As close as you'll get to flying without wings
by Richard Bach

Teetering on a sheer mountainside 50 miles from the airport, having strapped myself firmly into nothing, I figured I was ready to fly. Forty years in a flash. I stood, age 14, on the roof of the garage, bed sheet tied with ropes to arms and belt, and leaned to jump, and for the first time in my life, I met aeronautical judgment face-to-face. I untied the ropes, climbed down the ladder, put the sheet back on my bed, and never told anyone how stupid I nearly was. Now, however, it wasn't 12 feet to the back lawn--it was 1,800 feet down and there were rocks at the bottom, pointy, sharp stone teeth waiting in the jaws of Saddle Mountain, Washington, hungry for a meal of fool. Is this, I wondered, what suicide feels like? What happened to aeronautical judgment? All my life, I've been a flier, not a crazy.... Three steps--run hard, run as if I want to die, right now, over the edge.

The giant rag behind me, the structureless nothing of a prism-color nylon, instead of dragging crumpled off the cliff burst into the air overhead, a curving rainbow shield, a dream between me and insanity. Instead of dying, I flew.

"Aaaaa-haaaaay," I said to the mountain, to the teeth, to the sky. The rocks listened. "Hey," they echoed back. You're not a suicide, you're a paraglider pilot!

More and more these days, American mountains and hillsides and shoreline bluffs are echoing the launch cries of pilots in flying's newest sport.Some 50,000 people fly the bright canopies in Europe, some 15,000 in Japan.

How many in the United States? Three thousand, maybe 4,000 at the outside. A few weeks after my Saddle Mountain adventure, I was certified by the American Paragliding association as a Class I pilot, the 1,005th person on the list. Practically a pioneer. Why so few in a country that overwhelms nearly every other statistic in aviation?

Beats me. The best I can come to an answer is that American fliers just haven't heard about paragliding.

The thistledown aircraft are utterly simple, learned in a day. They pack aviation's death penalty for terrible mistakes, of course, yet students from what other domains of flight can safely go solo after an hour's instruction?

1. Open bag, and unfold wing on launch site, bottom side up.
2. Buckle harness on, turn and face into wind.
3. Check suspension lines clear, rear risers over arms, front risers and brake toggles in hands.
4. Run downhill five steps or until feet leave ground.
5. Left brake turns wing left, right brake turns right, both brakes up for fast, both down for slow and stop.
6. After landing, stuff wing into bag, climb or drive to top of hillside.
7. Repeat steps 1 through 6 for remainder of career.

Where I've flown, running those steps is the closest yet to the magnet that drew me to the top of the garage in the first place, to flying airplanes in the second: Paragliding is the nearest to flying without wings this side of an out-of-body experience.

A paraglider is a 30-foot parachute without jump-plane, without free fall, without wondering after launch if the nylon is likely to open today.

It's a wing that can soar, that can take us up in lift as well as softly down on still mornings.
It's a low-performance sailplane without runway, winch or aero tow.
It's a foot-launched hang glider without spars, kingpost, steel cables, or downtubes.
It's an ultralight without cockpit, wing, fuselage, empannage, wheels, or two- cycle scream.
It's an open-air helicopter--no moving parts.
It's a steerable hot-air balloon without flames and dragon roar.
It's a 25-pound VFR airplane that stuffs into a backpack and fits in a car trunk with room left over.

No noise, no smoke, no runways, no planetary damage. A paraglider leaves one set of footprints going up toward higher ground, nothing coming down but a wide, slow brush stroke in the air, color of her choice. A perfect landing touches earth lighter than a walk.

September afternoon, a wind breathing 13 knots up a hillside near Ellensburg Washington, Peter Buck and I quizzed our instructor, Mike Eberle of North American Paragliding, Inc.. How could he stand there in this wind and fly the wing so easily, charm it to be so docile over his head?

"Pressures, guys," he told us. "You don't fight the canopy; the brakes aren't here to tug on or haul around, they tell you the pressure in the wing. After a while, you don't even think, you feel it, like so...."

As he spoke, Eberle pressed the brake toggles at his shoulders and ascended, his body lifting slowly to an altitude of 4 feet. Our heads pivoted upwards, beaks open, baby birds hungry to know.

"When the wind's right," he said, "you can slide back and forth...." We watched as he floated to our left, talking with us as though we were seated in the classroom. A touch of a brake, and he skated 5 yards right, down to within a foot of the ground, grass tops brushing the sides of his boots. "It's called ridge dancing."

This is how Zen students feel, I thought, when teacher levitates.

