Dancing The Skies
Who hasn´t dreamt of being able to fly? OK, so not everybody, but is there a more universal dream than to slip 'the surly bonds of earth' and soar like the birds? I could fly as a kid - if I concentrated hard gravity let me go and I floated off the ground (it took me a while to realise that this had been a dream). Later I became a greedy subscriber to Airplane magazine, collected weekly from the filing cabinet at WHSmiths and poured over hungrily on saturday mornings. I marvelled at the A10 Thunderbolt and enormous Hercules transporter, and set to sketch my own warplane blueprints. As a four-eyes I knew I wouldn't interest the University Air Squadron, but I did get a 30min flying 'lesson' for my eighteenth birthday and remember how rickety and low-tech the one-prop plane felt as I strapped myself in - like my Gran´s Mini - and the fun of directing us to 'that cloud over there'.
At university a friend invited me to join her family for their annual skiing holiday and the mum, Fiona, took me up for tandem paragliding flight one afternoon. A world class pilot I trusted her completely, but the intructions to run on her command at the scree cliff-edge tested this. She enjoyed a joke at the expense of my first-timer nerves, calling 'Run, run, run' from her position strapped behind me, long after we had safely left the ground, and my feet pedalled uselessly as we soared away from the mountainside. Looking down at the Chamonix valley, at tiny model cars and trees, gliding with only the sound of rushing wind, I promised myself that if I ever found myself with money and time....
... I enrolled to take my paragliding course at Colombia Paragliding, though 'enrolled' sounds a little formal for such a laid-back organisation. I couldn´t wait. Ten days and I would be dancing the skies on 'laughter silvered wings', 'free as a bird'. I had no worries about the training; it would be a gradual build up, I thought, like learning to ski - starting at the baby slope with tiny ground skimming hops and building up to confident flight. Then I arrived up at the launch site, a patch of grass whose edge looked down two hundred meters to the Landing Zone, or 'LZ', on the valley floor below. We would learn how to strap in, how to inflate the wing and 'kite' it from the ground and then... then it would be a case of just running at the edge, trusting the kit and launching into the void. Instructor Russell would be ready to guide us over Tree Hill and down the the LZ field, or one of the alternative landing zones should we be losing altitude too fast to make it. I was starting to feel a little nervous.
My apprehension wasn´t diminished by a tandem flight with Russell on the second day. It felt very shakey up there. I was trying to ignore an ancient instinct for self-preservation that instructed me sternly that "This is dangerous. You should get down."
"Russell, we have a problem."
Nerves. Checking my harness straps, the ungainly rucksack sagging down behind my thighs. Radio on, strapped to my chest, helmet pressing my ears. A-risers in my hands, the lines spanning backwards to the tips of the saggy sleeping bag of a 'wing', laid out lifeless on the grass. Waiting. Watching. The wind sock bobbing on its bamboo pole. Scanning out over the edge for birds circling against the backdrop of Bucaramanga city on the valley floor - the Chulos (large carrion) that lazily trace the thermals for us as they rise in columns, passing over the launch site in cycles. Russell´s voice crackles on the radio, as from the Landing Zone (LZ) below he notices a good thermal heading our way. "Listo?" (Ready?) asks German from the launch field´s edge. He´s been flying since age thirteen and, now in his early twenties, the routine nature of this scenario for him reassures me a little - everyday is safe and safe is do-able. Running off a cliff strapped to some string and cloth is a perfectly normal way to spend a morning. "Vaya, vaya!" (Go, go). Head down, pulling from the waist I feel the harness strain and the tug and rise of the wing inflating behind me. Keep pulling. The shadow passes over. I give a little pull down on both brake lines and glance up - wing evenly spread and above me. Good. Running. Running. I feel the reassuring upward pull of the harness. My feet leave the ground. The slope drops away beneath me. I´m airborne.
There is no half-way with flight. You are either flying or falling. Paragliding has no reception room, no floating at the surface like before a scuba dive. Once you cross the threshold you cannot change your mind. You are up there inside the invisible, omnipotent wind, suspended like a marionette, toyed with absent-mindedly, with only one person who can get you back down in one piece...
