Learning to Fly: How Paragliding Puts Our Tiny Little World Into Perspective

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Chris Santacroce does not want to talk about my genitals. “That is way above my pay grade,” he says and walks away as I fumble with several body harnesses. I’m left contemplating which one is least likely to crush my cajones, which will soon host a conflict between gravity’s earthward pull and the upward lift of a paragliding wing. I settle on a black and green Advance Progress with ample room in the leg straps. It looks like something you’d use to leash an overgrown, insolent child at the mall.

I slip into it and waddle across a dirt lot to rejoin “Santa,” as they call the owner of Super Fly Paragliding, who is already holding court with six other students gathered around him in a semi-circle.

“It’s all about your eyes and your posture,” he demonstrates from under a black baseball cap, his white Nike running shoes sidestepping in smooth strides while his chin stays perfectly level, arms flapping slowly like a crane in flight.

Seconds later, he has the group break into their respective objectives. There’s a local police chief with his girlfriend, both ready to launch. An ER doctor and his nurse anesthetist wife are both kiting their wings overhead, trying to balance them like broomsticks. A middle-aged former hang glider has tripped and fallen and is being dragged across the parking lot by his inflated wing while a cute young model who works at the Super Fly office soars a hundred feet overhead. And then there’s me, the newbie, squirmy in an unfamiliar harness, standing around wondering what the heck is going on.

At first, the whole thing seems scattered with Santa running back and forth between students like he’s trying to catch falling snowflakes. But after a few minutes, it’s clear that he’s in a teaching flow state, easily able to manage all seven of us at once from his VHF radios like an active flight deck operator.

“Belle, you’re too far out. Circle back toward me,” he radios. “Mike, look straight out at the horizon, not up at your glider. Jason, more body steering. Less arms. You’re looking great.”

I’d come to Draper, Utah, to learn to fly through the air. As an experienced backcountry snowboarder, skier, mountain biker, and moderate rock climber and hiker, I was attracted to the idea of ascending a mountain and flying down without the knee-pounding descent on foot. I was also a bit bored and wanting to try something completely new; something in which I knew absolutely nothing.

Santacroce, 43, is a fast-talking father of two who’s been paragliding since the age of 17. He’s been a professional pilot and teacher ever since and spent 13 of those years as a Red Bull athlete, traveling the world to showcase free-flying sports. He flies everything from airplanes to paragliders to paramotors and has logged hundreds of skydives and BASE jumps. He also founded Project Airtime, a program for disabled/adaptive pilots to fly solo with custom wheelchairs.

Super Fly and Project Airtime operate alongside a handful of other local outfitters at The Point of the Mountain flight park, 19 miles south of Salt Lake City on Interstate 15. Wedged between an industrial mining operation and an encroaching housing development, the south side of the 300-foot hill is ideal for morning flights when the rising sun sends warming air upwards above Salt Lake, pulling flyable air up and over The Point and into the Salt Lake Valley.

In the cooling afternoons and evenings, the opposite effect often makes the north side of The Point flyable above a hilly family neighborhood with bird’s eye views of a sprawling Mormon church network.

Within the first half hour of rapidfire instruction from Santa, I pull my wing up overhead, the thin sheet of fabric teetering weightless above me as I tend the skinny lines from below like an inverted puppeteer. Through short, counter-intuitive micro adjustments and anticipatory footwork, I keep the wing up in a light breeze for ten straight minutes. In a stroke of absurd beginner’s luck, it seems easy and natural, but I’ll spend the next two weeks trying to repeat this fluke performance.

Later that afternoon, back at the Super Fly office, the introduction to ground school is just as rapidfire. A deluge of new terms like angle of incidence, angle of attack, Bernoulli, air speed vs. ground speed, rotor, anabatic and katabatic winds all come up on the projector as Santa concocts makeshift stick figure diagrams.

It’s impossible to retain everything all at once, but that’s not the point. “Like with flying, you just have to begin familiarizing yourself with these concepts through repetition,” says Santa, a chart of 24 different cloud types hanging on the wall behind him. “Once you hear them in context a bunch of times, they’ll start to make more sense.”

He tells the story of a friend practiced in the martial art of Tai Chi who tried to teach him some movement sequences. Santa was having trouble recalling the middle and ending moves. “Just nail the first move,” his friend said. “The rest will flow.”

Before I know it, I’m standing on the lower half of the training hill, helmet on, radio chirping in my ear, harness hooked into the risers of a purple and orange glider, trying to remember the first few things on the checklist. “R1234STARVE,” Santa says. “Reserve, 1 helmet, 2 carabiners, 3 points on the harness, 4 corners of the glider, Speed system and stirrup, Turning, Altitude, Radio, V: Risers and brake lines oriented [into a V], Everything else. You’re ready to go, now send it like a boss.”

Like a baby bird being kicked out of the nest, I pull the wing up overhead into a light headwind, center it above me, turn my body downhill and start running until my feet are kicking in the air. Suddenly all of the excitement and nerves and thoughts and fumbling with cumbersome equipment go into paralysis, time fades into irrelevance, and the stillness you’d expect to feel while gently floating through the sky on a cloud sets in.

To enter a completely foreign feeling of physical existence just a few feet above the earth’s surface brings me in tune with the idea that, oh yea, there’s a whole other world to explore up here in the sky.

After about nine long seconds in the air, the flat, dusty ground looks like it’s approaching me. I train my gaze on the horizon, point it into the light headwind, and follow Santa’s coaching on the radio to apply some light brake pressure on the hand toggles, then some more, then smoothly “flair” them all the way to bring my forward momentum almost to a halt as my feet plop down onto the dirt.

