People often ask me what it was like to fly alongside pterodactyls, curious about the old days. How did I get involved with paragliding, how did I learn?
Be curious no longer, the story is here, warts and all.
Back in 1995 I was involved in bungee jumping, as jumpmaster for a commercial outfit. One day a couple of guys came out who were extraordinarily courageous and I at first took them for air force parachutists or perhaps high divers. They turned out to be paraglider pilots and they quickly offered an invitation to go take a look. I knew nothing about paragliding beyond the fact that it existed and was becoming popular in Europe.
We went down to Saichia for a look and the site was very busy, a lot pilots flying and milling about on launch. There were a lot of people yelling into radios who looked like they were in charge of something. The usual sort of ‘order in chaos’ that you see a lot of here.
I was introduced to a coach and a lot of fuss was made over me being a bungee jumpmaster. Most of them were willing to fly around the sky under some nylon and string but were very scared at the idea of jumping off a bridge. They figured I might be either brave or crazy, but they seemed to respect this whichever it was. I watched people flying about and was asked if I wanted to get involved. Well really, who wouldn’t?
My hosts laid a glider out on the ground and quickly explained what the various parts were. Risers, lines, canopy, harness. Back in those days while dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, the harnesses were a few nylon straps, a wooden board to sit on, and a zipper pocket on the back about large enough to fit a sandwich in. Ground school was over in about ten minutes. Then they helped me into the harness and fitted the risers to it. We had a quick discussion about how the glider was steered in the air by pulling the brakes about halfway down on the side I wanted to turn in and then how to flare the glider for landing by pulling them both all the way down. I started trying to ask questions about how I would know when to turn, when to flare etc. but all these were answered with “We’ll tell you on the radio”.
Next thing to do was practice inflating the glider. I of course had no idea it really takes a couple of days with hands-on help to learn this properly. We laid the glider out on the back of the launch deck and I pulled the glider up and over my head four or five times in a row, running full-tilt at the edge and stopping at the last moment. There was a good breeze which helped enormously. They said I was ready to fly and strapped the radio to me, the guys top and bottom gave a radio check and I took my place in the queue to launch. There was a lot going on on the radio, maybe three or four coaches were guiding students at the same time, and there was other chatter from the more experienced pilots about stuff I could barely understand at best. When it was my turn to go I hoisted the glider up as before, got it overhead and ran like hell for the edge. All around me people were yelling “Go go go”, so go I did, straight into the big blue sky.
Ten years later I still remember that first flight clearly. I pulled a little brake on both sides after take off as I’d seen the other pilots do and climbed a bit as I passed through the lift band in front of launch. Coach came on the radio to tell me not to do that so I let off, wriggled around to get seated into the harness and took in the view for a moment. Coming from bungee jumping I’d been expecting a bit more of a rush, this was instead very serene. Floating along under the canopy, the landscape changing very slowly, a small flock of birds flew by below me. Wow.
I picked my name out of the noise and static on the radio, listened to the voice telling me which brake to pull and how much, in order to get back on track for the landing area, even though I was still way above it. Remember that basic gliders were getting about 6:1 in those days. I was guided through a few more turns and was praised for the correct execution, everything was good. Then coach up on launch handed me over to a guy on the ground to talk me through the landing approach. It felt a bit like one of those airplane disaster movies where the captain is dead and a stewardess or a teenage girl has to land a jumbo jet under the guidance of the tower, no idea what’s going on.
I made some more turns and finally I was getting lower, low enough to see the faces of people on the landing area, and spotted the one looking up at me with a radio against his mouth. That must be my coach. Of course as you get closer to the ground it seems like both the speed and descent rate increase, though it’s just an illusion. I didn’t wait for the command to flare but pulled the brakes down to my ass when I thought I was about to hit the ground. Of course it was too early, but it was ok and I just landed a little harder than necessary, still on my feet.
Of course it was exhilarating and I wanted to do it again. I looked up at the guys who were in the air before me, and still up there now. I wanted to soar up there with the big dogs.
The guy in the landing area showed me how to pack up the glider and we did that, then waited for coach to come down. Instead my host came down to retrieve the glider and radio as another student was waiting to use it. So that was me done for the day, but it was okay, I’d had a lot of fun. I sat in the LZ and watched good landings and bad ones, landings in the LZ and crashes into the trees around it. I waited to see coach fly down and land, but he didn’t. The other student flew down and landed, and finally my host, then we packed up and left.
On the ride home I was told it was going to cost NT$10,000 to learn to fly, and thought that was ok. It would probably take quite some time so it sounded like it was worth it. I asked a lot of questions about how the glider worked, how the landing approach was flown, how the landing was judged, but the answer to all these questions was either that coach would teach me, or that I would figure it out after a few flights. It sounded a bit haphazard, but I was told that was how it was done. As a coach myself, albeit in another sport, I decided I should just trust to their experience and leave it at that.
After that weekend of course all I could think about was flying. My host lent me a book about paragliding in Chinese. It seemed quite technical, but not very thick, so I managed to absorb it in about a week. Much of the book was about equipment which meant little to me.
