One day while teaching fifth grade, I had my students write down their biggest, wildest dream. About three-quarters of them said “to fly.” I was struck by that—partly because the responses were so uniform, but also because flying has never been my dream.
Similarly, I asked them what animal they’d like to be if they could assume a non-human form for a day. More than half of them wanted to be eagles, hawks, or other soaring creatures. When asked that question, I usually say, “a dolphin.” So, while I’ve pursued a lot of sports in my life, I’ve never really thought about getting a pilot’s license, learning to fly a glider, or skydiving.
This summer, I fell in love with a paraglider pilot—someone who has always dreamt of flying, someone who has dedicated close to twenty years of his life to learning how to navigate the wilderness of our airspace like a bird saddled with a lot of ingenious human-engineered equipment. As a result, I am learning a lot about this sport, and getting the unique opportunity to experience it through the eyes of an expert.
Paragliding, as it is known today, was invented in the 1950’s, when the development of a “gliding parachute” that assumes a wing shape when filled with air allowed people to experiment with wind-propelled sports. The term “paragliding” was first used in the 1960’s and became popular in the late 1970’s when a team of French men were able to consistently run, launch, fly, and land under the power of their wind/fabric interface.
Paragliding and hang gliding are often confused, and, in essence, their goals and techniques are very similar. The gear is a bit different, however. In hang gliding, the sail cloth is attached to a rigid frame, and the pilot hangs from this frame, using his or her body weight to steer the rig. A paragliding set-up consists of only the harness and the fabric it hangs from, and the pilot uses his or her control lines to change the shape of the wing and, in doing so, chooses a path through the air.
Josh flies tandem paragliders for a living, meaning he takes passengers into the air with him using a two-person harness suspended from a large kite-like piece of fabric, generally called a “wing.” Within a week of meeting him, I managed to finagle a free ride off of Rendezvous Mountain, the highest point (10,450’) within the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming’s famous ski area. When I got a text from him telling me the conditions were right, I put on some sneakers and a couple of layers, met Josh at his “office,” and bought a ticket for the tram ride up to the top.
On an average day in the summer, Josh flies three or four people between 8am and 1pm. After that, the winds are typically too high to be safe for inexperienced passengers and the big wings required to sustain the weight of two airborne bodies. Most of the time, Josh and his fellow pilots (there are about 20 of them, 10-15 of whom will work on any given day) take their passengers up to the very top of the resort on the aerial tram and fly them from the summit. This is ideal, because it gives them a lot of elevation to start with, allowing for a long flight with great views. Some days it’s too windy at the top of the tram, or the wind direction isn’t ideal to fly from that point. On these days, they either fly from the top of the ski resort’s gondola (a spot lower than the top of the tram, but still plenty high—and, most importantly, facing a different direction and offering different currents of air) or, if there’s too much or too little wind altogether, they cancel all their bookings.
When I flew with Josh, I was his fourth passenger of the day. In order to squeeze this many people into a morning of work, he and the other pilots need to have very efficient launching processes. We got off of the tram, walked over to the launch spot, and, in the five or so minutes it took me to go to the bathroom and snap a couple of photos, Josh already had his wing laid out and lines organized. On the tram ride up, he’d told me what I needed to do once I was in the harness and the wing was up: take a few steps forward and downhill, then keep walking forward despite the wing’s tension on my body and the feeling of my feet leaving the ground. After I climbed into the harness, he checked my rigging, stepped into the seat behind me, and performed some magic with the lines. Almost instantly, there was a huge multi-colored, semi-translucent umbrella over our heads, seeming to float effortlessly on the air. Josh told me to start walking downhill, and before I could think about my whether or not I was taking the right sized steps, my question was made moot by the fact that my feet were dangling in the air.
The first few seconds of my flight were totally exhilarating. One moment I was walking on the ground, and then, suddenly, I was sitting in a chair in midair, suspended by thin strings attached to a piece of nylon. The mountains on the other end of the valley were at eye level, and both the tram and the ski runs fed by it were far below me. It was far quieter than I had imagined, and Josh spoke to me in a normal voice as we moved almost silently towards an outcropping of rock where a couple of climbers paused mid-route to wave to us.
