Learning to Fly

A lesson with Bozeman Paragliding.

All is quiet, save the low, undulating drone of cars passing below on I-90. Andy gazes to the west, silent and motionless; he’s reading the wind, waiting for the right moment. Minutes pass. Your eyes orbit the valley: past downtown and over campus, along the Gallatin Front, tracing the long spine of the Tobacco Roots, back to Springhill and the southern flank of the Bridgers. The view from Story Hills never gets old.

“Get ready,” Andy says, snapping you back to attention. He’s calm, almost phlegmatic, his laconic speech holding an implicit gravity. You re-check the risers and adjust your stance.

He turns around and looks at you. “Go.”

You bolt forward, moving only two steps before the wind fills your wing and halts forward motion. “Run!” Andy cries, and you bend forward against the back-pressure, using your legs and gravity to drive through the resistance. One step, then another; down the hill you bound, gaining speed, the wing rising above you. “Drop your A’s!” Andy yells, and you release one set of risers, make another step or two, then lift your legs. The ground falls away beneath you and you’re airborne, sailing out across the golden slope. 

After a quick equipment check—harness, wing, risers—you hazard a glance around. You’re 100 feet up, soaring along the face of the Story Hills. Gusts of wind jostle you to and fro, but you feel safe, secure, the wing full and taut above you. You’ve left the cumbersome confines of earth—gravity, weight, linear movement—and are floating free above it all.

“Looking good,” you hear over the radio on your chest. “Now start turning back right.” A juniper-flecked shoulder flanks the hillside; as you come aloft, you steer right and u-turn back to the bottom of the slope. Your gut tightens—what looked like a broad flat from above now seems small, so small: a thin ribbon of a landing strip, with a tree on one side and a fence on the other. The ground’s coming fast.

“Brake!” Andy’s command comes through the radio and you pull down, firm but smooth like he showed you. Your feet hit the dirt and you run it out, five or six steps before the wing collapses behind you. “Nice job,” Andy says. “Good landing. Collect the wing and come on back up.”

The slope is steep, but you barely notice. Your mind whirls from the euphoria of flight, the fact that you did it alone, and the realization that you get to do this 20 more times to complete your training program as a certified para-pilot. It’s something you’ve dreamed about since childhood, and it’s finally happening. 

Eventually you crest the hill, where Andy’s getting another student harnessed up. He glances over and smiles beneath his big, floppy hat. You go to return the grin and discover that you’re already smiling, and have been since your feet first left the ground.

Bozeman Paragliding offers all levels of instruction, from introductory lessons to advanced certifications. For more information, visit bozemanparagliding.com.