From an Instructor: Paragliding


"Run.  Run, run, run!  RunrunrunrunrunrunRUN!" was shouted from the others on launch and from the radio on my chest.  I'm sure I was yelling it too, as I lurched forward with all my strength and weight trying to pull the wing up.  My arms were stretched behind my back, palms and wrists upwards as my hands held the cords attached to the paraglider wing.  The concept of the launch was similar to bringing a child's kite up in the air on a very windy day:  me, attached via harness to risers (the cords in between pilot and wing) in turn attached to the parachute-like wing facing downhill and running to pull the entire deal above my head.  Once above my head, the idea was to run as fast as fast as possible, which was really more of a waddle in my harness/seat thing, so that air would move through the cells that made up the wing and, in turn, lift me into flying mode.  If I was unsuccessful I would tumble down the very steep and bushy hill below, getting tangled in the cords and wing before getting it all straightened out and dragging it back up to try again.  At that point, another tumble was sounding like the better option, I had had more experience with that outcome.

Neither possible result seemed like a big deal to the other pilots around me, after all, most of them had been flying for years, and a beginner like me on a bunny slope like that was nothing to be afraid of in their opinions.  My deal was child's play, and it apparently made for good comic relief, too.  I was failing to find much humor in it at this point, though, and my vision of the world narrowed to all or nothing.  It was hard to imagine that I was going to live, let alone enjoy this crazy sport.  I was clearly taking this much more seriously than the pilots around me who obviously couldn't see that the whole world (my world) was about to come to an end.

I had taught skiing for quite a few years before I learned how to paraglide.  A fellow ski instructor had gotten into the sport, and had started flying over our resort during his time off.  Other pilots started a club in the area, and it was neat for us down below to watch the colorful wings thermalling above us as we skied.  A popular launch location for paragliders was at the top of the resort and the pilots frequently landed not far from the beginner ski slope.  It looked graceful and sounded daring, and it was a fun topic of discussion for students and instructors.  I told the fellow ski/flying instructor that I might like to try it some day, and he said he thought I should.  A few years went by with him teaching skiing/flying and me saying, "Yeah, I've got to do that sometime".  I had said this with honest intentions, but on a novelty level-like some people do with a tandem sky dive to celebrate a big birthday:  kind of a neat thing to do once, maybe.  Certainly not to have it become a regular part of my life.  One of those things to add to my list of things to do before I............

Occasionally I would point out a paraglider flying above to a beginner student and tell them I might try that sometime.  The usual response was something like, "There's no way I would do that.  I'm terrified of doing what I'm learning to do right now!  In fact, I don't think I can even do this skiing thing, let alone fly like that!"  And I would think to myself, See, this is why I love to teach beginners.  Soon this student is going to really be skiing on his own, and he is going to love life because of it!  This student will see that there's practically nothing to it, and realize how silly the level of fear had been. 

And I would tell myself that I had studied this new skier's fear and I was the kind of instructor who would help them break through because I understood.  I had even taught in-house clinics on teaching the beginning skier and related subjects (fear being at the top of the agenda to analyze).  I mean I had studied this "being a beginner" thing, and it was no big deal to be a new skier, it was just a process that had to be guided correctly in order to get beyond the fear and to the point where the skier could enjoy the sport.

But it had been a long time since I actually WAS the beginner in a sport.  And right now, here I was, running with my arms pinned back like a Thanksgiving turkey dragging a wing behind me that felt like a soaking wet down comforter and trying to pull it up with strings that looked like dental floss.  I was dressed in all sorts of hand-me-down clothing appropriate for the sport, none of it comfortable, I had to pee and I was sweaty and pissed off that I was struggling.  And absolutely terrified.

I've taught many, many "better halfs" who learn how to ski because their loved one loved another (skiing).  And now I was one of these love-struck gullilbles who fell into the category of "I always thought about doing that, and now that I'm with you, I'll give it a go!", but with paragliding instead of skiing.

On that first date with my current husband, he mentioned that he was a paraglider pilot and since we both taught skiing with the first pilot I had watched fly, a good conversation followed.  Apparently I gave the impression that I wanted to get into the sport as more than just a lark, and after we had been dating for a while, he surprised me with a full on, learn-to-solo, paragliding course. 

Gee, thanks. 

I instantly re-evaluated my desire to try the sport, my choice in a life partner, and my sanity, and then I started the course.