As though he had lost interest in us, our instructor moved soundlessly away, 10 yards, 30, 50--then came slanting back at high speed, never more than 3 feet in the air, following the contour of the hillside. He slowed and stopped, sank till he was sitting in the grass, all the while his canopy a great condor wing overhead. No sound, save for the airy hush of wind through Dyneema suspension lines, an occasional rustle and fluff of the wing flexing above. He ascended once more, drifted far away down the slopes until we could see only the top of his wing, fire-colors against the grass.

"I don't know, Pete," I said. "Think we're going to learn this?"

"Not likely," said my attorney friend. "Not until we've practiced as much as he has."

After a time, the wing turned and floated back up the hill, and here was our instructor once more, hovering just above eye level.

"Practice," he said, as though he had been listening. "And you need the right wind." He eased the pressure on the brakes, barely, and stood on the ground again. Then abruptly, he turned and pulled the rear risers, changing the wing in seconds from graceful airfoil to quivering bright nylon pond. "You try it."

It's easy to imagine on a calm day: A sport this simple, I can read the book and teach myself. Possible but not often true. Aviation safety has its cliché about doctors in Bonanzas; paragliding has one about skydivers, hang gliders, and ultralight and airplane pilots convinced that they don't need instruction to fly anything so artless as a big inflated wing. Bad cliché.

Stalls and spins, those mechanical-entry textbook-recovery maneuvers for conventional airplanes, are not so tame for paragliders--they are major advanced maneuvers, more the equivalent of outside loops and flat spins than a Cessna 150's basic training events. One paraglider test pilot told me there's no practical reason for a sport paraglider pilot ever to spin an inflated wing. Watching paragliders spin on videotape, it's easy to agree.

Every student practices asymmetric wing collapses, from small tip folds to larger ones to "big ears," in which the pilot effectively changes the canopy from straight to swept wing and back in midair. Later may come practice collapsing the center of the canopy, allowing the tips to fly forward and meet overhead in a front horseshoe, turning a soaring wing into an oval parachute, sinking nearly straight down.

For all its serene tranquility, paragliding is a judgment sport of the first order. Launch on calm days, or days into 5- to 10-knot wind, and you're guaranteed the slow, gentle adventure that is the essence of the sport. Launch in winds of more than 15 knots, or launch downwind into rotor air on the lee side of a hill, and you're lighting the fuse to an explosive learning experience.

"We get the question all the time," says Rob Kells. "How safe is it? Because everybody knows people get killed flying, whether it's commercial airlines or ultra lights. It's not that paragliding is safe or paragliding is dangerous, because paragliding is absolutely both. You can choose any level of danger or safety in-between those two places.

"The only way I can see that somebody can participate with any reasonable level of safety in paragliding is if they get the best equipment, they get the best instruction, and they fly within their own limitations. As long as they do those three things, they can fly every day till they're a hundred, and they'll do fine."

Aviation's old-timers told each other to keep their noses down; the IFR pilot remembers to keep the airplane shiny side up. The paraglider pilot's maxim is keep the wing over your head, as it's hard to do much serious soaring after you've plummeted into a canopy from above. My wing is placarded against pitch angles of more than 30 degrees and banks of more than 45; to stay certified, it needs a factory annual inspection. For any flying above a hundred feet, a reserve parachute is standard, and in some countries, required.

To learn paragliding, you need an instructor, a wing, and a smooth 100-foot hillside facing into the wind. All three usually come in a rented package, at prices from $250 to $350 for a weekend. Schools and instructors in these early days are still few. There are more of them in the West than the East, and learning could require a visit to a school hundreds of miles away.

It doesn't often happen in conventional aviation that students and instructors go on flying together for the fun of it after the rating has been earned. It happens a lot in paragliding.

Notes from a flying journal:

My first high launch today, from 500 feet. Why have I never noticed? 500 feet is high up!

My fellow students aren't the school-kid sky-surfers I had expected. They're business people, for the most part, late 20's to mid 40's, salaries to match. They say they don't have time to learn to fly airplanes.

Except for a little hush of wind through the suspension lines. the wing's as quiet as a helium balloon--you can talk to people on the ground when you fly, hear dogs barking away off.

Takes courage, a hundred feet in the air, to slip forward out of the swing-seat and hang by leg-straps under the canopy. I look down when I do it because it's so scary, treetops turning below.

How I'm coming to trust that big rainbow overhead! Do paragliders have souls, same as airplanes?

I'm cutting some of these slopes pretty fine, these days; lightly bashing the wooden seat 15 knots against low grass and loose rock down a hundred yards of mountainside. Yet, I'm still Captain Chicken...could be it's dawning on me that ridge-dancing is not dangerous.

