Eagle Paragilding got the call, and our team is grateful to have been hired as the paragliding unit for this motion picture. Big thanks to Nick Greece, Mitch Riley, Honza Rejmanek, Paul Murdoch, Mike Jones, and the Woodrat Mountain flying community.
Eagle Paragliding Press and Media
Gavin McClurg’s Cloudbase Mayhem Podcast is a huge effort and resource to paraglider and hang glider pilots all over the world. Share it on all your social media channels, spread the word, and make a donation if you can. Gavin has created quite a library of interviews of top pilots and instructors. Listen in as Gavin interviews Rob Sporrer of Eagle Paragliding in Santa Barbara California.
Huge thanks to Niels and Ski for all the volunteer hours they have put into the wheelchair projects. Nick and I hope to give this program some energy with the help of some others.
Johnny was amazed at how quickly he was able to solo on a paraglider. Its part of what makes traveling to Santa Barbara for paragliding training the smart play.
Some great cinematography of the 2019 Paragliding Superfinal in Baixo Guandu, Brazil, 19-30 March 2019
NEW YORK TIMES – By Bill Becher – April 28, 2006
The Alone Way To Fly
“Run, run like Wile E. Coyote,” yelled my instructor. His directions boomed like the voice of God from the small radio clipped to my helmet as I charged off a 250-foot-high hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, Calif.
If all went as planned, I wouldn’t punch a coyote-shaped hole in the ground and I’d swoop gently back down to earth, suspended by the colorful fabric of the parachute-like canopy, and join the small band of Americans who have flown a paraglider. Paragliders like Ben Pelletier at Elings Park on the Pacific in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Paragliding is a micro sport in the United States, with only about 5,000 participants. But it is very popular in Europe, where scores of gliders dot the sky in alpine valleys. France, where the sport is called parapenting, has an estimated 25,000 pilots, and enthusiasts travel to New Zealand, South Africa and even the Himalayas to fly.
“Paragliding takes you to real special places,” said Nat Ely, who was practicing takeoffs and landings on the hill. He wasn’t just talking about the travel, but also about the exhilaration of silent flight over a mountain peak or sharing a thermal with a condor or red-tailed hawk.
While others fliers soared from the grassy hill toward the coastline, wafting on the onshore breeze, two other beginning students and I spent an hour wrestling with the 35-foot-long elliptical nylon gliders. Our instructor, Rob Sporrer, who runs the Eagle Paragliding School in Santa Barbara, showed us how to unfurl the gliders on the ground and attach them to our backpack-style harnesses.
The gliders, made of nonporous nylon, have stiffened cells at the leading edge to create an airfoil shape, like an airplane’s wing. The glider is connected with a spider web of thin Kevlar cord – the same stuff used in bulletproof vests – then webbing attaches it to the harness. Unlike parachuting, in which you hope something good happens when you pull the rip cord, paragliding begins with the canopy already open above you when you launch. To advance to this position you have to learn “kiting,” the art of maneuvering the glider while on the ground, which for beginners involves zigzagging in a series of sprints.
My fellow student, Mike Pittman, 53, a semiretired management consultant with close-cut graying hair, didn’t fit the image of the typical paraglider pilot; regulars at the hill were mostly younger males sporting ponytails who discussed plans for windsurfing in Puerto Rico. But after seeing paragliders flying when he was walking his dog, he had decided to give it a try.
“Despite landing like a Scud missile the first time,” Mr. Pittman said, “overcoming my personal fears made the whole experience worth it.”
OUR first flying experiences were likely to last less than a minute, although flights of seven hours and longer are possible for experienced paraglider pilots in mountain areas where rising currents of sun-warmed air produce thermals. Flying a paraglider is easy, according to Mr. Sporrer.
“The launch and landing is the tricky part,” he said. “The flying part is going to come. As long as you don’t fly into the side of a mountain you’re going to be great.”
With a dry mouth and racing pulse I started my run with the glider tugging at my back.
I leaned forward like a fullback going for daylight. After a few steps I floated momentarily. A stronger puff of wind took hold, and I began to soar. The ground seemed to drop away. Suddenly, other gliders, now 200 feet below me, looked like discarded handkerchiefs.
“Relax, smile, look at the ocean,” came the voice over the radio. I didn’t have much time to admire the view of the surf crashing along the beach below.
I was soaring like a bird, if birds feel fear, excitement and a sense of amazement. The experience was like the sensation of flying in a dream. With the glider above you, out of sight, you are simply suspended above the earth, with nothing around you but the wind.
“Right brake, right brake,” Mr. Sporrer said. I tugged on the line in my right hand, and the glider turned to the right. Then a pull on the left brake, and I made a lazy S turn toward the landing area marked by two orange highway cones.
If you pull on both lines as you hit the landing area, you come in with your feet inches above the ground so you can land standing up – but that takes practice. My landing had the grace of a penguin stepping on a banana peel before trying a triple lutz. Still, I managed to get down unhurt.
A short flight, but it was longer than Orville Wright’s 12 seconds in 1903, which he described this way: “The course of the flight up and down was exceedingly erratic, partly due to the irregularity of the air, and partly to lack of experience in handling this machine.”
That pretty well describes my adventure.
Getting Off the Ground
MANY people associate paragliding with hang gliding, which went through a period of serious accidents when it first started. Hang gliders use metal spars and a triangular wing; paragliders are flying parachutes with no rigid structural parts.
“Hang gliding started with barefoot hippies jumping off sand dunes in the early 70’s with homemade gliders,” said Steve Roti, an official with the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, known as USHPA.
Jim Little of Portland, Ore., a family physician and paragliding pilot who has studied accidents for USHPA, says he believes paragliding’s injury rate per participant is similar to that of activities like motorcycling, horseback riding and snowmobiling. The most common injuries are sprained or broken legs and ankles; fatalities are rare but do occur, Dr. Little said.
“In aviation you can’t leave the ground without assuming some degree of risk,” he said. New pilots at paragliding schools must sign as many as five liability releases.
You don’t need a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly a paraglider, though USHPA has established a voluntary pilot rating system that is followed at most domestic sites. While paragliders are not certified by the F.A.A., almost all of them are now commercially made and are tested by the German Hang Gliding Association.
Eagle Paragliding in Santa Barbara, California offers one- and two-day introductory classes beginning at $200. The novice certification package requires eight to ten days to earn a rating that allows flying without the supervision of an instructor and costs $1,500. Tandem flights are available for anyone under 250 pounds at any age with no experience necessary. Cost for a tandem flights range from $125-$300.
The United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (it only recently added paragliding to its name), lists paragliding schools in California and elsewhere, along with events and other news and information.
A complete paragliding rig (helmet, harness, paraglider and reserve chute) costs about $6,350.
The Santa Barbara Independent – By Joshua Brayer – May 30, 2002
Into The Open Air – Paragliding, The Best View Of Santa Barbara
One Sunday afternoon in April I stood in the parking area of the paragliding training hill at Elings Park and gazed at the calm Pacific waters lapping onto the shores of Arroyo Burro Beach. The previous day the wind had been so strong that even experienced glider pilots and instructors couldn’t launch, but it had died down considerably since. Sunday’s weather was perfect for learning how to paraglide, and Rob Sporrer of Eagle Paragliding was the man to train me.