The next week I waited until shortly after lunchtime before the glider was available and I could fly. Although I was all buckled up and ready to go, they kept me waiting for ages before clearing me for takeoff as the windsock was fluttering all over the place. Finally I was airborne and this time I was lifted from the ground even before I’d reached the edge of the launch and kept on going. This was more like it! By the time I sat I was well over the launch deck and looked back down to see all the gliders laid out on the hill. It was pretty rough in the air though, and I hadn’t been told what, if anything, I should do the keep the glider overhead. The glider wasn’t really bucking about, just squirming some, but it made me feel a little uncomfortable. The other pilots didn’t seem to mind though, so I decided to ignore that and enjoy the flight anyway. Away from the mountain the lifting current of air was gone, and I seemed to descend much faster than I had last time. I was told as usual to head for the landing area and did that, feeling braver with the controls than I had before. It wasn’t difficult to steer the glider, a good long tug on the brake line would get it to turn around, but you could tell it wasn’t any sports wing. As usual I heard coach pass me off to ground control. On the ground this time was a different guy, I said my hellos and went off to fold the glider. I had the glider halfway packed and another foreigner walked by. In those days you didn’t see many other foreigners outside of Taipei, so I looked up and smiled. What I got in return was a look like, “You poor bastard,” shook his head and carried right on striding along in his expensive paragliding boots without looking back. I had no idea what that was all about.
I also came to notice that as friendly as the Taiwanese are, the pilots who weren’t directly related to my coach’s clique weren’t very willing to engage in conversation with me. There were about 50 pilots using the site and about that many friends and hangers-on. It seemed to me though that they were divided into some cliques or sects. Someone came to take the glider and radio back up the hill for someone else and I wanted to go back up too so I could ask coach some questions. No such luck, he was too busy with other students for that. I was only going to get one flight in today.
A few more weekends went by in the same way. I felt that I was learning only by osmosis. I was starting to get more confident with the glider, but the launches seemed hit or miss. Some were good and smooth, but sometimes it took several attempts to get off, and even when I got off it was barely controlled. Whatever I did they always said it was good and left it at that. I asked again and again what I could do to improve but they just kept saying the stuff in the book was too technical, not important. I was doing fine and not to worry, I’d get the hang of it and soon they’d give me a license. Hmmm, a license already?
I kept waiting to see coach fly, but never did. I guessed he was just too busy with students to fly himself.
I also kept repeating the questions about the landing approach, but the answer there was the same, I was doing fine and they were always there on the radio. In truth, I was starting to get an idea of what the glide ratio was and about how far it possible to glide from a given height. Of course I had no altimeter or anything and it’s very difficult to judge your height over mixed terrain, but you get an idea of when a target is too low on the horizon to reach or too much below you to get down on.
The glider I was usually flying was an NHK B2B. It was a Taiwan made copy of a German design, with some ‘improvements’. It was uncertified, had three risers, mesh over the cell openings and was a bit beaten up with some patches on it. Coach and my host started dropping hints about me getting my own gear, so that I’d get more flights in. I could see that I was being rationed to one flight a day, even when the glider wasn’t that busy with other students. How much was a rig going to cost me? Well it was about NT$80,000 for something not much different from what I was flying, just minus the tears and patches. Knowing how some things can be overpriced in Taiwan I figured I’d do some research before stumping up that much cash. I wasn’t that flush with cash anyway.
I learned the foreigner who’d brushed me off was one Bob Chavez. His wife was very much into paragliding, but Bob was more interested in free-fall parachuting. He was a jump master and apparently a very knowledgeable guy, ex-special forces or something like that, but he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Wrong clique was my guess.
Another couple of weekends went by like this and I was again doing top to bottoms, flying out, gliding down, turning circles on radio command like some sort of RC aircraft. I still hadn’t seen coach fly and most of what I knew was coming from my host and from the book he’d lent me, which was starting to make a little more sense, though much of it was on subjects far more advanced than what I’d been doing.
Another take off, a good one, and I was again flying out from the hill, over the trees and out toward the road that separates the mountain from the landing area. It was a good day, there were a lot of pilots in the air and most of them were staying up. I was guided to fly parallel to the mountain and found myself climbing slowly but steadily higher than launch, though farther away from the hill than most of the other pilots. I was ridge soaring for the first time and the realization brought a huge smile to my face, this was what it was all about! Coach let me cruise up and down the ridge maybe a dozen times and probably a hundred meters above the launch deck. After a while he came on and told me to turn away and head for the landing, which I did only reluctantly. After a while I departed the lifting air but didn’t sink as fast as I normally did, I seemed to be cruising at about the same height. “Great”, I thought, I was going to get a longer flight in. There was a lot of chatter on the radio that day since there must have been a dozen students in the air and then the other banter on top of that. Coach passed me over to ground control and he told me I was way too high for landing (which I was) and that I could go for a wander off south to burn off some height. Off to the south of launch there’s a large area which is treed or is under crops, and this is where you usually find sinking air. I was flying merrily away south and looking back once in a while to see where the LZ was and waiting to be called back for the landing approach. I was getting lower and lower and the landing area was still a long way behind me. Though I didn’t have much knowledge to go on, I felt like I was going to pass beyond the range of the glide soon so I initiated a turn back toward the LZ. Immediately a voice came on the radio, “That’s good, turn and fly back!” It was nice to know I’d made the right call, but there was a note of panic in his voice which bothered me. If he was scared, how was I supposed to feel?
