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Directions and Meeting Places
Photos and story by bill becher
Bill Becher for The New York Times
"Run, run like Wile E. Coyote," yelled my instructor. His directions boomed like the voice of God from the small radio clipped to my helmet as I charged off a 200-foot-high hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, Calif.
If all went as planned, I wouldn't punch a coyote-shaped hole in the ground and I'd swoop gently back down to earth, suspended by the colorful fabric of the parachute-like canopy, and join the small band of Americans who have flown a paraglider. Paragliders like Ben Pelletier at Elings Park on the Pacific in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Paragliding is a micro sport in the United States, with only about 5,000 participants. But it is very popular in Europe, where scores of gliders dot the sky in alpine valleys. France, where the sport is called parapenting, has an estimated 25,000 pilots, and enthusiasts travel to New Zealand, South Africa and even the Himalayas to fly.
"Paragliding takes you to real special places," said Nat Ely, who was practicing takeoffs and landings on the hill. He wasn't just talking about the travel, but also about the exhilaration of silent flight over a mountain peak or sharing a thermal with a condor or red-tailed hawk.
While others fliers soared from the grassy hill toward the coastline, wafting on the onshore breeze, two other beginning students and I spent an hour wrestling with the 35-foot-long elliptical nylon gliders. Our instructor, Rob Sporrer, who runs the Eagle Paragliding School in Santa Barbara, showed us how to unfurl the gliders on the ground and attach them to our backpack-style harnesses.
The gliders, made of nonporous nylon, have Mylar-stiffened cells at the leading edge to create an airfoil shape, like an airplane's wing. The glider is connected with a spider web of thin Kevlar cord - the same stuff used in bulletproof vests - then webbing attaches it to the harness. Unlike parachuting, in which you hope something good happens when you pull the rip cord, paragliding begins with the canopy already open above you when you launch. To advance to this position you have to learn "kiting," the art of maneuvering the glider while on the ground, which for beginners involves zigzagging in a series of sprints.
My fellow student, Mike Pittman, 53, a semiretired management consultant with close-cut graying hair, didn't fit the image of the typical paraglider pilot; regulars at the hill were mostly younger males sporting ponytails who discussed plans for windsurfing in Puerto Rico. But after seeing paragliders flying when he was walking his dog, he had decided to give it a try.
"Despite landing like a Scud missile the first time," Mr. Pittman said, "overcoming my personal fears made the whole experience worth it."
OUR first flying experiences were likely to last less than a minute, although flights of seven hours and longer are possible for experienced paraglider pilots in mountain areas where rising currents of sun-warmed air produce thermals. Flying a paraglider is easy, according to Mr. Sporrer.
"The launch and landing is the tricky part," he said. "The flying part is going to come. As long as you don't fly into the side of a mountain you're going to be great."
With a dry mouth and racing pulse I started my run with the glider tugging at my back.
I leaned forward like a fullback going for daylight. After a few steps I floated momentarily. A stronger puff of wind took hold, and I began to soar. The ground seemed to drop away. Suddenly, other gliders, now 200 feet below me, looked like discarded handkerchiefs.
"Relax, smile, look at the ocean," came the voice over the radio. I didn't have much time to admire the view of the surf crashing along the beach below.
I was soaring like a bird, if birds feel fear, excitement and a sense of amazement. The experience was like the sensation of flying in a dream. With the glider above you, out of sight, you are simply suspended above the earth, with nothing around you but the wind.
"Right brake, right brake," Mr. Sporrer said. I tugged on the line in my right hand, and the glider turned to the right. Then a pull on the left brake, and I made a lazy S turn toward the landing area marked by two orange highway cones.
If you pull on both lines as you hit the landing area, you come in with your feet inches above the ground so you can land standing up - but that takes practice. My landing had the grace of a penguin stepping on a banana peel before trying a triple lutz. Still, I managed to get down unhurt.
A short flight, but it was longer than Orville Wright's 12 seconds in 1903, which he described this way: "The course of the flight up and down was exceedingly erratic, partly due to the irregularity of the air, and partly to lack of experience in handling this machine."
That pretty well describes my adventure.
Getting Off the Ground
MANY people associate paragliding with hang gliding, which went through a period of serious accidents when it first started. Hang gliders use metal spars and a triangular wing; paragliders are flying parachutes with no rigid structural parts.
"Hang gliding started with barefoot hippies jumping off sand dunes in the early 70's with homemade gliders," said Steve Roti, an official with the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, known as USHPA.
Jim Little of Portland, Ore., a family physician and paragliding pilot who has studied accidents for USHPA, says he believes paragliding's injury rate per participant is similar to that of activities like motorcycling, horseback riding and snowmobiling. The most common injuries are sprained or broken legs and ankles; fatalities are rare but do occur, Dr. Little said.
"In aviation you can't leave the ground without assuming some degree of risk," he said. New pilots at paragliding schools must sign as many as five liability releases.
You don't need a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly a paraglider, though USHPA has established a voluntary pilot rating system that is followed at most domestic sites. While paragliders are not certified by the F.A.A., almost all of them are now commercially made and are tested by the German Hang Gliding Association.
Eagle Paragliding in Santa Barbara, Calif. (805-968-0980; www.eagleparagliding.com),offers one- and two-day introductory classes beginning at $200. The novice certification package requires six to eight days to earn a rating that allows flying without the supervision of an instructor and costs $1,500. Tandem flights are available for anyone under 250 pounds at any age with no experience necessary. Cost for a tandem flight is $250 with a video of your flight taken with a "helmet cam," or $200 without the video.
The United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (it only recently added paragliding to its name), lists paragliding schools in California and elsewhere, along with events and other news and information.
A complete paragliding rig (helmet, harness, paraglider and reserve chute) costs about $5,500.