Paragliders attach a parachute-like wing to an over-the-shoulder harness and propel themselves off of an elevated surface until they are flying. The wing is laid out uphill of the paraglider. Experienced pilots perform “reverse launches” facing uphill with their lines intentionally crossed until a cycle of wind helps the pilot lift the wing off the ground. The lines straighten when the pilot turns to face forward. Novice pilots like me begin facing forward, running toward the down-slope of the hill until the wing inflates and rises. After centering the wing directly overhead, the pilot takes giant moon-steps until he is airborne, then sits back in the harness as if it were a lawn chair and rests his feet on a soft plastic bar.
Pilots attempt to find wind updrafts, or thermals, that allow them to soar, hover, or carve arcing turns. They control the wing by adjusting pressure on two handles. The handles are attached to the lines that lead to the rear edge of the wing; pulling down applies brakes (used most in landing) and easing up allows for gliding. Paragliders rarely achieve air speeds greater than 25 miles per hour at trim.
After being fitted for gear (helmet, wings, and harness), my fellow trainee John McKellar, age 61, and I lugged our equipment to the top of the hill, where Sporrer and Eagle instructor, Pete Gifford, explained safety techniques. Of course, safety is their highest priority, so the Eagle instructors equip their students with walkie-talkies so they can stay in communication while they are flying. Sporrer had told me that he had trained to be an instructor with some of the nation’s top pilots including Dixon White, whose Air Play Paragliding schools in Arizona and Washington are world renowned, so I knew I was in good hands. After an hour of safety instruction, we started practicing our forward launches without actually launching called kiting. I pulled up the kite at least a dozen times before Sporrer was convinced I was ready to attempt a launch and fly. Although I was a little nervous, I knew that Rob would not let me fly unless he believed I was ready. I checked to make sure that all my gear was secure and that my walkie-talkie was on. Rob stood near the take-off spot to help guide me to a successful launch. Small flags on the side of the runway indicated that a steady breeze was making its way up the training hill directly into my face; you do not want to take off in a crosswind.
I believe I can fly
Sporrer gave me the go-ahead signal: I leaned forward and ran, then pulled the kite up directly over my head and started taking giant steps toward the instructor. Just as I passed Sporrer, I jumped and tried to sit back in my harness, but I didn’t quite have enough ground clearance. I touched down again, kept running, and made another take-off attempt. I felt an updraft and the ground began to disappear beneath my feet. A swarm of butterflies seemed to be dancing frantically in my stomach. I looked down at the ant-sized people below as I soared majestically above the training hill. Rob’s voice crackled through my radio: “Lighten up on the controls a little bit, but you’re doing fine.”
As I approached the ground I pulled down gently on the controls to ease into the landing. I touched down, brought the wing down to the ground, and thrust my fists into the air triumphantly. My first attempt at paragliding was successful. Sporrer drove his Eagle Paragliding van down the hill to pick me up. I want to do that again, I remarked jubilantly.
I was hooked. That afternoon I did seven flights while other instructors were ending their lessons at about 2 p.m., Rob was willing to stay out on the training hill as long as we wanted to keep flying or until the sun went down. Each successful flight boosted my confidence level. The slow speed of the flight made the wing totally manageable. By the end of the day, I was carving broad sweeping turns; I even managed to nail a couple of textbook spot landings.
The sensation of flying is like nothing else I have ever felt; that first day of paragliding was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I can’t wait to get back up there and complete the novice training program.
Learn to Fly
Eagle Paragliding, owned and operated by Rob Sporrer, offers several different lesson packages. Those who want the one-time thrill of jumping but are not interested in getting certified can sign up for a one-day or two-day lesson (4 flights minimum per day). The one-day lesson costs $200; the two-day lesson is $400. To earn your P2 certification, which allows you to jump without an instructor present, requires between eight and ten training days, and costs $1,500. Treat a friend or family member to the thrill of a lifetime with a gift certificate for a paragliding lesson.
Eagle Paragliding and Airplay Paragliding merged in 2006 after 8 years of working together as sister schools. The following article appears as published in the magazine, with permission from the author: Tom Harpole. The interview and story are with Eagle mentor and American Paragliding Icon Dixon White.
Air & Space Magazine
Bird Man by Tom Harpole
“I could huck a one-armed monkey with fleas off a 2,000-foot hill in a paraglider and it would get him to the ground in one piece,” Dixon White tells a group of aspirants gathered on the groomed slopes of his “Airplay Flight Park” near Cashmere, Washington, a private, 2,200-acre paragliding Mecca that looks like a series of golf course fairways superimposed on treeless foothills of the Cascades. “A lot of instructors are doing that, then they bark a few suggestions into your radio and get you safely to the ground, but that’s not paragliding. That’s not what we’re doing here.”
Dixon White has flown more than 6,300 times without injury. He has supervised more than 19,000 student flights that have, with the exception of three minor injuries, never hurt anyone. But humans can die trying to fly this way and when he introduces rookies to the sport he gets to the worst news within minutes of beginning his orientation talk. The single fatality at his school, back in 1993, was a proud young skydiver headed for the Navy SEALS who, on his third day of flying, disregarded White’s instructions and attempted a series of maneuvers that resulted in him becoming wrapped in his glider in less than two seconds and falling 100 feet.
White composes himself and explains to the half dozen students: “He hamhanded a high turn and immediately compounded that mistake by looping his wing under himself. You must gently and thoughtfully manage the energy of a paraglider.” He continues, “It happened so fast there was no way to respond in time. It was the biggest emotional setback ever, for my wife and me,” he says mournfully. He rakes his hand through his wavy brown hair, looking, at age 44, like a leading man, like a young Alex Baldwin. His hand pushes his head back and he looks up and says: “Watch this sky, everybody. Cumulus being born. Hero air.”
About a mile above us two of his instructors, Ryan Swan, a world class extreme skier and Brett Zaenglein, the U.S. National Sport Class champion paraglider pilot, are twisting up a thermal at 1,600 feet per minute. That’s faster than commercial jets climb out where noise abatement procedures are in effect. The pair of gliders look as slender and agile as nighthawk wings against a popcorn cumulus sky. That they are rising dramatically as they “work the thermal,” is obvious when White gives dimension to what his cohorts are doing. Thermals act like campfire smoke, they aren’t really columns or pipes. They drift and change shape. They can be as wide as a football field; “big and boaty” or “wing-rocking bullets,” as he says. “When Brett and Ryan bounce a bit, they’re moving through the edge, trying figure out the size and shape of the thermal and stay in it up to cloud base where they lose their lift, ” White explains. “Raptors have those finger-like feathers at their wingtips so that they can be more sensitive about finding the rough edges of thermals and shearing into them. We feel the edges of thermals with the tips of our gliders and turn into them and try to stay in them. You folks will do this in a year or two if you stick with this,” White says as gently as your favorite grammar school teacher. “Birds can flap their wings. Big advantage,” he says jealously. “You’ll fly in those conditions someday, but only after you learn to model the weather, integrate with your gliders and think intuitively as birds. I want to teach you to see what you need to see to fly like birds.”
White’s radio spits out Swan’s voice: “It’s getting pretty sporty,” he says, an attempt at undaunted understatement. But the combination of freezing temperatures up there, the turbulence, and the tiny speaker renders his voice puny. Zaenglein, speaking to Swan adds, “Pretty spicy…Whoa. Falling out the backside. Don’t come over here.” Whites eyes are skyward appraising his prodigies. “Pretty textured air, real active stuff. Those guys are so cool,” he says. “Those are my two best boys,” he says with his chin jutting up. “On a good day, with a little luck, they might out fly me.” It ain’t bragging, they say, when it’s true.