The full experience of being completely out of my comfort zone has never struck me harder.  Every single moment felt unnatural and scary.  The further along I went on the course, the less I could fathom why I had ever wanted to try to fly.  It was not as I had pictured it when I was standing safely and comfortably in my instructor's uniform, the confident life-long skier looking up at the sky with my shaking, uncertain ski school student beside me.  There was no bravado on that launch pad.  No bathroom, either, come to think of it.  Just nothing familiar and comforting.

Even my fiancé wasn't available.  He was flying lap after lap and having a ball since paragliding was his (first) true love.  He checked in with me to look for my progression from fearful beginner to confident pilot, and swore he saw it happening.  But it wasn't happening as far as I was concerned, and I was the only one who seemed to know it, too, because the instructors on the course kept telling me stories of the hundreds of other beginning students who felt the same way and were now flying free, loving life.  They were positive that I was going to become a pilot because they knew the sport, understood fear and could see that my frustration was just a part of the deal that goes with being a beginner. 

I had said those things to new skiers.  I began to have an uneasy realization.

For every ski student that I have thought that I intimately understood what they were going through when I probably had no idea, I owe at least this example of how the teacher sees things versus the student:

As a paragliding student, I was attached to a one way radio, so that I could listen to my instructors (one on launch, one on landing) without talking back.  It's not that they knew me well enough to have anticipated my chronic constipation of the brain and diarrhea of the mouth; they followed that protocol with every student-at least that's what they told me.

"RUNrunrunrunrunrRUNRUN" my chest was shouting at me via radio.

"RUNrunrunrunrunrRUNRUN" my brain was shouting at me via skull.

"Right!! You did it! You're in the air and flying!  Hooray!" from my chest.

"Oh NO!  I've done it-- I'm in the air.  Oh My God, I can't touch the ground! Oh NO!" from my skull.

Radio:  "How fun is that?!  You're really getting up there!  You must be in a thermal, and its really getting you some altitude!!! Whooo HOO!"

Skull:  "I'm really getting up there.  I am having NO fun.  In fact I really want down.  Now!  No, not up, DOWN.  Agggh, I'm still going up... down, down, down please!!!"

Radio:  "If you look to your left you'll see your fiancé, he's flying by-wave!"

(Tom waves and smiles as he flys past, leaving me with no hope that he'll ever know my dying thoughts)

Skull:  "I tried to shout to Tom, but voice system doesn't work.  Bladder system is intact, though, and I WANT DOWN!!!"

Voice (working now) into one way radio:  "I want to come down, how do I do it?"

Silence, then

Radio:  "You are probably wondering what to do now, but since this radio is one-way, I can only guess.  Even though it's been a terrifically fun time up there, it's probably time to think about landing, so just head towards the dam and you'll get some sink-air that will help you get near the landing zone".

Okay, now we're talking, figuratively, at least.  I looked for the dam.  I was thinking Hoover Dam, and looking for a huge cement structure holding back a massive reservoir of water.  In Australia, where I was learning to fly, "Dam" means a tiny metal watering trough for cattle.  Who knew?

So I frantically looked for my own personal Lake Powell with a large retaining wall to give me that gracious air that was going to let me come down, but all I could see were fields and forests. 

Skull:  "Where the Hell is the dam?  Where is the Damn Dam?????!!!"

Radio:  "Hey, I know how much you are loving this, but you have to stay away from the lift-air and go to the sink-air-quit steering away from the dam, you're getting too much height!"

Skull:  "No kidding I'm getting too much height!  WHERE IS THE DAMN DAM?!?  Forget it, I'm just going to aim for those cows, and maybe they'll break my fall if I can get this thing to let me down!"

Radio:  "Bloody beautiful!  You've just pulled around pin-point and stuck your landing, right on target.  You must really love this fun sport!!"

Flying Fiance:  "I know that was more fun for you than me, you got the most height that time.  You must really love this fun sport!!"

Skull:  "I still don't see the Damn Dam, just a bunch of cattle drinking out of that metal tub.  I can't believe how NOT fun that was".

Voice:  "Um, where's the bathroom?"

If you haven't been a beginner in a while, and especially if you are introducing someone to something new, consider becoming a beginner at an activity you've never tried might give you a brand new viewpoint of life overall, and you won't take beginner status lightly for a long, long time afterward. 

By the way, paragliding is still Tom's first (but not only) true love.   Just not mine.

Operations Shots