Okay, I know I shouldn’t have done it –especially at my age! When you retire, there’s a certain protocol you’re expected to follow: Good Form; Decorum -stuff I’ve never understood. But I really couldn’t help relapsing –it’s an addiction I’ve had for over twelve years now, and I only managed to kick it when I broke my wrist a couple of years ago while running. There is a protocol for that as well, and apparently my addiction and the pain medications were dangerous partners. But one sunny day recently, after almost two years of successful, yet difficult abstinence, I succumbed to temptation –no, to an overwhelming compulsion! Warm weather and succulent cumulus clouds do that to my head. I’m just a puppet when a zephyr blows, and hawks are soaring thermals in the sky.
So, from what closet am I about to exit? To what dark and morally depraved behaviour am I confessing with not a hint of shame? With not even a tittle of regret? Uhmm, well… Let me first explain that to indulge my… ‘problem’, I also require drugs. But the ones I use are cheap -in fact, I make them myself. Stimulants? No problem -I’ve set up a little lab in one of my adrenal glands to crank out catecholamines (And I’m trying to arrange for a few steroids from the other one). Narcotics? -I found a secret factory hidden at the bottom of a run-of-the-mill gyrus in an undisclosed location in my brain that is willing to make an unlimited amount of endorphins for me. Mind you, my contract requires me to return the favour with chocolate bars and Pepsi, but so far I have been able to cope quite well without having to resort to crime.
Anyway, not to keep the surveilling security forces in suspense any longer, I freely admit, and without benefit of lawyer, that my naughty little secret -my need- is not illegal, not even covert; in fact, it’s a public spectacle and people come from miles around to watch it like a parade -a sky parade: paragliding. And I do not blush when I say the word, except to explain that it is not Hang-gliding (that other means of getting into the sky that requires an engineering degree, and hours to waste setting the glider up and then taking it down to put it away again like a large and bulky rented wedding tent). Our stuff can all be carried on our backs; it does not require a bolted-together fixed wing, nor the hammocky thing cocooned underneath like a captured insect. Sense a little competition? A soupçon of testosterone (or, in the interests of our sport’s gender parity, estrogen)? No, our differences are all in good fun, really. The hangies just go faster and brag about it more. We, however, yell a lot after we launch.
Our equipment is deceptively simple: an elongated, and extremely colourful (so planes and helicopters can see us) banana-shaped parachute from which the pilot hangs by slender strings –okay, we call them lines for insurance purposes… These are attached to a little seat into which the pilot is strapped in case she falls out in turbulence –rough air. Fainting could do it too, I guess, but none of us will admit to this.
We can steer the wing by deforming its aerodynamic shape via those same lines –not too much, mind you, or it simply collapses; not too little either, or you’re just riding a slowly descending parachute. So the idea is to stay in rising air unless you want to go down.
Without an unduly complicated explanation, there are basically two types of rising air: thermals –jets of warmer air rising from the earth, and often under cumulus clouds; and ridge lift -air from the prevailing wind that is deflected upwards by a hill or a cliff. And air being air, it’s pretty tough to see –that’s where the soaring birds come in. They’re usually okay about sharing the air with us, and they rarely attack or carry the pilot back to their tree-top aeries. Nor can I remember seeing any pilots with ripped flesh or severed lines.
But naturally, there are legends that seem to have great currency at launch… I’m not saying I believe them, or anything, but we’ve all talked about what we’d do if one of us were rapted (or is it carnivated?): sympathize with the victim of course, then phone condolences to their family, and finally, avoid the area to minimize further deaths. It’s just the right thing to do.
Anyway, back to me, eh? I have to admit to a certain amount of trepidation after a two-year absence from the sky. There are a lot of things you forget. We often launch by running down a steep embankment on a mountain, but to do so successfully, the wing has to be above you –fully inflated, fully controlled and not all ruffly-buffly. It’s sort of like flying a kite so we call the practice exercise ‘kiting’. The launch site, given its altitude and crowds, is not the place to practice or simply give it a go and run off wildly, armed with just a wing and a prayer, however. Winds shift in strength, direction, and consistency, so it requires more than a modicum of skill to get into the air -but even more to decide when to abort the wing before reaching that place of no return: the end of the slope… or the trees further down from launch -especially the one they named after me. It’s kind of special…
And once you’re in the air, a thermal can suddenly bubble up like water in a school drinking fountain, or as you enter or leave it, bubble down just as quickly. And, of course, if you don’t even see the fountain… You get my drift? Retrospective falsification of bubbling works in most of us pilots when we’re on the ground, but there’s a sudden shift in perspective in the middle of turbulent air with the wing shaking and threatening imminent collapse a thousand meters above the ground.
And yet we don’t go gentle into that good night; there are practice disaster courses we can take –‘simulations d’incidences en vol’ (SIV)- to help us to cope with collapses and the like. They usually involve launching from an even higher altitude, usually over a lake or something, and making the wing do various types of terrifying collapses then trying to recover before we both hit the water -stuff like that. I hadn’t done a course in four or five years, although I practiced the motor muscle skills involved most nights in the safety of my hot tub. I recommended it once at a course, but the instructor just sniggered. It’s not the motor memory stuff that’s as important as remaining conscious enough to perform them, he insisted. Anyway, I’d under-remembered the all-consuming fear that grips you when you see the fabric that is supposed to be over your head and supporting you, floating down level with your face, or hear it flapping like a rag far above.
And then, even assuming a successful, albeit troubling flight, there is the pressing need to land at some stage. One ‘sets up’ by losing altitude by a series of maneuvers, usually at right angles to the wind, and then, a few meters above ground, heading into the wind and flaring the wing like a seagull settling onto a wave. Custom and protocol dictate that you land on your feet and stay on them. It is also rude to break anything or bump into others already on the ground. And when asked, it is not only customary, but polite to assure them you had a great flight without rolling your eyes.
I forgot most of this on that sunny day and bluffed my way up to the launch site far far above the surrounding highway with its toy cars and Alice-in-Wonderland shrunken gardens and teensy houses. Even the trees look fake and glued in place from here. I also forgot that launch is crowded and very busy. So, after waiting around for a turn in the heat all kitted up, strapped in and sweating, there were people watching my every move as I took my place at the edge. And, faking serenity, I tried to remember how to get the wing up just far enough over my head so it would stay there while I ran down the slope. It’s a ‘just-right-baby-bear’ thing: too far behind you and you can’t take off; too far ahead and it collapses. Oh yes, and did I mention that the wind necessary to keep the wing up often changes direction at the last possible moment and so requires compensatory directional changes mid-run to keep the wing inflated? I’d forgotten about that part in the hot tub, too.
But then, with a thousand eyes watching and hoping I wouldn’t screw up so they could get their turn to launch, I somehow managed to keep the wing inflated as I ran, and climbed into my seat like a pro. The rest is history: I had several minor collapses, corrected them, and climbed a thermal like a wounded hawk. Then, satisfied I could still do it, I fought my way through increasing turbulence to the landing area while more persistent, but less colourful wings around me, testosteroned and estrogened themselves up invisible columns of air flaunting their lines, and waving their legs at the timid mortals like me, safely and quietly beneath.
Okay so I didn’t stay on my feet as I landed; so I have grass stains on my pants and a tiny rip in one of my sleeves; and so the wing kind of overshot when I was a few meters above the grass… but I made it, eh? There were no aging body parts strewn along my path, and no arthritic screams bedecked those waiting, like impatient air traffic controllers for me to land. There were just smiles and congratulations, even though I was only another nameless helmet who’d managed to touch down still able to speak in coherent sentences… Still able to assure anybody who asked, that I had a great flight.