The many stamps Dixon White has left upon the sport of paragliding were acknowledged by his peers who voted him the United States Hang Gliding Association “Instructor of the Year in 1999. It was the first time the title was awarded. More than 140 letters poured into the USHPA headquarters citing such Dixon White contributions as intertwining weather awareness and safety into a fundamental and systematic series of habits that instructors must imbue in their students. White’s insistence on learning to understand weather begins with second day students, who must arrive at the airpark with weather data that they are taught to acquire and interpret.
Marty DeVietti, White’s head instructor, has been nominated as Instructor of the Year for 2000, and the same sentiments about his safety record and the prolific number of students he has trained are distinguishing the school as the best in the U.S.
We watch the wings spiral higher until they are no bigger than pastel toenail clippings on blue linoleum.
“How’s it now?” White queries into the radio. “Can’t talk, gonna die,” Zaenglein says. White laughs and we know he wants to be up there with them. He shrugs and grins and turns his attention back to the gaggle of fledglings he is training and to his apprentice instructors, Denise Reed, the 1999 Alaska Women’s Boxing champ, and her pal Doug Stroop, chemists who abandoned careers in the oil industry to fly paragliders. The sport is replete with adherents who have abandoned careers, left lovers, divorced, sold off belongings, and altered all routines to pursue this form of flight. There are approximately 4,000 USHPA registered paragliders in the U.S. and 300,000 worldwide, and every one of them has seemingly neglected someone or something to partake of the sky. Reed and Stroop traveled from Alaska, on a Winter’s vacation, to begin paragliding with White and then went home and started making plans to quit their jobs, lay aside the boxing gloves, and go paragliding full time.
Up in Whisper valley, the beginner’s slope, Reed and Stroop help students spread their wings on the ground at different points across the 400-foot-wide upper valley. White runs, literally runs back and forth instructing apprentices and students. Individually, with White at their side, they raise their wings into a gentle upslope breeze, and bring them overhead and set them back down. Within an hour or so, one by one, with White running downslope and helping them launch their wings, they begin making 200-yard flights that look like moon walking, taking 50-foot hops or skipping on tip toes for a hundred yards. This takes a splendid few hours that extend into the evening when long shadows cool the valley and stop the thermals. “Feel the catabatic flow,” White announces like a ringmaster to students spread out over half a football field. “That downslope wind that just started is cool air wanting to puddle up low. We’re done flying.”
White incessantly teaches people to read the atmosphere, the micrometeorology of mountains, valleys, coastlines, and the desert. Standing in a restaurant parking lot, or gazing out the post office window, he draws all eyes to the sky. The life that White strives for, up in that exquisite world of weather, has come along a circuitous route. He worked part-time as a ski instructor through his twenties, then he left a seven-year career in the circus as a tightwire walker, juggler, and unicyclist. “I was stagnating in the circus,” he says, apparently unaware of the precociousness of that statement. “I wasn’t exactly Johnny Carson material,” he says, laughing. He then started an appliance store in Arizona and was earning $120,000 per year when, in 1990 he discovered paragliding and became obsessed. His wife Debra, whom he describes as a friend, saint, accomplished carpenter, and equestrienne agreed that they should sell their $350,000 home, horses, and business so that White could figure out how to make a career of paragliding. They moved into a doublewide trailer with toddlers, Arizona, and Holly. The next year White earned $27,000 teaching humans to fly.
White set up shop in a garage selling the arcane accouterments of paragliding. Eight years later he runs two schools, working winters near Flagstaff and summers in Cashmere. He sells equipment to current and former students but relies on the kindness of wealthy pilots/patrons to keep the whole deal afloat. A cheerful coterie of Microsoft millionaires, all Airplay alumni, fly with him and help keep the operation coasting, including Jabe Blumenthal, the man who owns the Hay Canyon Flight Park. “If you want to make a million teaching paragliding, you better start with two million,” White claims.
Blumenthal had been paragliding for several years in Europe and the U.S. when he accompanied White on a paragliding tour of Mexico. He bought the Hay Canyon site because it had some of the best terrain, especially for beginning pilots, and summer flying weather, anywhere near Seattle. “I wanted to put together the best flying school possible. Dixon struck me as the best instructor I’d ever run into. He’s intense, too much so for some people. But he is the best,” Blumenthal says.
The school is a three hour drive from the Seattle area, and for that reason White charges $800 to instruct pilots to the novice level, which requires 30 or so flights using the school’s equipment, while instructors in the Seattle suburbs get $1200. White teaches around 60 students per year.
On the first day of a lesson with White, usually held around the ranch house picnic tables, he advises students that he doesn’t want them referring anyone to him for lessons who doesn’t have the money to buy equipment and the heart to sustain this sport. “Send me people who have always wanted to fly, who dream about it and talk about it and who you think can become completely preoccupied with it. Don’t send me any Mountain Dewers. I’m not here to give joy rides. They’ll find instructors who do.”
His disdain for all but a handful of his fellow instructors, to whom he will refer students, is a topic he weighs in on without compunction. “There are some very incompetent instructors who treat students as though a few injuries are acceptable,” he pauses. “It’s ironic,” he says and gets sidetracked. “Get hurt pole vaulting or snowboarding and that’s an acceptable injury. But get hurt trying to fly and everyone condemns such blatant foolishness,” he reels himself back to the issue at hand. “No injury is ever acceptable. The only acceptable goal is zero injuries.”
Many of White’s students are current or former aviators; the list includes Bill Holsgrove, a DC-10 captain for Hawaiian Airlines, several other commercial airline pilots. Joe Rumble, a 73-year-old former smokejumper has flown with White 102 times since 1998. “I’ve been around aviation all my life. I tried to get a pilot’s license in the 40s but got shortstopped.” Rumble says. “Then, at age 70 I got started with Dixon. Man it means a lot to fly.” Marty DeVietti is an instrument rated fixed wing pilot with a bachelor’s degree in Aviation Technology. A plethora of former general aviation pilots who quit flying because of the expense have schooled with White and DeVietti. But the sport also appeals to those who dislike small planes, like White. “My dad and mom were both fixed wing pilots. Mom gave it up when she had me. My dad would take me up and tell me to keep on a bearing and altitude, and then he’d lean back and read a magazine. I’d be scared, then bored. I hated the smell, the radios, the equipment-intensive environment. I don’t like being a passenger.”
Even hang gliding left White feeling indifferent. “I had a tandem hang glider flight once and didn’t think much of it. They require assembly, they rattle, and they make me feel like a passenger. In a paraglider I’m a piece of the aircraft. Knees in the breeze, managing the energy of all that sailcloth. It is the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” he says and tries a giggle that doesn’t quite fly. He occasionally tries to atone for his safety and weather oratory with a sort of acute jocularity that comes across as zany and endearing. But he rarely digresses. “I do everything I can to keep people listening to me. Listen up,” he elbows me playfully, “I try to alter my voice, my delivery, change pace, anything to keep people with me. This stuff is all so extremely critical.”
