Living the dream of soaring the skies

Instructor Claude Fiset with student Gabriel Kaplan soar the skies above Malibu on a recent outing. Laura Tate / TMT

My feet are weightless on the ground.

The ground pulls back, leaving them hanging in the air above the grass- and flower-covered hill, which slopes down toward Pacific Coast Highway, five hundred feet below me, to the blue ocean anchored by Malibu’s northwestern beaches.

I’m hanging on a big kite, not very different from those I used to fly on the beach as a young boy, dreaming it was me gliding up there against the wind. A voice behind me tells me to lift my legs and push my butt back. To my surprise, I am now comfortable sitting hanging from this big kite. I’m taking my first tandem-flying lesson on a paraglider.

A paraglider is essentially a big kite, different from a parachute. With a parachute you jump from a plane, with a paraglider you take off, or launch, from the ground. The paraglider gains altitude by means of thermal ascending air or the rising air against the side of a hill.

Claude Fiset, of UPtimal Paragliding and my pilot/instructor in this aerial adventure, says that we are going to try to stay aloft, above the hill. Up in the air, we start a series of loops and figure eights, catching ascendant air from the side of the hill, going back and forth. Francisco Mantaras, a young Argentine who assists Fiset with paragliding lessons, is flying on another kite, performing the same maneuvers. In order to control the direction of the kite, Fiset pulls from two slings on the sides of the paraglider. This action causes the weight to shift and the back end of the glider to bend, sending us into sharp turns.

The portable paraglider that Fiset used for this lesson folds up into a 30-pound backpack in about five minutes and can be easily transported in the trunk of a car. Pilots commonly carry their paragliders to the tops of peaks in the Cascades, Alps, Andes and Himalayas. Or to the hill across the street. Wherever it is high enough to be safe from power lines, signs or other possible obstacles.

After about a half hour of flight, the afternoon northwestern June winds over the Malibu shore start to get a little more turbulent. Turbulence is not good for gliders. Fiset calls the flight off and we land smoothly on the top of our launching hill after our last turn. Mantaras stays flying, but not too long after he’s not able to use the side of the hill to land due to the turbulence and he glides down to the beach. We pick him up later.

Paragliders are designed to soar. The duration record is more than 11 hours and the distance record is 300 kilometers. (There are paragliders that use gas-powered motors for longer distances.) In training, you will start out just skimming the ground. As you progress and become more skilled and confident, you will probably want to go higher and use the wing for its designed purpose-soaring. Average recreational pilots, utilizing thermal and ridge lift, routinely stay aloft for three hours or more, soaring to altitudes of 15,000 feet and traveling cross-country for great distances. Paragliding is about finesse and serenity, not strength and adrenaline. As in rock climbing, women often do much better than men in the sport because they don’t try to muscle the paraglider around. In Europe, where the sport is immensely popular, you will see pilots as young as 10 years in age and as old as 80.

One man who joined us this June day in Malibu appeared to be in his 70s. He had started flying after he suffered a heart attack and had bypass surgery. His doctor told him that he needed to find some form of regular exercise. He thought about rock climbing, but then one day he saw someone “flying” and decided that’s what he wanted to do.

The Malibu paragliding group that Fiset organizes meets up in various locations, some driving as far as two hours to get to Malibu to fly. They are of all ages and sizes. This group hiked up a small hill today for the launching spot.

If you choose to hike to a launching spot, then you’ll want to be in good physical condition, but you can also drive to most popular flying sites. More important than physical conditioning is being physically and mentally alert and prepared. To be a successful paragliding student and pilot, you need to be able to think clearly and to listen well.

A new paraglider, harness and reserve will cost somewhere between $3,600 and $5,000. After five years of fairly active usage and exposure to UV light from the sun, a paraglider is generally in need of replacement. This, of course, varies with how you care for your wing. It’s easy to test your lines and sailcloth for strength and thus determine your need to replace your paraglider long before it becomes unsafe. Harnesses and reserves should last indefinitely with good care. Most pilots who get into the sport also purchase a two-way radio and a variometer (which tells you whether you are going up or down and how fast) for an additional $500 altogether. Good used equipment is often available for half as much, though it will have a shorter life

-span. In addition, because the sport is evolving rapidly, newer paragliders can have significantly better performance and behavior than older ones.

First, you need to know how to fly. No would-be pilot should purchase a wing before learning at least the basics of paragliding, Fiset says. It is your instructor’s job to help you select your first wing. Different paragliders have different characteristics and require different skill levels; your instructor will match the glider to your particular interests, strengths, weaknesses and skill level. Most instructors rely on referrals and repeat business so they are determined to help you make the right decisions.

The best way to start is with an introductory course designed to give you a taste of real flying. Under radio supervision, you will fly solo from the training hill and progress to higher flights, all in two days. The basic techniques of paragliding-launching, turning, landing-are fairly easy to learn. The length of the course is designed to compensate for weather constraints and different learning curves. If, after your introductory flights, you want to continue with paragliding, the next step is to enroll in a Novice (Part 2) Certification Course, which will teach you about micrometeorology, different launch and flying techniques, safety procedures, etc.

After our flight, I helped Fiset pack the glider, dreaming of all the possibilities. I could hike up places to come down, flying down like an eagle. Fly over a campsite and land right in front of my tent. I could fly all over Yosemite Valley, coming down from Half Dome. Or maybe land in a back store parking lot in Lone Pine, having descended from Mt. Whitney. Or just glide through the hills of Calabasas, just to catch some fresh air on a hot Sunday afternoon.

I think I’m hooked.

More information on paragliding in Malibu can be found by visiting the Web site: