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Tracing lazy circles in the sky with Missoula’s paragliders


While the snow-covered peaks surrounding Mt. Jumbo remain shrouded in winter’s stubborn cocoon, it is the thermal air currents rising off the Missoula Valley floor on a sunny afternoon in mid-March that have drawn Chris Silks to the mountain. A light breeze tickles the colored streamers tied to a pole near the base of the “L” trail as a pair of black crows spiral effortlessly toward the cumulus clouds overhead. It’s a glorious day for soaring above Missoula but Silks, a novice paraglider pilot who’s flown only twice before off Mt. Jumbo, is prudently keeping his altitudes modest and his rides short—five to 10 minutes at best—as he acclimates to the weather conditions and the idiosyncrasies of this particular launch site.

Still, none of us spectators watching nearby is about to cough a muffled “Wuss!” into a clenched fist. Silks, a smokejumper for the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks, Alaska, is accustomed to being airborne in harsher conditions than these: high winds, thunderstorms and, of course, in searing proximity to wildfires. He maintains a healthy respect for his newly adopted sport, knowing full well that the forces of nature that will keep him aloft—or not—remain largely invisible.

“It’s amazing how much power you harness in these things,” says Silks, toying with his glider as it billows full of air even at the base of the mountain. “You’re dealing with a lot of energy, and if you’re not careful, you can get spanked pretty easily.”

Using Common Air Sense

Like any act of hubris involving the unnatural human endeavor of flight, one essential skill to develop for paragliding is your “air sense,” that is, an awareness of the constantly changing conditions around you: the gusts and lulls in the thermals that will carry a pilot 12,000 feet or more into the atmosphere, the formation of clouds that indicate where thermals and other weather cells are forming, the position of the sun, the speed and direction of the wind, and so on.

For paragliding enthusiasts in Missoula, telltale indicators can be found all over town, once you know where to focus your binoculars: the wind sock on the roof of St. Patrick Hospital used by LifeFlight helicopter pilots, the flags fluttering atop Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the smoke plumes emanating from the Smurfit-Stone Container plant and, naturally, the hawks and crows who seek out those very same thermals to carry them skyward.

Inevitably, a good paragliding pilot will master not only the fundamentals of micrometeorology, but another essential skill: patience. As Silks notes, “Some days you do a lot more ‘para-waiting’ than anything else.”

“There’s this saying, ‘You’d much rather be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground,’” advises Andy Onken, a longtime Missoula paragliding enthusiast. Onken, who has been paragliding for at least 10 years, helped the City of Missoula draft the section of the Mt. Jumbo Management Plan that regulates paragliding. Since Mt. Jumbo and Mt. Sentinel are both registered sites with the U.S. Hang Gliding Association, the non-profit organization that oversees both sports, you must be a certified hang glider or paraglider pilot to launch off either mountain.

Unlike the gear used in paragliding’s older sister sport, hang gliding, which generally requires a vehicle to transport the rigid-framed glider to the top of a mountain, a paraglider is a collapsible aerofoil canopy similar in design to the rectangular parachutes used in skydiving. Weighing about 35 pounds, it folds down to the size of a large backpack and can be carried easily on foot to any launch site.

In contrast to a skydiving harness, however, whose snug fit serves as a constant reminder of one’s manhood and/or womanhood, paragliding harnesses are looser, better padded and more comfortable, like a cross between a backpack and a camping chair, fitted with waist and leg straps. A paraglider is steered much the way a skydiving parachute is steered, using two hand-held brake cords that create drag that turns the glider right or left, or, when pulled simultaneously, “stalls” the wing and allows it to descend. Paraglider pilots also lean into each turn to maximize their momentum and minimize the amount of altitude lost.

Paragliders are launched on foot from the side of a mountain slope. The pilot either faces the mountain (a reverse launch) or faces downhill (a forward launch), raises the canopy overhead to inflate it in the wind, then runs downhill until reaching a wind speed sufficient to become airborne.

Once in the air, the flight can last anywhere from a few seconds to several hours, carrying a glider from a dozen yards to many miles from the launch site, depending upon weather conditions and the pilot’s abilities. The whole idea of paragliding is to stay aloft as long as possible, with flights off Mt. Jumbo and Mt. Sentinel having been known to last three hours or more, climbing 3,000 to 4,000 feet above the mountaintops.

“If you’ve ever dreamed about flying, rather than having nightmares about flying,” says Onken, “it’s way cool.”

Eventually, once a paraglider becomes proficient in riding the thermals, the next challenge is to travel “cross-country,” or climb high enough to catch a wind current that will carry the glider some distances. Since paragliders require a relatively small landing zone compared to hang gliders, they’re free to travel miles at a time, and even have an annual competition to see who can fly the most miles in a year. In the absence of a good two-way radio to have a partner retrieve them, a reliable hitchhiking thumb always comes in handy.

Your Ticket to Glide

The spring and fall seasons are generally the best times of year for “soaring” in Montana, due to their bigger, mellower and more organized thermals. During the summer, the valley can heat up too much, creating more turbulence than some paragliders feel comfortable riding. Nevertheless, many local paraglider pilots fly all summer long.

Despite the sport’s high visibility, not to mention the apparent abundance of mountains to launch from, it’s not as easy as you’d think to find places to learn the sport. I’m told that there is only one instructor in Missoula, Peter Swanson at the Sports Exchange, 113 South 3 West (721-6056) and only one full-fledged paragliding school in the state, High Plains Paragliding of Helena (1-888-259-1070). According to the High Plains owner, retired Navy pilot Mark Sivazlian, a person can learn to paraglide over a several weekends for a total cost of about $950. Although that price may be beyond many people’s budgets, Mark says he will apply $550 of that cost toward the purchase of new equipment for anyone who completes his classes.

That said, one of the primary attractions of paragliding is the relative ease and swiftness with which the sport can be learned compared to other aerial sports, with students generally getting their feet off the ground their first day out. Requisite equipment—glider, harness, reserve chute and helmet—start at about $2,000 for used gear, or about $4,700 for new gear.

One etiquette tip to keep in mind: Avoid the embarrassing faux pas of referring to paragliding as “parasailing,” that amusement park-type ride where a passenger is harnessed to a parachute, tethered to a motorboat and dragged around a lake, occasionally splashing down, swallowing water and bugs, and bellowing like a drunken idiot. In contrast, paragliding is a serious sport that requires training, pilot certification and a commitment of time, effort and money.

As for which sport is safer, hang gliding or paragliding, that depends upon who you ask. Hang gliding pilots argue that hang gliding is safer because their gliders have a rigid air frame that holds up better in turbulence, whereas a paraglider is more prone to collapse. Hang gliders travel at higher speeds, making them more stable in turbulence and able to soar faster from thermal to thermal. Then again, traveling faster can also make landing harder, and requires a bigger landing zone. Recent advances in materials and design in the past five years have made both sports considerably safer and easier to learn.

Obviously, like any airborne recreational activity, paragliding is not without an undeniable element of risk; i.e., becoming a permanent addition to the hillside landscape. Although gliders off Mt. Jumbo are required to be certified at a novice level, and an intermediate level for Mt. Sentinel, and carry a reserve chute, elsewhere paragliding is a largely unregulated sport compared to other forms of aviation. So, like the harness and glider that you hoof up to the top of the mountain, your personal safety rests almost entirely on your own shoulders.

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