If you’ve spent much time with me, then I’ve probably told you about my desire to learn speed riding. If you didn’t know that, it might be because you zoned out and ignored my more ambitious ideas. I assure you however that speed riding is a real thing that people participate in, and trust me its not as crazy as it looks (barely). Speed riding is a special type of paragliding that uses a smaller more maneuverable wing to achieve higher speeds and stay closer to the ground. It has the added enjoyment of doing this while skiing, so that you can also get a few turns in while flying. This has appealed to me for some time. More so than base jumping or wing-suiting, as it doesn’t require any free fall, (if you do it right). This is one of my favorite videos that gets me amped up to learn.
When the opportunity to learn to paraglide was presented to me a few months ago, I jumped at the chance. Jacob Fry, my friend and old camp counselor from high school days, happens to be working in Queenstown this season as well. I connected with him and I knew he did a bit of flying. More specifically para-motoring (paragliding with a large fan on your back). I chewed his ear off with questions until he offered to teach me.
“Yes”, I exclaimed, “When are your days off?”
It wasn’t for another month or so after this conversation that we managed to meet up and head out to the flight park, for some paragliding 101. Jacob is a great teacher and seemed to find joy in just re-setting the wing for me, giving me an extra push, or allowing me to learn from my mistakes, while offering helpful advice. We briefly went through some wing theory and then got straight into forward launch practice. Then we tried some reverse launches and some ground handling. Ultimately, I found it tricky and intense, but not overwhelmingly so. After a solid day I was doing some pretty nice launches on flat ground. Not actually getting airborne, just running, which was exhausting. While I had some really good launches, I also had some bad ones, even though I thought I was doing everything right. At times it seemed a bit unpredictable whether the wing would get up successfully. On flat ground, no harm done. But If you are running towards a cliff, you would rightfully want to be 100% confident.
We met up another time a week or so later. Jacob thought I was ready to launch off the small training hill at the flight park, which would allow for about 30 seconds of flight time. This hill however requires a southerly or south westerly wind for a beginner like me to get airborne safely. Unfortunately, the wind did not play along. Great, another weather dependent sport, why couldn’t I just choose to play basketball or something. We practiced some more launches for an hour, but then I had to shoot off to work. Thus concluded day 2.
Another month went by and I messaged Jacob and asked if we could try again. He was busy, but kindly offered to lend me his wing. But, only if I could find someone else with experience to go with me. Luckily Nick, (You may remember him from my previous post) has his PG2 license and was stoked to get invited along and teach me to fly. We started with some practice launches in the northerly wind. Disappointingly, I felt like I wasn’t doing as well as on my first day. We kept watching the windsocks and in the afternoon the wind began to change. As soon as the wind sock began to turn to the south west, we raced to the top off the training hill. We had to wait for an hour or so for the wind to change consistently, so I took the opportunity to have a nice nap in the sunshine. Finally it was go time.
Nick went first and crushed it. I watched him hike back up the hill with the biggest smile on his face, despite the sweat from the hill and unexpectedly hot day. Finally it was my turn. The wind was looking good. We laid the wing out and I decided to do a reverse launch. I felt more confident with this as it was easier to tell if I should abort or not. On my first attempt I got flustered, and couldn’t remember how to twist the lines correctly, to allow me to spin around. We got it sorted and then I was just standing there watching the windsock. I had butterflies in my stomach like I haven’t felt since the last time I went highlining.
I felt the wind pick up, and I went. Running backwards down the hill, I yanked on the A-lines to bring the front of the wing up. It came up quickly at this point and then as soon as it was over my head I span around. Still running down hill, I fumbled for the brake lines. Once they were in my hands, I leaned forward, extended my arms back and ran like an character from a Japanese anime. Suddenly the harness started to feel tight around me and then I took a step and my foot didn’t touch the ground. I quickly sat into my harness and that was it, I was flying!!! It felt amazing. All too quickly though, I had to start thinking about landing, and this was something I hadn’t done before. Its obviously hard to practice this part until you get airborne. We had just talked it through on the ground. I thought through my mental checklist and started to make the preparations. I looked at the windsock to find the wind direction on the ground and turned into the wind. As I got lower, I thrust my hips forward and stood out of my harness. “I’m going to fast” I thought, “this is going to suck”. But just as both Jacob and Nick had told me, I waited till I was nearly on the ground, and then I slowly but steadily, pulled on my brake lines to flair the wing. It slowed me down perfectly and I landed with a couple of graceful steps. Thus concluded my first flight. I was so stoked and super proud of how well I did. Nick and I did three more flights each for the day and I had a mixture of good and bad take offs and landings. With every flight I learn’t a little more. These were only a small flights and Jacob’s wing is not completely appropriate for my weight, but it has given me confidence to pursue paragliding further. Although it is nothing like the speed wings I hope to pilot one day, it is a step in the right direction. I’m more excited than ever, to strap some skis on and fly down a mountain now. Finally many thanks to Nick and Jacob for giving me this opportunity, and teaching me to get back to earth in one piece
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