Soaring on Silk

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

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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.

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