Managing students’ emotions, White says, is the toughest part of his job. But he is no pussyfooter. A broadly grinning, kind of hip 22-year-old river guide, Matt Gerdes, who is having a great second day lesson stands harnessed to his grounded glider fussing with the sets of “risers,” the webbing straps where the dozens of lines to the wing are gathered in his hands. White walks over to help him launch. He surreptitiously throws a tangle into Gerdes’s lines. “You look ready,” White needles him, “Go ahead.” Gerdes pulls the glider into the air but aborts the launch of the asymmetrical wing. It rises up on one tip like a rampant caterpillar 30-feet-tall, folds itself over like a fortune cookie, and rolls up into a bird’s nest of risers and lines.
“Good for you,” White encourages him, “Launches are optional, landings are mandatory. Don’t ever let anyone tell you when you are ready to fly. You are a pilot in command of your aircraft. Preflight checklist, dude.” Gerdes looks crestfallen at the mess of fabric and lines and White gives him a hint that he should start the untangling with his “A” risers, and walks away. “Too happy too soon,” he tells me. “He was getting complacent.”
White surveys the hillside and approaches an ex-marine who wears black pants tucked into black boots and a tee shirt about tequila, who in two days has had eight short flights and a couple of sublime four minute glides. “How’s it going?” White effuses. “Lousy launch,” the leatherneck sulks, seeking commiseration. White faces him and starts in loudly: “You’ve just had two days of great weather and some beautiful flights. Lose the attitude. In fact,” he says, pumping himself up a bit, “I can’t stand listening to negative crap up here. Bad attitudes anticipate failure and cause accidents. One more complaint and you don’t get invited back.” This “straighten up and fly right” tirade silences the other aeronauts on the slope like a lull in the wind. The chastened student stands at parade rest. White says quietly, “Please get after some ground handling and kiting. Look at what fun everyone else is having.”
He watches a more advanced pilot screw up a launch, mishandling his glider, and he bites his tongue and turns to me and says, “At a some point I have to stand back and let them learn from blowing it.” Then he jogs over to help the young pilot he sabotaged sort out his wing.
That night over ice cream with his apprentice instructors, White agonizes about an overweight student, who he reluctantly allowed to take lessons. That afternoon the big man belly flopped a couple times and began blaming his awkwardness on his glider’s performance. Swan and Zaenglein had watched incredulously as White ran downslope with the man on a launch and hung to the bottom of his harness as the guy got airborne for the first time. A gust carried them 12 feet into the air whereupon White let go, tumbled and popped up still loping downhill and shouting directions to the big man trying to fly the huge wing. White tells us he heard him “verbally stressing” in the air when his wing dipped slightly to one side.
“I don’t think I can let him come back,” he looks solemnly at the apprentices. “His weight isn’t the problem. If he told me he loves this and said some things about how fun it is I’d stick with him, but he’s doing it for reasons that I can’t understand,” he admits. “Understanding the emotional well-being of your students is as tricky and critical as understanding the weather. Protect them. Everything we do as instructors must be above reproach,” he preaches.
White regards himself as an “anal retentive task master” trying to sort out a world that is inherently chaotic. The crazy thing about paragliding is that it takes place in an element that is invisible. But White, who speaks passable French and plays classical piano, knows the value of achieving complex tasks incrementally. “We begin with the simplest little downhill flights, barely off the ground. Then we get them started on ‘sled rides,’ gliding down our 800-foot tall hill into Spirit canyon.”
To begin explaining the great river of air, talking fluid mechanics helps White teach people how to model the weather that makes it all possible. “Ninety percent of what people in this sport need to know is weather, five percent is equipment and five percent is skill,” White insists. Students are told on day one to show up the next morning with weather information; the winds aloft and temperatures, knowing where the jet stream and isobars are, all of which can be obtained by calling 800 WX BRIEF or tapping into his website, paraglide.com. He gives students succinct criteria for deciding to fly or not, after making initial inquiries in the morning. Beginners can forget about it when there are more than two isobars within three hundred miles. If the jet stream is within 100 miles the base winds will be too high for safe flights. If the barometric pressure has dropped, unsettled weather is on the way.
White and DeVietti spend an hour or so helping beginning students interpret this data first thing in the morning to decide whether or not paragliding will be possible that day. “Knowing what the weather is doing gives pilots the patience to wait for safe conditions. Maybe to watch thermals triggering all morning until you feel comfortable with what’s happening.” If the initial weather predictions for the day are propitious, then paraglider pilots must observe the conditions at the launch site and not fly if cumulus clouds are taller than they are wide, or there is a multilayered sky with clouds moving in different directions, or if wind gusts exceed five mile per hour in five seconds, all signs that the air is too turbulent for safe flights. But if the signs are encouraging, students must start learning how to see and use the thermals that create lifting air.
To understand the characteristics of thermals wicking up hillsides imagine inverting the landscape by using your hand. Your palm is the earth’s crust, the top of your hand the surface. Invert your hand with the mountains of your knuckles and the valleys and ridges of your fingers upside down. Pour water in your palm and it drains down between your fingers and wicks to the points of your knuckles before it releases into the air. The landscapes paragliders seek have terrain you can run down that lies above places where thermals puddle on the ground and then release and run up hills.
White uses another fluid image to explain how thermals bloop up into the atmosphere. Slightly overfill a glass of water and surface tension allows it to bubble up over the top of the vessel. That tension is a fragile agreement between molecular attraction, barometric pressure, and gravity to maintain its integrity, and it breaks easily. Once the sun starts warming the ground surface bubbles of warm air form and they eventually exceed their inherent ability to swell, then they burst and rise. They may also be released mechanically, by something as small as a rabbit running through them. Those cumulus changelings that live and die in 20 minutes define the altitude where the thermals slow down and blossom.
These releases of energy that make sustained paragliding possible are endlessly fascinating to White, who stands towards the top of Whisper valley at the Hay Canyon flight park and watches cycles of warm air releasing uphill while showing his students how to observe the tall wheat grasses along the edge of the mowed fairway below as they begin shimmering in a breeze. The shimmer ascends the tilted valley like a “wave” through a college stadium. The air huffs and sighs and the grasses hiss and White says, “Let’s watch a few more triggers, they’re coming about 12 minutes apart, and see if we can decide what we might do with them.” While we wait he tells us about flying cross country and how a string of young cumulus clouds can provide a path for miles, and how cultivated farm ground can have huge lift, and how he always hopes to see a tractor with a plume of dust rising actively in its wake, showing how the machine is entering warm air puddles and triggering the swirling dust and debris that vividly demonstrate rising air. Dust devils are another sign of dramatically lifting air, he explains, usually seen on days when high barometric pressure delays the release of building puddles of warm air until they can punch out through it, seeking equilibrium, showing us how nature abhors a vacuum.
A lot of time spent in the sport is what’s known as para-waiting, the idyllic pastime of sitting atop a promontory and watching the clouds, birds, and the sky and making paragliding talk. Instructor Dave Wheeler, a lanky, expatriate Welshman who White says progressed faster in the sport than anyone he’s seen sits with a couple of students talking about how to decide what the weather is offering. Wheeler, a computer genius who knows as much, or more, about micrometeorology as White, advises his students to observe what other pilots are doing at launch sites and warns them to be aware of guys with high “GBRs,” or gonad-to-brain ratios. “Use’m like dandelion fluff, watch what happens to them and use that as part of your model for flying that day,” he says plainly.
“Watch the birds,” White adds softly. “Look for dust devils. Try to time the lulls between the cycles,” he croons to his students who are watching, enchanted as children, the micrometeorology of a mountain slope. With two such cerebral mentors as Dixon White and Dave Wheeler confidently explaining exactly what the weather around us is doing, flying down this valley seems a childlike and wholly noble thing to do. Human flight seems a logical and safe aspiration.
