Jump Off A Cliff And Paraglide

I first saw paragliders last summer: men and women with colorful oblong parachutes, gliding gracefully along the cliffs at San Francisco's Ocean Beach. Later, I stood at the top of one of those 20-foot cliffs, watching a student take off. She tugged on the strings to fill her paraglider with wind, struggled to keep it steady overhead, ran to the cliff's edge--and landed in a large thorny bush halfway down the steep incline.

Despite her less-than-auspicious start, paragliding has proven to be relatively easy to learn and lots of fun for a lot of people. It's slower--and safer--than hang gliding, though any sport that requires a helmet is risky.

Paragliding takes coordination, courage, and cash rather than strength or stamina. A basic setup costs about $3,000, and lessons go for about $100 a day. Curtis Woodman, who runs Skydance Paragliding in San Francisco, estimates that the average flier spends $1,000 on lessons, $5,000 on equipment, and up to $10,000 a year traveling to the best sites.

A paraglider canopy is a 15-pound nylon "wing" that can be stuffed into a backpack. An opening along the front lets air inflate it into an airfoil, giving it lift, steerability, and a typical speed of 15 to 20 mph. Levers that increase drag act as brakes to slow you to a gentle landing.

You can fly wherever there's a soft wind and a good launching point. Tropical resorts are popular, and some ski areas let paragliders ride up lifts wearing skis. If there's enough wind, you're off. If not, you ski until you pick up enough speed to glide down. After four lessons, I'm comfortable sailing for a few minutes along beach cliffs or over inland hills. Skilled gliders can stay up for hours.

FLIER'S LICENSE. Lessons teach you to read the wind and deal with emergencies. A Class I license takes just a few sessions, but a Class II, which you need for ski slopes and other advanced flying sites, takes an extra year and at least 150 flights. To find local lessons and information, order Paragliding, The Magazine (801 254-7455) or Paraglide USA (714 924-5229).

Remember, you're at the mercy of the wind. I recently joined a "fly in" on a half-mile-high mountain. But my excitement at taking my first high-altitude leap evaporated when gusty winds left me standing at the summit, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

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