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John Melfi Kites his glider

Student kiting a paraglider at Elings Park 

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Training with Eagle Paragliding

A Recipe for FUN - By Cheryl Beach

Images by Steven Beach and Suzanne Zachary

It was bound to happen. After two years of watching my husband, Steve, and his dad, Mel, “ride their sky chairs”, I can stand it no longer – I’ve got to fly. Since Steve works for Paraglider magazine, I know he’s got access to the best information, so I ask him to find a school. He selects Eagle Paragliding, even though it’s three thousand miles away. Then to raise the fun factor, two of my brothers-in-law Randy and Gary, sign up as well. They have both flown powered paragliders, but haven’t learned the intricacies of free-flight. A few days later, the school textbook arrives by mail and I spend my pre-training nights pouring over its pages. Two weeks later, we all meet in sunny Santa Barbara, and Steve’s brothers and I begin our training.

Day One – Dancing with Rainbows
We pile out of our rental van at Elings Flight Park and meet our instructors, Marty DeVietti and Kevin McGinley. The only other student in our class is David, from Las Vegas. We autograph the proper papers, the guys outfit us with harnesses, gliders, radios and helmets - and we head up the hill to learn how to fly.

First, Marty goes over all the gear in detail, starting with the harness. We check the carabineers, harness webbing, and buckles. Then we learn about the parts of the glider and how to connect the glider and harness. So far – so good, this is all covered in the book.

Next, Marty and Kevin show us how to “reverse kite” our gliders. After hooking in with our backs to the wind and the gliders downwind in front of us, we pull them up into the air with the “A” risers, then control the gliders by sidestepping and using the brakes while Kevin and Marty yell things like, “Right brake! Step left – now back up, go with it – go with it – GREAT! Now just hold that.” They’re so patient and the jokes never stop; they really make it fun, even when we mess up and the wing (or one of us) falls down. These instructors have such positive attitudes. They’re constantly offering encouragement along with advice, and making sure to point out all the things that we do right, rather than focusing on the things we do wrong.

Then they teach us to turn and face forward while kiting, which is more challenging, since this is all about feeling and responding to the glider without looking. But pretty soon we’re all lined up side by side with these beautiful gliders just floating above our heads! Needless to say, this takes most of the morning and is pretty tiring. Gary decides to take a break and then Randy joins him, but I just keep on kiting my glider. It is SO cool to tame this huge beast and “park it” in the air above me. When the wind gusts sideways, I sidestep with it and work the control lines to keep it overhead. Sometimes I need to step forward, sometimes back – it’s just like dancing with a rainbow!

Elings Park also serves as a launch site for experienced pilots, so we watch Steve, Mel, and other folks fly off the hill all morning, and wonder what it will be like to join these bird-people in the air. Well, I don’t wonder much longer, because when my glider and I dance our way out near the edge of the hill, Marty reaches over, turns on my radio and does a radio check, “Raise your hand if you can hear me.” Then he surprises me by saying, “So Cheryl, you ready to fly?”

I can’t believe he’s talking to me, I mean, I’m expecting Gary or Randy to go first – and tell him so. He says, “Male students tend to ‘think’ they’re better at paragliding, but the women usually outperform them. This is not a strength sport, it’s all about finesse – and with paragliding, yin beats yang any day of the week. You’re flying the wing already, you just need to get your feet off the ground – so how about it? Step off the hill, don’t do anything radical with the controls; I’ll be on the radio. Do like you’ve been doing all morning – just do what I say. You’ll be fine.”

Well let me tell you, THIS gets the adrenaline pumping, but Marty’s been right about everything else, so with him jogging alongside, I run a few steps and I’m airborne! Marty’s voice from my radio keeps talking to me the whole time, guiding and encouraging me, and its amazing! The air blows past my face, I get a couple little bumps of turbulence as I glide down the hill, then the landing zone (LZ) approaches, and on Marty’s command, I flare with the brakes and touch down soft as you please. I have just piloted an aircraft by myself!

As I turn to look back up the hill, I see Steve’s glider coming toward me, then he lands right beside me. This is totally awesome! Then, still in disbelief, I watch both of his brothers, then his dad comes flying down as well. All five of us are laughing and talking at once. There just aren’t enough words to describe the exhilaration! Together, we watch our classmate, David, as he makes his first flight too. Then Kevin comes down with the Eagle van and we pile in with smiles all around.

