This spring my spouse Ducky and I took up paragliding training. The training so far has given us many vivid experiences, and I’m itching to share those stories with you. Let me start by telling you why we wanted to enter the sport.

Vancouver from a small powered aircraftI’m a big fan of flying, in just about every form. I’m a licensed private pilot. I’ve done skydiving in the past.   I go nuts over airplanes and airshows. I have dreams where I’m able to simply leap in the air and swim (wait, so does everyone else). I enjoy scuba diving and swimming in part because they let me move in three dimensions. My beloved spouse, however, isn’t really excited by any of these pastimes. We have gone scuba diving together. But she finds my powered small aircraft to be noisy, cold, and boring. Flying has mostly been a “me” activity, without her participation. She in turn has her “me” activities that don’t involve me.

Kaş, TurkeyOne June afternoon last summer, during a cruise in Turkey, we disembarked at the  yacht harbour, free for an hour or so. Suddenly, a tandem paraglider landed, literally at Ducky’s feet. It turns out she had wanted to to try a tandem paraglider flight for years. More to the point, she’d wanted to fly a couple of days earlier, but the group decided to go scuba diving instead. So she leapt at the chance. Before you could say “due diligence check for compliance with internationally recognised safety standards”, she was in their truck and away. She was thrilled with her flight. Despite throwing up, twice, she had a ball. 

Paragliding above KaşWe came back to B.C., and Ducky wanted more. I was game for anything involving flight. After some searching we found a skilled, safe Vancouver-area paragliding instructor (a story for another time), and our training started in April (many more stories for other times). We broke our training into two parts: a “P1″ course, with ground training and four flights off the mountain; followed by purchase of equipment and a “P2″ course, with enough further flights and training to get us licensed. We wanted the P1 course to give us a taste for the sport, and help us decide that we wanted to commit. Important, because buying the equipment cost quite a bit.

As the P1 course finished, and we faced the decision to put down the money for the paragliding equipment and P2 course, we had a very interesting discussion that clarified our choice.

Jim kitingCould we complete the course?  Clearly yes. Paragliding to the P2 level was clearly within our capabilities. Sure, Ducky had an uneasy stomach for her first few flights. It was probably stress and fear making an existing stomach condition worse. With familiarity, the fear diminished and the stomach quieted. P2 level paragliding didn’t require especial strength, endurance, or athleticism.

Was the money reasonable?  No, if we were to take the P2 course and then drop the sport. Or putter around for a couple of seasons and stop. This is what came between us and skiiing: even after five winters in a city where you can take a bus to a nice little ski hill, we never got into a routine with skiing.  On the other hand, the money was reasonable if we could make paragliding part of our lives, for the 5-10 years of life we could expect from our gliders.

Would we find an interesting niche for ourselves in the sport?  It turns out that, once you are a licensed pilot, there are a several common activities in paragliding. There is skills building: flying over and over from the same easy mountain, learning to read the clouds, find thermals, and ride rising air. We certainly could stick with that. There is cross-country flying: learning how find a route from thermal to thermal, covering tens or even a hundred kilometres before landing. Yes, that sounded interesting. There is paragliding tourism: travel to interesting parts of the world, especially Mexico and Europe, climb their hills, and fly off them. Oh my, we like travel and we like flying, we can do both at once. There is acrobatics: spins, flips, wingovers, and other variations on every flight attitude but straight up. I could imagine enjoying that, Ducky maybe not; but certainly not for us until we had a lot more experience. There is competition: gather with dozens of other pilots to fly high-energy weather the fastest or the furthest. Probably not for us.

Ducky after a successful mountain flightWould we be able to fly as we aged? We are in our late forties now. We were pleased to see that one instructor is an M.D. in his sixties, and highly active in Mexico cross-country trips. We found another fellow pilot who is a sixty-five year old woman. We should have twenty solid years of flying in us.

Related question: would we be able to fly without serious injury? It seems to me that paragliding is really two sports: chess and adrenaline. The chess-players get satisfaction from learning how to fly efficiently, how to read the sky, how to detect unsafe conditions, and how to say “No” to flying when unsafe. The adrenaline crowd gets satisfaction from pushing their limits, doing more, faster, badder than the next person, and seem to accept that they’ll get injured from time to time. Our instructor is very safety-focussed, in the chess camp. That suits us just fine.

Most of all, would this be a shared experience?  We worried a bit that the flights were solo, and thus perhaps solitary. Even if we were both flying, we’d be in different gliders. We needn’t have worried. Paragliding life has turned out to be very communal. We drive together (and carpool with others) for two hours to get to the mountain. The 15-minute solo flight has an hour of setup beforehand and an hour of waiting for others to land and pack after. The classes and clinics are together time. We can talk to each other about our flying and fears and celebrations. Most interestingly, paragliding seeps into our everyday life. Walking through Stanley Park, we read the clouds and figure out the wind directions. Visting our mums, we look at the sports field across the road as a possible kiting venue. Hearing a train goes by triggers a joke from the landing zone. And so on.

As sometimes happens with big decisions, over days and weeks of pondering and talking the decision became clear. Paragliding is going to be fun for both of us. It is something we can do together. It’s an “us” thing.