White has made innovations in the sport that have codified safe habits and made reading the weather a cogent, attainable skill. Paragliding began in the late 1960s when European mountain climbers flew the new rectangular sport parachutes from summits as a way of getting down quickly. They would lay a sport chute behind themselves and start running downhill, if it inflated and flew successfully then it was a relatively safe and much faster way down. Thirty years later, when White joined the sport as a master pilot and instructor, he began changing it fundamentally, starting with the act of getting off the ground safely.
Launching a paraglider according to White’s preferred reverse method reminds me of nothing so much as handling draft horse teams as I did in Oregon forests 25 years ago. Giving a team the giddy up with your back to them would make no more sense than launching a paraglider that is behind your back. “Any instructor who doesn’t teach reverse launches is behind the curve,” White says unabashedly.
You stand there holding lines in both hands, facing the wing that is laid out in a 30-foot horseshoe shape on the ground. The lines in your hands give you information as you step back, pull lightly, and raise a little wall of sailcloth into the wind. The open cells on the leading edge begin to inflate and climb up in front of you and tug at your arms and the harness points at your hips. You twist in the harness and head downslope. Your arms control the paraglider as a pair of wings, allowing each side to ascend or descend. The feeling in the lines can be that of a team of greenbroke coach horses, each wanting to dash off in a different direction, or it can feel like a docile hitch of Percherons gathering their shoulders into the harness and pulling you ineluctably up a mountain road. Successfully steering the wing is a matter of your sensitivity and skill at feeling subtle sideslips, forward and backward surges, and managing the horsepower up there at the end of the lines.
The horse analogy is apt even when the wing is inflated and energetically lifting you skyward. Horsepower is an exact measure of moving weight over time. Lower a 220-pound weight down a 150-foot-deep well and then raise it to the surface in one minute and you have exerted 33,000 foot pounds per minute, or one horsepower. White, who weighs around 200 pounds geared up often ascends at 2200 feet per minute which pencils out to 440,000 foot pounds or roughly 13 horses and a pony pulling a human closer to heavens every minute. Ghost riders in the sky, as we say.
As the mid day sun bakes a south-facing slope in White’s flight park he sits, sweating from a dozen sprints up and down the hill with his hands on novice’s harnesses and brake lines. “A lot of my friends who used to instruct beginners have quit. They can’t take this running down the hill. Heck, I still feel like I have to run back up to the next student who is waiting to give it a go. I believe the next phenomenal pilot, like Ryan, or Brett, or Dave, will show up here wanting to fly.”
He’s watching the tilted slopes for riffles in the wheat grass and sage, signs of thermals releasing. “This is closer to what surfers do than aviators,” he says, “waiting, watching, gauging. Wanting a ride.” He considers that momentarily and says, “It’s also like scuba diving, where you put people in an element where they have no reference points. There’s nothing they’ve done before that transfers. People who try this have never done anything remotely like it in their life.”
White lays his hand on a patch of dun soil between bristly stalks of mowed bunch grass and asks his students to do so. Feel that,” he says. “It’s way warmer than your body temperature.” The ground temperature, he finds with his wristwatch thermometer, is 114 degrees. “The whole valley is cooking up bubbles of warm air,” he smiles. The thermals, that had been releasing roughly every fifteen minutes for the last couple hours, are whooshing up hill more often and much more forcefully. The air will be too sporty now for beginners, White explains and he loads everyone back in his big white Ford one-ton crew cab and heads down the hill with the truck’s dust plume whipping back upslope and raising a dust devil, a propitious sign, he points out, that will make for some challenging flying that will keep him from getting grumpy if he can catch this midday weather.
He drops the students off at the picnic tables under the big maples at the ranch house and points at the timbered, rocky throat that defines Hay Canyon opposite us and says to keep an eye on the sky. He explains to us that he, Brett, Ryan, Dave, Doug and Denise will drive back up and then hike another 600 vertical feet to the top of the mountain and launch.
Half an hour later, from the picnic tables, we see them cutting “S” curves up there, searching around for thermals. They rise and then glide down close to the ridges that finger into Hay Canyon and rise again and fly on a triangular path that describes a mile on a side for hour and a half. Six humans under polychrome crescents within shouting distance of each other at 11,000 feet. Then White and Wheeler and the apprentices from Alaska descend to continue schooling the dazzled students.
Brett Zaenglein and Ryan Swan, it turned out, linked together a progression of thermals and glides that took them 35 miles over the easternmost jags of the North Cascades range at altitudes above 13,700 feet. They landed at the ski area on Steven’s Pass and hitchhiked home. “You can’t just extract what you want from the weather, but sometimes you get more than you hoped for,” Swan says.
That evening in Dixon’s office they downloaded a GPS Swan carried and it superimposed their path on a topographical map, lending a believable omnisciency to their flights over 12,900-foot peaks. At one point, Zaenglein was four thousand feet above Swan and watched him gliding ever closer to the timbered slopes below searching unsuccessfully for a thermal. “I was kicking treetops, stuck in a shaded mountainside and sinking,” Swan says. “Thought I’d get dirted.” Swan had visions of getting hung up in a tree, tearing his $3,600 Windtech paraglider, perhaps falling a hundred feet out of the tree, and still being 15 miles form the nearest road. He saw railroad tracks that he could try to reach, but the width of the right of way looked narrower than his wing. “I flew in the shade, lower and lower and finally got around a corner of this ridge and there was some sunshine and a rocky slope heating up and I worked that back up.” White, noticing that Swan seems truly shaken, jacks him up a bit “Today you were in no-man’s land. You did something no one else has ever done. Just be very, very satisfied.”
During the week that I studied paraglider flight and weather with Dixon White the human genome mapping was completed. He rhapsodized one evening, while balanced on the tightwire he has set up outside the ranch house, about how someday humans would fly without fabric wings, presumably through some genetic manipulation he hopes to see in his lifetime. It was hard to listen to such an uncharacteristically wacky discourse, but up on his tightwire he looked more relaxed than I’d seen him. I asked him if he believed that there is a risk-taking gene, expecting him to launch a lecture on how safe this sport could be with a thorough knowledge of weather and equipment and the appropriate attitudes, etc..
“Of course there is,” he surprised me, “that’s a definite gene, a necessary gene. Human society didn’t evolve without risk takers.” White once walked 1,000 feet up the cable that suspends chairlift #1 at Aspen, Colorado. I got a little snotty and asked him if that was an example of a risk that moved society forward. He looked down at me patiently; he’d been balanced on the cable for more than half an hour while Phil Schofield, the photographer, had shot two rolls of film. He replied: “We’re explorers. We are testing the outer reaches. Good explorers aren’t adrenaline junkies. They prepare themselves as fully as they can, and then head out there.”
Paragliding Magazine – by Tom Brand
50 miles on my first XC flight with Eagle Paragliding
On a weekend in September, I had the best flight of my paragliding career. I had driven to the south coast of California to attend a thermal clinic with accomplished competition pilot Josh Cohn, and Eagle Paragliding’s Instructor of the Year award recipients Marty DeVietti and Rob Sporrer. My instructor, Matt Gerdes, joined us for what turned out to be an incredible weekend of flying.
After arriving on launch, the instructors went over the weather one more time, and Rob Sporrer explained the specifics of the site– which had its share of challenges. Getting up and flying over the back side to land in the wider valley to the north was a much more appealing option than landing in the LZ on the front side, which was a pretty long glide.
