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Air and Space Magazine

Eagle Paragliding and Airplay Paragliding merged in 2006 after 8 years of working together as sister schools.

The following article appears as published in the magazine, with permission from the author: Tom Harpole. The interview and story are with Eagle mentor and American Paragliding Icon Dixon White.

Bird Man by Tom Harpole

"I could huck a one-armed monkey with fleas off a 2,000-foot hill in a paraglider and it would get him to the ground in one piece," Dixon White tells a group of aspirants gathered on the groomed slopes of his "Airplay Flight Park" near Cashmere, Washington, a private, 2,200-acre paragliding Mecca that looks like a series of golf course fairways superimposed on treeless foothills of the Cascades. "A lot of instructors are doing that, then they bark a few suggestions into your radio and get you safely to the ground, but that's not paragliding. That's not what we're doing here."

Dixon White has flown more than 6,300 times without injury. He has supervised more than 19,000 student flights that have, with the exception of three minor injuries, never hurt anyone. But humans can die trying to fly this way and when he introduces rookies to the sport he gets to the worst news within minutes of beginning his orientation talk. The single fatality at his school, back in 1993, was a proud young skydiver headed for the Navy SEALS who, on his third day of flying, disregarded White's instructions and attempted a series of maneuvers that resulted in him becoming wrapped in his glider in less than two seconds and falling 100 feet.

White composes himself and explains to the half dozen students: "He hamhanded a high turn and immediately compounded that mistake by looping his wing under himself. You must gently and thoughtfully manage the energy of a paraglider." He continues, "It happened so fast there was no way to respond in time. It was the biggest emotional setback ever, for my wife and me," he says mournfully. He rakes his hand through his wavy brown hair, looking, at age 44, like a leading man, like a young Alex Baldwin. His hand pushes his head back and he looks up and says: "Watch this sky, everybody. Cumulus being born. Hero air."

About a mile above us two of his instructors, Ryan Swan, a world class extreme skier and Brett Zaenglein, the U.S. National Sport Class champion paraglider pilot, are twisting up a thermal at 1,600 feet per minute. That's faster than commercial jets climb out where noise abatement procedures are in effect. The pair of gliders look as slender and agile as nighthawk wings against a popcorn cumulus sky. That they are rising dramatically as they "work the thermal," is obvious when White gives dimension to what his cohorts are doing. Thermals act like campfire smoke, they aren't really columns or pipes. They drift and change shape. They can be as wide as a football field; "big and boaty" or "wing-rocking bullets," as he says. "When Brett and Ryan bounce a bit, they're moving through the edge, trying figure out the size and shape of the thermal and stay in it up to cloud base where they lose their lift, " White explains. "Raptors have those finger-like feathers at their wingtips so that they can be more sensitive about finding the rough edges of thermals and shearing into them. We feel the edges of thermals with the tips of our gliders and turn into them and try to stay in them. You folks will do this in a year or two if you stick with this," White says as gently as your favorite grammar school teacher. "Birds can flap their wings. Big advantage," he says jealously. "You'll fly in those conditions someday, but only after you learn to model the weather, integrate with your gliders and think intuitively as birds. I want to teach you to see what you need to see to fly like birds."

White's radio spits out Swan's voice: "It's getting pretty sporty," he says, an attempt at undaunted understatement. But the combination of freezing temperatures up there, the turbulence, and the tiny speaker renders his voice puny. Zaenglein, speaking to Swan adds, "Pretty spicy...Whoa. Falling out the backside. Don't come over here." Whites eyes are skyward appraising his prodigies. "Pretty textured air, real active stuff. Those guys are so cool," he says. "Those are my two best boys," he says with his chin jutting up. "On a good day, with a little luck, they might out fly me." It ain't bragging, they say, when it's true.

The many stamps Dixon White has left upon the sport of paragliding were acknowledged by his peers who voted him the United States Hang Gliding Association "Instructor of the Year in 1999. It was the first time the title was awarded. More than 140 letters poured into the USHPA headquarters citing such Dixon White contributions as intertwining weather awareness and safety into a fundamental and systematic series of habits that instructors must imbue in their students. White's insistence on learning to understand weather begins with second day students, who must arrive at the airpark with weather data that they are taught to acquire and interpret.

