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Paragliding for Newbies – Five Commandments

You are learning to paraglider. Obviously, you’re not the kind of person who plays it safe in life. Good for you. Life is short and you want to drive it for what it’s worth. But let’s not make it too short. Paragliding can sometimes be deceptively easy. When things go wrong, they go wrong very quickly. With that in mind, here are some rules for the newest paraglider pilot, learned the hard way from my and others’ close calls:

I. Although I am not the first to launch. Experienced pilots love beginners. They have a name for overambitious green pilots who can’t wait to get off the hill: wind dummies. It’s kind of like the food tasters that medieval kings employed back in the day. If the taster did not die, the king ate. If the wind dummy doesn’t get hit, the other pilots will take off. Don’t be the dummy of the wind. If more experienced pilots are waiting, there is usually a good reason. Nobody likes to wait for waiting’s sake.

II. But don’t be tempted by the camera. You’re in the air and you can’t wait to let it be known on social media. Who can blame you? It’s exciting and you want to share this rush with your buddies. Flying, however, is a multi-tasking business. Where is the next thermal? Where are the other pilots in relation to me? What is my wing doing? Am I adrift? What are my landing options here if I sink? You have enough balls to juggle. Don’t add another by bringing a camera with you. Accumulate 50 hours first, then think about it. In the same vein, your friend is on the launch or LZ with a camera, think of it as a mermaid singing on the rocks. You’re going to dive too close, push your glide too far, or lose focus at the wrong time for them to get that perfect shot. They can take pictures, but don’t play with the camera. You are new. Stick to your flight plan and forget the objective. You will be surprised by the photos later.

III. Although you buy your first equipment from your instructor. Paragliding is not like handball or Frisbee. It’s an elite sport that costs money. In exchange for what you invest, you will have experiences that most people will never have. You paid for the lessons, now pay for the right equipment. It can be tempting to look online or ask for something used to save a few bucks, but buyer beware. Until you get the hang of paragliding, you might end up with the wrong gear for your weight and experience level. Sellers desperate to move questionable old equipment will be happy to hand it over to an unwitting buyer like you. I made that mistake and nearly took off on a glider that could have ended my life… way too forward, way too light on the wing. You will have the name of your first instructor on your card for the rest of your pilot career. He or she is part of your team. They guided you from the training hill to the mountain. They will be there for you when you need guidance as you progress through the sport. Support their business and trust them to outfit you with the right gear.

IV. Although you trust your instincts. “If you’re heading straight, you can do it in a straight glide,” said the local pilot atop the launch just outside Rio de Janeiro. He wasn’t flying yet. He was waiting for the day to warm up and become more thermal. I was new and eager to get off the hill. Enough talking and waiting! But this LZ looked 3x further than my pure finesse. “On straight flight…no lift? Can I do it?” I asked again. “Yes,” he confirmed. So I started. First. I was halfway through the LZ when I had to set up a landing on a thin strip of grass at a train station. The options weren’t good. The landing was worse. My gut said I couldn’t do it. It was good.

V. Although you have fun and revel in your novelty. Whether it’s surfing, snowboarding or paragliding, the most laughs and the brightest eyes seem to be on the beginner waves and bunny hills. A good percentage of the advanced crowd comes up with a scowl on their face, quickly poops the new guy, and downplays his experience as a little time. They rode a bigger wave than you, flew higher than you, carved more treacherous tracks than you. Don’t let them rain down on your parade. They are jealous. This is the principle of diminishing returns. You’ll never beat the first time and you’re off to a string of firsts. The first time your feet left Bunny Hill, the first time you took off from 300, the first time from the top, the first thermal, the first landing spot, the first cloud base, the first XC. Enjoy it.

Paragliding is fun. It’s a feeling like no other. Although it’s not as safe as shuffleboard, it’s a lot more fun, and we can minimize our risk by sticking to the fundamentals learned in a solid paragliding school and always erring on the side of caution. Have fun and see you in the sky.

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