or rituals prior to launch or leaving the start cylinder.
  4. Practicing throwing our reserves over water on SIV courses.

This is a summary of one of our key findings from Phase I of the Free Flight Physiology Project. For a full write up of our methods and results, please see our our Cross Country Magazine article or our scientific paper in High Altitude Medicine and Biology.