Travel: With the wind beneath my wings

Is it a bird? Is it a kite? No, it's a man and his flying machine. Eric Kendall goes paragliding
Click to follow
Run run run run run run run!" I wish that man would stop screaming in my ears. That's better, he seems to be fading, as the ground falls away beneath my feet and I become well and truly airborne... Airborne? "Yikes!" as they say in the cartoons, on overshooting the edge of the cliff.

Though I am here to learn to fly a paraglider, the whole point of the exercise - flying - has not really crossed my mind. After all, day one will probably be lots of safety stuff, classroom briefings and familiarisation with the equipment. Well, you do all of that, it just doesn't take very long.

The very first thing you learn should set the alarm bells ringing: how to land in extremis, when it has all gone wrong. This is far removed from, and far simpler than, oxygen masks descending from the luggage racks while you simultaneously put your head between your knees, remove your high heels and decipher the emergency exit map on the card stored in the seatback in front of you.

It is the parachute roll, and who better than Andy, formerly of 2 Para, to teach us. Though the name suggests a rough, tough survival manoeuvre, the roll actually consists of a little knees-bend, twist your hips number with arms demurely wrapped across your chest. With four of us rolling in unison, "Forward to the right. Backwards to the left", at any moment I expect Andy to say, "And, two, three, four... plie", in shrill tones, then clap his hands briskly to bring the music to a stop while we all scurry towards him for our next instructions. Instead we get, "listen up" followed by a thorough review of site selection - essentially a consideration of wind (velocity, turbulence, direction) and obstacles, like trees. There's also a reminder that we will be enjoying ourselves.

Ground handling is next. This is your first chance to grapple with your paraglider, to get the harness on and try to control the canopy while you remain on the ground, wind permitting. The emphasis is on checking. Everything. Now do it again.

With the number of lines involved it is a minor miracle that most of the day is not spent disentangling them, like kite strings only much worse. Some of them are used to control the paraglider, the others suspend you, so either way it is important that they are all tangle-free. The control lines, or brakes, are joined together at the business end by a fabric loop that you pull to steer the paraglider. Pulling the right one slows that side of the canopy so that you turn right, while the left does the opposite. Pulling them both together makes you drop out of the sky and is reserved for the moment you touch down, to take the wind out of your sail. On the ground, if the wind gets up, the control lines are the only thing between you and a high-speed tow-ride across fields and through hedges. It is no joke: whenever your harness is on, so is your helmet.

Despite an apparently straightforward approach, teaching methods are a bit devious. The instructor pretends that you are just going to get the feel of the canopy "inflated" above your head once more, to find out what happens when you pull this string or that, but then shouts at you and before you know it you are running along the ground, then floating through the air.

This is disturbing - not in the, "It's not natural", jumbo jet type of flying phobia (it feels, even first time, like the most natural thing in the world) but because you are the only pilot on board and you don't have the first idea of what you are doing, other than the theory of which control line to pull. There has to be a bit more to it than that. Also, your feet are the undercarriage, and you just saw what happened to the guy who landed in the patch of stinging nettles earlier.

From a distance, paragliders look like parachutes, though modern canopies are actually high-performance wings which fly rather than just drop through the air. Learning to fly usually involves gliding down from hilltops but with experience pilots can exploit various forms of lift, such as that produced by wind travelling up a slope or from thermals.

Paragliders can rise thousands of feet and be flown cross-country over huge distances, while their unique portability - they are carried in a big rucksack - means that climbing a mountain and flying from the top is a real option.

But such thoughts are a far cry from your very first moments of flight. You don't go insanely high in the air, though you are definitely aloft. It feels beautifully controlled - the paraglider is flying itself - and it doesn't seem to be travelling nearly as fast as it does from the ground, which is just as well. All the forces of the wind in the canopy, which are so evident as you struggle to run and take off, keep you aloft with gentle, supportive power.

The view of the fields gliding beneath your feet is intense, more colourful and real than from the ground. Vertigo is not an issue. For the moment at least, this really is effortless flight.

Some way off, Andy is still screaming at you ("Right, right, right") but you're well beyond his reach at this point, flying free from instruction, if not quite as free as a bird. Even the barbed-wire fence (if you don't look at it, you won't hit it, apparently) looks insignificant, from the corner of your eye. When it finally comes to dropping back down to earth, pulling the control lines at the last moment seems instinctive, making the landing as smooth as the flight, as long as you keep facing into the wind to minimise ground speed. Touchdown is a mixture of relief and feelings of, "Do it again - as soon as possible". From now on, there is only one way to go: up.

Fact File

THE BRITISH Hang-gliding and Paragliding Association (0116-261 1322) provides details of paragliding schools all over the country. It doesn't take long to learn the basics, though fickle British weather slows progress. Schools with easy access to sites suitable for various wind conditions are a good bet; Green Dragons (01883 652666) on the north Downs is one of the closest to London. Learning to fly in the Alps, Spain and Portugal is a good option thanks to normally stable weather conditions. However, you will need to follow up a foreign course with UK certification in order to be able to fly back at home.

Like hang-gliding, the sport of paragliding developed a reputation for accidents, in part owing to its rapid and experimental development. Things have improved, so that well taught pilots flying the right kind of wings enjoy relative safety.

A great deal still depends on cautious judgement of weather conditions, as paragliding remains a very basic form of flying, regardless of technological developments.