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
“I could huck a one-armed monkey with fleas off a 2,000-foot hill in a paraglider and it would get him to the ground in one piece,” Dixon White tells a group of his students. “A lot of instructors are doing that, then they bark a few suggestions into your radio and get you safely to the ground, but that’s not paragliding. That’s not what we’re doing here.”
“Here” is the Airplay Flight Park near Cashmere, Washington, a privately owned, 2,200-acre spread that looks like a series of golf course fairways superimposed on the treeless foothills of the Cascades. Paragliders, the vehicle of choice at Airplay, are aircraft that humans unfold, strap on, and, with nothing but the power generated by about four long strides of their feet, launch themselves from hilltops with. Paragliders can be stored in backpacks and are rigged as follows: A cushioned bucket seat is connected by webbing to Kevlar lines that splice into more than 100 attachment points along a 35-foot-long parachute, or wing, made of zero-porosity rip-stop nylon.
Dixon White has made more than 6,200 paragliding flights without
hurting himself, and he has jointly supervised more than 31,000 student flights that have resulted in three minor injuries and one tragedy. When White introduces people to the sport, he mentions the incident within minutes of beginning the orientation. The single fatality that he has seen at his school was a young skydiver headed for the U.S. Navy SEALS, who, on his fourth day of flying, disregarded White’s instructions and attempted a series of maneuvers that resulted in his becoming wrapped up in his glider and falling 100 feet. After bungling a turn, he immediately worsened his situation by pulling too aggressively on the glider’s controls, drawing the canopy underneath himself and falling into it.
“You must gently and thoughtfully manage the energy of a paraglider,” says White. “It happened so fast there was no way to respond in time. It was the biggest emotional setback for me and my wife ever.” White rakes his hand through his wavy brown hair; at age 43, he still has leading man good looks. He looks up and says: “Watch this sky, everybody. Cumulus being born. Hero air.”
About a mile above us, two of White’s instructors, Ryan Swan, a world-class extreme skier, and Brett Zaenglein, the 1999 U.S. National Sport Class champion paraglider pilot, are twisting up a thermal at 1,600 feet per minute. Against the popcorn cumulus sky, the pair of gliders look as slender and agile as nighthawk wings. Swan and Zaenglein are rising dramatically as they work the thermal, and White explains what they’re doing.
“When Brett and Ryan bounce a bit, they’re moving through the edge, trying to figure out the size and shape of the thermal and [how to] stay in it up to [the] cloud base, where they lose their lift,” says White. Thermals act like campfire smoke; they aren’t really columns or pipes. They drift and change shape. They can be as wide as a football field, “big and boaty,” or “wing-rocking bullets,” he says. “Raptors have those finger-like feathers at their wingtips so that they can be more sensitive about finding the rough edges of thermals and shearing into them. We feel the edges of thermals with the tips of our gliders and turn into them and try to stay in them. You folks will do this in a year or two if you stick with this.”
Suddenly White’s radio spits out Swan’s voice. “It’s getting pretty sporty,” he says, an attempt at undaunted understatement. But the combination of the cold temperatures at altitude, the turbulence, and the tiny speaker renders his voice puny. Zaenglein, speaking to Swan, adds, “Pretty spicy. Whoa! Falling out the backside. Don’t come over here.” White’s eyes are skyward, appraising his prodigies. “Pretty textured air, real active stuff,” he says. “Those guys are so cool. Those are my two best boys. On a good day, with a little luck, they might outfly me.” It ain’t bragging, they say, when it’s true.
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.
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.
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.”
White watches a more advanced pilot screw up a launch by mishandling his glider. He bites his tongue, turns to me, and says, “At some point I have to stand back and let them learn from blowing it.” Then he jogs over to help Matt Gerdes sort out his wing.
That night over ice cream with his apprentice instructors, White agonizes about a 300-pound student whom he reluctantly allowed to take lessons. That afternoon the big man belly-flopped a couple of times and began blaming his awkwardness on his glider’s performance. Swan and Zaenglein had watched incredulously as White ran downslope with the man on a launch and hung to the bottom of his harness as the guy got airborne for the first time. A gust carried them 12 feet into the air, whereupon White let go, tumbled, and popped up, still loping downhill and shouting directions to the big man trying in vain to fly.