Rob stressed the importance of landing safe preferably in an LZ. It was more important to land in clean airflow possibly somewhere far from a trail or a road where we would have a long, hot hike through evil Manzanita. Landing near a trail would be nice, but only if the conditions permitted doing so. It’s better to have a longer hike and land in a safer spot as opposed to landing in a place with rotor or turbulence for convenience sake. This meant we needed to try and make sure we had enough altitude to make it to an LZ, and not paint ourselves into a corner with minimal altitude. He also made sure that each of us had plenty of water in case we needed it.
Before we launched, we got to watch the local hero, Tom Truax, sky out above us. Rob told us Tom held the state distance record of 145 miles, and although we didn’t know it yet, he was about to fly 121 miles this day! As he disappeared into the atmosphere, we prepared to launch. Josh, Marty and Rob were all flying Tandem with the lower airtime pilots in the clinic. I thought the tandem would be an excellent experience to thermal and fly cross country with one of the legends, but I was after a good flight of my own.
The forecasted lapse rate was excellent and the winds aloft were light all the way above 13,000 feet. At the pre-launch briefing Rob, Josh, and Marty all gave great tips on how to catch the lift, stay with it, and get high. They told us to try to stay together and thermal as a gaggle, trying to mark the areas of stronger lift. On glides, we were to spread out more and seek out usable thermals in the line of our intended route. Apparently it was an excellent lecture on thermaling, because out of the 14 pilots there that day, every single one of us got up! It wasn’t easy either, it took a great deal of patience to reach cloud base, and we hopped from thermal to thermal until we found the one that took us all the way up to base, which was at just over 13,000 feet, the highest I had been by far.
There was a lot of information being fed to me. I had a lot going on going on in my head, but I focused on the task at hand. The instructors stressed that once you had altitude your options open immensely. I made connecting and staying with the lift my focus. Things started to click as I climbed out in front of launch. At first, my turns were too steep and I was falling out of the backside of the lift. I was turning to abruptly diving my turns and throwing altitude away. The air was smoother in the center of the thermal and my climbs were much better than they had been when I wasn’t in the core. It was nice knowing that those guys were watching, and soon several of them were in the air with me and we were working the lift together. Until this point I had never tried to work the lift with other pilots, mainly because I was nervous about being so inexperienced and flying next to other pilots in big thermals, and I had only thermaled a handful of times before. The tips that they had given me were making plenty of sense, and I could see the line of clouds forming in the direction we were going to fly.
I climbed high, and after about half an hour we had a good gaggle forming over the top of the ridge. The air was much cooler at altitude, and the view was amazing.
I tried to remember what the instructors had said about spotting other pilots in better lift while still searching on my own. I would find nice thermals and notice other pilots flying toward me to join in on the fun. I started to watch others get lift and if it seemed like they were doing better I would join them. I have to admit I was more comfortable thermaling alone at first, but after a few thermals with other pilots I found that we all began working together really well.
Soon, the majority of the group was over 13,000 feet MSL above launch! I saw Rob and his student Mike who were sharing a birthday this day. They had been the last to launch, because Rob was on launch helping people until the last person had launched, while Marty and Josh and Matt flew around us, herding us up to cloud base. When we were all together, Josh led the charge with Marty and Rob close behind. Josh took a slightly more daring route into some road less terrain, while Marty and Rob opted to be closer to the highway. Although no one doubted that Josh would get up, I decided to follow Rob and Marty. It was along time before we found another climb, and we were over some wicked looking terrain, so it was pretty exciting. We still hadn’t caught the next thermal when I looked back to where Josh had gone. I kept looking over his way to see how he was doing. There was absolutely no sign of a cloud ahead of him when he went on his glide. The next time I looked back to check on his status he was screaming upwards towards a forming cumulus. He must have known that was going to happen, but I have no idea how.
We kept gliding and getting lower, and I noticed Rob and Mike had found a nice one up ahead of us. They were really climbing fast, so I was eager to get where they were thermaling. We flew underneath Rob and Mike, but didn’t find the lift we saw them climbing through. This was pretty frustrating. The gaggle just boated around in zero sink for five minutes until something finally let loose. Marty and Bill cored up a nice one and we joined in the climb. About half way though our climb I heard Magic Mike on the radio saying he and Rob were at 13,500 and getting on course for Lockwood Valley. At the top of this thermal I caught up with Matt, and we worked a nice thermal together and set out on glide.
Climbing to cloud base with my instructor Matt was an amazing experience. I watched the edges of the cloud change, and Matt and I flew just to the south of a huge line of clouds. All of a sudden, we heard a very loud noise, and it got louder, “FIGHTER JETS!” I thought to myself. They went right under us, just a couple of thousand feet below. That sounds like along ways, but the noise was incredible. Later in the flight we flew over a Cessna 172, and a helicopter!
As Matt and I connected the dots under the clouds, we sometimes had to glide with big ears and speed bar to keep a safe distance beneath them. We didn’t want to be in the clouds with all this air traffic. I hadn’t been this close to a big cloud at altitude and decided to keep a safe distance so as to not violate FAA regulations.
At this point I was so excited to have been in the air for such a long time, I could hardly believe it. When I looked over my shoulder I couldn’t even see launch, just the mountains around it. The distance we had traveled really hit home when I saw Interstate 5 in front of us, with Lake Castaic to the south and the Tehachapi Mountains to the North.
I saw Rob and Mike up ahead waiting for the gaggle to catch up at the junction of the I-5. I had just seen Marty and Bill with Josh and Robb Milley climb out from really low above what I found out later was Gorman. Matt and I glided to where Rob and Mike were thermaling and for the first time I discovered a thermal for the group.
Rob and Mike came over to join us and we all climbed out together. Josh and Robb with Marty and Bill had set out on glide on the tandems with good altitude after the climbs they had from being so low over Gorman. We all started a glide together after our climb, and continued what we had been doing all day. We saw some clouds a little more on the south side of the Antelope valley and we pushed in this direction, keeping highway 138 East within an easy glide the entire time. We were over the flat lands now, and the terrain was much mellower than it had been for the first part of the flight.
We were getting nice thermals and I was leading on some of the glides. It felt strange to be out in front, and I wasn’t sure where we were supposed to land, so three times I turned around to come back and join the gaggle of pilots who were making more turns in lift. I had been flying straight, going up without turning for several miles. Josh was the only pilot in front of me and I wanted to fly closer to Rob and Marty and Matt, so I kept doubling back. Later I talked to Josh about this and he said that I was probably in a nice convergence line over the valley. Matt, Rob, and Marty teased me about my turning back, they were pretty amused to see me coming back for them on my first XC flight ever.
We were getting reports of 15-20 mile per hour winds on the ground from our chase crew, so we had a good ground speed over the valley and we were covering ground nicely. It was much different to be thermaling over the flat ground instead of the mountain terrain. I liked having so much terrain clearance.
We could see some pretty tall clouds out on the horizon, so Josh and Marty and Rob all landed together, and I landed with Matt. The three tandems had flown 52 miles from Pine, and Matt and I had flown 50 miles on my fist ever XC flight! I was as excited and overwhelmed as I was totally exhausted.