Marty DeVietti, White's head instructor, has been nominated as Instructor of the Year for 2000, and the same sentiments about his safety record and the prolific number of students he has trained are distinguishing the school as the best in the U.S.

We watch the wings spiral higher until they are no bigger than pastel toenail clippings on blue linoleum.

"How's it now?" White queries into the radio. "Can't talk, gonna die," Zaenglein says. White laughs and we know he wants to be up there with them. He shrugs and grins and turns his attention back to the gaggle of fledglings he is training and to his apprentice instructors, Denise Reed, the 1999 Alaska Women's Boxing champ, and her pal Doug Stroop, chemists who abandoned careers in the oil industry to fly paragliders. The sport is replete with adherents who have abandoned careers, left lovers, divorced, sold off belongings, and altered all routines to pursue this form of flight. There are approximately 4,000 USHPA registered paragliders in the U.S. and 300,000 worldwide, and every one of them has seemingly neglected someone or something to partake of the sky. Reed and Stroop traveled from Alaska, on a Winter's vacation, to begin paragliding with White and then went home and started making plans to quit their jobs, lay aside the boxing gloves, and go paragliding full time.

Up in Whisper valley, the beginner's slope, Reed and Stroop help students spread their wings on the ground at different points across the 400-foot-wide upper valley. White runs, literally runs back and forth instructing apprentices and students. Individually, with White at their side, they raise their wings into a gentle upslope breeze, and bring them overhead and set them back down. Within an hour or so, one by one, with White running downslope and helping them launch their wings, they begin making 200-yard flights that look like moon walking, taking 50-foot hops or skipping on tip toes for a hundred yards. This takes a splendid few hours that extend into the evening when long shadows cool the valley and stop the thermals. "Feel the catabatic flow," White announces like a ringmaster to students spread out over half a football field. "That downslope wind that just started is cool air wanting to puddle up low. We're done flying."

White incessantly teaches people to read the atmosphere, the micrometeorology of mountains, valleys, coastlines, and the desert. Standing in a restaurant parking lot, or gazing out the post office window, he draws all eyes to the sky. The life that White strives for, up in that exquisite world of weather, has come along a circuitous route. He worked part-time as a ski instructor through his twenties, then he left a seven-year career in the circus as a tightwire walker, juggler, and unicyclist. "I was stagnating in the circus," he says, apparently unaware of the precociousness of that statement. "I wasn't exactly Johnny Carson material," he says, laughing. He then started an appliance store in Arizona and was earning $120,000 per year when, in 1990 he discovered paragliding and became obsessed. His wife Debra, whom he describes as a friend, saint, accomplished carpenter, and equestrienne agreed that they should sell their $350,000 home, horses, and business so that White could figure out how to make a career of paragliding. They moved into a doublewide trailer with toddlers, Arizona, and Holly. The next year White earned $27,000 teaching humans to fly.

White set up shop in a garage selling the arcane accouterments of paragliding. Eight years later he runs two schools, working winters near Flagstaff and summers in Cashmere. He sells equipment to current and former students but relies on the kindness of wealthy pilots/patrons to keep the whole deal afloat. A cheerful coterie of Microsoft millionaires, all Airplay alumni, fly with him and help keep the operation coasting, including Jabe Blumenthal, the man who owns the Hay Canyon Flight Park. "If you want to make a million teaching paragliding, you better start with two million," White claims.

Blumenthal had been paragliding for several years in Europe and the U.S. when he accompanied White on a paragliding tour of Mexico. He bought the Hay Canyon site because it had some of the best terrain, especially for beginning pilots, and summer flying weather, anywhere near Seattle. "I wanted to put together the best flying school possible. Dixon struck me as the best instructor I'd ever run into. He's intense, too much so for some people. But he is the best," Blumenthal says.

The school is a three hour drive from the Seattle area, and for that reason White charges $800 to instruct pilots to the novice level, which requires 30 or so flights using the school's equipment, while instructors in the Seattle suburbs get $1200. White teaches around 60 students per year.

