Summary: If you can't fly, you can at least read about it! And with a wealth of great flying stories on the Internet, it's cheaper than visiting your local bookstore. This article gives you just a taste of the adventure-filled soaring tales you could be enjoying!
Deep down in most of us, there is or was a desire to fly like a bird. Can you relate to having 'flying dreams' more than just once or twice? For many people, the desire to fly has been crowded out since childhood by the concerns of a busy, responsibility-laden life. Other people however, continue on. They actively participate in air sports, and in particular, the engine-less soaring sports. And of those pilots, a small number also like to write about their most memorable experiences.
If you can't fly, can't afford to fly, or just don't have time, it's still possible to read about it. The Web is a rich source of such stories. Despite being such a graphical medium, written words on the Web will never go out of fashion. Most flying stories are non-fiction. Perhaps to some non-flyers, stories about adventures in planes without engines might read like fiction!
Here are the three forms of motor-less heavier-than-air aircraft that exist today, from heaviest to lightest. Firstly, sailplanes or gliders are heavy, streamlined planes with enclosed cockpits and wings 15 meters (50 feet) or more in span. They have the same basic controls as some light aircraft, that is a joystick and rudder pedals. Secondly, hang-gliders are foot-launched, fabric-covered rigid-wing craft. The pilot has control by grasping the control bar and shifting his/her weight left, right, forward or back. Thirdly, paragliders look like sports parachutes. The pilot hangs under the flexible wing and controls it using brake toggles which slightly distort the wing. Pulling the left toggle turns the paraglider left, while the right toggle turns the paraglider to the right. During landing, both toggles are pulled down at once.
Paragliding in Particular
After surfing the Web for some time I discovered some real gems where people had written about their paragliding adventures. Why focus on paragliding in particular? With the exception of ballooning, I have personally sampled all forms of motorless flight. But paragliding is really the closest you can get to flying like a bird. For one thing, birds have flexible wings and carry them wherever they go! But also, the paraglider is the lightest and slowest of all gliders, and so gives the pilot the most intimate connection with the surrounding air. I'm now in the process of getting back into this incredible aerial sport.
Some general observations can be made regarding paragliding tales. Paragliding is a 'sensation sport' so much is made of how it feels, and the emotions experienced during a particularly memorable flight. Exhilaration, addiction(!), beauty, serenity, relaxation, achievement to name a few. And let's not forget plain old fun!
The element of challenge is a strong draw to many who take up soaring sports. Making your way from A to B through the air with no engine is basically a never-ending series of judgement calls, coupled with real flying skill. And this is particularly true of paragliding.
When people write paragliding stories, I have noticed they tend to fall into one or more of several categories. Let's look at these now.
Some paragliding tales are almost minute-by-minute descriptions of a single epic flight. There are some great record-setting flight reports like this. One that comes to mind is a pilot's account of setting the Texas distance record in 2002. Risking major canopy collapses, he flew in very strong thermal conditions and over some of the ugliest imaginable terrain on that day. In some areas, a landing would have been very risky, in terms of immediate injury or dying of exposure afterwards. Scary but amazing stuff!
Others emphasize an extra-special flying location or region and the flying done there on one or several occasions. I can recall an ex Air Force guy's articles about some extremely remote and spectacular mountain flying in New Guinea. Not for the faint-hearted. Two exploits come to mind. Arriving at a high-altitude mountain crag just big enough to land the helicopter, for one. And later, landing the paraglider in a tiny jungle clearing that at the last moment reveals itself to be full of tree stumps!
Someone else wrote about conducting ridge flying clinics in wind-swept, hilly Colorado, USA. Good homey, beginner level stuff, but the writer made you feel like you were at the site on the day. Airborne in the company of other paraglider pilots. Experiencing all the subtle low-altitude thrills that paragliding along low ridges in smooth air can give. It certainly made me want to get out and fly!
Still other pilots expose their talent for writing just as much as producing interesting flying stories. If you go looking for stories written by pilots, there's quite a mix of personalities and writing styles behind the words on the page. You get a glimpse into the psyche of soaring pilots, which contrasts with powered pilots who are sometimes as noisy as the planes they fly!
Paragliding tales from beginners can also be found and of course make a good read for those who are just getting into the sport. Finally, some material can be found on an emerging area, aerobatics, or 'acro' as it is often referred to in paragliding circles.
I found some forum posts from a guy who backpacked around Europe to visit a number of paragliding competitions. But he was more into aerobatics. Yep, aerobatics in his paraglider, I kid you not. It's still illegal in some countries, for example Poland and Germany, and I get the feeling that these people are a little different from the rest of the paragliding crowd. They are risk-takers, young, independent-minded. And I suspect, almost exclusively male.
If you delve into it a little, you discover that, much like teenage skateboarders, these guys fill their paragliding tales with their own 'acro' words. Every trick has its name, and it's amazing what they can coax a flexible wing to do. Would you believe, they can loop these things! Now, I've looped a sailplane many times, and a lot of fun it was, but I was so surprised to discover that loops were even possible in a paraglider! Many other tricks involve maneuvers that correspond to the basic aerobatics that can be done in light aircraft. Others are exclusive to paragliding since they involve extreme distortions of the flexible wing.
So there you go. Have a look around and get into some soaring stories of the paragliding variety!
Word count: 1169
First Published: 9 Sep 2006
Copyright © Tim Parish, all rights reserved.