The next day of the clinic we flew a small competition-like cross country task at another site in Ojai called Chief’s. The instructors told us about how a cross country task in a competition is called. We all sat in as guest members of the task committee and came up with the day’s task. Flying the task was challenging because a section of high clouds shaded us for over an hour, and made it difficult to stay in the air while the heating had stopped. A gaggle of six of us survived the shade, and a few of us set out on the course. Josh Cohn and Casey Rodgers were the only two pilots out of the eleven to make goal. After the flying we went to the local pizza joint for a debriefing.
On day three, the wind had picked up in the mountains so we decided on some ridge soaring. We spent the day flying a cliff in Santa Barbara. I learned a great deal about soaring at the ridge and top landing, and had a great time.
I can’t say enough about the Instructors and how professional they are in every aspect. I will definitely be attending more of their clinics. I’m already planning on joining them for their trips to Colombia this winter. They are also threatening to do a trip to Europe in the future as well, and these guys are who I would want to travel to new sites with.
Paragliding Magazine – by Marge Variano
Doing A Tour Was The Ticket
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hadn’t seen my wing in several months and here I was in Valle de Bravo Mexico. “The Valley of the Brave”, this place is paragliding heaven. As a new P2 was I making a mistake coming to the place where top pilots fly? I knew I’d be okay; I was with not one, but two Paragliding Instructors of the Year. I’d been told from people “in the know” from all parts of the country, “If you want to learn from the best, go to Eagle Paragliding and learn from Rob Sporrer and Marty DeVietti”.
Before deciding to go on the trip to Valle De Bravo, Rob and Marty assured me they would take good care of me, I would learn a lot, and would have a great time. I must say, that was a complete understatement. I learned more than I thought possible, and safety was always the primary focus. A good time? Between the paragliding, being fed by master chef Kevin McGinley at the gorgeous house with the magnificent view overlooking the lake, the knowledge that someone would always be there to pick us up and bring us home, the new relationships, I couldn’t have had a better time. There was something really special about all of the pilots staying together in that huge house. The experience was really intimate as we enjoyed music, laughter, and flying stories around the fireplace in the evenings.
My first flight in Valle was a solo flight at glass off. We waited until the air was smooth and so that the launch and flying would be easier for a newbie. My hands were shaking as I unpacked my wing and prepared my equipment. I was excited and fearful all at once. It’s like the feeling you get as you crest the incline of a roller coaster prior to the fast, steep thrill ride down. It’s wonderful and terrifying all at once. Before I knew it, it was my turn to launch.
“Breathe… oh god…breathe… stop breathing so fast… calm down”, the thoughts ran through my head faster and faster. “Lean back, relax”, came the calming voice over the radio. Oh yeah, I’ve got to relax. My fears subsided for a second and then my thoughts took over again. Am I getting too low? A surge, hands down, a little more pressure on the brakes. Whoa, this is it, a thermal; this is what I’m looking for up here. “Okay, Marge, make that turn, more left brake, lean, good you’ve got it”, the voice of reason coaching me as I climb higher. Beep, beep, beep, the sounds of success as my vario sound alerted me that I’m going higher and higher. The radio comes on again, as Rob gives me words of encouragement; “You got it girl”. He sounds so confident and happy for me. Relax, breathe, I say in my head. As I turned the glider climbs higher and higher. I was really thermaling, but my nerves made it too hard to think and enjoy it. Once I landed, I realized I hadn’t taken time to enjoy the flight. I was flying on a beautiful night as the sun was setting and I forgot to take it all in. I vowed not to let that happen again, but I did feel more confident and excited.
Our second day in Valle brought my first tandem flight. The Eagle gang had some of the nation’s top pilots on staff as part of the tour to give tandem instruction. These flights included some excellent cross country experience. I knew Chip Hildebrand was an incredible pilot and I felt very safe and eager to learn.
“Look” was the first thing I remember him saying. As I looked up at the wing, I felt neither fear nor panic, feelings I would have expected after seeing the deflated tip. We weight shifted to keep our heading. Chip gave a few quick pumps as we continued to lean in the right direction, and poof! The wing tip was once again inflated.
Chip seemed to instinctively know where to find thermal activity. Throughout the flight, he explained what he was doing and why. At one point I explained that I wasn’t sure how much I could, or should, lean when I turn. “Lean as much as you can, here try it, lean, lean further, more, you can’t possibly lean too much it all depends on the type of turn you want to make. You’ll get it don’t worry.” His calming voice and confidence made me believe I could do it. Allowing me to experience that feeling of leaning drastically, without any ill effect, dramatically improved my confidence and made me realize how much control I have with weight shift. The Tandems offered as part of this clinic with all these expert pilots made for an amazing learning experience.
Over the course of the week, I took two more tandem flights, one with Rob and one with Marty. Rob and I took off late in the morning after almost everyone else had launched. He’d work an area and gain some altitude, top out, and go in search of another. He had me look for indications of wind direction and any signs that would help us find lift. I was starting to get it. The birds, the land heating up, the wind direction, the smoke from small brush fires, the slope of the terrain, and the other pilots all gave us clues.
On my tandem flight with Marty, we launched early. His tandem was set up with dual controls. This allowed the passenger to take control of the glider, knowing that if they make a mistake, Marty could quickly take over. We flew all the way from the Piñon to the lake. It was glorious. Throughout the flight, Marty asked me questions and answered all of my questions while giving me a clearer understanding of the thermals, the wind drift, the pilot inputs, and the surge control. I was growing as a pilot minute by minute.
I flew several more solo flights that week and each time, I gained confidence and greater understanding. When the week was over, I couldn’t believe how much I had learned and how far I had come. I hadn’t made it on my own over the back of launch, but I had solo flights that lasted over an hour and I felt more and more like a pilot.
Returning home, all I could think of was flying. I wished I had just a few more flights. Maybe I could have gone over the back. Maybe I would have been more confident and stayed up longer. I took my mind off flying by shopping for some bilingual books and toys for the children in Valle. The other pilots and I wanted to do something for the children there. The plan was for me to buy some things and send them back to Valle since the group would be there for another two weeks, I looked for a way to ship the items, but it wasn’t easy to find. I jokingly said it would be easier to fly back and bring the books to the kids. Well, one thing led to another, and a few days later, we were back on our way to Valle. The trip and experience was that good, I jokingly wrote an email to my flying buddies from the week before explain that I couldn’t take it anymore and I was on my way back to Valle. From their responses, they all wished that they too could go back for another week with the Eagle sky tribe.
The second week exceeded all expectations. I flew better each and everyday. We flew everyday, twice a day. In fact during the three tours Rob and Marty ran, they flew everyday, twice a day. Although, I was not surprised, others might find it amazing that with all those flights and the various levels of pilots, the only injury was a minor finger sprain, and the pilot was fine to fly the next day.
