Aug. 25th, 2012

dreaminghope: (Sunspot)
Many of our paragliding friends have gone on amazing flying adventures: all over the US, Colombia, Australia, and more. One pilot from our school is working on an amazing trip: flying Kilimanjaro for charity. Russ and I are still just getting started with our paragliding vacations, and our first adventure was Nova Scotia this past July. We went with a fellow local pilot, Craig. And last weekend, Russ and I went to our first fly-in, at Black Mountain in Washington State, with Ducky and Jim, another local novice couple.

Flying in Nova Scotia was amazing. It was also completely different than the mountain flying we've done up until this point. Craig had some experience with ridge soaring - where you stay up thanks to the wind forced upwards by the shape of the terrain - but Russ and I have only flown sites that are mostly thermal-driven. Also, none of us had flown coastal sites before. They are different than mountain sites: the winds are higher, the air is smoother, and, in the case of the Parrsboro region, the launches aren't as high.

In learning to fly from iParaglide, we learned our novice safety rules based on local sites, including only launch in winds under 15 km/hour and "height is safety". Suddenly, we were faced with sites that only worked if the winds were at least 25 km/hour and launches less than 100 feet above the landing zone.

I don't think we would have successfully flown if it had just been the three of us. The low winds we launch in for mountain flying wouldn't have kept us up, and our flights would have been 20 or 30 seconds, at the most. And during the higher winds, we wouldn't have had the nerve to launch if it weren't for the best decision we made in preparing for our trip: hiring a local guide.

After Craig came back from a paragliding trip to California last spring, he clued us in to how much he learned from people who had flown the sites before that he did not learn from all the internet research he did before the trip. When we realized that we were going to be flying sites in a small community on weekdays (so the chances of just randomly meeting up with locals would be decreased), we emailed Michael at Pegasus Paragliding and arranged to hire him for a couple of days during our trip.

Michael was fantastic. He was flexible about timing so we could use our time with him on days when the weather was flyable, he was understanding about the challenges we were facing, and, since he is also a paragliding instructor, he was able to coach us through our first coastal soaring experiences. When he wasn't available one of the days, he sent us his assistant instructor, Brian, who was also great. They were both friendly, cheerful, and encouraging, while also staying focused on safety. Thanks to their help, we were all able to have very successful flights at two different flying sites, plus some very short sled runs at a third site. Michael and Brian also introduced us to a number of flying sites we weren't able to try out for various weather-related reasons, showing us the launches and telling us about the typical wind directions, things to look out for, and the best places to find lift. Some of the launches are literally people's backyards and would have been very difficult to find without help. We left eager to return to Nova Scotia for both the friendly people and the great flying. Next time we will be more prepared for those high wind launches!

In Nova Scotia, it was just the three of us and our guide, which was very different than our next flying adventure. Last weekend, four of us novice pilots crossed the border to Washington and went to Black Mountain for the first time. It was the annual Can-Am Black Mountain Fly-In. A fly-in is just a fun excuse for a lot of free flyers to get together to socialize, to eat, and, weather allowing, to fly. There are sometimes fun competitions (a spot landing competition between the Canadians and the Americans, in this case), but the main focus is on fun and enjoyable flying.

We'd never flown Black Mountain before, so a fly-in was a great way to get introduced to the area: lots of experienced pilots to answer questions from lots of other new pilots. The launch is very odd: you stand on the logging road with your wing on a very steep slope behind you and a very steep hill in front of you. That kind of launch is challenging - you have to get the wing up fast without eating up a lot of runway, keep it loaded while on the flat bit, and commit to that steep run-off - especially in light winds, which is what we had that day.

Because of the light conditions and weird launch, Ducky and Jim decided not to fly, so they were our retrieve drivers (and excellent retrieve drivers they were: they picked us up with beer and food ready to go). Russ and I checked our wings out in the parking area and then joined the line of pilots ready to go. The launch is a one-person-at-a-time deal and the light winds meant that people were slow to launch, each hoping for just a little more wind, so the line moved slowly, but that meant there was a lot of time for socializing. It was great to talk with paragliders and hang gliders of all experience levels about where they'd flown, about flying this particular site, about flying other Washington sites.

When you got to the front, the event's safety officer was there to check that you were hooked in correctly and some volunteers would help get your wing set up and would hold it up to catch a bit more wind. Everyone was so encouraging and supportive. When someone had an aborted launch, everyone helped get their wing back in place so they could try again. When someone had several aborts in a row, they would move to the end of the line so the next pilot could go. During each successful launch, people cheered.

The flying was simple: just a sled run, as we all knew it would be because of the weather. Russ tried for the spot landing, but missed scoring any points for Canada. I made the decision to not even try for the target, since it was in a narrow field, and I landed in huge alternative landing zone across the street. No help for the Canadians from us! Still, Russ and I each got a flight at a new mountain to add to our log books, and a new favourite event to add to our annual calendars. We just went for the day this time, but next year, we plan to have our camping gear figured out and go for the whole weekend.

There are some less pleasant people in paragliding too, of course. Our home launch site sometimes gets a little tense when some people with big personalities and incompatible ideals are all there at the same time. But, generally, paragliders (and hang gliders, from what I've seen) are very cool people. It might be the kind of people who are drawn to this weird little sport, but I wonder if it is partially something the sport does to you over time. All that sitting around waiting for the wind to be just right creates patience. Having to check your equipment and check the weather and make the decision about when to fly creates personal responsibility and independence. Flying in itself is an act of joy, of freedom, and of faith, and it requires the pilot to live in the moment and focus entirely on the act of flying. The combined results are people who are generally fun and relaxed, who go with the flow, and who take good care of themselves. Oh, and if our experiences in Nova Scotia and at Black Mountain are any indication, paragliders also know how to eat well. Lobster dinner with Michael (tofu curry for me) and barbequed ribs in Washington (potluck salads and dessert for me) fuelled our flights. Delicious!


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February 2014


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