Taking the first steps to becoming a solo paragliding pilot is nothing short of an adrenaline-packed emotional adventure. Sure, you may have done some tandem flights in the past or even some school gliding, but going solo is something completely different.
One of the biggest differences you need to come to terms with (rather quickly) is that your instructor won’t be standing next to you on takeoff to help with any problems, give last-minute encouragement or shout “STOP!!” if your lines have knots.
Similarly, you’ll need to get used to that empty space on your chest, where a two-way radio once hung and connected you to the reassuring voice of your teacher. They say that even though the radio is switched off but still strapped to your torso, gives you a false sense of security. Handing in the radio is somewhat of a rite of passage.
On the one hand, the school instructor gave immeasurable reassurance that the flight would go according to plan, but on the other, the pilot never really had the autonomy to choose their own flight plan or execute manoeuvres whenever the fancy struck.
Not having enough flights under my belt to go solo with the big boys at Sarangkot, we packed the gliders and the three of us into a tiny Suzuki Maruti taxi and made the bumpy trip to Madredunga. All the way up the mountain I had the feeling that I’d forgotten something but I couldn’t figure out what.
Standing there on takeoff with glider spread out on the ground, the harness clipped in and hands lightly grasping the A-risers — it all finally hit me. This is it. THE flight all the training has been leading up to, the flight that finally hands you all the responsibility to decide when to inflate, when to abort and when to run towards the clouds. It was at this time that I finally figured out what I’d forgotten — there was no radio.
It’s not an easy decision and not one that comes without reflecting on all the study, sweat and tears that preceded this flight. This is the moment when any shortcut or lazy techniques would all be uncovered, the moment that would either crystalize the experiences into a solo flight, or demote you back to the rank of student. This is the moment of truth that forces you to be honest with yourself, forces you to decide whether you’re ready to finally cut the umbilical cord with the teacher and let fly.
Maybe you’ve seen young birds trying to learn how to fly? Although the mother wants to protect her young from any harm, she would still push them closer to the edge of the nest. Her confidence in their flying instincts is stronger than their own belief in themselves. With each passing moment the chick would stand one step closer to the edge, until finally there was no more edge and the little legs took the plunge. The wings flapped and the bird either flew or perished somewhere below the nest.
That very same fly or perish moment was staring me in the face . “Fly little bird, fly,” Sabrina’s words would replay in my mind, as did her other favourites: “you turn like an Airbus.”
The valley wind was picking up in speed and it would be difficult to do a forward launch if the conditions got any rougher. There were three of us that day on Madredunga, and having done the least number of flights, we decided that it would be safer that I be second to takeoff.
We could already see huge cumulus forming over the Annapurna and given the relative predictability of conditions in this region, it would only get worse as time went on. In light of this, we decided takeoff the moment the wind allowed us to.
Paul was already half way down the valley while I still fluffed around with getting the wing and myself organized.
One last check of the conditions, air traffic and lines… OK, this is it, I took one small step forward and could already feel the wing cells inflating behind me. It came up slightly off center and both a break and step correction were needed to balance the pressure on my chest strap — but it felt right, the moment of truth. I leaned forward, slightly released the brakes and ran for the clouds. A few seconds later, my body was completely suspended below the wing and I was one takeoff closer to my end goal.
I managed to pick up a thermal almost immediately after takeoff that pushed me high up above the ridge. I glanced down and could already see Tania preparing her glider, but my delayed takeoff only made hers more difficult.
It was a bumpy day and I got thrown around for another few minutes until the thermal pushed me out. By that time Paul had already landed, and apart from the competition gliders high up above, we were the only people in the valley. I found out later that my brother and Sabrina were both above us crossing the valley and watched with amusement as I fumbled to make my maiden flight look fluid.
I really enjoyed the independence of it all. To be able to make decisions on where and when to turn, how fast to fly and which thermal to try and explore. The umbilical cord had been severed and the bird was finally flying on its own, albeit with parents circling above :)
Terraced rice fields covered most of the valley and I was eagerly trying to find thermal activity above them. After losing that first big thermal I struggled to maintain altitude and unless I found some more lift I’d have to start heading towards the landing field near the small village of Pame.
I found a few small thermals that at least stopped my sink rate and gave me more airtime, but what goes up must also come down (at least in these unskilled hands) and unfortunately I found some large sinks without hope for recovery. This thermalling business was going to take more time to perfect, however, today’s flight was already a significant improvement over my previous attempts.
The size of the trees below me and proximity to the rice fields were telling me that it was probably a good time to start heading towards landing. It was a decision that virtually guaranteed the end of the day on a positive note. I glanced back to check on Tania but she was already safely in the air and hot on my tracks.
Knowing that there will be no commands coming over the radio makes you start to absorb all the stimuli to ensure you reach the ground safely. You pay attention to the traffic on the roads, what the birds are doing, whether there are any power lines, which direction is the smoke drifting, what is your ground speed while going with and against the wind and more importantly, what are the conditions at the landing ground (are there any buffalo blocking your perfect landing).
There was a small cross wind and after doing a couple figure-eight’s I lined up at the baseline for final approach. The ground was coming at me fast but I resisted using the brakes for course correction and instead only used body-roll to adjust my trajectory. I picked a nice green patch without any rocks and at the last meter I started flaring with one continuous movement that saw me execute a tiptoe touchdown — even a butterfly would be proud.
As the small kids rushed towards me screaming my name “Shem, Shem — I pack, No, I pack,” a smile broke out all over my face with the knowledge that I’d graduated.