I lift my legs and slip easily down into the scoop of the seat. That´s a relief. For my first two flights this didn´t happen and while I struggled, suspended by my crotch, to clasp both brake lines in one hand and push the seat under my bum, Russell had instructed with increasing urgency to steer right or risk losing too much altitude and missing the LZ. Lack of altitude would not prove to be the problem on this flight. I am already above the launch site. Following instructions I respond to the buffetting of my right wing tip and turn 360s to catch the thermal. Rising higher. Bart, the Flying Dutchman, is rising fast too, a hundred feet away under his red and white wing. I struggle to find the school, now shrinking as the rest of the hillside with its new roads and housing developments flattens out and the horizon expands on all sides. The wind is strong. I´m not even trying to track the thermals and still I am climbing. I try to sit back in my seat, relax and enjoy the majestic view, but it is very shakey up here. The wing jolts you upwards or drops you down, jabbed at by a boisterous blast from right or left, and the little seat wobbles, hung beneath its clips. I try to maintain a light, steady pressure on the brake lines held up in each hand.
This is it. I am on my own, slung under this wing in the wind with only my two hands and few days of knowledge to guide me back to earth. And earth is getting further away. I must be nearly half a kilometer above the landing field. I feel a rising sense of panic. "What if I can´t get down?" Trapped in the sky. Still going up. Cloud base seems closer. "Oh shit." This is most definitely outside of my 'comfort zone' - about 500 meters outside of it. Telling myself that I WILL get down and in thirty minutes I will have my feet on the ground and this fear as a memory I lean to the right, pulling down on the right break line and easing up on the left, heading straight out towards the LZ. Russell is still encouraging me in my successful climb, radioing instructions to turn for the next thermal. Swallowing my fear I gingerly take both break lines in my right hand, sacrificing my limited sense of control in order to press the radio button and call down in an all too panicked voice (not very Top Gun) that "I want to come down": it will be nice to have him guiding me in the right direction!
The thermals just keep coming. I hit one, the wing lurching back, but I expected this and hold my course til I pop out the other side, squeezing the breaks a little to correct the pitch. "Wind's very strong" says Russell´s voice from the radio ("Yup, noticed that" I think), "You might need to use Big Ears to get down." "Big Ears!" Invoking the wise, bearded Brownie of Toytown might be amusing were the situation different, but Russell is refering to a technique of folding right and left wing tips down, reducing the span and quickening the descent. "You´re kidding!" I think. "No one ever showed me those on the ground. I´m not trying them for the first time up here!" But five minutes later, as I watch Bart with his lovely Big Ears, leaving me behind as he spirals down towards safety, I think "Forget this, I could be up here for hours", and following Russell´s earlier explanation I reach up to grab the front outside A-lines and pull. The tips dent. I let go and reach higher. The lines cut into my bare hands but with a sense of relief I feel the glider start to slow and my altitude drop. Holding on, steering with the A-lines and my body weight I figure-eight my way closer and closer, and soon I am at the tree line, out of the seat, running, dropping, pulling down on the brake lines - still falling too fast. Thud. The ground. Nothing broken. Back to earth. Oh how I love you, dry grass and cow pats...
I had been up there for forty minutes.
That was a unique experience. A taste of what it feels like to be a real explorer, out on your own. I read a collective biography of the lunar astronauts this year and my respect for their steely nerves is now even greater. It was lonely up there, and that was 400 meters not 400,000 kilometers.
I went up again that afternoon and the following morning as well. Just as I had wanted to face my fear and fly solo, so I wanted to fly again to prove that my high flight had not scared me off. Yet I have still not caught the flying bug. I get up there and have thoughts only about getting down. Perhaps it´s time to follow a different childhood enthusiasm and book into the B.A.Baracus school of paragliding: "You crazy fool! I won' fly!"
My thanks to Russell, German and Richi at Colombia Paragliding for a great couple of weeks. Not hooked this time, but never say never...
The Video Clips
Take-off (actually the morning following my High Flight)
Tandem flight: German flies us the route I´ll take solo.
Back to Earth: my reaction.
High Flight (an Airman's Ecstasy)
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
John Gillespie Magee