Addicted To Air

” Standing on launch at 9000 feet above sea level at Frisco Peak in south central Utah, it is one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and I’m sweating in my thick fleece, gore tex flight suit, thick mittens, boots and full faced helmet. It’s hot! Probably one hundred and twenty degrees inside all of this gear. ‘Come on thermals’ , I plead to myself, ‘please give me a good cycle or even a decent one before I faint.’ I can only tolerate all of this heat because I know in 15 or 20 minutes I will be freezing at 18,000 feet above sea level and the extra clothing will be necessary for survival.”

This is what it is like as we prepare to launch for a cross country paragliding flight, the pinnacle of the sport of paragliding.

It all starts with training flights at smaller, safer sites like The Point of the Mountain near Salt Lake City, Utah. This site, with three hundred flying days per year and smooth laminar air, makes for one of the safest training and experience gathering sites in the world.

A typical training program begins with learning how to control the wing while standing on the ground. It’s like being hooked onto a big stunt kite with your body. This “kiting” is a safe and quick training technique, that enables pilots to understand what is happening with the wing and how to accurately keep it overhead, or going in the direction they want. It is also great fun. From there one moves on to small flights that in time get bigger and bigger. Most of us are accustomed to getting into rooms (planes) that pick us up and transport us from one destination to another. Having our feet just gracefully “lift” off the ground is an experience that human beings have never had before. It is quite exhilarating!

One of the greatest aspects of this sport is that the new and thrilling experiences just keep coming. Soaring for hours, high mountain flights from one or two miles above the landing zone, thermaling up for 10 or 15 thousand feet in one thermal, flying cross country for 50, 100 or 200 miles with no motor or propulsion other than pure nature. We are truly explorers! For the first time in our history as a species, we can explore our planet’s atmosphere directly and physically for more than six feet above the ground. This is no little thing. It can shift us to a whole new paradigm. The general public can now fly and soar with the Eagles and Hawks thousands of feet above the ground, soaring through the wispies of the base of the clouds not even seeing the planet for hours at a time. It is something that can only be understood by experience.

“As I watch intensely for cycles coming up the mountain in front of me, the sweat tickles my sides as it drips from my arm pits. The futile attempts of my body to cool itself drip down my face and neck and fog my glasses so that I must remove them in order to see anything. My socks and mittens I’m sure could use some ringing out. Here it comes! I see the trees start to wave in a wide swath four hundred feet below me on the side of the mountain. As it travels up towards me I hear the sweet sound of wind intensify to a beautiful roar. I decide to launch after the edge of the thermal passes me and I wait a few seconds feeling the breeze on my face. Stepping into this cycle my wing shoots up over my head and immediately lifts me off the ground without having to move forward at all. I fly straight into the thermal, trying to get some distance between myself and the terrain, but this is such a strong lift cycle that I get that distance vertically not horizontally. I’m in sustained 1400 to 1700 feet per minute lift continually for the next seven minutes and reach the refreshingly cool altitude of 17,500 feet above sea level. By the time I am able to leave this huge lifting column of air that I have been circling in, I am over 18,400 feet high. At this altitude most cars in the valley floor below me are too small to see. It is comforting to have my oxygen system with me today. Its 2 second spurt at the beginning of each inhale helps me stay relaxed, warm and clear thinking at this altitude.”

There are basic classes in paragliding that cover things like launching, landing, equipment care, etc., and there are more advanced courses like thermaling, cross country, maneuvers and others. This is personal, affordable flight. As a species human beings have been dreaming about flying for millions of years. Now is the first time in our history when we can.

“I leave the thermal that took me to cloud base and head North using the lift that is usually at the base of these beautiful cumulus clouds. I move along for six miles with the cloud, sometimes in it, sometimes below, at times my wing is in the cloud over my head and I am not. There are minutes at a time where I cannot even see the planet. It is very “other worldly”. Two Bald Eagles overtake me never once flapping their wings. They are migrating north and are using the same easy ride I am at the cloud base. One of them slows and with curiosity flies over to me watching intensely. We fly together for a few minutes as its mate continues on, quickly going beyond my sight. Too soon, they’re both gone. I leave this beautiful cloud world and enter blue sky as I head north on that continual search for another thermal and hopefully another cloud world. I am grateful.”

I remember another hot day when I was teaching last week at The Point of The Mountain near Salt Lake City Utah. A couple came from Massachusetts for lessons, motivated to make the trip because they had heard that this was the best place to learn and also heard that I have the best official safety record in the United States. The kiting they started with was fun when they stayed ahead of the wing, and a real bear when they didn’t. I remember we went through a lot of drinking water that day. I wish I had some of that water right now… Joyce, at one hundred and fifteen pounds, was having an easier time of it than her 220 pound husband Jim. It’s “finesse” that works in this sport, not muscle and most women understand how to “finesse” things. As students in the sport of paragliding, our frustration on these hot days usually rises in direct proportion to our body temperature. We take a cool water break and I remind them again that, ” We do this for fun, not to create more frustration in our lives. Take breaks as often as you want, celebrate your successes and just let go of any thought about what did not work well.” Soon we resume the kiting and after Jim drags across the ground on his back, it sinks in that the wing is more powerful in wind than he is and he begins to finesse it beautifully. When they both settle into the precision of kiting, we switch gears and move down to the bottom of the hill where they begin to actually get some air, just a foot or two at first, then gradually working uphill, they get 10, 30, 50 and 100 feet as they work on directional control. This is when they begin to experience one of the most unique feelings in this sport, the sensation of your feet being picked up off of the ground. There is nothing like it as a personal or human experience. Paragliding is the closest thing to dream flight I have ever experienced. The childhood “pretend” games of flying while playing on a swing set become real in a paraglider.

