Under a Neon Canopy: Paragliding in the Pacific Northwest

By A. Michael Kundu, Director, Project SeaWolf

Overhead, brilliant nylon canopies float silently in the thermals, sailing like technicolor vultures against a sea of cobalt blue.

You watch anxiously from the hillside, timing the wind cycle, waiting eagerly for the gust to pass through.

Three, two, one! Lean into the wind and run down the incline. The wing fills with air behind you, billowing upward and stubbornly anchoring you to the hillside for an instant.

Pumping adrenaline, you keep running. The ground intermittently fades under your feet. In a second, it is gone below you. The pulling from above subsides and you feel weightlessness. You start to rise in a thermal, the only sound around you is the shrill pitch of wind whistling past the lines of your canopy.

You are airborne, and in minutes, you rise to soar with your companions.

Self-launched, wind-borne and unassisted by mechanical devices, you achieve free flight. In a few minutes, you have accomplished what humankind has dreamed of since the very beginning of our existence. Glancing at the sun, you feel as if you can almost touch it. You imageine that this is what Icarus must have felt like on his first and last flight.

Paragliding might have had its most traceable origins in the French Alp town of Mieussy, where it is called parapent, a French word meaning "to fly the slope".

In these high alpine villages, early pilots modified the porous fabric of traditional parachutes to allow them to descend more slowly and be "steerable". In the late 1970s, writer Didier Favre, along with aero-enthusiasts Laurent de Kalbermatten and Freddie Keller, helped to evolve the sport and by 1981, paragliding developed to the extent that the Swiss held a championship competition at Wengen, Switzerland. Today, there are international competitions worldwide.

The French Alp environment seemed to be a perfect place for the sport to evolve, and accordingly, the sport is still much more popular in Europe today than it is in North America. Overseas, approximately 400,000 enthusiasts routinely sail from the slopes, compared to about 50,000 in the United States. Internationally, the sport is governed by Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), an agency that licenses pilots, holds competitions and promotes pilot training and safety standards.

Yet, even though relatively new in North America, paragliding is infectious. It is very possible that over the next decade, paragliding will replace snowboarding as an upcoming, flourishing sport.

Unlike parachutes, paragliders are launched by running down a gradual slope into the wind, which should preferably be blowing between 12 and 22 miles per hour. Pilots glide horizontally, descending through gravitational pull or ascending in upward-moving wind currents and thermals. Steering is accomplished by pulling down on either the left or right "risers" - cords that drag down either end of the glider's trailing edge and slow or turn the parawing. Using the risers, the pilot can turn, break, reduce speed or descend with the glider.

Paragliders differ from hang gliders by their shape and construction. Hang gliders have a triangular frame and pilots hang suspended in a prone position, while paragliders are made solely of fabric and cord and the pilot hangs in a seated position from the harness.

Both sports depend on the pilot's ability to understand and accurately read the elements.

A fundamental part of the paraglider's equipage is knowing basic meteorology - familiarity with cloudforms and their climatic indicators. Pilots need to be acutely aware of the atmospheric effects of air movement across valleys and hillsides, effects of low and high pressure cells and knowing what the wind is forever doing, both in your flight path and at your landing zone.

And naturally, this level of familiarity begins with formal training. In Washington, two schools offer excellent programs to introduce neophyte pilots to this sport. Located within two hours of Seattle, both of these schools offer comprehensive training for anyone interested in learning the fine art of paragliding.

One such school is North American Paragliding, Inc. (NAPI)

"Fly fast, fly to the open!" The radio crackles with Mike Eberle's voice as he calls out the paraglider's mantra. My wing jerks upward unexpectedly as I hit my first updraft. Directly below me, a fellow student leaps sideways as I crest out of the rising air column and suddenly drop a few feet, directly over his head.

Instinctively, I jerk down my brakes. My gut tells me I'm headed for a high speed face-plant. But Eberle's voice, although stern, seems remarkably composed.

"Relax your brakes. You will listen to me. Raise your hands a few inches and relax your brakes."

