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Pilot flies 52 Miles on his first XC Flight
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Doing a tour was the ticket
by Marge Variano for Paragliding Magazine
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hadn’t seen my wing in several months and here I was in Valle de Bravo Mexico. “The Valley of the Brave”, this place is paragliding heaven. As a new P2 was I making a mistake coming to the place where top pilots fly? I knew I’d be okay; I was with not one, but two Paragliding Instructors of the Year. I’d been told from people “in the know” from all parts of the country, “If you want to learn from the best, go to Eagle Paragliding and learn from Rob Sporrer and Marty DeVietti”.
Before deciding to go on the trip to Valle de Bravo, Rob and Marty assured me they would take good care of me, I would learn a lot, and would have a great time. I must say, that was a complete understatement. I learned more than I thought possible, and safety was always the primary focus. A good time? Between the paragliding, being fed by master chef Kevin McGinley at the gorgeous house with the magnificent view overlooking the lake, the knowledge that someone would always be there to pick us up and bring us home, the new relationships, I couldn’t have had a better time. There was something really special about all of the pilots staying together in that huge house. The experience was really intimate as we enjoyed music, laughter, and flying stories around the fireplace in the evenings.
My first flight in Valle was a solo flight at glass off. We waited until the air was smooth and so that the launch and flying would be easier for a newbie. My hands were shaking as I unpacked my wing and prepared my equipment. I was excited and fearful all at once. It’s like the feeling you get as you crest the incline of a rollercoaster prior to the fast, steep thrill ride down. It’s wonderful and terrifying all at once. Before I knew it, it was my turn to launch.
“Breathe… oh god…breathe… stop breathing so fast… calm down”, the thoughts ran through my head faster and faster. “Lean back, relax”, came the calming voice over the radio. Oh yeah, I’ve got to relax. My fears subsided for a second and then my thoughts took over again. Am I getting too low? A surge, hands down, a little more pressure on the brakes. Whoa, this is it, a thermal; this is what I’m looking for up here. “Okay, Marge, make that turn, more left brake, lean, good you’ve got it”, the voice of reason coaching me as I climb higher. Beep, beep, beep, the sounds of success as my vario sound alerted me that I’m going higher and higher. The radio comes on again, as Rob gives me words of encouragement; “You got it girl”. He sounds so confident and happy for me. Relax, breathe, I say in my head. As I turned the glider climbs higher and higher. I was really thermaling, but my nerves made it too hard to think and enjoy it. Once I landed, I realized I hadn’t taken time to enjoy the flight. I was flying on a beautiful night as the sun was setting and I forgot to take it all in. I vowed not to let that happen again, but I did feel more confident and excited.
Our second day in Valle brought my first tandem flight. The Eagle gang had some of the nation's top pilots on staff as part of the tour to give tandem instruction. These flights included some excellent cross country experience. I knew Chip Hildebrand was an incredible pilot and I felt very safe and eager to learn.
“Look” was the first thing I remember him saying. As I looked up at the wing, I felt neither fear nor panic, feelings I would have expected after seeing the deflated tip. We weight shifted to keep our heading. Chip gave a few quick pumps as we continued to lean in the right direction, and poof! The wing tip was once again inflated.
Chip seemed to instinctively know where to find thermal activity. Throughout the flight, he explained what he was doing and why. At one point I explained that I wasn’t sure how much I could, or should, lean when I turn. “Lean as much as you can, here try it, lean, lean further, more, you can’t possibly lean too much it all depends on the type of turn you want to make. You’ll get it don’t worry.” His calming voice and confidence made me believe I could do it. Allowing me to experience that feeling of leaning drastically, without any ill effect, dramatically improved my confidence and made me realize how much control I have with weight shift. The Tandems offered as part of this clinic with all these expert pilots made for an amazing learning experience.
Over the course of the week, I took two more tandem flights, one with Rob and one with Marty. Rob and I took off late in the morning after almost everyone else had launched. He’d work an area and gain some altitude, top out, and go in search of another. He had me look for indications of wind direction and any signs that would help us find lift. I was starting to get it. The birds, the land heating up, the wind direction, the smoke from small brush fires, the slope of the terrain, and the other pilots all gave us clues.
