Bay Area paragliders fly on the wind, soaring 100 miles by way of the sky

Jamie Linger

On a quiet, blue April morning, below a small cluster of cotton-ball clouds, eight paragliders on Mount Diablo strapped into their flight harnesses and waited for favorable wind. A person of them would have to be the initially to solid their giant inflatable wing into the air and attempt flight, […]

On a quiet, blue April morning, below a small cluster of cotton-ball clouds, eight paragliders on Mount Diablo strapped into their flight harnesses and waited for favorable wind. A person of them would have to be the initially to solid their giant inflatable wing into the air and attempt flight, like an airborne guinea pig.

“The wind dummy!” joked Mike McCook, 35, a paragliding instructor from Vallejo, as he crouched in the launch place.

A exceptional rainstorm experienced handed over the East Bay the day prior to, giving the ambiance all over Mount Diablo a crisp, crystalline high-quality and ushering in interesting air, puffy cumulus clouds and warm floor temperatures — suitable flight situations.

With out engines or propellers, paragliding is wholly weather conditions dependent. Bay Spot pilots are most lively in spring and tumble, frequently following rainstorms when sunshine heats up the terrain but the air aloft stays amazing. That combination of unstable air props up a group of hundreds of totally free-traveling paragliders in the area. They have been below for a long time, spiraling up thermals at Mount Diablo and Mission Peak in Fremont and floating together the beach bluffs in Daly Town.

Customarily, paragliders commit an hour or so cruising in close proximity to their start websites. But a new crop is upping the stakes with extensive-distance flights that can carry pilots more than 100 miles and previous up to 7 hours. These intrepid fliers hardly ever know wherever or how far they’ll go — or, a lot more importantly, exactly where they’ll land — till they get into the air and chase updrafts, like dandelion seeds carried on the wind.

To start, a pilot does not leap from a cliff like a Base jumper does, he merely raises his wing and techniques into the air, then the moment in the sky, tucks into a neoprene system hammock and drifts absent.

In recent decades, cross-nation pilots launching from Bay Place peaks have finished up in the garlic fields of Gilroy or the flatlands in the vicinity of Tracy, and at times as considerably as Fresno.

At Mount Diablo, the paragliders sat patiently in a gravel forget about above a sprawling suburban corridor, downtown Walnut Creek and the Richmond oil refineries noticeable in the distance.

“What we’re doing now is referred to as para-waiting around,” explained Evan Cohen, 37, a item manager at Google and a single of the region’s pre-eminent paragliders. “It’s a really important part of the activity.”

The pilots talked about probable places, hoping for a prolonged flight.

“Ideally, we land in Fresno at sunset,” 160 miles southeast, mentioned Ben Wedlock, a pilot from Richmond.

“Or it could be a bust,” Cohen claimed. “We may well just finish up at the base of the mountain.”

Pam Kinnaird wrestles with her wing before launch at Mount Diablo. Photo: Paul Kuroda / Special To The Chronicle

Pam Kinnaird wrestles with her wing in advance of start at Mount Diablo.

(Paul Kuroda / Exclusive To The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)


However paragliding is additional frequent in Europe’s large alpine environments, the sport’s deepest roots are in Northern California. Early prototypes of the modern day cling glider and paraglider ended up invented by Francis Rogallo, a Stanford aeronautical engineer from Fresno, and his spouse, Gertrude, in the 1950s.

In tribute, when free of charge-fliers organized a regional club in the 1970s, they named it Wings of Rogallo. Today, the club consists of about 200 paragliders and 200 hold gliders and has brokered legal traveling zones in San Francisco, Pacifica, Milpitas and Fremont, additionally Mount Diablo. Cohen is the club secretary.

Pilots are a various mix of more mature pioneers, middle-aged hobbyists and youthful cross-place pilots like Cohen. Among them are software engineers, doctors and neuroscientists, a variety of whom originally hail from Asia and Europe, in which aerial recreation is a lot more well-liked. However paragliders really do not healthy a single mold, the activity has a steep know-how barrier and equipment price ranges are large.

“It’s not the daredevil group,” Cohen explained. “These are analytical minds.”

