“Paragliding?” I asked. “Like when they pull you behind a boat?”
“No,” replied Patrick. “That’s parasailing. Totally different. This is freedom, man.”
John Ryan, owner of the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Center in La Mesa (619-265-5320), was happy to explain. “Paragliding falls under the umbrella of hang gliding; like a hang glider, a paraglider is a foot-launched, soaring aircraft. ‘Soaring’ means that you can gain altitude as you stay aloft. To get started, you need movement. That inflates the canopy and gets it off the ground and up over your head. Learning the technique can be a little tricky — how to pull the glider up, keep it overhead, and keep it balanced in the wind. But after that, you can run off your cliff just as you would in a hang glider. Only here, there’s a harness, and you fly in a seated position.”
Ryan said that paragliding is “extremely safe. You just don’t hear of accidents here in San Diego. Like scuba diving, it’s a self-regulated sport. We have rating designations for beginner, novice, intermediate, and advanced paragliders, known as P1, P2, P3, and P4. Most people get to at least P2, where they’re taking their first flights on their own and starting to do minimum soaring.
“When I’m talking to people who want to get into this,” continued Ryan, “I tell them to take a tandem lesson. We’ll go up together and spend a half hour to an hour soaring. By the end, you’ll have a sense of the aspects of flying, and you might even get some hands-on steering time. That’s all done with my equipment; if you decide to go further, you need your own. Paragliders run $3800 to $4800 new, and maybe a third to a half of that used. If you buy equipment from me, your next lesson is free.” Otherwise, it’s another $175.
The second lesson covers kiting. “Everything you need to learn about the basics of flying, you can cover on flat ground,” said Ryan. “Using your body, canopy management, paying attention to what the wing wants to do — you can do it all right there. Following the lesson, the student practices maybe five, six, even ten times on his own. Then I come back, evaluate them, and give them some more tasks. After that, we can do a non-soaring mountain flight. ‘Non-soaring’ means that you’re gliding down a slope in minimal wind, without soaring conditions. I require at least ten non-soaring flights.”
Ryan uses authorized sites all over the county as takeoff points. “We have a coastal site at Torrey Pines and four inland sites: near El Capitan in El Cajon, Black Mountain in Rancho Peñasquitos, Otay Mountain, and a spot in the Cleveland National Forest. And I like to teach kiting at Dusty Baker Field in Mission Bay.”
Enrique at Torrey Pines Gliderport in La Jolla (flytorrey.com; 858-452-9858) was happy to make a case for paragliding. “They’re easy to pack and carry; they weigh maybe 30 pounds. You can take one anywhere, but with a hang glider, you need a truck and two people to set it up.”
Gliderport’s introductory tandem lesson runs $150. “You’re up with the instructor for about 25 minutes — you in one harness, the instructor in the other. If you’re still interested after that, we can get you certified P1 through P4. P1 is $1095 and P2 is $1175, or you can combine them and pay $2070. Students can use our gear; that way, they can try different brands and see what they like.” Gliderport also sells new and used equipment.
“We give you two months to complete the P1 course; you could do it in a week if you didn’t have to work. But if the wind conditions are right, you could be out with your instructor for five hours on the first day.” The school is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“I think it’s essential to be here for at least four hours a day for the first three sessions, just to get that muscle memory. After three or four days of ground training and two or three days of flight training, the student should be ready to move on to the P2 course. You’ve got a reserve chute in case anything goes wrong, and we’re in radio contact all through your first flight.” Once you’re P2 certified, you can fly at about 75 percent of the authorized soaring locations in the U.S.