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Soaring on Silk

Dixon White teaches students how to use parachutes to go up as well as down.

“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.

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