Josh worked to find us a thermal, an upward moving current of warm air that, when a paraglider or red-tailed hawk taps into it, lifts them. Accessing a thermal allows a paraglider to fly further and with less effort, and it’s how pilots manage to cover great distances—distances such as the 120 miles from Jackson’s Teton Pass to the city of Lander, a record-setting flight Josh made in five and a half hours in July of 2006.
In the course of our fifteen minutes in the air, we traveled about a half-mile of linear distance, flying straight forward at some points, swirling upward at others, and circling downward towards the end, when we needed to lose elevation in a controlled manner in order to place ourselves in the landing zone—a flat, grassy field adjacent to the ski resort’s parking lot.
In retrospect, I’m amazed at how lightly we touched down, although my seasickness kept me from fully appreciating it at the time. The swirling descent made me nauseous, and my tendency towards motion sickness is the reason that Josh did not do any “wingovers” (a maneuver a lot like cornering a bicycle where the wing lowers to one side, the harness rises to the other, and a 180-degree turn is executed) with me on that flight—or on the next one, which just took place a couple of weeks ago in Sand City, CA.
Not all paragliding happens at ski resorts; in fact, Jackson Hole is one of the few places that offers paragliding within its boundaries and allows the pilots and passengers to use their infrastructure to access launch sites. The majority of paragliding takes place out in the wild, on random hillsides, mountaintops, and promontories. Sand City is one such location—only it’s a giant sand dune next to the Monterey Bay.
We drove the thirty minutes from my home in Santa Cruz to Sand City on the one day Josh thought conditions might be right for flying. There are a number of apps that log wind data, including one dedicated specifically to paragliders. These allow dedicated pilots to organize their days (and lives!) around high-quality flying.
That same app details how to get to the launch spots, and, in the case of Sand City, it instructed us to park at a strip mall and walk from there to the dunes. Josh threw the pack containing his tandem wing on his back, and I slung the solo wing pack on mine, then we turned a few heads with our bulky loads in the process of crossing the busy intersection at the end of the freeway exit ramp.
We’d seen several paragliders in the air from the car (always an auspicious sign), and when we got to the launch site, we saw a handful of people hanging around watching pilots and chatting. One was an instructor who was using a walkie-talkie to communicate with his airborne apprentice. This man approached Josh to warn him about the student driver overhead and filled him in on a couple of the area’s details of etiquette.
Once again, in a matter of minutes, Josh had everything laid out on the sand—a mess of clips and pieces of webbing and lines that look like multi-colored spaghetti to me. And, once again, all I had to do was get into the harness, hold on, and start walking down the dune in order to get us up and sailing above the sand.
Flying in Sand City was totally different from flying in Jackson. We were much closer to the ground at all points; in fact, when Josh flew solo after landing me, he repeatedly skimmed the bottoms of his feet and the seat of his harness along the ground before lifting himself back into the air. Of course, flying the length of a beach also offers views that are nothing like the Teton vistas, although both are spectacular in their own right.
And, according to Josh, coastal flying is much, much easier than flying in the mountains where conditions are nearly always turbulent and variable. Not only are the currents of air easier to read and navigate at Sand City, lowering the likelihood of something going wrong, the consequences of a mistake are far less significant as well.
A crash into a sand dune—or even into the water—is less violent than an encounter with an alpine rock face. After a summer of flying paying clients in the high-stress mountain environment, Josh seemed like a kid in a sandbox—literally—swooping effortlessly around and over the ice plant-encrusted dunes.
While Josh was out on his solo flight, I sat on the dune, taking pictures. I watched his wing recede further and further into the distance as he made miles up the coast towards Moss Landing. He flew far enough north that I completely lost sight of his pink and orange flag for a few minutes. I knew in those moments that he must have been experiencing that feeling of freedom that my old fifth graders—and so many others—dream of.
As for me, I was still reeling from the high of having hovered above the coastline that has come to symbolize home for me, and from experiencing someone performing—and including me in— their sport at such a professional level. And, at the same time, I was grateful to be digging my sneakers into the sand under me, giving into gravity and sitting in a still centerpoint while the waves crashed below me and the wind whistled in my ears.