Sunday, May 16, 2010


Clare and myself enrolled on a week-long hang-gliding course in Derbyshire in the late-eighties. What the brochure had omitted to tell us was that only one day in two is suitable for training: usually the wind is either non-existent or too strong to get out and fly. When you can go out, early training involves running down a steep hill as fast as you can. You are holding a rope attached to the wing of the hang-glider with a fellow novice trying to fly tethered. You often fall over, sliding and tumbling through cowpats. We did not manage to free fly.

That was it for Clare, but I persevered and eventually accomplished the required three flights from the top of a rather steep hill, landing successfully each time. When I received my pilot licence, I told the instructor I would never fly a hang-glider again. I had already concluded that they were heavy, uncomfortable to fly, very expensive and inappropriate to the flat part of England where we were living (Essex). Instead my heart was set on paragliding.

My local paragliding club was based at North Weald airfield, near Harlow, where I worked at the time. The launch procedure was rather primitive. You stood, harnessed up, with the parachute held behind you like a wall by two of your fellow pilots. A cable was attached at chest height to your harness, and stretched ahead about a 1,000 feet to a jeep, tiny in the middle distance. When all was ready, a bat was waved and the jeep floored the accelerator. You were dragged forwards and into the air at 60 miles per hour, fighting the buffeting all the way up as you hit 750 feet above the airfield. The jeep stopped and you pulled the quick release and watched the cable fall away.

You now had a couple of minutes to fly around, pull stunts like stalls or centrifugal turns which swing you out like a merry-go-round, losing height until you lined up for the landing. It was fun.

After I had my paraglider pilot's licence for towed-launch, I went to the hills in Wales to get my licence for paraglider hill flying. That was fun too, and more varied as you could fly along a ridge line on the uplift, waving to walkers and gently adjusting to the way the lift varied along clefts and outcrops.

While paragliding was fun, it was scary in anticipation. I think everyone was rather quiet as we were in the truck driving out to the mountains - we knew too much about the failure modes, not all of which could be anticipated (air is invisibly unpredictable, and a canopy collapse close to the ground is unrecoverable).

I eventually gave up paragliding when I got used to it. Think diminishing returns vs. the disutility of spending a whole Sunday away from my growing family (you could read this as guilt eventually trumping self-indulgent selfishness). You can't dabble with flying: without constant practice you make mistakes, and the sport is unforgiving.