Next, we break for lunch and the wind becomes too strong for students. We spend the rest of the day in ground school – which is exactly what the name implies. We sit on the lawn in this incredibly picturesque setting while Marty and Kevin tell us all about this wonderful sport and expert pilots float in the air all around us.

Day Two – “Turning ‘Tater”
We arrive to find the wind too strong, so Marty and Kevin train us using a simulator. They teach us to use weight shifting and control inputs for turns, and to use the brakes to dampen the surges caused by variations in the wind. Marty says that good surge control will help us avoid what he jokingly calls, “the subterranean glide path”. He says that at this point, he could put one pound potatoes in our control loops and they could fly the gliders better than we can, and that in turbulence, we should change to thinking more like three pound potatoes and hold a little more brakes. Randy calls this “turning ‘tater”. We laugh, but secretly we all hope to fly better than vegetables by the day’s end.

By mid-morning the wind is perfect, so we haul our gear up the hill. This time Marty and Kevin supervise as we pre-flight our gliders by ourselves. Then under their watchful eyes we start “hucking” ourselves off the hill while they direct our movements. Each time we get everything right, our instructors add a task. Once we do well with surge control, Marty teaches us to make S-turns before lining up to land. When we begin to master turns, Kevin tells us to practice spot landings until we consistently land near the traffic cone in the LZ. We’re amazed that we can actually land near the cone almost every time! We all fly with our log books in our pockets so we can make notes while each flight is fresh on our minds. This day I get six flights before we’re done, and I am as tired from the excitement as I am from the activity.

Day Three –Field Trip
It’s windy again in the morning, so we go straight into ground school. Turns out that whenever the air is right for our skill level, we’re on the hill kiting and flying, but when conditions are even questionable, we have ground school. Marty and Kevin believe that a knowledgeable pilot is a safe pilot. They want us to understand the weather so that we can make good decisions about when it’s best to fly – and when it’s best to wait. We take lots of notes as they describe every aspect of the gear and how to handle the glider in various flying conditions and various launch and landing scenarios. Then Marty demonstrates how to call “weather”, a pilot’s service at 1-800-WX-BRIEF to check surface winds and winds aloft, and he assigns us the task of doing this for our next day of lessons.

We finish the morning in the simulator deploying a reserve parachute in mock emergencies. It’s fun, but very serious too. I realize I need to be decisive and strong to get the reserve out if I ever need it for real.

After lunch we load up in the van and check out two mountain sites. Talk about an attitude adjustment! Seeing these sites drives home why we need to practice so diligently on our skills. We have to make sure we can take off quickly and in a small amount of space. If something isn’t right with the glider when we bring it up initially, we must put it right back down and try again. On the training hill we have plenty of room to correct a problem, but on the mountain we don’t – so it’s important to develop good habits from the start. Also, we see the importance of nailing those spot landings. The mountain site LZ’s are far away – and seem tiny to us. Some of them demand that we fly our gliders to a field and land in a small area.

Back at Elings Park, we get a couple quick flights in before it’s time to call it a day.

Day Four – Pop Quiz
Under beautiful skies, we set up our gliders, do our pre-flight checks and start flying, while Kevin and Marty teach us some new skills. I match Randy flight for flight and we each get eight before lunch. Gary gets six flights. Rob Sporrer, the school’s owner, shows up and pitches in with the training, so the pace picks up a notch. Rob notices my turns are a bit sharp and jerky so he works with me to use more weight shift and less brakes to turn. I also practice maintaining my heading during launch, and resist the wind as it tries to push me out of line with the best angle to the hill. Then the wind direction shifts, so we all practice “cross-wind launches” – which are one of the requirements for the class. A woman about my age also arrives who “just wants to watch”, but it turns out she’s joking. She’s world champion Kari Castle, and she has a female student of her own who is airborne within hours.

