I have been aware of the sport of paragliding since the mid nineteen eighties when I first saw people flying in the Dachstein area of Austria while training on a glacier there with the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team. While the sport immediately caught my imagination the usual excuses of lack of funds, time and nerve prevented me from actually trying paragliding. However, the idea of soaring with the eagles never left the back of my mind. Even after an accident in 1991 left me paralyzed from the chest down the memory of green and purple gliders soaring the ridge lift of the Dachstein remained an intriguing image in my mind. While I could see no insurmountable physical barrier which would prevent me from attempting to fly, my accident had brought forward some issues which may not have occurred to me before the summer of í91. One of the most painful aspects of my accident and the subsequent events was not the physical suffering of trying to rebuild my shattered body but the emotional turmoil of seeing what my pain did to my parentís lives. How could I risk putting them through the nightmare of seeing their son injured yet again by taking up a sport with the inherent risks of paragliding? But still Ö.
The trigger event to this summerís activities came last winter. My wife, Arlana, and I were visiting my parents and doing some skiing in Vernon during the Christmas break. My mother mentioned that she and my father had been watching some paragliders flying in the Vernon area during the summer. She said that dad had thought that "Lars should try paragliding". Bingo! That was all the approval I needed. When I returned to BCIT after Christmas I began cruising the Internet in search of paragliding sites. Soon after stumbling across the West Coast Soaring Club website, Arlana and I found ourselves sitting quietly at the back of the clubís monthly general meetings. I cannot recommend this method of introducing yourself into the flying community highly enough. Attending several meetings gave us a pretty good sense of who was who as well as learning some of the issues, risks and rewards involved in the sport. It also gave the opportunity to talk to several pilots and instructors about the problems involved in getting a wheelchair off the ground and not only get their feedback on the technical aspects of the feat but to see their reaction to the idea as a whole. Both Arlana and I had developed a sense of respect and trust in our eventual instructor, Fly BCís Jim Reich, before we even stepped onto the launch site for the first time. During the learning stage of a sport like paragliding, knowing you can rely on your instructor during a stressful flight is as important as life or death. You can never spend too much time finding an instructor you can work with.
Jim and I spent several days of groundhandling practice in Tsawwassen and on the Woodside launch site. Tsawwassen went well. Our first attempts at a tandem launch at Woodside resulted in me winding up on my head, with Jim sitting on top of me, half a dozen times but not a second of flying time being logged (Iíll put my endorsment of full face helmets in here). Arlana did get her first tandem flight in, however, and she convinced (it didnít take much) me to try again the next day in Pemberton.
With the aid of two helpers, things went much better in Pemberton. A ten minute flight came out of our first launch attempt, marred only by Jim and I going ass over teakettle on the landing. The interesting landing technique was partly a result of the high speed, no wind landing but mostly because of the tippy setup of my offroad chair.
Tandem flights two and three took place at the Woodside and Bridal Veils sites. Moving the wheelchairís axle bar back about three inches resulted in a perfect landing at Woodside. By Bridal Veils, things had become almost routine. Off the ground without moving forward more than a foot or two, Jim handed over the controls as soon as we were well clear of the launch site and took them back only for final approach and another perfect landing. The good flight and the fact that Arlana was already five solo flights into her training set the stage for our first attempt at a solo wheelchair flight.
The morning of August 30th found me sitting in a harness, strapped to my wheelchair, hooked into a paraglider, pointed straight down the hill on the Woodside launch site. While I had become accustomed to the view from this particular point over the last couple of weeks of tandem and attempted tandem flights, the thing that was making my heart pound on this fine summer morning was that I was alone. Totally, utterly, completely alone. Well, okay, if you want to get technical about it, Jim was holding the back of my chair to keep me from prematurely rolling down the launch and there were several other people standing around watching on the launch site, but today Lars Taylor was about to become solely responsible for Lars Taylorís destiny. Facing situations such as this tends to narrow oneís focus considerably. We waited like this for a few minutes and a nice cycle blew straight up the launch into my face. Jim gave the word and we began to move forward. A solid pull on the A-lines inflated the glider and brought it up over my head. Jim pushed me down the launch as hard as he could. About ten feet down the launch the ground begins to drop more quickly as the hill gets steeper. I do not. My wheels leave the ground, I feel the wind increase and I am flying. IíM FLYING !!!
It became immediately apparent to me that my landing was not to be as flawlessly executed as the launch. Something about the weight distribution of the wheelchair seemed to be affecting the harness differently than it had during our tandem flights and simulations. While the harness was holding me securely and controlling the glider was no problem, I did seem to be making my way down toward the landing zone flying flat on my back. This was an incredibly uncomfortable position to be flying from, and while I felt perfectly safe in the air I was glad that I had no more than the ten minutes to contemplate my approach to the LZ.
With Jim at the launch site and his wife, Colleen, at the landing zone guiding me down the mountain by radio my first flight was relatively stress free. A standard aircraft approach with some wide S-turns (a little too wide as I found out later) put me right in the intended landing area. Flare about six feet off the ground to slow the descent rate and the paraglider set me down with hardly a bump. A perfect touchdown, aside from the fact that I landed flat on my back. Nothing more to do but lay there and laugh until the people on the landing zone came over to help me get up and repack the glider for the trip back up the mountain.
The second launch was a little less successful. There is very little difference in the method of doing a wheelchair launch from the way an able bodied pilot performs a forward launch. However, because of the difficulty of getting a wheelchair disentangled from the brush and/or trees after a badly bungled launch it is a good policy to abort a launch as soon as things begin to go at all poorly. Two inflations had to be aborted before the chairís wheels left the ground for my second solo. While frustrating, this is on par with pretty much any person, able bodied or not, who is going through the learning process. Once off the ground the flight was nearly perfect. Over some of the tension of my first flight I found that I could sit back in the harness (a change of harnesses resulted in a much improved flying position) and enjoy the view. A little turbulence on the way down the mountain was just enough to keep me awake for Colleenís instructions guiding me in for a three point touchdown right in the middle of the landing zone pasture. Just to keep me humble the glider did tip me sideways as it deflated, a result of my slightly off wind approach. The perfect upright landing would have to wait for another day.
Flying a paraglider is a nearly mystical experience comparable to flying on a magic carpet (only magic carpets are not governed by the laws of physics and aerodynamics, paragliders are). There is a healthy component of fear built into the sport, as can be expected with any activity which involves running off the side of a mountain. However, I have found that contrary to the media image of paragliding as yet another fashionable "extreme" sport, the feeling of breaking free of earthís gravity during a smooth flight is one of calmness and not pure adrenalin. For myself, flying gives a tremendous feeling of freedom. My flights so far have amounted to giant sled rides from launch to LZ. Even this is enough to provide a momentary break from the effects of gravity. Sort of an out-of-body-experience. Weightlessness. Who really cares about steep wheelchair ramps and staircases when they are soaring a thousand feet above the forest attached to nothing but some fabric and a bit of string? I sure donít. Lars Taylor
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