Joyce gets 30 feet of altitude above the ground when she does a launch from 50 feet up the hill and laughs and screams with delight for the entire 15 seconds she is airborne. They both have typically excited reactions to these first flights. Jim says, “This is way cool, when do we get to fly from the top?”, and points up to where three pilots are flying three hundred feet over our heads. I answer to both of them. “Your landings have been very soft so far and the wind conditions look like they are staying good. I want to see one more soft landing for each of you. Then if your energy is still good, we’ll put some radios on you and go to the top. You are both doing great!” Within ten minutes we drive to the top of the three hundred foot hill. Conditions still look perfect with a six mile per hour wind coming straight uphill. We review their upcoming flight, make sure they each feel ready, check their radios and one at a time, launch. First Jim, who yells as he takes off, makes four turns and lands softly on the edge of the landing zone bringing his glider down in the tall weeds. “Well Joyce, are you ready?” “Jim will be getting his glider out of the weeds for ten minutes or so, go show him how to land in the middle of the landing zone.” “That looks so great”, says Joyce, “I’m a little scared but mostly excited.” After a bit of controlled kiting, Joyce launches and yells and screams during almost the entire flight. I see her hug Jim at the bottom after a perfect soft landing right on the spot. They celebrate with jumping and dancing. I give myself such a great feeling of joy sharing “flight” with people. I savor the moment while driving down to pick them up.

Leaving the base of the cloud means that I start sinking at 100 to 800 feet per minute depending on whether the parcel of the air I am flying through is sinking, stable, or slightly rising. I hit small lift pockets that are not quite usable and keep headed north looking for another cloud base or ground thermal trigger that may provide enough lift. After five miles over the ground I am back down to 9500 feet and head for a nearby mountain peak that should provide good lift. Its rock face is being heated by the sun and my GPS tells me the six mile per hour base wind at this altitude should put me at the peak on its up wind side. This is a good scenario for finding lift. As I near the peak I am still 200 feet over it and my vario’s audio sink alarm goes off. OK! That tells me that there is lift around here somewhere. Sure enough, there is the bumpy air near the edge of the thermal and then, almost immediately, the strong elevator ride up. As I reach the thermal core I encounter even stronger lift. This core is small so I accelerate my turn into a mild spiral in order to stay in this beautiful center which rises much faster than the outer parts. The lift is sustained 13 hundred feet per minute and I quickly gain three thousand feet. The edges of the thermal become sharper and turbulent. I mis-calculate the changing shape of this beauty and it wacks hard on the leading edge of my glider. As it folds under, it collapses so fast and hard with a loud “crack” that I know a big surge is coming. I begin dampening the anticipated surge right away because I know it is going to happen with such speed that I won’t be able to react fast enough if I react after it starts. I must be pro-active. The glider wacks loudly again as it folds more than one half of its left side down and under the right side, then slams fully open and surges forward with more speed than I thought possible. Because I compensated for the surge early, which actually ended up being slightly on the late side, I was able to, just barely, keep myself from falling into my glider as it surged below and in front of me. Luckily I free-fall through the lines and do not get tangled in any of them. The jerk and loud snapping sound of the lines and fabric as my weight reaches the end of the lines and pressurises the glider again is disconcerting and comforting at the same time.

Because I miscalculated the changing shape of the thermal, I encountered the turbulent edge and resulting consequences. If I had stayed in the thermal I would not have encountered this turbulence. This kind of turbulence is rare in flying conditions that are appropriate for paragliding and in my 7000 plus safe consecutive flights and 1400 plus hours of being in the air I have only encountered something similar once before. One of the safety features designed into these wings is that they can fold and buckle and then they just reopen and start flying again. It is the only aircraft that can fix itself in flight. We also carry Reserve parachutes, which I have never had to use, and when I have this amount of altitude it is easier to trust the wings ability to fly.

The glider immediately resumes a stable Flying configuration after the above three seconds of violent behavior. I turn sharply to quickly re-enter the thermal, which is the safest place to be. The thermal quickly strengthens to 16 hundred feet per minute, and within three or four minutes I enter another cloud world. I love this sport. After 3 more good thermals, I fly 54 miles and land right next to the road where the chase crew picks me up within 30 seconds of folding my glider up into its back pack.

Whether you’re doing cross country or a sled ride at the training hill, what a sweet day it is when you get air.