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Hooked on the Outdoors Magazine Article

Surfing The Sky
By Tom Harpole

Enlist in Dixon's Airplay School and he will teach you to navigate the greatest river of all-the wild and scenic blue yonder

It's seven o'clock on a hot August morning, and I've been sled-riding paragliders off an 800-foot volcanic cinder cone called Sheba since dawn. Sled-riding isn't the preferred way to fly a paraglider - veteran paragliders dis' it - but when there is no wind, hey, you take what you can get.

Paragliders are aircraft in a backpack. Humans strap them on, then launch from a hilltop and soar like raptors, ascending to the base of cumulus clouds, riding thermal updrafts, gliding from one thermal to another in a series of airy steps. But not today. Instead, Dixon White's paragliding students have been attempting to launch in no-wind conditions. For three mornings, we've shown up at the south edge of Arizona's Painted Desert hoping for the upslope winds that aid in launching. Each morning has started out calm, then after a couple of hours, the wind suddenly starts gusting up to more than 20 mph: too sporty for beginners to fly. Now, White is frustrated and we're frustrated because this site can have propitious weather for 10 days straight.

WITH HIS DESIGNER BEARD that keeps dropping into consternation, White, at 44, looks like a young Alec Baldwin. He was Paragliding Instructor of the Year in 1999, has made more than 6,700 flights without injury and has overseen more than 23,000 student flights, which have included only three minor injuries. Only once has he had to call an ambulance; for a proud, Navy Seal with too many hot-dog skydives under his belt, who hamhanded his paraglider, pulling the wing under himself and falling into the collapsed half of his wing. Everything went irrevocably wrong. There was no time for the two-way radio. No time for White to respond or help. The Seal fell 150 feet to his death. White tries to tell the story didactically to every new student, but often he chokes on it and settles for: "I am a stickler on safety. Everything I say is critically important. If you aren't listening all the time, we're both wasting our time."

Listening is exactly what I am doing. My 32-foot-wide purple and yellow wing is laid out in a huge horseshoe shape just up-slope. With my back down-slope, I run a few steps backwards and pull it up off the ground. As it arcs overhead, I pivot and run downhill. Problem is, I keep running out from under the center, spilling air out from one side of the wing. On my fourth launch attempt, it sighs and collapses again as White hollers over the radio, "Run left, pull right. Feel the center, stay under the center."

I have worked my way so far down the slope on the aborted launches that he can't prompt me without a radio. I follow his advice and correct my center until I am lifted into the air so subtly that I continue to churn my legs like Wily Coyote. The earth falls away as the glide carries me 50 feet above the ground. With knees in the breeze and hands on the controls of my wing, I sit back in the harness and savor a descending sled-ride of about a mile.

White guides me: "Make a soft right turn. Not so hard. Okay. Pull a little left turn. Good. Head for that orange traffic cone down there. Remember, get out of your seat way early and flare about six feet off the ground and hold that flare down until your wing stops."

About four minutes later, having descended 200 feet per minute, I land in the crunchy, forgiving cinders at the bottom of the slope. I pivot and face my wing as it drapes itself across the sere landscape, big as a haystack tarp. I relish some familiar thoughts while gathering the lines, bunching the canopy into a rosette.

If the earth were reduced to a sphere the size of an orange, the relative thickness of the atmosphere would be a single layer of cling wrap on that orange. Ever since humans began to learn to navigate that ocean-like layer of air, our appetite for flight has grown stronger. Spending time up there under a fabric canopy is the easiest way to understand this glorious quest.

I have more than 200 skydives and didn't think that paragliding would delight me so. Once, about 50 jumps ago, as I pulled my reserve chute handle, I could see where I'd die in a few seconds if the reserve malfunctioned. Skydivers act with the zeal that dogma demands of disciples. Paragliding, on the other hand, is cerebral; it has little to do with brazenness.

"This sport is 10 percent skill. The rest is meteorology," White insists.

White's other students, stately as herons, glide off the top of the cinder cone. The sun backlights their wings. One yeehaw inspires the whole gaggle like a cough in church. With the last airborne and descending, White drives ponderously down a two-track gully in his 3/4-ton crew cab Chevy to meet us. He walks around to his students and debriefs them. He understands the power of praise, and he commands the students' full attention as he critiques their flight.

Our group comprises two thirty-something Web designers from France, with whom he speaks a clipped French, a 52-year-old COO of a dotcom relocation company, the 26-year-old owner of a carpet cleaning business, a carpenter and me. We are all in serious stages of obsession with unencumbered human flight.

As we drive back up the hill, White pulls over, excitedly pointing out our wake of dust. It has been blowing uphill and settling on us as we ride in the bed of the pickup. In a matter of 10 minutes, the upslope winds have kicked up to a good 12 mph. Too sporty for rookies. But White can fly in these conditions. He parks on a bench a third of the way up the slope and invites us to climb out and pay attention.

Within two minutes he has unfolded his glider and buckled into his harness and helmet. He barks out the preflight checklist, looks over his shoulder a few times, and with his back to the wind he lifts the leading edge of the wing overhead and pirouettes 180 degrees. The wind lifts him vertically and a little backward and he rotates his arms forward to the "I surrender" position, his hands on the control lines at ear level. He hovers 10 feet off the ground like a hawk over a gopher hole. With subtle weight shifts and manipulations of the control lines he descends to tiptoes and dances a figure eight around us as easily as though he were suspended from a celestial swing set over which he exerts control. He evangelizes from his lofty pulpit. "Practice is the mother of skill," he croons from 30 feet above us. "Practice kiting and ground handling skills at the park. Great chick magnet," he says. The single French guys arch Gallic eyebrows.

White incessantly teaches us to read the atmosphere, and the micrometeorology of mountains, valleys, coastlines and the desert. Standing in a restaurant parking lot, or gazing out the post office window, he draws all eyes up to the "Great river of air we are learning to navigate," as he says. Every day with Dixon White begins with a discussion of weather data gleaned from the links on his Web site ( that helps us build a model for what the atmosphere is likely to provide that day.

White spends an hour or so helping beginning students interpret this data first thing in the morning. During that time, we decide whether or not paragliding will be possible that day. "Knowing what the weather is doing gives pilots the patience to wait for safe conditions, the patience to hang around a mountaintop and watch thermals triggering all morning until you feel comfortable with what's happening. You must learn patience." He knows we're anxious to fly and speaks to us as if he were gentling horses.

Talking fluid mechanics helps White teach us how to model the weather that makes paragliding possible. To understand the characteristics of thermals wicking up hillsides, imagine inverting the landscape by using your hand. Your palm is the earth's crust. The top of your hand the surface. Invert your hand so that the mountains of your knuckles and the valleys and ridges of your fingers face the ground. Pour water in your palm. Notice how it drains down between your fingers and wicks to the points of your knuckles before it releases into the air. Paragliders seek launch sites that lie above places where thermals puddle on the ground (like the water on your knuckles), before releasing and running up hills into the sky to form clouds.

When puddles of warm air release over level ground, they rise like columns of bonfire smoke and form cumulus clouds. Those cumulus changelings define the altitude where the thermals peter out and clouds blossom. Pick out a young wisp of a cumulus cloud at mid-morning sometime and dedicate yourself to watching it for a few minutes. Most of them, early in the day, live and die in 30 minutes.

These releases of energy that make sustained paragliding possible are endlessly fascinating to White, who has now landed and reviewed how to fold and stuff a wing into its container. He reminds his students to observe the grasses below as they begin shimmering in the breeze. The shimmer ascends the slope below us, the air huffs and sighs, and the grasses hiss. White says, "Let's watch a few more triggers, they're coming about 12 minutes apart, and see if we can decide what we might do with them." He tells us that today is a bit warmer than the previous days, and he believes the thermals that are building up on the floor of the desert for a dozen miles around us are creating an enormous bubble that is pushing the regional wind high above our cinder cone. He says that the conditions at the top of Sheba could be good. I wonder out loud if the wind up there might be a bit beyond my skill level.

He makes eye contact with me, waits for it to clinch and says: "If conditions don't comply with my conservative criteria, nobody launches." He pats me on the back amicably, notes that I'm not sweaty and invites me to sit in the cab with him.

As fiercely and pedantically as he stresses safety, he is also an unremitting critic of the many paragliding instructors who teach students just enough to be dangerous. We crawl up the dusty gully and he gripes: "Most paragliding schools sell the sport as simple. What's worse, they treat their students as though a few injuries are acceptable. Students who have been inadequately trained are soon cognizant that the veil of simplicity they've accepted covers a black cloud of apprehension over their incomplete understanding of the sport. You're feeling that apprehension. Don't believe for a second that I'll let you launch in conditions above your skill level."

