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 4 of 7)
On the first day of a lesson with White at the school in Cashmere, usually held around the ranchhouse picnic tables, he advises students that he doesn’t want them referring anyone to him for lessons who doesn’t have the money to buy equipment and the patience to learn the sport. “Send me people who have always wanted to fly, who dream about it and talk about it and who you think can become completely preoccupied with it,” says White. “Don’t send me any Mountain Dewers. I’m not here to give joy rides. They’ll find instructors who do.”
Many of White’s students are current or former aviators, such as Bill Holsgrove, a DC-10 captain for Hawaiian Airlines. Joe Rumble, a 73-year-old former smokejumper, has flown with White 102 times since 1998. “I’ve been around aviation all my life,” says Rumble. “I tried to get a pilot’s license in the ’40s but got shortstopped. Then, at age 70, I got started with Dixon. Man, it means a lot to fly.”
Marty DeVietti, White’s chief instructor, is an instrument-rated fixed-wing pilot with a bachelor’s degree in aviation technology. He started taking paragliding lessons in 1991 at the North American Paragliding school in Ellensburg, Washington, and he worked at NAP for five years as an instructor. “The quality of my instruction was first rate, and I felt that the program we had [at NAP] was very comprehensive,” says DeVietti. “However, after five years, it seemed that the program was more or less the same as when I started. Meanwhile I had noticed pilots from Dixon’s school who were being taught in ways that seemed very progressive.” In 1998, DeVietti started working at White’s schools as an instructor.
He and White have schooled a plethora of former general aviation pilots who quit flying because of the expense. But the sport also appeals to those who dislike airplanes, like White. “My dad and mom were both fixed-wing pilots,” he says. “Mom gave it up when she had me. My dad would take me up and tell me to keep on a bearing and altitude, then he’d lean back and read a magazine. I’d be scared, then bored. I hated the smell, the radios, the equipment-intensive environment. I don’t like being a passenger.”
Even hang gliding left White feeling indifferent. “I had a tandem hang glider flight once and didn’t think much of it,” he says. “They require assembly, they rattle, and they make me feel like a passenger. In a paraglider, I’m a piece of the aircraft. Knees in the breeze, managing the energy of all that sailcloth. It is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”
Far more serious than fun, however, is the business of teaching others to fly, and managing students’ emotions, says White, is the toughest part. Matt Gerdes, a broadly grinning, hip, 22-year-old river guide, is having a great second-day lesson. He stands harnessed to his grounded glider, fussing with the sets of risers, or webbed straps, gathered in his hands. White walks over to help him launch and surreptitiously throws a tangle into Gerdes’ lines that would not impede a safe flight. “You look ready,” says White. “Go ahead.”
Gerdes pulls the glider into the air but immediately aborts the launch. His paraglider’s wing has risen up on one tip like a rampant caterpillar, folded itself over like a fortune cookie, and rolled up into a bird’s nest of webs and lines. “Good for you,” White applauds. “Launches are optional, landings are mandatory. Don’t ever let anyone tell you when you are ready to fly. You are a pilot in command of your aircraft.” As Gerdes looks crestfallen at the mess of lines, White gives him a hint on how to begin the untangling before walking away. “Too happy too soon,” he tells me. “He was getting complacent.”
White surveys the hillside and approaches an ex-Marine who wears black pants tucked into black boots and a T-shirt about tequila. In two days he has had eight short flights and a couple of sublime four-minute glides. “How’s it going?” says White. “Lousy launch,” says the ex-Marine, seeking commiseration. White faces him and starts in loudly: “You’ve just had two days of great weather and some beautiful flights. Lose the attitude. In fact, I can’t stand listening to negative crap up here. Bad attitudes anticipate failure and cause accidents. One more complaint and you don’t get invited back.” This “straighten up and fly right” tirade makes the other aeronauts on the slope fall silent, like a lull in the wind. The former Marine stands at parade rest. “Please get after some ground handling and kiting,” says White quietly. “Look at what fun everyone else is having.”