On the first day of a lesson with White, usually held around the ranch house picnic tables, he advises students that he doesn't want them referring anyone to him for lessons who doesn't have the money to buy equipment and the heart to sustain this sport. "Send me people who have always wanted to fly, who dream about it and talk about it and who you think can become completely preoccupied with it. Don't send me any Mountain Dewers. I'm not here to give joy rides. They'll find instructors who do."

His disdain for all but a handful of his fellow instructors, to whom he will refer students, is a topic he weighs in on without compunction. "There are some very incompetent instructors who treat students as though a few injuries are acceptable," he pauses. "It's ironic," he says and gets sidetracked. "Get hurt pole vaulting or snowboarding and that's an acceptable injury. But get hurt trying to fly and everyone condemns such blatant foolishness," he reels himself back to the issue at hand. "No injury is ever acceptable. The only acceptable goal is zero injuries."

Many of White's students are current or former aviators; the list includes Bill Holsgrove, a DC-10 captain for Hawaiian Airlines, several other commercial airline pilots. Joe Rumble, a 73-year-old former smokejumper has flown with White 102 times since 1998. "I've been around aviation all my life. I tried to get a pilot's license in the 40s but got shortstopped." Rumble says. "Then, at age 70 I got started with Dixon. Man it means a lot to fly." Marty DeVietti is an instrument rated fixed wing pilot with a bachelor's degree in Aviation Technology. A plethora of former general aviation pilots who quit flying because of the expense have schooled with White and DeVietti. But the sport also appeals to those who dislike small planes, like White. "My dad and mom were both fixed wing pilots. Mom gave it up when she had me. My dad would take me up and tell me to keep on a bearing and altitude, and then he'd lean back and read a magazine. I'd be scared, then bored. I hated the smell, the radios, the equipment-intensive environment. I don't like being a passenger."

Even hang gliding left White feeling indifferent. "I had a tandem hang glider flight once and didn't think much of it. They require assembly, they rattle, and they make me feel like a passenger. In a paraglider I'm a piece of the aircraft. Knees in the breeze, managing the energy of all that sailcloth. It is the most fun you can have with your clothes on," he says and tries a giggle that doesn't quite fly. He occasionally tries to atone for his safety and weather oratory with a sort of acute jocularity that comes across as zany and endearing. But he rarely digresses. "I do everything I can to keep people listening to me. Listen up," he elbows me playfully, "I try to alter my voice, my delivery, change pace, anything to keep people with me. This stuff is all so extremely critical."

Managing students' emotions, White says, is the toughest part of his job. But he is no pussyfooter. A broadly grinning, kind of hip 22-year-old river guide, Matt Gerdes, who is having a great second day lesson stands harnessed to his grounded glider fussing with the sets of "risers," the webbing straps where the dozens of lines to the wing are gathered in his hands. White walks over to help him launch. He surreptitiously throws a tangle into Gerdes's lines. "You look ready," White needles him, "Go ahead." Gerdes pulls the glider into the air but aborts the launch of the asymmetrical wing. It rises up on one tip like a rampant caterpillar 30-feet-tall, folds itself over like a fortune cookie, and rolls up into a bird's nest of risers and lines.

"Good for you," White encourages him, "Launches are optional, landings are mandatory. Don't ever let anyone tell you when you are ready to fly. You are a pilot in command of your aircraft. Preflight checklist, dude." Gerdes looks crestfallen at the mess of fabric and lines and White gives him a hint that he should start the untangling with his "A" risers, and walks away. "Too happy too soon," he tells me. "He was getting complacent."

White surveys the hillside and approaches an ex-marine who wears black pants tucked into black boots and a tee shirt about tequila, who in two days has had eight short flights and a couple of sublime four minute glides. "How's it going?" White effuses. "Lousy launch," the leatherneck sulks, seeking commiseration. White faces him and starts in loudly: "You've just had two days of great weather and some beautiful flights. Lose the attitude. In fact," he says, pumping himself up a bit, "I can't stand listening to negative crap up here. Bad attitudes anticipate failure and cause accidents. One more complaint and you don't get invited back." This "straighten up and fly right" tirade silences the other aeronauts on the slope like a lull in the wind. The chastened student stands at parade rest. White says quietly, "Please get after some ground handling and kiting. Look at what fun everyone else is having."

