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Eagle Paragliding in the New York Times
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Eagle Paragliding in the New York Times
Article written by pilot who trained with Eagle Paragliding Follow along as Award Winning Instructor Rob Sporrer, takes New York Times writer & paragliding newbie Bill Becher to school. >>> Read More

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Instructor of the year honor

Eagle Paragliding's chief Instructor Rob Sporrer received USHPA's Instructor of the Year Award in 2002. Every year USHPA issues the award to the person making the biggest contributions to our sport in the United States.

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Into the Wind

By Isabelle Gullö
for Destination Wine Country Magazine
Summer 2008 Edition

Writer Isabelle Gullö practices flying her kite before her first solo flight.

I’ve always admired birds. To me, like for so many people, they symbolize pure freedom. Still, I never really dreamt of flying myself. While I love adventure, the things I get a kick out of doing never involve being airborne. That is, until I decided to learn how to paraglide.

Paragliding, a worldwide recreational and competitive sport, is perhaps the closest one can get to experiencing pure aviation. The paraglider itself is a foot-launched, inflatable flying wing made of nonporous nylon, and the “pilot” sits in a harness suspended by a spider web of sturdy Kevlar lines below the wing. When flying, you can literally soar like a bird, taking advantage of rising air, or thermals, to climb.

My first introduction to the sport is a tandem flight over town with Rob Sporrer, owner of Eagle Paragliding. As Rob, myself and six other pilots set out toward our launching spot off Mountain Drive a Thursday morning, I’m not yet nervous. I have no idea what to expect. Plus, Rob keeps me entertained with tall tales (pun intended!) about gliding. “Santa Barbara offers the best year-round paragliding in the nation,” he says, carefully navigating the windy road. “We have the best training hill and consistent flying conditions.”

A tandem flight over Santa Barbara.

The geography is what makes flying here so special, explains Rob, an award-winning instructor and competitive paraglider for more than a decade. “Our mild climate and south-facing mountains allow for great ridge soaring and mountain thermaling.” People come to Santa Barbara from across the globe to fly and become certified pilots.

Instructor Rob Sporrer shows his student the ropes.

My gliding aspirations are less lofty, but I’m starting to feel excited, and slightly nervous, about today’s adventure. The group is gearing up at Parma, the 2,400-foot launch spot, from where views span the entire city and the ocean beyond. It’s sunny and warm, but as instructed, I’m wearing a windproof jacket, jeans and sneakers to stay warm once in the air.

After I’ve signed a few waivers, Rob hands me the helmet and the harness, which he connects to his harness with carabiners, and briefs me on the take-off. “When I catch the perfect gust of wind, I’ll count to three, and we’ll run toward the edge of the cliff. And you gotta run like you mean it.” I’m acting giddy now, especially since Rob stalls with the counting. “One, one a half, two, two and a half.” Finally, he calls magic number “three,” and we run toward the cliff, pushing hard against the wind. My legs leave the ground and we are gently lifted up and away from the cliff. We’re flying.

Santa Barbara looks different from up above. Bigger, and even more beautiful. It’s like a puzzle sprawling beneath us, where the pieces—buildings, roads and fields—are perfectly molded together. Because we’re flying so high, the mountains seem less intimidating but the sparkling Pacific ahead appears enormous. From time to time we climb thermals, reaching up to 3,000 feet.

I’m reclining in my harness, enjoying the silence and breathtaking bird’s-eye view—I can see all the way from Goleta Beach to Point Mugu to the Channel Islands. I take in some of the trails I love to run with my dogs. I even see a buzzard soaring below us, and happily note that it’s as if we are praying on it. “Try not to look down on the ground,” Rob encourages me, more to keep me from getting dizzy than from ensuring I don’t lose it. From time to time, I do freak out, but I breathe deeply and focus away from the fact that I’m gliding sky high, secured only by a piece of fabric and nylons strings.

Down to Earth: Gullö after the day's fifth and final flight.

Despite its repute as a dangerous sport, gliding is relatively safe if you practice it that way. You actually run a greater risk of getting hurt while horseback riding or skiing. “It’s not a daredevil sport,” Rob says. “The equipment won’t fail you. You only expose yourself to risk when you fail to learn the ground handling skills with the wing during the initial training, and when you decide to launch on days when conditions are bad.”

About an hour later, we descend toward our landing site, an open field near the base of Gibraltar Road. Because my feet have gone numb up in the air, Rob lands for me, perfectly smooth. Even though I didn’t do much work during the flight, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. And I can’t stop smiling. “Next time, you’ll fly on your own,” Rob promises, referring to my solo lesson happening the following week at Eling’s Flight Park. I can’t wait.

The morning of my solo lesson, I don’t want to get out of bed. Fear and doubt have put a cloud on my initial excitement. I find myself wishing for a giant thunderstorm or that I’ll somehow fall and break my foot. Though embarrassed to admit it, what keeps me motivated is something Rob said during our tandem flight: “I have taught people as old as 86 and as young as 11 how to fly.” Darn it! If my niece or grandpa could technically do this, I have to at least try.

A little later Rob and I meet up at Eiling’s, located right across from the Wilcox property, overlooking Hendry’s Beach. The training hill is not big, but it’s wide and grassy. Down below is the huge green field where gliders land, each side of it marked by flags that indicate wind and thermal drift. I walk my dogs up and down the trails here daily so I’m well familiar with the topography.

It’s a perfect Santa Barbara day (small chance of a thunderstorm hitting). The sun is bright and the sky clear. The first part of the lesson involves ground-handling, learning how to kite the wing, strap myself in and break and steer. “Don’t try to muscle the thing,” Rob tells me as I struggle to keep the wing upright. “After you get the fundamentals and the muscle memory required to kite the wing, the sport becomes 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical,” he ensures me. “I haven’t met anybody at the hill who couldn’t do this sport.”

After about an hour and a half, Rob feels I’m ready to fly. I disagree, but he insists I know what I’m doing. “The flying part is easy. You’ve already done the hardest part up here.” Plus, he says. “I’ll be instructing you on the radio. Just keep your eyes on the Wilcox property, your ‘heading.’”

Before I know it, I find myself running off the top of the hill (“running like I mean it”) and being whisked up and away by the giant, inflated wing. What I experience next is a mix of so many emotions: amazement, fear, thrill, uncertainty among them. I hyperventilate for a second, but then I hear Rob on the radio. “Don’t look down. Keep your eyes on the heading. Now turn right. Then turn left.” The turning back and forth makes the glider descend, and after a few minutes I hit solid ground on the field below, big grin on my face. “Great job,” Rob radios in. “I’m coming to pick you up.”

I get four more flights in that day, the last of which turns out smooth sailing start to finish. I’m ecstatic. Despite my initial fear and hesitation, I have experienced the freedom and beauty of flying. With more training, maybe someday I could even glide next to Rob on a flight across Santa Barbara.

I never thought I’d get hooked. But as we say goodbye that afternoon, Rob sums it up perfectly: “How can you ever tire of being a bird?”

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