Going Places: Tales from the road: The eagle within

Want to take the leap?

Learning to paraglide can be a frustrating endeavor, since so much time is spent waiting for smooth, easy wind. And even when you've got good wind, it may be coming from the wrong direction.

In search of the eagle within

Art the eaglet discovers parawaiting
That's why a place like the Airplay Flight Park is an ideal spot to learn. There are more than 1,200 acres of hills, and a change in the wind direction just means a bouncy pickup ride to a new launching site.

However, there's just no getting around those midday thermals, or wind that's blowing in the right direction, but too strongly. And paragliders tend to be incredibly optimistic, patient people; your instructor may keep you waiting in a certain spot because "the wind will change soon, I just know it." My advice: Bring a good book, and don't make evening plans. That's especially true if you take a class during the summer. The sun's heat makes the thermals worse, so your instructor is likely to take advantage of the extended daylight hours.

Airplay is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Seattle, based near the outdoor sports mecca of Leavenworth, Washington. A two-day beginner course will run you $275. They also offer tandem flights, where you're strapped in with a licensed pilot, for $125. The school's excellent Web site (http://www.airplay.com) provides all the information you need to sign up for a class.

For those outside the Pacific Northwest, contact the United States Hang Gliding Association at P.O. Box 1330, Colorado Springs, CO 80901 (phone 719-632-8300. They will gladly send you an introductory package and a list of all the certified instructors in the country (plus a few in Canada), listed by state. The information is updated monthly, so you don't need to worry that someone's certification has lapsed.

Some questions you'll want to ask: How many people will be in the class? How many instructors? Are the instructors certified? How close is the bunny slope and other launching sites? Can I try it out with a tandem flight?

When you're a novice, it's best to get in as many flights as you can. That's why it helps if the class size is small. There were six of us in my class, with two instructors. But we also had help from other pilots who were hanging out at the ranch.

A word of caution: The sport is addictive. Even in my small group, two people signed on for the long haul--pilot's certification--by the end of the two-day class.

If you've got a feeling this sport is for you, you should know that it's not cheap. Buying all the proper equipment and going through the necessary training will cost roughly $4,000. And your wing will need to be replaced in about four years. Paraglider pilots insist this isn't any more expensive than three or four seasons of skiing, because you don't have to pay for all those lift tickets. And, hey, keep in mind: This is human flight, the ultimate dream.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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