“I don’t think I can let him come back,” he says, looking solemnly at the apprentices. “His weight isn’t the problem. If he told me he loves this and said some things about how fun it is, I’d stick with him. But he’s doing it for reasons that I can’t understand.”
The challenge of paragliding is that it takes place in an element that is invisible. Paraglider pilots have to deduce from easily missed cues how to find the rising currents that keep them airborne. They begin by looking and not seeing things in the air, and they progress, under White’s tutelage, to knowing where thermals are rising and flying boldly into their rough edges. He teaches advanced pilots how to ascend thermals to the highest altitude possible, how to glide and look for where the next one will be rising, and how to link up a series of these ascents and glides, a process that makes cross-country flights of more than 200 miles possible.
Of his students, DeVietti says: “They begin with the simplest little downhill flights, barely off the ground. Then we get them started on ‘sled rides,’ gliding down our 800-foot-tall hill into Spirit Canyon.” With the 7:1 glide ratio of the wings, those rides carry students nearly a mile in four or five minutes, with White or DeVietti up at the launch site talking to them by radio about how to handle the wing. “Soon the novice pilots want to start staying up longer and we take them to some higher places and get them soaring, staying up over the same place for a while, managing lifting air,” says DeVietti. “Then it gets to be time to try some cross-country flights. You start to consider what it would take to go over there. You start getting into more unstable conditions, more dramatically lifting air, which is what you need. Then you really begin navigating through some turbulence in the great river of air. At that point in a pilot’s progress, the decision to stay up depends largely on how the afternoon heating goes, and how much more turbulence the pilot wants to deal with. You also have to consider that as the afternoon heats up, landings get trickier.”
Students are told on day one to show up the next morning with weather information: the winds aloft, temperatures, and the location of the jet stream, all of which can be obtained by calling 800 WX BRIEF or tapping into White’s Web site at paraglide.com. He gives students succinct criteria for deciding whether to fly, based on information they gather in the morning. Beginners look at isobars—lines on weather maps that connect points of equal barometric pressure—and are told to forget about flying when there are more than two isobars within 300 miles. The closer together the isobars are, the higher the winds will be that day. And if the jet stream is within 100 miles of where you are flying, the base winds will be too high for safe flight. If the barometric pressure has dropped, unsettled weather is on the way.
If the initial weather predictions for the day are propitious, then paraglider pilots must observe the conditions at the launch site. They are instructed not to fly if cumulus clouds are taller than they are wide, if there is a multi-layered sky with clouds moving in different directions, and if wind gusts increase more than five miles per hour in five seconds—all signs that the air is too turbulent for safe flights. But if the signs are encouraging, students must start learning how to detect and use the thermals that create lifting air.
White uses an image to explain how thermals bloop up into the atmosphere. Slightly overfill a glass of water and surface tension allows it to bubble up over the top of the vessel. That tension is a fragile agreement between molecular attraction, barometric pressure, and gravity, and it breaks easily. Likewise, once the sun starts warming the ground, bubbles of warm air form along the surface, and eventually they exceed their ability to grow, whereupon they burst and rise. Their release may also be triggered mechanically, by something as small as a rabbit running through them.
As the mid-day sun bakes a south-facing slope in the flight park, White sits, sweating from a dozen sprints up and down the hill, his hands on novices’ harnesses and brake lines. “A lot of my friends who used to instruct beginners have quit,” he says. “They can’t take this running down the hill.” White watches the tilted slopes for riffles in the wheatgrass and sage, signs of thermals releasing. “This is closer to what surfers do than aviators,” says White. “Waiting, watching, gauging. Wanting a ride.” He considers that momentarily, then says, “It’s also like scuba diving, where you put people in an element where they have no reference points. There’s nothing they’ve done before that transfers. People who try this have never done anything remotely like it in their life.”
