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Learning to Fly

Have you ever dreamt of flying like a bird?  

To be honest, before I tried paragliding, I hadn’t even dreamt of flying. I am not very daring with my dreams you see. I don’t often allow myself to wish for what I cannot have. Keeping my dreams on a short leash and refusing to acknowledge them until I can clearly see a path there is my auto-setting.  Luckily I have Mike in my life, whose imagination and creativity more than makes up for my lack thereof!  It was his dream to fly. On learning that we could pitch up at a flight school on a Saturday morning and have taken two to three solo-piloted flights by Sunday evening, I was in!

Day 1

It starts with introductions, coffees, a short explanation of paragliding basics and some ground-handling practice. Within a few hours, I’m up a hill, strapped to a glider and preparing to fly off. Last pre-flight five-point check. Ready? Go: Pull the glider up and run-run-run-RUN-RRUUNN! Whooohooo. Steer straight AWAY from the mountain! Okay, now sit back in your harness. Brilliant! Now, make a gentle 90 degree turn to your left....

The take-off is not the stomach-falling-out adrenaline rush that I expected (as one gets when first skydiving or jumping off a waterfall). It’s a smooth and gentle picking-up instead of a fall.  Once up in the sky only a crackly radio connects me back to the ground. My focus is 110% on listening and doing exactly as the voice on the radio is telling me. The steering is simple: pull the left brake toggle to turn left; the right to turn right; or pull both together to slow down. The sensitivity, intricacy and understanding to fly skilfully take years to develop. 

Getting licensed to fly

A couple of years after that first introductory weekend Mike and I had the time and just enough cash to do the basic SAHPA (South African Hang gliding and Paragliding Association) license course to learn to fly without instructor supervision.  Full time this can be done in a minimum of 10 days, or it can be done over weather-permitting weekends over a period of up to five months. Over winter in the Western Cape, ours was the latter option.

A few years on

Paragliding is one of my absolute favourite feelings. Unfortunately the sport is also dangerous and becomes more so when you practice both skills and judgement less frequently. Weather conditions largely dictate when it is or is not safe to fly. Often, particularly in the Western Cape, one will drive one to two hours to reach a site that is forecast to have good conditions only for them to change upon arrival. Turning home without flying is always wiser than pushing the envelope in a sport where impatience can cost you your life. As I write this I am sad to admit that I have hardly flown at all in the last year. However, recently hearing about the new “Run&Fly” gliders that fit in a race vest style pack has got me very tempted to get going again...

Where to find out more:

Here are some links to paragliding schools – there are also quite a few more (Google knows)

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“The take-off is not the stomach-falling-out adrenaline rush that I expected (as one gets when first skydiving or jumping off a waterfall). It’s a smooth and gentle picking-up instead of a fall.”

Robyn Owen describes what it’s like learning how to paraglide, and how it’s actually easier than you think.

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"More than anything else the sensation is one of perfect peace mingled with an excitement than strains every nerve to its utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination." - Wilbur Wright.

Robyn Owen talks about the intricacies that come with learning how to fly…

Image Credits:  Mike Owen @miketfowen