Paragliders sail skies
Novices and experts flock to Tetons to pursue high-flying passion.
Jackson Hole Paragliding pilot David Robinson prepares to land near Teton Village during Aerofest on Sept. 8. JACLYN BOROWSKI / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Miller N. Resor, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 3, 2012
Have you ever dreamed of flying?
Soaring with the eagles, drifting in the clouds, catching thermals thousands of feet in the air while navigating around the Grand Teton.
Can you imagine that?
David Robinson did.
Growing up near High School Butte, he watched paragliders taking off overhead his entire life. He always knew he wanted to fly.
After completing a journeyman apprenticeship to work in heating and cooling, ’the 2004 Jackson Hole High School graduate ditched “H&C” and focused on paragliding.
“I realized I hated it, so I quit,” he said.
Robinson went to Scott Harris, the owner of Jackson Hole Paragliding, and told him he wanted to learn to paraglide, and he wanted to make a career out of it. That was in 2009.
Harris said Robinson’s level of commitment was extraordinary, as was his natural ability.
His first summer, Robinson learned to fly his kite on the ground. When he understood how to operate his sail, he started doing low-elevation flights. It wasn’t until much later in the summer that he took his first tandem ride, and that was only to learn some of the finer points that would allow him to do acrobatics.
Over the past three years Robinson has completed 1,500 flights and is now making a living as an up-and-coming instructor for Jackson Hole Paragliding.
“I was hungry,” he said. “I really wanted it.”
Jackson Hole has an impressive paragliding history. Many of North America’s top flyers have soared here.
Jackson is exceptional in part because it has extraordinary geography for the sport. With lots of high mountains that fall into flat valleys from all directions, there are an unprecedented number of takeoff and landing sites.
This setting has attracted a lot of incredible pilots, making Jackson the North American mecca of paragliding.
Harris didn’t start paragliding until 1992, several years after he arrived in Jackson. He went on a spring ski trip to Beartooth Pass with friends Jon Hunt and Tom Bartlett. After paragliding for the first time on that trip, he came back, bought a wing and started flying twice a day for the rest of the summer.
A couple of years later, at the U.S. National Paragliding Championships in Aspen, Colo., the three friends saw technology that would allow for tandem flights.
“We knew if we didn’t get into it, somebody else would,” Harris said.
In 2000, Jackson Hole paragliding was founded.
Every time a person takes off with one of the company’s instructors, he or she becomes a student. Even if people have no plans to learn to paraglide solo, when their feet leave the ground they receive their United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association affiliate/student membership.
Jackson Hole Paragliding does much of its summer and winter business taking people who have no desire to command their own wings. The company flies people commercially from the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Snow King Resort and Grand Targhee Resort.
The company also operates a guiding service for experienced flyers who need help getting their bearings around Jackson Hole. And instruction is offered for those who don’t know how to paraglide and want to learn.
“We are kind of like a ski school or mountain guide,” Harris said. “Our first responsibility is keeping people safe.”
With Jackson Hole Paragliding’s lesson packages, people can receive novice or intermediate certification. The school also offers instruction beyond intermediate certification for those who want to keep learning. The field instruction is paired with a workbook and a written test. The instruction packages also provide the equipment needed for learning: a wing and a harness.
Robinson learned especially fast because of his complete dedication, Harris said. But the average paraglider, he said, takes three to four weeks to complete the 25 flights necessary to obtain novice certification and an entire summer to complete the 90 flights needed for intermediate certification.
This summer, Harris and the Jackson Hole Paragliding instructors taught 15 novice-rated students.
The instructors, students and any pilots participating in the program would meet in the mornings at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and in the afternoons at Karns Meadow in Jackson.
One afternoon in September, the group convened in the dusty parking lot next to the power station on the western edge of Karns Meadow. One by one, pilots — each at a different stage of learning — arrived to meet Harris, Robinson and several other instructors.
Bob Beighly came to Jackson on vacation. He flies in Boulder, Colo., and is currently a P2 novice, working on getting his P3 Intermediate. He came to the Tetons to fly and to receive instruction from Jackson Hole Paragliding.
“I love flying, I love Jackson, and these guys are awesome,” he said. “Paragliding is simple in many ways, but also can be infinitely challenging,”
Tait Graham, who, like Robinson, grew up in Jackson, has just started but is learning fast.
“If college were like this, I would have done a lot better,” he said.
Once everyone had arrived, the group headed to Curtis Canyon to work on kiting and low-altitude flights.
The next morning, Jackson Hole Paragliding was at it again, this time from the top of the Bridger Gondola at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Mark Carl, a mechanical engineer from Denver, was with the group that Thursday morning. He has tried flying airplanes and hang gliders but got hooked once he discovered paragliding.
“I love the independence,” he said. “I love the quietness, I love flying in the thermals with the birds, l love the slower speed of flight.”
Cody Faughn, originally from McCall, Idaho, was talked into paragliding by his mom.
“I thought she was crazy,” he said.
Lost in thought over his first flight, he muttered something about “flying with a Golden Eagle,” but it wasn’t clear if he was talking about an actual golden eagle or his legendary instructor: Hunt, Jackson Hole Paragliding’s lead pilot.
Hunt accompanied valley resident and paraglider extraordinaire Nick Greece on a North American record trip this summer. Greece flew 204.6 miles from Phillips Ridge on Teton Pass to just outside Rawlins.
Faughn was hooked after one flight.
That was four years ago. Since then, he has completed 90 solo flights, his first coming last summer.
He is glad he learned to fly,
“It is like a one in a million thing to do,” he said. “It’s hard not to keep learning with these guys. They keep pushing you. It’s like a band of brothers.”
The danger, however, is not lost on Faughn.
“There have been a few times I have had white knuckles,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. If you mess up, you can kill yourself.”
A case in point is David Wheeler, who has been paragliding since the early ’90s. Last week, he stalled just before his landing and fell approximately 25 feet directly on his back. He was flown to Salt Lake City and, though in stable condition, is dealing with serious injuries, Harris said.
The inherent danger in the sport is the reason Jackson Hole Paragliding insists on high standards.
“We focus on good comprehensive instruction, we lead by example, we teach good flying skills, but most importantly, we teach good judgment,” Harris said.