DeVietti, on the other hand, has drawn upon his experience flying airplanes. Working your way up into the sky on thermals is an experience at least fleetingly familiar to light airplane fliers, and many a fixed-wing pilot knows that the difference between the lifting mass and the ambient air can be very dramatic. Indeed, paraglider wings can temporarily deflate on the side entering the shear between turbulent and calm air. It is at this point that an inexperienced paraglider pilot may put the glider into a steep bank, pull the wing under himself, and become “gift-wrapped,” says DeVietti. If that happens, “you hope you’re high and have time to sort the situation out and regain normal flight.” If not, the pilot can deploy his reserve canopy.
“Small plane pilots want to get through thermals; paragliders make their living in them,” continues DeVietti. “Once you get through the rough edge, they can be big, and you’re in there with three or four friends. Or they can be small and hot and fast and you make tight turns that still get your wingtips into the sporty edges and you are working real hard to stay inside them. It’s like flying inside a Pringles can. Your wing is going asymmetric on the edges and you bounce around a bunch.” Fifty-percent-asymmetric wing deflations can occur and become less disconcerting as a pilot grows confident in the wing’s recovery characteristics.
White lays his hand on a patch of soil between stalks of mowed bunch grass. Using his wristwatch thermometer, he determines that the ground temperature is 114 degrees. “The whole valley is cooking up bubbles of warm air,” he says, smiling. The thermals, which had been releasing roughly every 15 minutes for the last couple hours, are whooshing uphill more often and much more forcefully. The air is too sporty now for beginners, so White loads everyone back in his big white Ford crew cab and heads down the hill.
He drops the students off at the picnic tables under the big maples at the school’s ranchhouse and points at the wooded, rocky throat that defines Hay Canyon opposite us and tells us to look up in a few minutes. He explains that he, Brett, Ryan, Doug, and Denise will drive back up, hike another 600 feet to the top of the mountain, and launch.
Half an hour later, from the picnic tables, we see them cutting S-curves up there, searching around for thermals. They rise and then glide down close to the ridges that lead into Hay Canyon. They continue rising and gliding, five humans within shouting distance of one another at 11,000 feet.
After they land, we learn that Zaenglein and Swan linked together a progression of thermals and glides that took them 35 miles over the eastern-most jags of the northern Cascade mountain range at altitudes above 13,700 feet. (The two men were not carrying oxygen since they had not expected to fly so high. But it is not uncommon for paragliding pilots to carry oxygen if they anticipate flying above 12,000 feet for sustained periods.) They landed at a ski area and hitchhiked home. Says Swan: “You can’t just extract what you want from the weather, but sometimes you get more than you hoped for.”
At one point Swan was 4,000 feet lower than Zaenglein, gliding ever closer to the slopes below in search of a thermal to carry him back up to Zaenglein’s altitude. “I was kicking treetops, stuck in a shaded mountainside and sinking,” says Swan. “Thought I’d get dirted”—meaning he’d land where he didn’t want to. Swan had visions of getting hung up in a tree, tearing his $3,600 paraglider, perhaps falling a hundred feet to the ground, and being 15 miles from the nearest road. “I flew in the shade, lower and lower, and finally got around a corner of this ridge, and there was some sunshine and a rocky slope heating up and I worked that back up,” says Swan. White jacks Swan up a bit: “Today you were in no-man’s land. You did something no one else has ever done. Just be very, very satisfied.”
During the week that I studied with White, the human genome mapping was completed. He rhapsodized one evening, while balanced on the tightwire he has set up outside the school’s ranchhouse, about how someday humans would fly without fabric wings, presumably through some genetic manipulation he hopes to see in his lifetime. It was hard to listen to such an uncharacteristically wacky discourse. I asked him if he believed that there is a risk-taking gene, expecting him to launch a lecture on how safe this sport could be with a thorough knowledge of weather and equipment and the appropriate attitude, etc. “Of course there is,” he said. “That’s a definite gene, a necessary gene. Human society didn’t evolve without risk-takers.”
White once walked 1,000 feet up a cable that suspends a ski chairlift at Aspen, Colorado. I got a little snotty and asked him if that was an example of a risk that moved society forward. He looked down at me patiently from the tightwire, upon which he had been balancing for more than half an hour. “We’re explorers,” he said. “We are testing the outer reaches. Good explorers aren’t adrenaline junkies. They prepare themselves as fully as they can, and then head out there.”