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 3 of 7)
The horse analogy is apt even when the wing is inflated and producing lift. Horsepower is a measure of moving weight over time. Lower a 220-pound weight down a 150-foot-deep well, then raise it to the surface in one minute and you have exerted 33,000 foot-pounds per minute, or one horsepower. White, who weighs around 200 pounds geared up, has ascended at 2,200 feet per minute, which works out to 440,000 foot-pounds or roughly 13 horses and a pony pulling a human closer to the heavens every minute. Ghost riders in the sky.
White incessantly teaches people to read the air. Standing in a restaurant parking lot or gazing out the post office window, he draws all eyes to the sky. The life that White strives for, up in that exquisite world of weather, has come along a fairly circuitous route. He worked as a back-country ski guide through his teen years, then left a seven-year career in the circus as a tight-wire walker, juggler, and unicyclist. “I was stagnating in the circus,” he says. “I wasn’t exactly Johnny Carson material.”
He then started an appliance store in Arizona and was earning $120,000 a year when, in 1990, he discovered paragliding and became obsessed. His wife Debra agreed that they should sell their $350,000 home, horses, and business so that White could figure out how to make a career of paragliding. They moved into a double-wide trailer in Flagstaff with their two toddlers. The next year White earned $27,000 teaching humans to fly.
He began offering lessons after being certified as an instructor by the U.S. Hang Gliding Association. He set up shop in a garage, where he sold the arcane accoutrements of paragliding. Today, eight years later, he runs two schools. He also sells equipment to current and former students, but relies on the kindness of wealthy patrons to keep the whole deal afloat. “If you want to make a million teaching paragliding, you better start with two million,” says White. A cheerful coterie of Microsoft millionaires, all Airplay alumni, fly with him and help keep the operation coasting, including Jabe Blumenthal, the man who owns the land near Cashmere where White conducts classes.
Blumenthal had been paragliding for several years in Europe and the United States when he accompanied White on a paragliding tour of the West Coast. He bought the Cashmere site because it had some of the best terrain and summer flying weather anywhere near Seattle. “I wanted to put together the best flying school possible,” he says. “Dixon struck me as the best instructor I’d ever run into. He’s intense, too much so for some people. But he is the best.”
At the Cashmere school, a three-hour drive from the Seattle area, White charges $800 to instruct pilots to the novice level, which requires 30 or so flights using the school’s equipment, and teaches around 60 students per year.
Steven Wilson, a 41-year-old Microsoft retiree, took up paragliding more or less full time in 1998. “I started taking lessons with Dixon and became, well, obsessed,” he says. Wilson, who worked in the company’s international marketing division, recalls sitting in fruitless meetings in windowless rooms, knowing that the weather was good for flying. Finally, he just couldn’t stand it anymore. Since he quit his job, he has logged more than 400 hours, often staying aloft for more than two hours at a time. “The season begins in earnest in April in the Northwest, and I’m out at one of about 10 sites at least three times a week,” says Wilson. “Then from June through August, I average about 25 flights a month.”
Cross-country flights are dependent upon the sun heating the ground and creating thermals, rising masses of warm air. From October to May the upper corner of the West Coast clouds up a lot, so White runs his schools and sells equipment in Washington during the summer and in Arizona in the winter. Five thousand dollars should provide an aspiring pilot with a beginner’s glider, harness, boots, helmet, radio, altimeter, and lessons that result in a novice pilot’s rating.