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Soaring on Silk

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

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.”

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