Characterized by controlled floating at speeds amongst 20 mph and 40 mph, the overall vibe of Bay Region paragliding is a lot more technical and leisurely than aerobatic, while lots of find it to be just as exhilarating as other large-consequence outdoor sports.

“A large amount of persons fall out immediately after the first exhilaration wears off,” reported Kim Galvin, 64, an instructor and 25-12 months pilot in Alameda. “Others become wholly addicted, and it results in being a huge part of their lifestyle.”

Insignificant injuries are a section of the activity, but fatalities amongst Bay Spot fliers are uncommon, paragliders say. According to the most modern data from the U.S. Hold Gliding and Paragliding Association, there were being an common of about six deaths for every yr around the world amongst 2013 and 2018.

Burlier traveling can be observed a couple of hours east in the Sierra, exactly where the sport’s elite rivals participate in.

The toughest of really hard-main pilots know Owens Valley, separating the japanese Sierra from the White Mountains. Widely regarded as the most significant air in the world, it is a elaborate intersection of powerful winds, steep mountains and rapid-transforming weather. Pilots phase there for the paragliding equal of multiday backpacking journeys in which they hopscotch alongside the Sierra crest in a French type called “vol biv” or “fly camp.” For those people journeys, pilots pack for evenings in the woods — usually bivy baggage, food items, more clothes, probably a stove or tent.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” explained Gavin McClurg, 49, a qualified paraglider from Idaho who frequents the Sierra. In 2012, he and two other pilots flew from Walt’s Issue, close to Lone Pine in Inyo County, north to the Oregon border more than 18 times. “You have to have that rowdy air to go prolonged-distance.”

McClurg hosts a podcast known as Cloudbase Mayhem in which he interviews pilots about their adventures and motivations.

“They rather considerably all say the very same detail, that they experienced some fascination when they were young ones of viewing a hawk or an eagle or a seagull,” McClurg claimed. Quite a few try to remember their fathers traveling radio-managed toy airplanes or hold gliding. “Somewhere in most humans there’s normally been this da Vinci desire to be a hen.”

But the new ranks of cross-country paragliders are in the Bay Area. They’ve been spurred by equipment innovations that make it less complicated to accessibility launch points and keep in the sky more time.

“The gear for these for a longer time flights did not exist even six, 7 several years in the past,” Cohen stated.

“It’s entirely rad what these guys are doing in the city environment,” McClurg reported. “It’s not as rowdy as the mountains, but in some means it is much more complex simply because you under no circumstances get that significant, so you have to discover climbs swiftly and fly decisively.”


Four paragliders, including Evan Cohen, prepare their rigs for a flight from Mount Diablo. Photo: Gregory Thomas/The Chronicle

Four paragliders, including Evan Cohen, get ready their rigs for a flight from Mount Diablo.

(Gregory Thomas/The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Totally free-floating above a metropolitan space of 7 million people, with a few international airports, and a number of more compact air fields and federal facilities signifies pursuing a ton of everyday living-and-dying policies. From the air, cross-country pilots gaze across an atlas of potential land mines.

“The large challenge is navigating the airspace and generating absolutely sure you are traveling legally,” Cohen reported. “You have to have a mental image to know where you can and just cannot go.”

Flying anyplace in the vicinity of an airport is an complete no-no.

“There are days when the elevate pulls you toward limited airspace,” Cohen mentioned. “If that transpires, you just have to land quickly. Not only is it illegal, you could get hit by a large plane.”

Airspace is a stratified 3-dimensional participating in subject. Pilots aren’t permitted to ascend earlier mentioned 18,000 feet, the turf of commercial plane. But that nevertheless places them in the route of helicopters, sailplanes and the occasional Cessna.

The proliferation of drones, far too, has included a hazardous wrinkle. Cohen inadvertently crossed paths with a person that virtually sliced as a result of his wing traces.

“It’s like a major chess game in the air,” Cohen stated. “You have to believe 3 or four moves ahead.”

Following launch, pilots appear for signs of updrafts they can journey into the sky. Cohen seems to see what nearby birds are doing. “They know a good deal a lot more about flying than we do,” he claimed.

Paragliders soar higher than Mount Diablo under a collection of puffy cumulus clouds.

(Paul Kuroda/Particular To The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Better up, pilots’ eyes shift to the clouds, which are visual indicators of elevate. Where ever a cloud forms, convection is sucking moist air away from the ground, giving paragliders with invisible elevator shafts into the sky.