He watches a more advanced pilot screw up a launch, mishandling his glider, and he bites his tongue and turns to me and says, "At a some point I have to stand back and let them learn from blowing it." Then he jogs over to help the young pilot he sabotaged sort out his wing.

That night over ice cream with his apprentice instructors, White agonizes about an overweight student, who he reluctantly allowed to take lessons. That afternoon the big man belly flopped a couple times and began blaming his awkwardness on his glider's performance. Swan and Zaenglein had watched incredulously as White ran downslope with the man on a launch and hung to the bottom of his harness as the guy got airborne for the first time. A gust carried them 12 feet into the air whereupon White let go, tumbled and popped up still loping downhill and shouting directions to the big man trying to fly the huge wing. White tells us he heard him "verbally stressing" in the air when his wing dipped slightly to one side.

"I don't think I can let him come back," he looks solemnly at the apprentices. "His weight isn't the problem. If he told me he loves this and said some things about how fun it is I'd stick with him, but he's doing it for reasons that I can't understand," he admits. "Understanding the emotional well-being of your students is as tricky and critical as understanding the weather. Protect them. Everything we do as instructors must be above reproach," he preaches.

White regards himself as an "anal retentive task master" trying to sort out a world that is inherently chaotic. The crazy thing about paragliding is that it takes place in an element that is invisible. But White, who speaks passable French and plays classical piano, knows the value of achieving complex tasks incrementally. "We begin with the simplest little downhill flights, barely off the ground. Then we get them started on 'sled rides,' gliding down our 800-foot tall hill into Spirit canyon."

To begin explaining the great river of air, talking fluid mechanics helps White teach people how to model the weather that makes it all possible. "Ninety percent of what people in this sport need to know is weather, five percent is equipment and five percent is skill," White insists. Students are told on day one to show up the next morning with weather information; the winds aloft and temperatures, knowing where the jet stream and isobars are, all of which can be obtained by calling 800 WX BRIEF or tapping into his website, paraglide.com. He gives students succinct criteria for deciding to fly or not, after making initial inquiries in the morning. Beginners can forget about it when there are more than two isobars within three hundred miles. If the jet stream is within 100 miles the base winds will be too high for safe flights. If the barometric pressure has dropped, unsettled weather is on the way.

White and DeVietti spend an hour or so helping beginning students interpret this data first thing in the morning to decide whether or not paragliding will be possible that day. "Knowing what the weather is doing gives pilots the patience to wait for safe conditions. Maybe to watch thermals triggering all morning until you feel comfortable with what's happening." If the initial weather predictions for the day are propitious, then paraglider pilots must observe the conditions at the launch site and not fly if cumulus clouds are taller than they are wide, or there is a multilayered sky with clouds moving in different directions, or if wind gusts exceed five mile per hour in five seconds, all signs that the air is too turbulent for safe flights. But if the signs are encouraging, students must start learning how to see and use the thermals that create lifting air.

To understand the characteristics of thermals wicking up hillsides imagine inverting the landscape by using your hand. Your palm is the earth's crust, the top of your hand the surface. Invert your hand with the mountains of your knuckles and the valleys and ridges of your fingers upside down. Pour water in your palm and it drains down between your fingers and wicks to the points of your knuckles before it releases into the air. The landscapes paragliders seek have terrain you can run down that lies above places where thermals puddle on the ground and then release and run up hills.

White uses another fluid image to explain how thermals bloop up into the atmosphere. Slightly overfill a glass of water and surface tension allows it to bubble up over the top of the vessel. That tension is a fragile agreement between molecular attraction, barometric pressure, and gravity to maintain its integrity, and it breaks easily. Once the sun starts warming the ground surface bubbles of warm air form and they eventually exceed their inherent ability to swell, then they burst and rise. They may also be released mechanically, by something as small as a rabbit running through them. Those cumulus changelings that live and die in 20 minutes define the altitude where the thermals slow down and blossom.