I meant to miss it by inches, but today I flew through the top of a five-foot cactus, the kind with the round flat ears and long thorns. Cactus was more surprised than hurt, but those spines were sharp, some sank through the nylon web and a quarter-inch into the wood. Was it a close call? Can't tell--it's hard to be frightened when you're laughing in midair.

Nearly every time I fly, someone's seeing a paraglider for the first time. They ply me with questions, ask what it feels like, where they can learn.

Paraglider pilots, like airplane pilots, share two major mental states: love of flying and fear of heights. The former ever will overcome the latter, but there are adrenaline moments along the way for that familiar whisper: What am I doing here? The answer is what makes this sport so much fun.

Today a rabbit startled out from cover below, dashed twenty yards top speed, saw I wasn't a rabbit-hawk, stopped and calmed her little heart. A multi- point buck looked up puzzled as I floated past, tilted his head: Last year it was mountain bikes, now they're hanging from rainbows.

All the journal notes aren't so pleasant, for paragliding has its trials and disappointments:

Too bad you drove those hundred miles to get here. You should've been here yesterday, when the wind wasn't this strong, when it wasn't this calm, when it wasn't blowing downhill, when the lift was so smooth even the students stayed up for an hour and a half, when it wasn't raining and snowing and pouring down hail this way.

Upscale paraglider pilots like me whine and complain when there's no stretched white limo waiting at the landing zone to whisk us back up to launch. Though we suspect that climbing hills is our trail back to teen-age physique, I for one am not disappointed to find some way to hitch a ride back up.

Terrible first flight today. Couldn't believe it can be dead calm on the ground and blowing so hard in the air. Landed in a swamp.

The best and the worst of downsides to paragliding sometimes blend. Your landing gear, for instance, are your feet. Awake and practiced, you can step out of the sky on a rock 2 feet square, then reach for the risers and guide your wing gently to ground. Misjudge badly, though, or land downwind, you can hit very hard. Do this without good boots or good luck, and you'll be one more paragliding lower limb injury.

When you know all this and decide to become a paraglider pilot anyway, it's time to go looking for a wing of your own.

There's a raft of them available, most of them European designs, from manufacturers as numerous as airplane companies were in the 1930s. Instead of Cessna and Stearman and Beech and Taylor and Kari-Keen, the manufacturers in this mirror-world of flight go by names like Flight Design, Comet, Paraflite, Performance Design, Advance, ParaTec, and more. Behind the names wait a bewildering choice of paragliders, from first-flight trainers through standard Class Is to cutting-edge Class II and III competition/experimental wings.

You'll spend four to five thousand for a new wing and all other necessary equipment; you can find them used at half the price. The difference is that wings deteriorate in ultraviolet--100 hours in the sunlight and it's time to send them back to the factory for a check of canopy and suspension lines. Simple, test: If any suspension line is frayed or broken, if any seam is loose, if the nylon is so porous that you can blow through it, the wing's in no condition for serious flying.

You can get a list of certified instructors from the United States Hang Gliding Association or North American Paragliding (telephone 509-925-5565).

When you go for it, make sure your instructor can take you through the 30-some flights required for a USHGA Para 2 rating. No certificate is required from the Federal Aviation Administration, and you can pioneer your own launch places without one, but the sport is serious about safety, and you'll need the rating to fly from established sites or in competition.

"We're all airplane pilots here," said Steve Pearson. "We love flying, any kind of flying, and hang gliding was our first love. But every year, we'd ask our European distributor, "What's going on in paragliding?"

"At first he'd say, 'Well, they're making it to the bottom of the hill....' Then, 'Hey, they managed to soar this year.' A few years ago, he said, 'They're flying around now and they can...sometimes they get above hang gliders!' Not long after that, we decided to get into paragliding."

So are a few other people. Last winter, Mike Eberle mentioned he'd be flying on January 18 at Saddle Mountain, just for fun.

"You're talking ice, guy!" I told him, "You're talking snow!" "Yeah," he said.

I went to Ellensburg out of a kindness, so he wouldn't have to fly alone, and found that 29 other pilots had done the same thing.

Frozen gray sky looked like fireworks, for all the wings in the air; the colors forced a crowd of passersby to turn off the road to watch.

Wait till summer.

Richard Bach is a longtime pilot, novelist, and aviation writer. His books include Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Biplane, One, Stranger to the Ground, Nothing by Chance, A Gift of Wings, There's No Such Place as Far Away, Illusions, The Bridge Across Forever and his latest, Running From Safety. He's a commercial airplane and helicopter pilot with instrument, seaplane, glider, and multiengine ratings. Over the years, he has flown some 125 different types of aircraft, from warbirds and classics to ultra lights and aerobats. When not under the rainbow of his paraglider chasing rabbits, he regularly flies his P337 Cessna Skymaster.