On my tandem flight with Marty, we launched early. His tandem was set up with dual controls. This allowed the passenger to take control of the glider, knowing that if they make a mistake, Marty could quickly take over. We flew all the way from the Piñon to the lake. It was glorious. Throughout the flight, Marty asked me questions and answered all of my questions while giving me a clearer understanding of the thermals, the wind drift, the pilot inputs, and the surge control. I was growing as a pilot minute by minute.
I flew several more solo flights that week and each time, I gained confidence and greater understanding. When the week was over, I couldn’t believe how much I had learned and how far I had come. I hadn’t made it on my own over the back of launch, but I had solo flights that lasted over an hour and I felt more and more like a pilot.
Returning home, all I could think of was flying. I wished I had just a few more flights. Maybe I could have gone over the back. Maybe I would have been more confident and stayed up longer. I took my mind off flying by shopping for some bilingual books and toys for the children in Valle. The other pilots and I wanted to do something for the children there. The plan was for me to buy some things and send them back to Valle since the group would be there for another two weeks, I looked for a way to ship the items, but it wasn’t easy to find. I jokingly said it would be easier to fly back and bring the books to the kids. Well, one thing led to another, and a few days later, we were back on our way to Valle. The trip and experience was that good, I jokingly wrote an email to my flying buddies from the week before explain that I couldn’t take it anymore and I was on my way back to Valle. From their responses, they all wished that they too could go back for another week with the Eagle sky tribe.
The second week exceeded all expectations. I flew better each and everyday. We flew everyday, twice a day. In fact during the three tours Rob and Marty ran, they flew everyday, twice a day. Although, I was not surprised, others might find it amazing that with all those flights and the various levels of pilots, the only injury was a minor finger sprain, and the pilot was fine to fly the next day.
On my last day there, the sky was quite active. It was bumpier than I had ever experienced and required a lot of thought and active piloting. I fought and fought to stay up and gain the altitude needed to go over the back. Throughout the flight, I was given words of encouragement from my instructors Marty, Rob and JD. After reaching 9,000 feet for about the 3rd time that morning, I heard Rob come over the radio “Okay Marge, finish making that turn and follow me. We’re going over the back”. As I followed his wing over the back of launch I saw him quickly gain altitude after we had glided for a bit. He coached me to circle the lift and guided me in the lift as we drifted further away from launch. I was going to land at the soccer field LZ, I thought to myself. How cool. But we kept finding thermals and moving farther and climbing higher. Wow, I’m going to fly to Jovan’s restaurant, which is even further away. But again we found lift and climbed higher and higher. We were climbing faster than I ever had before. It was then I heard Rob come over the radio and say “Rob and Marge climbing through 12,000 at Casa”. We finished climbing in that thermal and I heard Rob on the radio again “Rob and Marge heading to the lake”. The lake? I looked down at my vario which read 13,150. Rob had me pointed towards the lake and we were on our way to the ultimate LZ, the lake. Only the really good pilots make the lake, but I had a guide who gave me the knowledge, confidence and guidance, which allowed us to reach it. After a while of gliding toward the lake, Rob again came on the radio and said, “Relax and enjoy the view Marge, we have the lake made easy. He was certainly right; we reached the lake at 9,800 as Rob sped past me, confident that his student would reach the LZ. I watched as his glider danced over the water as he spiraled down, gliding through the air with complete delight. I’ll never forget that day, the feeling I felt as I landed, and the smiles on every one’s faces. Paragliding was no longer a thrill ride. It had become a sport.
It’s hard to put into words what my two weeks in Valle with the Eagle Paragliding team has meant. Every time I asked a question, every time I need a reassuring word, every time I need something re-explained, they were there and ready to give me all the time I needed. Their patience, clear explanations, and exceptional questioning technique ensures the success of all their students, from the least experienced, to those with years of flying under their wing. I felt safe and secure under their tutelage. Very few people ever get to experience the gift of soaring in the air, climbing higher and higher, looking out into the horizon. I am certain, I would have given up flying had it not been for the instruction and care I’ve received from the Eagle Paragliding team. It is because of them that I will continue to learn and grow as a pilot and be able to experience the pure joy of flying in the air with the wind in my face and feeling the freedom of being in the sky. Dixon White must be looking down proudly as he sees his protégés carrying on his legacy in such a professional fun manner.