My First Flight
After many years in the sport of skydiving I’d always had a desire to fly for longer and enjoy the experience of human flight, not fall like a lead balloon and be back on the ground in a matter of minutes.
No disrespect to the wonderful and thrilling sport of free fall parachuting and all its variants, but for me, there came a time when I just wanted to stay in the air longer and take it all in. In fact, to an outsider looking in, you’d think that skydivers have a real aversion to being in the air. They just want to go faster and faster whether it’s in free fall or under canopy.
On top of that the high cost of jumping from aeroplanes (£25 for a minute in free fall and 3 minutes under canopy) is hard to justify sometimes.
So paragliding had always had a special appeal on many levels.
Eventually I decided to put all my other interests aside and dedicate my energy and time to an EP course and take the first steps to get back in the air.
It had been 8 long years since I last flew my (tiny) parachute around the sky and I was desperate to get back and feel that freedom you get when it’s just you and the elements and some basic technology keeping you afloat.
Finally the first day of my EP course arrived and thankfully the weather appeared to be suitable.
I met with the instructor and three other students who were marginally ahead of me in terms of their training.
I told the instructor of my previous experience in Skydiving, in case it made any difference to the training he’d give me. I did, after all, have 15 years of flying small, high performance parachutes plus 5 years as an instructor teaching first timers.
However, having been witness to several accidents in parachuting, I decided to repeat the words of Han Solo over and over again in my head.
“Don’t get cocky Kid.”
This was a new sport to me and, having watched the World’s Supply of YouTube videos on “Paragliding Fails“, I knew that there were probably more differences than similarities in these two sports.
To be fair to the instructor, he did omit the lesson on PLF’s since I had not only used this many times jumping Round Parachutes but also taught it for years.
So we started to go through the equipment lesson. Ok so it’s a Nylon Wing, bit like a parachute, but the lines are longer and the canopy is considerably bigger.
Knowing that I was an ex-skydiver, the instructor did make a point of telling me some of the Don’ts.
“Don’t pull on the front risers!” We do this occasionally on a parachute, but it definitely isn’t a good idea on a paraglider!
The harness is also a bit different to a parachute harness. It’s much bigger and heavier.
But what’s this back protection thing? Am I going to be hitting the planet that hard that I need to protect my spine? I did nearly a 1000 skydives with no more back protection than a cotton jumpsuit and a pair of jeans. However, I soon realised that launching off a rocky hillside probably justified some foam between me and the uneven surface that was now my personal runway.
Next thing I am told is that as a student I didn’t need a reserve!
No reserve?! In skydiving this is mandatory for all regardless of experience level.
But again, when I thought about it, how many times had I seen a reserve parachute used AFTER the main canopy has been deployed?
I was also reliably informed that the wing I would be flying was a beginners canopy which had very little chance of collapsing.
Ok, so I could that fear to rest.
Next up, Ground Handling. This is another thing that skydivers know nothing about. Kiting your canopy on the ground is almost never done. Most parachutists just want to get the canopy collapsed and rolled up under their arm so that can march quickly back to the packing shed and get ready for the next jump.
So this was one area that I definitely saw as a challenge and next hour was filled with pulling this mammoth wing around the countryside and the instructor shouting advice in a constant verbal stream that, to be honest, went in one ear and out the other.
Thankfully, I didn’t have much of an audience apart from some sheep looking on in the distance trying to make sense of seeing a lanky human with eyes like dinner plates pull a brightly coloured piece of materiel over their precious grazing ground.
To make matters worse the instructor then thought it would be a good idea to attach a rope to my harness and drag me along behind him.
However, technically this gave me my first paragliding flight of about 2 feet off the ground for possibly 3 seconds, maybe 4! And the buzz was real, even at this pitifully low altitude, not to mention my right testicle stuck under the leg strap.
Next up was a Tandem flight. Now we’re talking!
We hiked a further 500 feet or so up an adjacent hill and found a suitable spot.
So we got set up, equipment checked, all clear in front and behind and with a simple forward launch and a short sprint to the edge of the hill, take off was smooth and stable.
It didn’t feel like a parachute, it almost felt like it was on rails. Certainly much more stable than many of the small (scary) canopies I’d jumped for years.
So we headed off in search of lift. There was no Vario on the harness, but even in my inexperienced mind I could feel the rising air as we gained altitude.
On this particular day, there were other visiting experienced flyers from abroad and the skies started to fill up with brightly coloured wings searching for the best thermal.
On my first official flight I was flying in a Gaggle!
We spent a good 20 minutes in this area and most of it with me at the controls.
We landed on the hill side and the instructor then took me for some extra ground handling practice prior to my first planned solo.
The wind had picked up a bit and was gusting to maybe 15 knots, but we carried on with learning the technicalities of Reverse Launches.
Whether I was getting the hang of it or not is debatable, but at one point, when I lifted the canopy off the ground, an unfortunate gust grabbed my wing, and an equally unfortunate instructor grabbed my leg.
So off we went, blown up the hill side: Wing, Me, Him.
I can’t honestly remember what he shouted at me, something about the brakes probably. But we were dragged for a good 100 metres before he got control and we stopped in a heap. Extra entertainment for the experienced guys on the other side of the hill if nothing else.
Despite this minor mishap (does it happen a lot?) he still considered me ready for my first solo.
So he put a radio on my harness and said, “OK, you might take off here. If you do just fly around the hill and land near the farm track.”
Might take off??
So again I got set up for a reverse launch and this time the wing behaved. Straight over my head and pointing the right way.
“Ok, turn now!” He shouted.
So I turn and face forward… And take a few steps… And then something happened…
I rise up 20 feet, then 50 feet, then 100 feet!
Wait a minute, parachutes aren’t meant to go up? No, this is paragliding, we go up, not down.
I still count this as my first proper flight. The tandem was great, but now I’m solely in control of this flying machine and that, after all, was my prime objective.
So I tried the controls, pull left to go left, right to go right, quite easy really. Again the wing was stable and flew straight and true. None of this high performance parachute stuff where inch toggle pressure can mean a spiral dive and losing 100’s of feet in seconds.
It was now time to forget my skydiving days and re-align my brain for paragliding. I had to un-learn the old rules and start thinking like a pilot, not a gravity slave.
I followed the flight plan and contoured the hill around to position myself over the Land Rover track. A few thermals kept me up for a little longer but eventually I descended slowly to the landing area.
The landing was probably softer than any parachute landing I’ve ever had and it took little effort to flare the Firebird just before touch down.
So there I was on the ground, after 8 years I finally got to fly a Nylon Wing again and it felt great!
It felt wonderful to be back in the air again, it felt great to have done it under my own steam, it felt great that it was the beginning of an adventure, and it feel great that we have this sport where a person can climb up a hill and achieve flight with no fuel, no runway and at no cost.
Maybe my perspective on paragliding is different to other more experienced flyers at this point in time, but I get a definite sense of leaving my “Earthly” problems behind at that instant where my feet detach from the ground and nature takes over.
I’ll probably never jump from a plane again since I’ve done all I want to do in that sport, but right now a new adventure begins…