Dangers can be minimized with proper instruction

Paul McHugh, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, August 1, 1996
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Had the Wright brothers ever been able to get their mitts on a paraglider, they might never have gone to the trouble of developing motor-powered flight. To loft into the air under a soft nylon wing is a satisfying form of flying. Clean, simple and serene, it lets humans soar in a way gulls know well, easily hovering as chevrons cut into a fresh and constant ocean wind.

Bay Area motorists who drive past coastal bluffs near Fort Funston already know one thing about the sport of paragliding. There’s a number of sites where its pilots can often be seen, a flotilla of their bright craft adrift in the sky like day- glo dandelion seeds. In fact, prevailing sea breezes hitting California’s steep coast provide stretches of “ridge lift” that are famed worldwide for effortless flying.

One can look at these filmy, fabric aircraft, invoke a fear of heights, and leap to a conclusion that paragliding is dangerous. In truth, if you overestimate your abilities, underestimate prevailing conditions, then problems multiply — just as in other risk sports, says Jeff Greenbaum.

Greenbaum, 34, is owner of Air Time, San Francisco’s paragliding center. He analyzed all three of California’s paraglide fatalities this year, and found serious overreaching on the part of the pilots.

On the other hand, Greenbaum says, “After proper instruction, we can launch on a light wind at a good site, and have a new pilot be airborne, safe and secure on his first day.” Direct transmission of knowledge from a paragliding master is now easier, thanks to a new wrinkle: tandem flying. In tandem paragliding, a student is harnessed to the teacher, and they fly linked together below an extra-large wing, one that has a surface area of 38 to 44 square meters (single-pilot wings are made in the 21 to 34 square meter range).

How safe is tandem flying on such a large paraglider? Greenbaum has taken his own mother soaring on a number of occasions. That was one datum I found particularly reassuring as I suited up for my first flight, and he spread the lime-green fabric of an Edel Galaxy wing on the 300 foot-high bluffs south of Fort Funston. On the other hand, this wing fabric resembled gossamer, and the shroud lines seemed as frail as spaghetti straps on a model’s evening gown. That shoreline where the surf thundered seemed suddenly a long, long way below.

“When I say, `three, two,’ you lean forward and run, and when I say `one,’ we’ll take off, OK?” Greenbaum said. Well, fine, I thought. It’s just a matter of counting. Say the numbers in the proper sequence, and this magic spell should work, eh?

It did. On three and two, Greenbaum hauled on the lines, the paraglider rose like a kite, cells of sewn fabric grew taut in the wind, and the mass of limp fabric became a sharply defined wing, building more lift. On the count of one, with nary a jolt, we smoothly elevated into the sky.

This felt like flying the way people do it in dreams. Landscape rolled under our feet as we glided up to meet the misty ceiling of high fog. We slid sideways, riding ridge lift above the brown cliffs. Greenbaum put my hands on the brake lines (haul lines from the tips of the wing, attached to small handles) and I found how small tugs and weight shifts translated into spins and effortless turns.

The mechanical ease of paragliding explains why it grows faster than hang gliding, and may one day eclipse it as a sport. The United States Hang Gliding Association, which oversees both activities, says there are 11,000 registered hang gliding pilots in the U.S., compared to only 3,500 registered paragliders. But hang gliding growth is nearly stalled at a two percent annual rate, while paragliding participation soars at a rate of 20 percent per year.

Another attribute is the “packability” of a paraglider; the fifteen-pound wings can be stuffed in a knapsack and easily carried to a high take-off site (they are often used for swift mountaineering descents). Also, they are less expensive than a hang glider ($3,000 as compared to $4,000) and quicker to deploy for flight (five minutes as compared to 30). However, hang gliders do enjoy more airspeed and have better glide ratios (8- 13:1 as compared to 6-9:1 for paragliders) — this ratio refers to the number of feet an unpowered aircraft moves forward per foot of drop.

All too soon, we began to go into the descent phase of my first paraglider flight. The fog was thickening and the ceiling was dropping, so it was time to return to landbound status. Greenbaum took full control, then shifted back and forth behind our take-off knoll, almost hovering as he wore away yards of altitude with each dip of the wing. Our touch-down was as light and gentle as the take-off had been.

I don’t know if I personally have the “Wright stuff” to become a paraglider pilot. As the training manual asserts, this sport may be easy to learn, but it’s difficult to master. There are many tactics that must be gotten down cold, to deal with what turbulent air can hurl at you. But it’s valuable to take a few tandem classes on the coast, and at least gain a feel for the flights of your fantasies.