Of the hundred or so instructors in the US, there are only four outside Dixon's two schools to whom he would send a beginning pilot. "This is the most dangerous sport I know of," he says quietly. "Respect and preparation are everything."

White will not suffer fools who want paragliding to be easy. "I hope I don't get a bunch of calls from the Mountain Dewers when you publish," he says, adding, "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." He parks the pickup at the top of Sheba. Standing there in his starchy cargo shorts and collared khaki shirt with the Airplay logo embroidered on it, his daily uniform, White exudes routine and propriety as he supervises his trainees bundling their wings out of the pickup bed.

While we gauge conditions on top of Sheba, White points out landmarks: the chartreuse slit of the Little Colorado cutting for 60 miles through the pastel palette of the Painted Desert. About 25 miles to the west, the San Francisco Peaks tilt above Flagstaff. Much of our time spent in the sport is what's known as para-waiting: the idyllic pastime of sitting atop a promontory and taking note of the clouds, birds and the wind's effect on groundcover and trees.

"Look at those grasses bending up toward us," White says across a 300-foot-wide grass-and-cinder launch site where we are all harnessed and waiting. He handles this hillside of potential pilots like a ring-master, calling out advice and boosting our spirits for this and running from one student to the next as we recite our preflight checklists.

"Time the lulls between the cycles," he directs us, a phrase he repeats like a mantra. We all eagle-eye the micrometeorology of a mountain slope. We discern thermals blooping, shoving puffs of wind 900 feet up through the grass to our feet. After learning to understand what the thermals are doing, flying off this hilltop now seems a lucid and wholly noble thing to do. It's also perilous enough to be completely engaging.

But as White's life attests, confronting the perilous can build character. When the risk is as buoying and as mentally stimulating as flying, you have a transformative sport, one that can become obsessive. 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.

White, too, has been transformed by the sport. "I can get to be a real asshole when I see people acting like they can just flip a switch and be paragliding, like they're bowling." He likens paragliding to three-dimensional chess. "The best student pilots I've ever trained were already accomplished skiers, kayakers, mountain bikers," he says, "people who can balance and react to what's happening in the moment, while preparing for the immediate future." The sport transforms the occasionally prickly White, more often than not, into a sort of congenial coach.

Standing on the highest place around, watching the weather and birds, and calculating that this is the moment to lift your wing and fly feels evolutionary. Those mid-morning thermals presented us with ideal launch conditions for several hours. The upslope wind would announce itself in the bent grass below and flap my T-shirt sleeves. I'd face my paraglider's wing and tease it up into a wall. Fingering the control toggles like reins, I'd back up a couple steps and the great wing would try to pull me uphill momentarily until it arced overhead. I'd pivot, take a few lunging steps downhill and be carried off my feet. That day I learned how a fledgling must feel when first stepping out of the nest. On successive flights, uncertainty was eclipsed by eagerness. As long as the thermals soughed gently up Sheba, Dixon White transported his brood back up the hill like the lift operator from Mount Olympus.

Five days and 18 flights into this sport, I am enraptured. I saw horseback cow-punchers and about 50 black cows from 1,200 feet, lined out like a smear of caviar on the rye desert. Once, from 50 feet overhead, I startled a pronghorn fawn shaded up under a sage bush, and I had to quash a sense of raptorhood.

Dixon rhapsodized one musical evening at home about human genome mapping. Someday genetically modified humans would fly without fabric wings, he hopes. He flies without the instruments that all the other pilots use, a handicap in paragliding competitions, but a purity that he feels increases the sensory pleasure of flying. If flying without instruments made it more dangerous, I doubt that he'd do it, but it makes it more elemental. And Dixon White trusts himself in his element.

He was playing the piano and risking rusty riffs that included Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique. I asked him about the risk-taking gene.

"Necessary gene," he said as he chorded. "Human society didn't evolve without risk takers."

Back in his days as a tight-wire walker in the circus, White once walked 1,000 feet up the cable that suspends Old Chairlift #1 at Aspen, Colorado. I got a little snotty and asked him if that's an example of a risk that moved society forward. He lifted his hands from the piano keys, shrugged and said: "We're explorers. We're not adrenaline junkies. We prepare ourselves as fully as we can and then head out there."

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