On my last day there, the sky was quite active. It was bumpier than I had ever experienced and required a lot of thought and active piloting. I fought and fought to stay up and gain the altitude needed to go over the back. Throughout the flight, I was given words of encouragement from my instructors Marty, Rob and JD. After reaching 9,000 feet for about the 3rd time that morning, I heard Rob come over the radio “Okay Marge, finish making that turn and follow me. We’re going over the back”. As I followed his wing over the back of launch I saw him quickly gain altitude after we had glided for a bit. He coached me to circle the lift and guided me in the lift as we drifted further away from launch. I was going to land at the soccer field LZ, I thought to myself. How cool. But we kept finding thermals and moving farther and climbing higher. Wow, I’m going to fly to Jovan’s restaurant, which is even further away. But again we found lift and climbed higher and higher. We were climbing faster than I ever had before. It was then I heard Rob come over the radio and say “Rob and Marge climbing through 12,000 at Casa”. We finished climbing in that thermal and I heard Rob on the radio again “Rob and Marge heading to the lake”. The lake? I looked down at my vario which read 13,150. Rob had me pointed towards the lake and we were on our way to the ultimate LZ, the lake. Only the really good pilots make the lake, but I had a guide who gave me the knowledge, confidence and guidance, which allowed us to reach it. After a while of gliding toward the lake, Rob again came on the radio and said, “Relax and enjoy the view Marge, we have the lake made easy. He was certainly right; we reached the lake at 9,800 as Rob sped past me, confident that his student would reach the LZ. I watched as his glider danced over the water as he spiraled down, gliding through the air with complete delight. I’ll never forget that day, the feeling I felt as I landed, and the smiles on every one’s faces. Paragliding was no longer a thrill ride. It had become a sport.
It’s hard to put into words what my two weeks in Valle with the Eagle Paragliding team has meant. Every time I asked a question, every time I need a reassuring word, every time I need something re-explained, they were there and ready to give me all the time I needed. Their patience, clear explanations, and exceptional questioning technique ensures the success of all their students, from the least experienced, to those with years of flying under their wing. I felt safe and secure under their tutelage. Very few people ever get to experience the gift of soaring in the air, climbing higher and higher, looking out into the horizon. I am certain, I would have given up flying had it not been for the instruction and care I’ve received from the Eagle Paragliding team. It is because of them that I will continue to learn and grow as a pilot and be able to experience the pure joy of flying in the air with the wind in my face and feeling the freedom of being in the sky. Dixon White must be looking down proudly as he sees his protégés carrying on his legacy in such a professional fun manner.
Santa Barbara News Press – By Brian Coe – April 15, 2011
For anyone who’s ever had a flying dream, felt restricted By earth’s gravity or simply stared at a bird and wished that they could experience that graceful sensation of soaring through the air, paragliding is a must.
As luck would have it, Santa Barbara is home to the best year-round paragliding in the United States…yet another outdoor activity to add to our county’s impressive list of superlatives (best year-round whale watching, best scuba diving in California, etc.).
While flying dreams are common, the amount of people who actually get to experience what it’s like to soar like a bird are few and far between. With the expertise and enthusiasm of Eagle Paragliding not to mention the most beautiful and practical location to fly in the country, it’s high time for earthlings to turn all of those flying dreams into flying realities.
At 9:00 a.m. on a crisp, post-storm April morning, we drove to the top of Elings Park to meet the men who would help us fulfill our flying destiny. Located above Hendry’s Beach near the intersection of Las Postias Road and Cliff Drive, Elings Park is a world-renowned flying destination for hang-gliders and paragliders alike.
Ever since the ’70s, pilots from all over the world have flocked to Elings Park for its long list of flyer-friendly characteristics. For starters, we should all be grateful that such prime real estate didn’t turn into a mini-Montecito. To the contrary, Elings Park is about as natural and wide-open as it gets, with a gentle, grassy slope descending toward the ocean and a massive, flat field down below that makes for an ideal landing zone.
Located just above sea level, the thick air is ideal for flying. In addition, the site is often the recipient of a soft ocean breeze that provides just the right amount of lift for getting one’s feet off the ground. As if conditions could get any better, the views from the hilltop are breathtaking: palm trees, Hendry’s beach, breaking waves and the hulking silhouettes of the Channel Islands on the horizon.
One Small Step for Man…
Right off the bat, we met Rob Sporrer, Eagle Paragliding’s proud and vibrant owner since 1998. Sporrer, like more than half of the people who end up paragliding, got involved with the sport after the irresistible draw of watching other humans in flight.”It was just my third or fourth time in Santa Barbara when I saw these guys flying for hours above the cliffs and eventually landing on the beach,” he says. “I thought, ‘that’s incredible. I’ve got to try that.’ I did it, and I loved it. I was instantly hooked.”
After flying as often as possible for a full year, local flying legend Tom Truax asked Rob to apprentice for him. In 1996, a couple of Sporrer’s close friends started up Eagle Paragliding. Two years later, after both of them ended up leaving town, Sporrer suddenly found himself as the company’s sole owner.
Since then, Sporrer has established Eagle Paragliding as Santa Barbara’s premiere flying company, much in thanks to people like his brother, Ty (who took first in two divisions at the national championships in Sun Valley, Idaho) and world-class instructors like Kevin McGinley, who would soon be our own personal ticket to flying the friendly skies.
Within a matter of minutes, McGinley had each of us in harnesses, learning hands-on what it would take for us to fly. Wait a second we would be flying alone? Somehow that seemed impossible. Wasn’t the extreme sport standard to pay a flat rate for a tandem, once-in-a-lifetime experience, as it is with skydiving?
Perhaps we had paragliding pegged all wrong. Maybe flying wasn’t as complicated or dangerous as we had perceived it to be. Not only would we have the opportunity to fly alone, but By day’s end, we would also be well on our way to having the skills and experience necessary to become lifelong, self-reliant pilots.
First things first McGinley demonstrated the proper techniques for setting up the harness and wings to minimize tangles and other avoidable complications. Shortly thereafter, we were already taking turns deploying our own parachutes and demonstrating control over the wings that hovered overhead, pulling the strings known as brakes on either side to adjust the orientation of our false feathers.
“Your First Flight is Like Your First Kiss”
In less than an hour, we were all ready to fly on our own. We couldn’t believe it. “Who wants to go first?” McGinley asked.
My hand shot into the air like our wings had done during our simulation approaches. McGinley reminded me that there was no obligation to fly, and that my own desire to do so would be the biggest contributing factor toward success. With such a calm, confident presence, I couldn’t imagine a better instructor than McGinley to help put the wind beneath my wings.
Making sure to do everything in a smooth manner (sudden, jerky motions are the biggest no-no’s in paragliding), I ran toward the edge of the hill, mimicking McGinley’s posture and hand movements as he back-peddled in front of me. Just as I was about to run off the edge, my feet lost contact with the ground. In a sudden, exhilarating rush of weightlessness, I was flying.
“Really nice work on the take-off,” came McGinley’s soothing voice over my radio. “Now just cross your legs, relax and enjoy the ride.”
Turn By turn, McGinley led me through my first flight. Surprisingly, fear of falling was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I wanted to go higher and higher, an instant addict to the sensation of flying. After two short, but by all means sweet minutes of soaring like a bird, McGinley talked me through the landing.
“At three feet, pull hard on the brakes,” he said. “Don’t forget to keep running.” Suddenly, and far more smoothly than I had expected, I was standing on my own two feet. The only problem was, I wanted to be back up in the air.
Choose Your Own Adventure
The beauty of paragliding is that it’s as extreme as the pilot wants it to be. By the numbers, the sport is actually far safer than a large percentage of other outdoor activities. In paragliding’s case, the word “extreme” is probably more of a stigma than a standard. Eagle Paragliding trains people from all walks of life to become pilots, from 12-year-old girls to 82-year-old men. In many cases, women and children are actually the quickest learners, as much of the sport is a matter of finesse. In less than two hours, most first-timers are ready to fly on their own, and nine days of training is all that’s needed to become certified to fly without the supervision of an instructor. Like catching a good wave, paragliding is instantly addicting. Though it was our first time flying, it certainly will not be our last.