NOT for the Birds
A tandem paragliding flight may require a leap of faith, but it’s the closest you’ll ever come to soaring like an eagle
Running off the edge of a 300-foot cliff is not something I do everyday, which explains why my response sounds a little less than confident — OK, a lot less than confident — when my tandem paragliding instructor Tad Hurst asks, “Are you ready?”
Having done this with hundreds of folks over the years, he knows better than to give me time to reconsider as we start a slow jog toward the drop-off. And then suddenly, before I realize what’s happening, we are soaring like birds under a brilliantly blue Southern California sky.
I should state that I love flying, and I’ve been lucky enough over the years to lift off in everything from a tiny aerobatic biplane to a stately Zeppelin longer than a 747 jetliner. Even so, there was one form of flight that had always eluded me, namely the chance to take to the skies sans machine.
So I’ve come to San Diego to rectify that omission. Tandem paraglider flights are offered in dozens of spots across the United States, but my friend Todd and I have come here because the cliff in question is no ordinary precipice. It is the centerpiece of the world-famous Torrey Pines Gliderport.
Established by the city as a public park more than 80 years ago, the Gliderport began launching sailplanes from its lofty perch above the Pacific Ocean in 1930, the same year Charles Lindbergh (yes, that Lindbergh) used the rising air over these rugged cliffs to set a distance record for unpowered gliders. Hang gliders, with their oversize metal-framed kites came next, followed by the paragliders that now make up the majority of the thousands of flights launched here every year.
What makes this such a popular spot with free-flight pilots from around the world are the winds that blow in off the Pacific and are pushed upward by the cliff face to create what is known in soaring circles as “ridge lift.” The consistency of those winds is another important factor, with the Gliderport boasting a remarkable average of 300 days a year with ideal flying conditions.
Paragliding was introduced to America in the mid-1980s. You might think of it as the love-child of parachuting and hang gliding. Central to this soaring sport is the canopy, a long arched wing made of ripstop nylon fabric with front vents that, when inflated by the wind, help it take and maintain its shape. The canopy is connected to the pilot’s harness by more than a dozen long thin lines; on tandem paragliding flights, the passenger is securely hooked to the front of this same harness. For extra peace of mind, all tandem rigs at the Gliderport are equipped with a reserve parachute just in case of an in-flight emergency. Once off the ground, both pilot and passenger settle into nicely padded seats.
The process of signing up for our tandem flights inside the Gliderport’s small shop didn’t do much to bolster our courage, as we were handed one of the longest liability waiver forms I’d ever seen. We scribbled our names and initials roughly the same number of times required for finalizing your average RV loan. The fact that our instructors were two of only four paraglider pilots in the United States who had achieved a top P-5/Master rating was reassuring, however.
My pilot explained that paragliding is actually one of the safest forms of flight because you’re always connected to what amounts to a giant parachute. As we talked, I wriggled into the stout harness and donned my full-face helmet. Tad made sure our harnesses were secure, gave his gear a final inspection and then tugged on the lines to allow the wind to inflate the canopy.
Alan In Wonderland
As it turned out, my feet left the ground before we’d even reached the edge of the cliff. Scooching back into the fabric seat, my anxiety slowly gave way to what I can only describe as a sense of wonder.
Unlike other flying contraptions man has cooked up over the last century, the first thing you notice in a tandem paragliding flight is the sound or, more accurately, the lack of it.
The views were mesmerizing, from the sands of Black’s Beach hundreds of feet below to the cliff-top expanse of Torrey Pines State Reserve, with miles of rain and wind-sculpted sandstone filling the void in between. Countless multi-million-dollar mansions are hidden away in this exclusive corner of San Diego, and we were even stealthy enough to surprise a couple of hikers on one of the Reserve’s bluff-top trails. Try that in a Cessna!
Because of some wrinkle in FAA regulations, these tandem flights are considered introductory lessons rather than sightseeing tours. As such, Tad allowed me to take the controls. I tugged on the steering lines so I could spiral first one way and then the other.
My least favorite part was landing since it meant that the ride was over much, much too soon. To say I wasn’t ready to come back down to earth would be a major understatement. Tad set us down gently on the same grassy field we took off from.
A tandem paragliding flight is much easier, less scary and more phenomenal than you could ever imagine — in spite of that whole running off the edge of a cliff business.
If You Go
Torrey Pines Gliderport
858-452-9858 | flytorrey.com
A large unpaved parking lot adjacent the field means there’s generally plenty of room to accommodate average-sized RVs. Tandem paragliding flights are $150, and average about 25 minutes in duration.
Because the Gliderport is located in the midst of a major city, finding camping spots can sometimes be a challenge. The closest full-service RV resort is Campland on the Bay (800-422-9386, www.campland.com), which offers a bayfront location, a family friendly atmosphere and a long list of amenties. Several state parks, including San Elijo State Beach (760-753-5091, www.parks.ca.gov) offer ocean-front campsites with and without hook-ups.