My bucket list

A couple of weeks ago I did cross one off the bucket list when I flew a paraglider for the first time. I’ve always been fascinated by early flight and by very minimalist kinds of flying, and paragliding is about as minimalist as you can get. There’s you, the wing (which is what these kinds of “parachutes” really are), the sky and the earth. With just a few pounds of equipment, an experienced paraglider can spend hours aloft, sometimes traveling a good distance, maybe even hundreds of miles, in the process. It’s about as close to flying like a bird that you can get (though wingsuit enthusiasts might see it differently).

It happens rarely, but in this case I can identify exactly what inspired me to want to strap on a parachute-thingy and ply the winds. Somehow, about three years ago, I found a YouTube video showing dozens of paragliders surfing the updrafts in a competition in a remote part of Mexico. The sight was remarkable. Not only was it beautiful to see, the brightly colored wings against a backdrop of dark green mountains, but it also looked like great fun, too. More than fun, really, though I’m not sure what to call that sort of reward. We pilots all know the feeling.

To learn a little about the sport and give it a try, I took the advice of my friend Tom Peghiny, who’s been flying ultralights since before there was landing gear involved. He suggested I get ahold of the folks at Eagle Paragliding in Santa Barbara, California, who’ve been giving this type of instruction for 20 years. So I did, and a few weeks later I was on the hill, a gorgeous hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean a half mile away, getting to know my instructor for the day, Drew Quine. Drew quit a high-tech desk job to teach paragliding full time while also working toward a commercial helicopter pilot’s certificate. He liked the scenery in both lines of work better than a cubicle.

A paraglider wing is a parachute with compartments running chord-wise that fill with ram air and thus stiffen up into an airfoil shape. The paraglider pilot, which was soon to be me, is attached to the wing by a harness connected to it with dozens of cords, which you need to understand and be able to manipulate, though truth be told, there are very few controls at the pilot’s disposal. Flying a paraglider, in fact, is not much like flying a plane at all, so my instincts for how to do most everything were mostly wrong and occasionally the exact opposite of what I should have been doing. But not everything, For example, you turn by killing lift on the side of the wing pointing toward the turn, which is pretty much how it works on a fixed-wing plane. Advanced maneuvers, like getting into lift and, thus, climbing and doing sharp turns and sudden descents, are riskier and were in the future. My goal on my first day was pretty much to glide to a survivable landing.


Drew showed me the ropes, and before long I was doing something called “kiting,” which is the first fundamental “flying” skill a paraglider needs to learn. It consisted of me running on solid ground while figuring out how to keep the wing inflated and above me so I could, at some point, launch down the really big hill I was looking out over.

The flying part happened fast. I was nervous about it, but Drew was confident that I could do it and live to tell the tale. On my last kiting practice run, I just kept moving forward toward the edge of the hill, and as the hill started to drop off below me, I continued running until my feet found nothing but air, and I was flying. My first flight, during which I got maybe 250 feet AGL, lasted less than a minute, but it was transformative. I made three flights in all, and each one was longer and better than the last.

The good news was that flying was way easier than kiting, and I hit my target landing area all three times—well, pretty close to it, anyways. Will I go paragliding again? You bet. But it won’t in any way replace my regular flying. They’re completely different activities that scratch completely different itches.

In any case, now it’s on to my next bucket list item. Hmmm, getting checked out in a T-6 sounds like fun. Hope I can do it before I add more items to the list. But what are the chances of that?

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