Joining The Paras

7th June 2008

David Waters takes to the skies

up in the air at last. Since I was a small boy I have wanted to fly; even in my childhood dreams I was soaring like a bird. The buzz today is because I am 3,000 feet above the ground, and the exhilaration is just extraordinary. This is very different from being 30,000 feet high and travelling on holiday. Of course, that’s enjoyable, but this… this is something else.

My pilot – Dave – had advised me by phone the previous evening that the weather forecast was great, and that conditions should be ideal for our flight. On the day itself we meet in Firle, just outside Newhaven, one of a number of dedicated take off points on the South Downs, and as I drive up to the steep road towards the ridge I can see a number of brightly coloured sails already spread out on the ground. From this distance I can’t identify the red, white and blue sail soon to be billowing over my head, but a number of other paragliders have already begun their dance in the sky. As I near the site the adrenaline is beginning to flow and, to be truthful, the butterflies in my stomach have already decided to take a flight of their own.

Upon arrival I seek out Dave to shake his hand for the first time, and meet Glen, his first tandem partner of the day. Tandem paragliding is a great introduction to the sport… allowing you to enjoy the thrill of the flight but with an experienced guide at the controls. They’re going over the safety code and the simple instructions, and I leave them to it, taking a seat to watch with Glen’s mother Julie, who has bought him this experience flight as a 21st birthday gift. (Today is a complete surprise to him. He and she were out on the Downs together ‘just for a walk’… one ‘walk’ that he will not be forgetting.)

As we sit I can feel the warmth of the sun upon me, the same sun that has been warming up the ground and producing the rising thermals required to enable my upcoming flight. I listen to the chatter of the air pressure gauges, as each pilot’s own gauge bleeps to alert them to a change in air pressure, advising them when the elusive thermals are present. I watch a kestrel hovering, silently scrutinising the ground for its next meal, seemingly unaware of these other colourful ‘birds’ flitting about, travelling left and right along the ridge, gradually ‘finding lift’. I am to learn later how birds can be a marker for thermals, and thus extremely useful to paragliders.

I can’t help wondering how it’s possible for these sails without engines to continually find lift and slowly but surely rise up towards the clouds. As they circle above us, though, I begin – at last – to look forward to getting up there myself, and as I relax I take more interest in the other paragliders. Most of the pilots on the hill today are flying solo. The range of experience is apparent, but the camaraderie between them is wonderful as they check each other’s sails and attachments. Each colourful sail that takes to the sky adds to the mood and, lying in the warm sun, I melt into tranquillity.

I am jerked back into the present by hollering from above. Dave’s glider is dropping fast, quickly twisting as it falls…

This is a planned piece of acrobatics though, and the shouts are those of excitement from Glen. Dave has already made it quite clear that paragliding is “not a daredevil sport”, but a safe way to fly in a relaxing manner. Now he’s proving that there is also the opportunity to have fun.

Some of the solo pilots have landed further down the hill and are making their way back up to us with their sails bundled in their arms, but, once again, Dave impresses me – returning right back to the take-off point and landing, almost gracefully, on his feet. From Glen’s broad grin I can see that here is a young man already sold on what must be one of the most addictive of sports.

For a few moments he’s speechless, but is soon telling me of “that floating feeling” and how “peaceful” the whole experience had been. Up until that spiral dive, anyway. He declares that take-off was “easier than expected” and that everything else was a breeze (or rather a thermal!).

As we speak, I’m donning my safety helmet and putting on extra layers of clothes for warmth. Although it’s rather hot on the hill, as you rise there is a dramatic drop in temperature and the gloves, particularly, are appreciated.

The time has come. I understand the safety instructions; I know how to assist with the take-off. We wait… wait… for the optimum moment and, with our sail billowing behind and Dave’s gauge bleeping, we run down the hill a short distance and softly lift into the sky.

It truly feels like stepping up into the air. We float, crab-like, a little to the left, and then back to the right, and then as the gauge alerts us to a thermal, rise smoothly some twenty to thirty feet. Dave’s explanations help me to understand what we’re looking for to gain altitude. We’re joined in the air by another glider; again this helps as we seek more thermals between us. Indications to watch out for include the leaves at the tops of the trees, smoke rising from a far chimney, or dust and debris rising from the ground. Even house martins on the wing, catching tiny spiders (using their own silken ‘draglines’ to take advantage of thermal lifts) are a hint. The gauge bleeps, and we rise, and then maybe circle back to where we experienced the lift. Another set of bleeps and we rise again. If our colleague in the air was experiencing lift, we could move towards his air space and join him. If our collaborator in the air were a buzzard, then we would join him. And so we do until some thirty minutes later we are approaching cloud cover.

Then comes that moment of revelation. Here I am… 3,000ft high, soaring just under the clouds, with a pair of buzzards as teammates. We have no power of our own but circle without fear. Incredible.

The view is fantastic both north, across the patchwork of fields and villages, and south towards Newhaven, Brighton and the sea. Beneath us I can see the field of coloured sails yet to take flight, and the dots of grazing sheep. Dave even points out a line of World War Two bomb craters, stretching towards the coast.

As we commence our descent we have our own piece of fun, as Dave takes the glider into a controlled spiral dive. My previously serene journey ends in a superb roller coaster ride. Astonishing. We land back at base, and I sit on the ground with a smile on my face.

I think I may be hooked, too.

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