At the time I was flying quite near to a deserted two-lane road which I probably could have landed on. There was a pineapple field passing below me I could have made a clumsy but safe landing on. Instead, ground control kept quiet most of the time, just occasionally offering some encouragement and advice to keep flying straight to the LZ, not to use any brake and not to change course again. After a while I saw the edge of the LZ drop under the top of the first row of trees, which didn’t look very encouraging. I was getting close and I saw there was a gap between the tree tops and just maybe I could squeeze through there and onto the LZ. I kicked away a branch and passed another row of trees in the mango orchard. One more to go and would be on the ground. That’s when I noticed the van parked at an angle at the treeline. I tried to turn away from it but the glider’s lines snagged a branch and I swung straight for the van. Still hopeful, I thought I might hit it at an angle and just glance off, which wouldn’t hurt too much. Unlucky for me a side window was open and my left leg went through, and my right didn’t, so I took the whole impact on the inside of my left thigh going about 40kph. I was lucky it wasn’t my nuts, but still I was in a lot of pain. Ground control came rushing over and sheepishly asked if I was ok, and I said I was. He helped me to my feet and sat me down someplace while Taiwanese peasants drew around to laugh and point at the spectacle. Another guy showed up and they pulled the glider out of the tree while explaining the van shouldn’t have been parked there and was the driver’s fault I was injured. Ground control vanished pretty quickly, but my host flew down and hung out with me while I sat there groaning and eventually we got in his car and drove to Kaohsiung where he was going to spend the night. There was no more sales talk about gliders, but it was admitted that ground control was himself not much more than a rookie, and had been handed a lot of students to handle all at once, some of them he had no prior connection with, and had just lost track of me. I took the chicken bus back to Taichung and crawled to my bed.
The next day I couldn’t walk, but I knew nothing was broken. After a week or ten days the swelling went down some and I was able to walk ok, though the bruises would be stick around for a quite a bit longer.
With a little time and pain aiding my perspective I could see that my coach was not going to teach me to be an independent pilot like the old hands were. I was going to continue to be radio guided around the sky until I coughed up for my own gear, and the sooner that was the better it was for coach. Then I would either pick up the skills and technical knowledge through experience or by osmosis, or purely by luck.
I came to the conclusion that the guys who I was working with were taking the chance that I would get cold feet or be seriously injured before I bought a rig, which was why they were so keen to get me in the air without much or any groundwork, or when the conditions were too advanced for students to fly. They saw me as a cash cow that had not yet been fully milked. I existed only to provide face and fortune for my coach. I realized that my choices were either to figure out how to fly by myself, die trying, or quit.
Having seen the social dynamics at the site I realized that no other coach would take me on. I had seen that contact with other people was frowned upon, other instructors whether active or not were discouraged from talking to me. There looked to be some sort of professional courtesy that instructors (and I’m being generous with the term) showed each other. Somewhat like lawyers, they did not try to steal each other’s clients. Being a foreigner and all the baggage that entails, there were extra face points at stake for coach (see, I’ve got my own speaking pet monkey!) and thus double the paranoia and jealousy.
I also figured there probably weren’t any better coaches around anyway. It turns out that there were, but they wouldn’t accept students under any circumstances. Since I had a bit more at stake in the gamble than my coach did, I decided to back off and wait for a better opportunity to present itself, such as being overseas and being able to take proper tuition.
Luckily for me, a few years later I met a very talented young kiwi pilot here who had no car, spoke no Chinese and had no idea where the flying sites were. He hadn’t even imagined that it was possible to fly in Taiwan. He wanted to fly so badly I was able to blackmail him into teaching me. I’d been away from the scene for long enough that it was ok, and he didn’t understand the language or the politics and I was kind and didn’t burden him with it 😉
We bought some gliders through his coach in NZ and he taught me to fly, for which I’m forever indebted to him. Later I went to Australia with Carl and then to the USA by myself to get more professional training, and then started luring my instructor to come over here to work with some of us foreign pilots with the promise of free-flowing alcohol and loose women. Lucky for us he’s a sucker for that kind of thing 😉
I completed my USHGA Advanced and Tandem 1 licenses in 2000 and was appointed Instructor in 2002, and Advanced Instructor in 2005. I’ve now logged close to 1,000 hours flight time and a few thousand kilometers of cross-country flying. I also worked out why Bob looked at me like that on that day.
‘Coach’ can still be seen up on the mountain, throwing off innocent beginners with no more than a few words of preparation. He’s now awaiting a trial date for his part in the death of a tandem passenger.