Sky Surfing Over Hawaii


Though having never flown himself, fifteenth-century inventor Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward; for there you have been, and there you long to return.”

If you merge the contemporary designs of Leonardo’s gliders and parachutes, you’ll find the result is the modern paraglider. With its parachute-like, fabric airfoil and suspended cord harness, by all accounts Leonard foresaw the paraglider, a kind of ribless kite for carrying people, an enhanced rip-stop nylon canopy wing combining the sciences of hand gliding, parachuting and ballooning.

You’ve seen them flying with their colorful canopies, pilots hanging beneath, turning effortlessly with the winds, climbing, spiraling and landing softly, perfectly still, on tip toe like a ballet dancer. Flying from Kokohead crater, Makapuu Point and Waimanalo, and on up the Windward side to Kahana Bay, and over to Nanakuli near Dillingham Airfield on the North Shore. Today, paragliders are considered legal aircraft and are regulated in air by the FAA via self-governing training and member associations and on the ground by the state.

In the early 1980s, the first paraglider pilots were European mountaineers in the French Alps who wanted a faster and safer way down off the peaks. Within a few years, paragliders flew on the Windward coast of Oahu. Today with tens of thousands of pilots worldwide, Oahu boasts of around three-dozen active, certified paragliders and pilots.

Da Vinci’s quote from 1484 is like a mantra to paraglider pilots, gracing more than one tee-shirt at a recent gathering of the Hawaii Paragliding Association (HPA), the Oahu-based nationally recognized club for paraglider pilots and host to dozens of adventure travel visitors from around the world.

“It’s like surfing, though you’re chasing the wind not waves. It’s 21-century technology meets Greek mythology,” said Pete Michelmore, owner of Gravity Hawaii, Oahu’s only permanent, full-time paraglider training company. “You follow the wind, travel the world and fly up and down rugged coastlines. It’s very much like surfing that way.”

Paragliding costs less money and offers more payback than most adventure sports like trail biking, skydiving or scuba – all of which impose some risk to your person. The returns generally outweigh the known risks – which are minimized with proper training, equipment and experience, and with a safety-first approach to the sport.

“The first flight tells everything," said paraglider master instructor Michelmore, a former Army paratrooper who took up paragliding 18 years ago. “If they don’t become addicted to the experience right then, they probably won’t go forward with training.”

The first paragliding experience is a ride with an instructor known as a tandem flight. The instructor – who has hundreds of hours of flying experience and advanced training — flies a glider that is built for two persons and can handle more than a 500-pound payload. Here, the passenger is attached to a harness right in front of the instructor. After a brief introduction and a safety briefing, the instructor manages the take off and landing, but in the air the student pilot can take control of the brakes and steer the paraglider getting to experience soaring in a paraglider first hand.

Unlike skydiving and bungee jumping, there is no big “G” rush that one gets when jumping out of an airplane or off a cliff. In paragliding, the pilot takes a few quick steps toward the wind. As the canopy inflates overhead and catches the breeze, the pilot is gently lifted off the ground and is already flying before the ground begins to fall away.

“People ask if flying is scary. I always admit that it is scary for me - it’s a rare flight when I’m not at least a little scared about something, said Alex Colby, an Oahu paraglider pilot and president of the HPA. Colby, a software design engineer by profession, admits he is more fearful that most, but that after time and training, such fears are reduced to safety concerns one normally controls as a trained and experienced pilot.

“As to why people want to fly - I don’t know for certain. For me, flying paragliders was the fulfillment of a half-baked childhood dream of taking to the air on some home-made contraption,” Colby said. “I was surprised to discover that flying was largely about exploring another realm, learning to navigate safely the powerful and mostly invisible world of air currents and convection and micrometeorology, thermals and lift and rotor turbulence.”

According to both Colby and Michelmore, the minimum physical requirements for a new pilot is the ability to hike an about 15 minutes up a fairly steep path carrying about 40 pounds on your back. Most of the flying on Oahu involves at least some hiking.

New students find that the most physically demanding part is just learning to control your canopy on the ground, Colby said. They spend many hours strapped into their gear on a windy day in the beach park, learning to steer and move around naturally while keeping the wing overhead.

“The flying itself isn’t very strenuous at all - launching, flying and landing can be done by a person in any physical condition,” he said.

Michelmore’s program includes almost 50 hours of ground training before solo. Ground handling under canopy is also known as kiting as your feet don’t leave the ground, but it exposes the student to all types of winds and situations. Typically after four to five weeks of ground handling, the student is towed into the sky for a few low-to-ground flights and easily controlled landings.

Students with some wind-sports experience, such as sailing or wind surfing, often complete training faster.

“First we walk, then we dance and finally we run, then it’s time for your first solo flight,” Michelmore said. First solo flights usually occur near Lanakai where you launch at the top of a hill, gently following the contour only few feet off the ground until you land at large field below. After some additional instruction, you’re signed off as a novice pilot for regular solo flights.

“Upon completion of our program the student pilot will be able to handle almost any flying situation they may encounter in their flying career,” Michelmore added. The total cost for a training program from tandem to first solo is less than $2,000. A complete rig with all necessary equipment starts at about $1500 for a serviceable used outfit. New equipment can run up to $5000 or more for custom and extra large rigs.

A normal solo flight can last an hour or more, depending upon conditions including the pilot’s personal comfort. Without an engine and propeller to drive the aircraft forward and provide wind over the wings, the paraglider uses natural lift found on the windward side of mountains, and from thermals, rising currents of air warmed by the heat of the earth. Cross-country flights of 15 to 30 miles occur with regular frequency.

Oahu resident Bob Johnson is a local film production executive and recently certified pilot who has been flying paragliders for about one year.

“Everything I thought I might like about paragliding has been borne out. The one thing I hadn’t counted on is haw many new friends I would make in short order,” Johnson said. “Paragliding pilots come from a broad spectrum, rich and poor, blue and white collar. As diverse as we are, we all have a strong passion in common and there is always something to talk about.”

Among the 70 or more certified paragliders residing in Hawaii, pilots’ backgrounds are as diverse as the local population. Paragliders include airline pilots, former politicians, leading businessmen, filmmakers, tradesmen, academics, software engineers, surfers and even a descendent of King Kalakaua. On Oahu there are about 50 members in the local association, with about 30 of them being active pilots.

Thanks to advanced design tools,paraglider technology is as good as any aircraft. Testing of equipment is rigorous and materials quality is as good as the best boat sails or parachutes.

“Overall paragliding is safer than any other extreme sport and 18 times safer than mountain biking,” Michelmore offered. Of course, no sport is perfect. Tree landings are generally considered the worst situation one might find themselves in. Hiking out of the jungle comes in a close second.

“Water landings are bad because get your cell phone wet and you have clean your equipment,” he joked. With proper training, equipment, boots and helmets, the sport is much safer than any other free flight sport, such as hang gliding or skydiving.

Many paragliders on Oahu are afternoon pilots who — like surfers heading to the beach after work — find themselves flying late into the day..

“Surfing is crowded with sometimes 40 or 50 other wave riders out there, often bickering and all vying for the same waves,” Michelmore said. “The sky just doesn’t get that busy.”



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