My favorite toys since I could walk were things that could fly: paper planes, dandelion seeds, balsa wood planes, paper napkin parachutes with wine cork troopers, plastic parachutes with little green men, stompable nerf rockets, air/water rockets, bottle rockets, model rockets, wind up ornithopters, tire swings, foam space shuttles, maple seedpods, propeller-on-a-stick, electric-helicopter-on-a-boom, gas-plane-on-a-tether (could not get that to work), zipcord flying saucers, plywood ramps for skates, big wheels and bikes, soap bubbles, helium balloons, rc copters, rc planes, rc blimps, frisbees, aerobies, boomerangs, flight simulator computer games, diving, tumbling and running down hills really really fast. I liked the dreams where I would cruise around like an air hockey puck a foot above the ground. The few times I have pulled off active dreaming, I crafted flying dreams.
When I was 20 I moved to San Francisco and saw hang gliding up close for the first time at Fort Funston. “I gotta do that.”
First I tried hang gliding (paragliding barely existed then). Hang gliding is the one with the rigid triangular wing that you lay under like Superman. I took three lessons, one each pay period, and gave up. As a 20 year-old with an entry level job, a two room apartment and a tiny car, hang gliding was a little out of my reach. Gliders are big and expensive and you need a place to put them and a truck to haul them around. And it’s harder than it looks, so there’s no shortcut on the lessons. I did get about 10 seconds of flight under my own power, though. It was awesome.
Sometime in the late 90s a friend of a friend organized a day where qualified members of the local paragliding club took folks as passengers on flights along the Pacific coast south of San Francisco. I went up twice, about 45 minutes total, and loved it. But for some reason I assumed paragliding, like hang gliding was something other people do. I didn’t ask lots of probing questions about cost, training, time commitment, etc. I treated it like an outing, not a peek at a future life. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I could have definitely afforded to take up paragliding then. That’s over a decade of flying I missed out on. On the other hand, that’s over a decade of safety, training and glider improvements.
In 2005, I cornered a paraglider pilot I met on vacation and he answered every question I had for about three hours. Then he kept talking paragliding for another two days. The main takeaways:
- Lessons plus gear runs about $3700-6000US There’s plenty of used beginner stuff for sale because beginners either upgrade or drop out. Or, lesson packages usually come with deep discounts on new gear.
- Regular people do this all the time.
- It doesn’t take all that long to learn the basics.
- Airplane in a backpack. Airplane in a backpack. Wherever you can have a backpack, you can have an airplane in a backpack. Think about it: Airplane. Backpack. You.
Why not fly?
I started researching paragliding on my own using the internet. I looked at schools, I read forums, I watched home movies and training videos, I browsed store and manufacturer catalogs, I read magazine articles, test reports, regulations, manuals, a cloud blog (?) and accident reports. Lots and lots of accident reports. I put every official accident report I could find covering 10 years in a 3-ring binder and added the book to my reading rotation. Despite having time to paraglide online every night, I didn’t feel I had time to do it for real. Reading about out-of-practice pilots making stupid mistakes, getting unlucky and dying really slowed me down. Reading about injuries and death slowed me down a bit generally. But I was so broadly immersed in the positive aspects of free flight that I avoided getting entirely freaked out. I understood people do this all the time and only a few get seriously hurt.One of the things I learned from almost every accident report: good training and judgement, conservatively applied, makes all the difference.
I decided the best way for me to start off a safe pilot would be to learn and practice during a dedicated chunk of time. I worried that if I took lessons one weekend out of four I would not learn the sport deeply enough to do it safely. I did manage a 6 week leave of absence to take a P2 course, but as soon as I stopped working, almost to the day, a muscle spasm/pinched nerve/who knows? in my back/neck/shoulder/brain? made my right arm very painful in any position except above my head. It took three weeks for that to clear up and I went back to work rested, but wingless. At this point, I was starting to feel a bit like a poser. I reminded my self that I don’t care what anyone else thinks.
In fall of 2010, with some savings and an understanding wife, I quit my job and signed up for lessons. You can see my day-by-day progress starting with day one.
Most of the information here is for my own benefit. I need an organized place to keep logs of my flights and I find the little red log book I got from the USHPA inadequate for the hours of video and GPS track logs I want to keep. I’ve been emailing myself summaries of my flights and recording many of them with a helmet camera. I recently started uploading the videos to vimeo.com, for personal convenience and to share with a few friends, and I’m stunned to see they are getting hundreds of plays a week. Some of these are hour long videos of a me silently wandering around a soccer field trying to stay underneath my wing. Sometimes even less is happening. Man, people will watch anything.
Then I remembered time before my lessons and how many times I clicked through 10 pages of google results hoping for something new about paragliding. The people that are watching my videos are probably just like me. I know I was very keen to know what it was really like to learn to fly and if I was the sort of person who could do it. So I suppose this is how I give back.
But the main reason I’m sharing my flight logs and critiques (which does not feel natural to me at all) is to keep my ego in check while flying. I want the voice in my head to be worried about getting caught making a stupid mistake instead of goading me in to something I shouldn’t do.
Seriously, you read to the end of this page? You watched more than 2 videos? Go sign up for lessons. If I can do this, you can do this. But please,