A rush of energy surges through my body and I belt out a short wolf’s howl, “Aaawwwooooooooo!” My mind races back up the hill wanting another lap. I’ve just accomplished the equivalent of snow plowing my way down the magic carpet bunny slope at a ski resort, yet I’m flowing with so much adrenaline it feels as though I’d just piloted a rocket through the thermosphere.

In addition to the whole flying off a mountain thing, my other primary goal of coming to The Point was to feel these beginner thrills again – where accomplishing the most minor, basic task feels monumental to a epiphanic degree.

“If your mind is empty, it is already ready for anything; it is open to everything,” writes Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in the book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” – “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

Lately, I’d become blase about some activities that used to rouse me to my core. I could still scare myself a bit on a snowboard or skis by riding steeper, more exposed lines or by climbing harder, more run-out routes or riding a bike faster and faster down winding roads or densely treed trails, but pushing the limits of fear is different than the thrill of learning something new.

Kiting a paragliding wing is like learning to use a whole new limb you never had before, only the limb is floating ten feet overhead and moving independently of you based on forces of nature and weather that you can’t even see. The challenge is highly engaging and also highly exhausting. “The mind/body integration is not cerebral and it’s not athletic,” Santa says. “It’s a whole new thing and it’s very taxing.”

By my fourth day, I’m overthinking everything and running out of mind and body memory. After a strong start to my morning kiting session, I can barely keep the glider up for more than a few seconds, tugging the wrong lines or yanking them too hard or moving my feet in the wrong direction.

Then I see a woman named Brynn, in town from Alaska, with her wing perched directly above her in perfect stillness. She’s barely moving and her inputs are so light and soft that she looks like a praying mantis playing the piano without looking at the keys. When it comes to precision, finesse is paramount. Like tennis or golf, sometimes performing the movement with too much strength can be worse than not putting any force into it at all.

Within a few short days, I’m flying off the top of both sides of The Point without step-by-step instruction. I’m soaring parallel to the ridge, landing smoothly in places I intend to land, and even “benching up” higher than the launch to upper elevations on the North Side where my dog follows me up and down along the trail.

On my tenth day, the weather is clear, warm and beautiful, the wind is fun with ample lift, and everyone is hot lapping – taking fun “sled rides” from top to bottom and shuttling back up in vehicles for the next one. At around 10 a.m., when the heat in the valley normally starts to release thermal pockets and make the air a little bumpier, we’re all psyched to keep flying.

Santa stops us for a moment of attention. “Hey, Guys,” he says. “Do you see how we’re all buzzing and feeling good and excited right now? This is what danger feels like. This is the time to check yourself.”

I try to heed his warning and slow things down, double check what I’m doing, and think a little bit more carefully. On my very next flight, the winds are light, so I go with a forward launch rather than kiting the wing up backward and turning to launch once everything is set.

With a running start, I quickly take off, but struggle to get myself seated in an unfamiliar harness. I’d forgotten to put my feet in the stirrup to push my butt into flying position. I manage to wiggle in, then try to turn left, but realize that my left brake toggle is wrapped around my riser and not at the proper length. This takes me a few seconds to detangle while I start to sink out.

At this point, I’m flying too far left of the landing zone. I don’t hear anything on the radio, but a few seconds later Santa screams from the launch “Turn right!” I do just that and manage to make the landing zone in time and come down smoothly, but I do so without any coaching because I’d switched radios right before the flight and launched without checking the new one for malfunctions, which it had.

This isn’t considered a close call, but it is enough of a reminder that getting overly excited and slacking on your checklists and systems, even on a simple flight, can have serious consequences, no matter how advanced of a pilot you are.

As I continue to improve and progress in this fun new sport, I’ll also need to practice recognizing when my instincts throw up the red flags telling me to check myself. The consequences only get more serious as I begin taking more advanced flights, going higher, farther, and in more complex weather and wind conditions.

“Ambition is for running marathons or careers,” Santa says. “It sounds dumb when you use that term for driving a car or paragliding. The only thing that matters is not hurting yourself or others … Long-term progression is the goal here, but paragliding can let you get away with doing stuff that’s beyond your actual progression. It will smack you down eventually.”

He goes on to stress the importance of listening to your gut telling you when to dial it back – the feeling that something isn’t right, even if you’re not sure what it is. “The best lessons here are the ones that teach you when not to fly,” he says.

Getting the hang of paragliding goes hand in hand with learning what can go wrong, how to prevent and deal with those issues when they happen, and how much more knowledge and understanding there is to spend years gaining. That may sound daunting, but in practice, it’s highly engaging – being so closely in tune with your body, your equipment, and how the weather and wind are interacting all around you on a micro and macro scale. I’ll never look at the sky or clouds or feel a light breeze the same way again.

On my way home to Colorado, after three immersive weeks of learning at The Point, I stop by a ridge-soaring spot called Otto’s Ridge outside of Grand Junction. A new launch, new landing zone, new people, and new wind patterns all feel familiar and foreign at the same time. I kite for a while, feel out the wind situation, and eventually launch for a pleasant, 5-minute ridge soar of back-and-forth figure eights.

As I rise above the cliff, my sense of space shifts and everything on the ground shrinks evermore, including life’s problems and worries and every other earthly thing from which I’m floating farther and farther away.

As I look east to set up one of my last turns, I see a bald eagle, wings stretched wide, soaring alongside me with grace and purpose. In this moment, I feel sure that I’ve transcended into the special club of living things that fly through the sky. Beginner or not, I feel like I belong here.

All photos by Scott Yorko.

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