These releases of energy that make sustained paragliding possible are endlessly fascinating to White, who stands towards the top of Whisper valley at the Hay Canyon flight park and watches cycles of warm air releasing uphill while showing his students how to observe the tall wheat grasses along the edge of the mowed fairway below as they begin shimmering in a breeze. The shimmer ascends the tilted valley like a "wave" through a college stadium. The air huffs and sighs and the grasses hiss and White says, "Let's watch a few more triggers, they're coming about 12 minutes apart, and see if we can decide what we might do with them." While we wait he tells us about flying cross country and how a string of young cumulus clouds can provide a path for miles, and how cultivated farm ground can have huge lift, and how he always hopes to see a tractor with a plume of dust rising actively in its wake, showing how the machine is entering warm air puddles and triggering the swirling dust and debris that vividly demonstrate rising air. Dust devils are another sign of dramatically lifting air, he explains, usually seen on days when high barometric pressure delays the release of building puddles of warm air until they can punch out through it, seeking equilibrium, showing us how nature abhors a vacuum.

A lot of time spent in the sport is what's known as para-waiting, the idyllic pastime of sitting atop a promontory and watching the clouds, birds, and the sky and making paragliding talk. Instructor Dave Wheeler, a lanky, expatriate Welshman who White says progressed faster in the sport than anyone he's seen sits with a couple of students talking about how to decide what the weather is offering. Wheeler, a computer genius who knows as much, or more, about micrometeorology as White, advises his students to observe what other pilots are doing at launch sites and warns them to be aware of guys with high "GBRs," or gonad-to-brain ratios. "Use'm like dandelion fluff, watch what happens to them and use that as part of your model for flying that day," he says plainly.

"Watch the birds," White adds softly. "Look for dust devils. Try to time the lulls between the cycles," he croons to his students who are watching, enchanted as children, the micrometeorology of a mountain slope. With two such cerebral mentors as Dixon White and Dave Wheeler confidently explaining exactly what the weather around us is doing, flying down this valley seems a childlike and wholly noble thing to do. Human flight seems a logical and safe aspiration.

White has made innovations in the sport that have codified safe habits and made reading the weather a cogent, attainable skill. Paragliding began in the late 1960s when European mountain climbers flew the new rectangular sport parachutes from summits as a way of getting down quickly. They would lay a sport chute behind themselves and start running downhill, if it inflated and flew successfully then it was a relatively safe and much faster way down. Thirty years later, when White joined the sport as a master pilot and instructor, he began changing it fundamentally, starting with the act of getting off the ground safely.

Launching a paraglider according to White's preferred reverse method reminds me of nothing so much as handling draft horse teams as I did in Oregon forests 25 years ago. Giving a team the giddy up with your back to them would make no more sense than launching a paraglider that is behind your back. "Any instructor who doesn't teach reverse launches is behind the curve," White says unabashedly.

You stand there holding lines in both hands, facing the wing that is laid out in a 30-foot horseshoe shape on the ground. The lines in your hands give you information as you step back, pull lightly, and raise a little wall of sailcloth into the wind. The open cells on the leading edge begin to inflate and climb up in front of you and tug at your arms and the harness points at your hips. You twist in the harness and head downslope. Your arms control the paraglider as a pair of wings, allowing each side to ascend or descend. The feeling in the lines can be that of a team of greenbroke coach horses, each wanting to dash off in a different direction, or it can feel like a docile hitch of Percherons gathering their shoulders into the harness and pulling you ineluctably up a mountain road. Successfully steering the wing is a matter of your sensitivity and skill at feeling subtle sideslips, forward and backward surges, and managing the horsepower up there at the end of the lines.

The horse analogy is apt even when the wing is inflated and energetically lifting you skyward. Horsepower is an exact measure of moving weight over time. Lower a 220-pound weight down a 150-foot-deep well and then raise it to the surface in one minute and you have exerted 33,000 foot pounds per minute, or one horsepower. White, who weighs around 200 pounds geared up often ascends at 2200 feet per minute which pencils out to 440,000 foot pounds or roughly 13 horses and a pony pulling a human closer to heavens every minute. Ghost riders in the sky, as we say.

As the mid day sun bakes a south-facing slope in White's flight park he sits, sweating from a dozen sprints up and down the hill with his hands on novice's harnesses and brake lines. "A lot of my friends who used to instruct beginners have quit. They can't take this running down the hill. Heck, I still feel like I have to run back up to the next student who is waiting to give it a go. I believe the next phenomenal pilot, like Ryan, or Brett, or Dave, will show up here wanting to fly."

