Soaring on Silk
Dixon White teaches students how to use parachutes to go up as well as down.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 2 of 7)
We watch the wings of Swan and Zaenglein spiral higher. “How’s it now?” White queries into the radio. “Can’t talk, gonna die,” says Zaenglein. White laughs and we know he wants to be up there with them. He shrugs and grins and turns his attention back to the gaggle of fledglings he is training. The influence White has had upon the sport of paragliding was recently acknowledged by his peers, who voted him the United States Hang Gliding Association Instructor of the Year in 1999. It was the first time in the 28-year history of the association the title was awarded. More than 140 letters arrived at USHGA’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, citing such White contributions as making safety a fundamental and systematic series of habits, and weather a part of the sport understandable to lay people. “He’s one of the best,” says Phil Bachman, executive director of the USHGA. Marty DeVietti, White’s head paragliding instructor, was voted Instructor of the Year for 2000, distinguishing the school from more than two dozen others in the United States.
White is also training two apprentice instructors, Denise Reed, the 1999 women’s boxing champion of Alaska, and her pal Doug Stroop, both chemists who abandoned careers in the oil industry to fly paragliders. Reed and Stroop traveled from Alaska on a week’s vacation to take paragliding lessons with White. They then went home and started making plans to quit their jobs, lay aside the boxing gloves, and go paragliding full time. The sport is replete with adherents who have quit jobs, left lovers, divorced, sold off belongings, and altered all routines to pursue this form of flight. There are approximately 4,000 USHGA-registered paragliders in the United States and 300,000 worldwide, and every one of them has seemingly neglected someone or something to partake of the sky.
Paragliding has been far more popular in Japan and European nations than in the United States, possibly because these smaller, more congested countries don’t have as many airports to support general aviation flying as can be found in the U.S., making paragliding a practical choice for those who want to fly. Still, according to the
USHGA’s Phil Bachman, the number of paragliding pilots is increasing in the United States, particularly in Colorado, California, and the Northwest. The USHGA sanctions four official paragliding competitions a year, and there are about the same number of non-USHGA events, most of them held during the summer.
Up in Whisper Valley, the site of the beginner’s slope, Reed and Stroop help students spread their wings in spots all across the 400-foot-wide upper valley. White literally runs back and forth instructing apprentices and students. One student at a time, with White at his or her side, raises the canopy into a gentle breeze, brings it overhead, and sets it back down. Within an hour or so, one by one, with White running downslope and helping them launch, they begin making 200-yard flights that look like moonwalking, taking 50-foot hops or skipping on tiptoes for a 100 yards. This takes a splendid few hours, which extend into the evening when long shadows cool the valley and stop the thermals. “We’re done flying,” White tells his students.
When European mountain climbers began paragliding in the late 1980s, flying the new rectangular sport parachutes from summits as a way of getting down quickly, the launches looked different. The climbers would lay a sport chute behind themselves and start running downhill to inflate it. More than 10 years later, after White had joined the sport and become a master pilot and instructor, he began changing it fundamentally, starting with the act of getting off the ground.
Launching a paraglider, if you follow White’s reverse method, reminds me of handling draft horse teams, as I did in the forests of Oregon 25 years ago. Giving a team the giddy-up with your back to them wouldn’t make much sense, and neither does launching a paraglider that is behind your back. “Any instructor who doesn’t teach reverse launches is behind the curve,” says White.
To launch, you stand facing upslope, holding lines in both hands, with the wing, or sail, laid out in a 30-foot horseshoe shape on the ground before you. The lines give you information as you step back, pull lightly, and raise a little wall of sail into the wind. The open cells on the leading edge begin to inflate and climb up in front of you, tugging at your arms and the harness points at your hips. You head downslope. Your arms control the paraglider’s sail as if it were a pair of wings, allowing each side to ascend or descend. The feeling in the lines can be like that of a team of freshly broken coach horses, each wanting to dash off in a different direction, or it can feel like a hitch of docile Percherons gathering their shoulders into the harness and pulling you unfalteringly up a mountain road. Steering the wing requires sensitivity and skill at feeling subtle sideslips, forward and backward surges of air, and managing the horsepower up there at the end of the lines.