My composure returns as I tune into his words. I regain focus. Fifteen feet above the ground and descending steadily.

"That's it, now flare..., flare..., flare."

Touchdown. My first flight, only a few hundred feet, but already, the fever of flying has me in its grasp.

Mike Eberle, instructor and owner of North American Paragliding, started flying in the middle of the last decade. As an avid rock and ice climbing guide, Eberle originally became attracted to paragliding primarily as a method of descent.

With a rather appropriate educational background in physics, Eberle was perfectly suited toward learning the technical intricacies of the sport. He soon became hooked on paragliding and started instructing formally in 1988, subsequently starting NAPI.

Since 1988, Mike Eberle has introduced between 2,000 and 3,000 students to the art of flying. His flight school, situated in Ellensburg, is for those interested in learning the fundamentals of paragliding, Eberle is a fastidious instructor; his approach to teaching is one which emphasizes safety and climatic understanding above all else.

And his level of attentiveness to safety is what makes him stand out.

"You could say that tragedy often imparts the most profound lessons," says Eberle, whose desire to teach the sport was challenged in 1988 when his friend Jeff Spitgerber was killed while paragliding.

"I thought about it a lot," Eberle says. "Over time, logic kicked in. I realized that Jeff's death, like almost every paragliding incident, was a collection of his own conscious decisions and choices. Theoretically, it was preventable. I came to accept this personal willingness to accept risk as an inherent part of paragliding.

"But more importantly, I also learned to be more meticulous, more inclined to pull the plug on a class if conditions aren't perfect - and that's the attitude that I now try to impart on my students."

With a small student-to-teacher ratio, NAPI's classes are very effective.

"It takes good people skills - good communication - to teach this sport properly," says Eberle. And the importance of clear communication is well-learned when students experience that first, unanticipated updraft in the field.

My second launch is more confident, more calculated. "Don't fight the glider, let is lead you along. Think of it as a dance, not a wrestling match!"

Eberle remarks that women often make far better students than men, who are generally more often inclined to wrestling against the force of the glider. I take heed of Eberle's words.

And as I become airborne, this time I am more aware of the transition. One instance, resistance. Then transition. The next instance, weightlessness. It's almost like a waltz; the wing leads, you follow. With a sense of newfound humility, I lessen my grip and assume a more delicate, gentler manner of flying the paraglider.

"Unlike what people tend to think, this is not a daredevil sport," says Eberle. "The beauty of paragliding is that it can be anything you want it to be: Gentle, controlled descents down a deep glacial valley, or long, level cross-country voyages across rolling, meadowed hillsides."

Eberle, who has racked up tours of more than five hours in the air, recounts one of his most memorable flights.

"A Red-tailed Hawk appeared almost directly beside me in a thermal," he recounted. "she let me parallel her course, silently, curiously. I could see every detail in her plumage, every pinion, every twitch of her muscles. It was magic. I was with her only about 30 seconds, but in that moment, the entire privelege of flight - the complete grace of this sport - was painted indelibly in my mind."

It is this curious blend of introspect, personal commitment and professional capability that makes Eberly so appealing an instructor.

"Paragliding is aviation," he asserts, commenting philosophically on the nature of the sport. "As a pilot, you're the one making the decisions. You're the one reading the weather, you're the one who decides where to explore, and you're the one who decides how long to stay in the air.

And students who leave Eberle's programs carry traces of his mentorship along with them. Know your limitations, respect the environment, take time for meticulous observance of harness, wing and all flight components. And most importantly, practice climatic consciousness.

Having trekked my parawing back uphill to the launch area, Eberle stops me from deploying it.

Look west - there's a cumulus cloud form developing. The sun's heating up air in the valley and causing unstable updrafts... Time to quit!"

As we load up our gear, the wind starts gusting unpredictably. Safety first. Read the conditions, and never take an unnecessary chance.

Mike Eberle called it perfectly.

- End -

Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf

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Copyright A. Michael Kundu