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Eagle Paragliding featured in Santa Barbara News-Press
By BRIAN COE, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
For anyone who's ever had a flying dream, felt restricted By earth's gravity or simply stared at a bird and wished that they could experience that graceful sensation of soaring through the air, paragliding is a must.
As luck would have it, Santa Barbara is home to the best year-round paragliding in the United States...yet another outdoor activity to add to our county's impressive list of superlatives (best year-round whale watching, best scuba diving in California, etc.).
While flying dreams are common, the amount of people who actually get to experience what it's like to soar like a bird are few and far between. With the expertise and enthusiasm of Eagle Paragliding not to mention the most beautiful and practical location to fly in the country, it's high time for earthlings to turn all of those flying dreams into flying realities.
At 9:30 a.m. on a crisp, post-storm April morning, we drove to the top of Elings Park to meet the men who would help us fulfill our flying destiny. Located above Hendry's Beach near the intersection of Las Postias Road and Cliff Drive, Elings Park is a world-renowned flying destination for hang-gliders and paragliders alike.
Ever since the '70s, pilots from all over the world have flocked to Elings Park for its long list of flyer-friendly characteristics. For starters, we should all be grateful that such prime real estate didn't turn into a mini-Montecito. To the contrary, Elings Park is about as natural and wide-open as it gets, with a gentle, grassy slope descending toward the ocean and a massive, flat field down below that makes for an ideal landing zone.
Located just above sea level, the thick air is ideal for flying. In addition, the site is often the recipient of a soft ocean breeze that provides just the right amount of lift for getting one's feet off the ground. As if conditions could get any better, the views from the hilltop are breathtaking: palm trees, Hendry's beach, breaking waves and the hulking silhouettes of the Channel Islands on the horizon.
One Small Step for Man...
Right off the bat, we met Rob Sporrer (though the 'p' should be silent), Eagle Paragliding's proud and vibrant owner since 1998. Sporrer, like more than half of the people who end up paragliding, got involved with the sport after the irresistible draw of watching other humans in flight.
"It was just my third or fourth time in Santa Barbara when I saw these guys flying for hours above the cliffs and eventually landing on the beach," he says. "I thought, 'that's incredible. I've got to try that.' I did it, and I loved it. I was instantly hooked."
After flying as often as possible for a full year, local flying legend Tom Truax asked Rob to apprentice for him. In 1996, a couple of Sporrer's close friends started up Eagle Paragliding. Two years later, after both of them ended up leaving town, Sporrer suddenly found himself as the company's sole owner.
Since then, Sporrer has established Eagle Paragliding as Santa Barbara's premiere flying company, much in thanks to people like his brother, Ty (who took first at the national championships in Sun Valley, Idaho) and world-class instructors like Kevin McGinley, who would soon be our own personal ticket to flying the friendly skies.
Within a matter of minutes, McGinley had each of us in harnesses, learning hands-on what it would take for us to fly. Wait a second we would be flying alone? Somehow that seemed impossible. Wasn't the extreme sport standard to pay a flat rate for a tandem, once-in-a-lifetime experience, as it is with skydiving?
Perhaps we had paragliding pegged all wrong. Maybe flying wasn't as complicated or dangerous as we had perceived it to be. Not only would we have the opportunity to fly alone, but By day's end, we would also be well on our way to having the skills and experience necessary to become lifelong, self-reliant pilots.
First things first McGinley demonstrated the proper techniques for setting up the harness and wings to minimize tangles and other avoidable complications. Shortly thereafter, we were already taking turns deploying our own parachutes and demonstrating control over the wings that hovered overhead, pulling the strings known as brakes on either side to adjust the orientation of our false feathers.
"Your First Flight is Like Your First Kiss"
In less than an hour, we were all ready to fly on our own. We couldn't believe it.
"Who wants to go first?" McGinley asked.
My hand shot into the air like our wings had done during our simulation approaches. McGinley reminded me that there was no obligation to fly, and that my own desire to do so would be the biggest contributing factor toward success. With such a calm, confident presence, I couldn't imagine a better instructor than McGinley to help put the wind beneath my wings.
Making sure to do everything in a smooth manner (sudden, jerky motions are the biggest no-no's in paragliding), I ran toward the edge of the hill, mimicking McGinley's posture and hand movements as he back-peddled in front of me. Just as I was about to run off the edge, my feet lost contact with the ground. In a sudden, exhilarating rush of weightlessness, I was flying.
"Really nice work on the take-off," came McGinley's soothing voice over my radio. "Now just cross your legs, relax and enjoy the ride."
Turn By turn, McGinley led me through my first flight. Surprisingly, fear of falling was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I wanted to go higher and higher, an instant addict to the sensation of flying. After two short, but by all means sweet minutes of soaring like a bird, McGinley talked me through the landing.
"At three feet, pull hard on the brakes," he said. "Don't forget to keep running."
Suddenly, and far more smoothly than I had expected, I was standing on my own two feet. The only problem was, I wanted to be back up in the air.
Choose Your Own Adventure
The beauty of paragliding is that it's as extreme as the pilot wants it to be. By the numbers, the sport is actually far safer than a large percentage of other outdoor activities. In paragliding's case, the word "extreme" is probably more of a stigma than a standard.
Eagle Paragliding trains people from all walks of life to become pilots, from 12-year-old girls to 82-year-old men. In many cases, women and children are actually the quickest learners, as much of the sport is a matter of finesse.
In less than two hours, most first-timers are ready to fly on their own, and nine days of training is all that's needed to become certified to fly without the supervision of an instructor. Like catching a good wave, paragliding is instantly addicting. Though it was our first time flying, it certainly will not be our last.