By now I’ve been around long enough to see first-hand that Steve picked a top notch training facility. One new student came all the way from Luxembourg to train here; that’s the kind of reputations these folks have! Rob and Marty are both recipients of the USHGA instructor of the year award. Our instructor Kevin (who we all agreed to present with our own honorary instructor of the year award) is the subject of an incredible wingover photo in the current issue of Paraglider magazine. His friend, Josh Johnson, who we also met, is the paragliding photographer who took that shot. Most of these experts are competition pilots and contributors for the magazines that cover the sport. I realize we’re training with some of the best pilots in the world!

At lunch, I check my log book and see that I have flown fifteen times without ever flubbing a single launch or landing. I’m feeling more confident and less afraid with every flight. Then Kevin comes out with P1 tests and we all sit down to take our first written exams as pilots. It’s strange to be so still and quiet, but after a half an hour we’ve all finished and passed with flying colors. Then we go over the tests for the next hour as Marty and Kevin explain anything that gave us the least bit of trouble.

Day Five – The Alternator
We arrive to a buzz in the air. Pilots are loading trucks. Kevin says it’s time for an “altitude adjustment” as Marty tells us that conditions look ideal for students of our level to fly from a site known as The Alternator. The mountain flight is on! Not really believing this can be happening, we load all our gear and follow the trucks up the mountain. Our classmate, David, chooses to stay behind with another instructor for more practice at the hill. Steve and Mel come along to fly with us. The excitement is intense. I am seriously psyched!

The Alternator launch is four thousand feet above sea level and three thousand feet above the LZ’s. We can see the peanut shaped, primary LZ from launch – but there is a better, secondary LZ beyond the mountain across from us. To get there, we must cross a canyon and skirt a rockslide with enough altitude to reach it. If we’re too low, Marty says to shoot for the peanut. As we start connecting and pre-flighting our gear, Kevin declares conditions to be perfect, but subject to change soon, so we have to go right now. Since Randy is closest to him, he sends him off first, followed by Gary, Steve, me, then Mel. Marty talks to us on the radio until we reach the point where it’s obvious we will make it to the secondary LZ. Then, one by one, we round the mountain and cruise toward the huge secondary LZ on our own!

The air is a little bit bumpy, and I even feel like I’m climbing a couple of times. I use all the skills that Marty, Kevin and Rob have taught me. I always have plenty of altitude, so I never feel like I’ll miss the LZ. I put myself into Muzac Mode, and try to not feel too elated – or too scared. I want to be level with my emotions AND my glider; this is one seriously intense experience! I can see Steve ahead of me, and his brothers ahead of him. Mel is so high behind me that he flies over the mountain instead of around it. Everyone is stretched out in a line playing follow the leader.

Now I watch Steve making circles above Randy and Gary, who have already landed. Then he lands short and I end up going long and touch down past them. Mel comes in last and spot lands right beside Randy and Gary. Just like on our first flight, everybody is talking at once. Gary says he kissed the ground when he landed. Randy, who still wasn’t sure he would buy his own equipment is shaking his head from side to side in big, exaggerated movements and repeatedly throwing his arms into the air while saying, “That’s IT, That’s IT, I’m buying it ALL!!!”

We return to Elings Park in time to get three more flights before class is dismissed. Back at the hotel, we’re all so fired up we can’t believe what we’ve just done together. Less than a week ago I had never flown a paraglider, today I feel like I’m on my way to becoming a real pilot. Steve reminds me that I flew the second half of that mountain flight completely on my own. It’s too much to think about right now – play on Muzac, play on…

Days Six through Nine – Finishing Up
We all fly the Alternator again on day six. On the seventh day, Gary has to leave, but will return to finish his lessons next week. Randy needs to get back to work too, so Marty intensifies his training to get him signed off. I get a personal record of eight flights in one day at Elings Park, refining my skills with every flight.

More students have arrived, but Marty tells me to put off taking my P2 exam until I need to return to work – so I just keep flying, riding the Eagle shuttle, and getting pointers from the pros. Unlike many schools, these guys do not push students through the class and out the door once the money is paid; they want to turn out quality pilots. Instead of the minimum 8 hours of ground school and 25 flights, I ended up with 43 flights and at least 30 hours of ground school before taking my P2 exam. The beauty of it is that Eagle Paragliding offers advanced training too, so I can come back here any time to polish up old skills and learn new ones. On top of that, they also do guided paragliding paragliding tours to exotic places. I can’t wait to get another altitude adjustment with Eagle Paragliding!

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