Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Learning to Fly

We're in Santa Barbara to take paragliding lessons. One of my co-workers, in response to our climbing adventures requested that we please keep our feet on flat ground. But what would be the fun in that!

Quite a few years ago we had done tandem hang gliding flights in La Jolla, California and really loved it. More recently we went tandem paragliding in Darjeeling, India. Again, we loved it.

Note: Hang gliding is where the glider has a rigid frame and the pilot hangs in a horizontal position. A paraglider is more like a long wing-like parachute where the pilot is in a sitting position. When you fly tandem your harness is connected to an experienced pilot and they do all the flying. With a good pilot takeoff and landing are surprisingly easy and it's an awesome experience - definitely recommended.

Then when we were scuba diving in Raja Ampat we ran into an older retired couple from Switzerland who had learnt to paraglide in the last few years. That got us thinking that maybe we should give it a try. After all, we really needed (sarcasm) another hobby/sport that wasn't really suited to Saskatchewan, and that required a bunch of fancy gear :-)

So when we started planning the current road trip we thought we'd try to fit in some flying lessons. Originally we planned to go to the south-east for a change and found a paragliding school in Oklahoma. But when we contacted them they said the weather wasn't good for flying this time of the year. (We appreciated their honesty!) As it turns out, the east would not have been a good choice with all the crazy weather this year. It's been bad enough out west (e.g. snow in Vegas) We were told California was our best bet and when we saw several schools in Santa Barbara we decided that would be a good choice since we'd stopped there before and liked it.

When I was a teenager my father tried to talk me into taking flying lessons with him. Of course, as a teenager the last thing you want to do is hang out with your father so I said no thanks. Now, of course, I think I must have been crazy to pass up something like that. My father (like many young men of his generation) wanted to be a fighter pilot in World War 2. He was sent to Canada (from Britain) to flying school. He didn't get selected as a pilot and ended up as a navigator on Lancaster bombers. It was probably a more suitable choice for a geek (he was a research scientist). No GPS in those days so navigating involved taking star shots with a sextant and lots of hand calculating (not even any electronic calculators!)

I think he would have approved of me finally learning to fly. (Although as a father he wouldn't have been impressed with yet another dangerous sport!)

Our first day of flying lessons was cut short by a thunderstorm, something that almost never happens here (two years since the last one). So we didn't get much beyond learning to put on the harness and to get the paraglider off the ground - flying it from the ground a bit like a giant kite (called "kiting") Even that little bit was pretty cool. If the wind gusted or you adjusted the controls wrong you could easily get lifted off the ground (with the instructor there to pull you back down).

Today the weather was perfect and we had a long and, by the end, tiring day. After a little bit more kiting at the top we moved to halfway down the hill and did our first short straight flights. Then we moved back up to the top of the hill and did flights all the way down, including a few turns. After a too brief lunch break we were back at it, practicing kiting in a reverse position. This was probably the trickiest technique so far. It’s easy to get the canopy up, but it is also frustratingly easy to drop it in a mess on the ground. (Or get lifted off your feet, as I did several times.)

Thankfully we finished the reverse kiting practice for the day and ended with a few more flights from the top of the hill. Unfortunately, the wind had almost died, which meant more running to take off and trickier landings. I managed to crash in the bushes on one takeoff and Shelley wiped out on landing, but other than that it went pretty smoothly. Flying, at least the simple stuff we're doing is the easy part. As with many things, the parts you think will be hard (like getting the glider off the ground) turn out to be easy, and other things turn out to be trickier than you'd think.

In case you're thinking we're too old for this kind of nonsense, one of the other people taking lessons with us is a guy in his eighties (don't tell Shelley's dad!)

Here's a sequence of photos showing a typical flight from the top of the hill:

Shelley paragliding
getting ready

Shelley paragliding
getting the canopy in the air

Shelley paragliding
canopy up, time to run

Shelley paragliding
the fun part!

Shelley paragliding
coming in to land

Shelley paragliding

It was a long day and we were pretty tired by the end of it. Despite a few minor struggles, it was fantastic and we had a lot of fun. A big thanks to Chris Grantham at Fly Above All (and Bill Heaner who was helping instruct).

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