He's watching the tilted slopes for riffles in the wheat grass and sage, signs of thermals releasing. "This is closer to what surfers do than aviators," he says, "waiting, watching, gauging. Wanting a ride." He considers that momentarily and says, "It's also like scuba diving, where you put people in an element where they have no reference points. There's nothing they've done before that transfers. People who try this have never done anything remotely like it in their life."

White lays his hand on a patch of dun soil between bristly stalks of mowed bunch grass and asks his students to do so. Feel that," he says. "It's way warmer than your body temperature." The ground temperature, he finds with his wristwatch thermometer, is 114 degrees. "The whole valley is cooking up bubbles of warm air," he smiles. The thermals, that had been releasing roughly every fifteen minutes for the last couple hours, are whooshing up hill more often and much more forcefully. The air will be too sporty now for beginners, White explains and he loads everyone back in his big white Ford one-ton crew cab and heads down the hill with the truck's dust plume whipping back upslope and raising a dust devil, a propitious sign, he points out, that will make for some challenging flying that will keep him from getting grumpy if he can catch this midday weather.

He drops the students off at the picnic tables under the big maples at the ranch house and points at the timbered, rocky throat that defines Hay Canyon opposite us and says to keep an eye on the sky. He explains to us that he, Brett, Ryan, Dave, Doug and Denise will drive back up and then hike another 600 vertical feet to the top of the mountain and launch.

Half an hour later, from the picnic tables, we see them cutting "S" curves up there, searching around for thermals. They rise and then glide down close to the ridges that finger into Hay Canyon and rise again and fly on a triangular path that describes a mile on a side for hour and a half. Six humans under polychrome crescents within shouting distance of each other at 11,000 feet. Then White and Wheeler and the apprentices from Alaska descend to continue schooling the dazzled students.

Brett Zaenglein and Ryan Swan, it turned out, linked together a progression of thermals and glides that took them 35 miles over the easternmost jags of the North Cascades range at altitudes above 13,700 feet. They landed at the ski area on Steven's Pass and hitchhiked home. "You can't just extract what you want from the weather, but sometimes you get more than you hoped for," Swan says.

That evening in Dixon's office they downloaded a GPS Swan carried and it superimposed their path on a topographical map, lending a believable omnisciency to their flights over 12,900-foot peaks. At one point, Zaenglein was four thousand feet above Swan and watched him gliding ever closer to the timbered slopes below searching unsuccessfully for a thermal. "I was kicking treetops, stuck in a shaded mountainside and sinking," Swan says. "Thought I'd get dirted." Swan had visions of getting hung up in a tree, tearing his $3,600 Windtech paraglider, perhaps falling a hundred feet out of the tree, and still being 15 miles form the nearest road. He saw railroad tracks that he could try to reach, but the width of the right of way looked narrower than his wing. "I flew in the shade, lower and lower and finally got around a corner of this ridge and there was some sunshine and a rocky slope heating up and I worked that back up." White, noticing that Swan seems truly shaken, jacks him up a bit "Today you were in no-man's land. You did something no one else has ever done. Just be very, very satisfied."

During the week that I studied paraglider flight and weather with Dixon White the human genome mapping was completed. He rhapsodized one evening, while balanced on the tightwire he has set up outside the ranch house, about how someday humans would fly without fabric wings, presumably through some genetic manipulation he hopes to see in his lifetime. It was hard to listen to such an uncharacteristically wacky discourse, but up on his tightwire he looked more relaxed than I'd seen him. I asked him if he believed that there is a risk-taking gene, expecting him to launch a lecture on how safe this sport could be with a thorough knowledge of weather and equipment and the appropriate attitudes, etc..

"Of course there is," he surprised me, "that's a definite gene, a necessary gene. Human society didn't evolve without risk takers." White once walked 1,000 feet up the cable that suspends chairlift #1 at Aspen, Colorado. I got a little snotty and asked him if that was an example of a risk that moved society forward. He looked down at me patiently; he'd been balanced on the cable for more than half an hour while Phil Schofield, the photographer, had shot two rolls of film. He replied: "We're explorers. We are testing the outer reaches. Good explorers aren't adrenaline junkies. They prepare themselves as fully as they can, and then head out there."


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