But there are regulations about clouds, as well. Pilots are not allowed to enter them, lest they turn into hidden from the look at of other aircraft.

McCook enjoys biking in the white wisps of humidity just under cloud base. But it places him at chance of finding vacuumed up into the formations — a phenomenon known as “cloud suck.”

“It can get frightening if you go inside the cloud,” McCook explained. “We contact it ‘white out.’ You have to use your compass to navigate an exit. But coming out of a cloud is remarkable. It opens into an outstanding look at.”

But just about every flight ought to conclusion. Dusk’s very low temperatures make continuing on following sunset unachievable. Landing can be hard, based on the circumstances. Fliers who sink so small that they can not ascend discover on their own “bombing out” and ought to quickly study the landscape for a protected put to touch down.

“First detail is, I look at for power lines and aerial hurdles, then wind direction,” stated Jug Aggarwal, 53, a board member for the U.S. Hold Gliding and Paragliding Association who life in Santa Cruz. “Then I set up my tactic. I ordinarily appear for fields and purpose for the a single that presents me most effective access to the road.”

An ethic of cross-nation paragliding requires the very first pilot down to obtain transportation — typically an Uber or Lyft again to their auto — and start out scooping up the other folks, who may perhaps land miles absent, hours later on. Portion of the fun is observing where by every person finishes up.

“This truly is the limit of experience sports,” Aggarwal stated. “A mountain bicycle ride, you know the place the trail goes. Skiing, you know where by the slope finishes. In cross-state paragliding, you really do not know what the finish of the working day appears to be like like. You just hope it’s in your very own bed.”


Back again at Mount Diablo, just after a couple unsuccessful start makes an attempt from a single pilot in the group, Cohen positioned himself for takeoff.

“I believe it’s time,” he explained. “Gotta at minimum try out prior to the wind leaves!”

The pilots experienced packed for a extended working day — navigation electronics, drinking water, treats — and hooked up the essentials: pee tubes for the adult men, diapers for the women of all ages. They wore puffy jackets and down pants mainly because temperatures at cloud foundation generally solution freezing, even on hot times.

Anna Behrens, a geologist from Richmond, had packed coconut h2o and peanuts.

“You will need vitality, so if items go sideways, you can survive a night time in the woods,” she stated.

She also carried a Bluetooth speaker for songs.

 Photo: Todd Trumbull

“It can assistance with the concern aspect,” Behrens stated. “Some persons have mantras they use.”

The wind was relocating south-southeast toward Fresno. Cohen believed about a paraglider who, on a related spring working day in 2018, established the area record for length with a 155-mile flight in the exact route. Could nowadays be the day he’d conquer it, he wondered.

Cohen stood up, yanked his wing into the air and was swiftly whisked off the ground. In just seconds, the wind was carrying him alongside the undulating mountainside. But with out finding raise, he was sinking closer to the terminal threshold where by he’d be in threat of bombing out reduced on the mountain.

Then above a knob of terrain quite a few hundred yards downslope, he suddenly commenced to increase, spinning greater and better towards the cloud foundation.

Observing Cohen ascend, McCook and Wedlock introduced in quick succession to join him in the air.

Then two a lot more pilots followed. Quickly all eight have been circling over Mount Diablo, a little spouse and children of sky folks participating in in a pocket of helpful air.

“We’re subsequent the cloud streak to Fresno,” Cohen instructed the group through radio.

“Copy that, Evan,” Wedlock replied.

 Photo: Todd Trumbull


6 hrs and 23 minutes later on, with the sunlight small in the sky, Cohen’s ft touched down in an alfalfa discipline off Freeway 33, southwest of Fresno.

Two pilots experienced bombed out in Tracy. Other individuals carried farther into the Central Valley. None traveled as significantly as Cohen: 137 miles, his farthest flight at any time. Not more than enough to conquer the history, but a fantastic day’s do the job.

As he stood in the field alone, with the placing sun at his back, he unzipped his cell phone and despatched a text message: “That was my new individual best flight by pretty a long shot. I want to pack up in this article and figure out how I’m likely to get again lol!”

Gregory Thomas is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle and outdoor. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas

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