Published in MIDDAY May 30,1998
Flying Without Feathers
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Like everyone, I have dreamt of flying, not as a fare paying passenger but free as a bird. In 1980 opportunity came my way and I rolled up at Pune's Gliding Centre in quest of a strange aeroplane that flew without an engine. My first joyride bordered on the imaginary and it took many more flights to convince me that the whole thing was not a dream.

Half a lifetime later, before the allure of gliding had time to fade, I was wandering on the fringe of a lake in search of leprechauns and water sprites and stumbled instead on a wild Englishman who taught me to fly a paraglider. Four days found me sitting three hundred feet in the air above the lake in the company of two large eagles, while a flight of gulls flew across the setting sun.

Flying Without Feathers - Paragliding Article

Paragliding is the easiest of all airsports to learn and could be the most appealing too. These wings move slowly and softly in harmony with our natural pace. Short of sprouting feathers they are closer to our dreams and fantasies than anything yet invented. No other aeroplane can be carried with such ease and convenience. Can you imagine walking up a hill, pulling an aeroplane out of your bag and flying away? That's exactly what one does. Attach yourself to the wing and run into the wind. The huge canopy inflates and carries you off into the blue.

Three years of teaching people to fly has been mostly a matter of convincing them that it is really so simple. Once they are weaned away from the web of intricacies that most people weave around any flying machine, it's just a matter of going out there and doing it.

The air, on the other hand, can be a most confounding place. For those who haven't a taste for technicalities, we could, like the alchemists of yore, divide it into simple and complicated air. Simple air is the light breeze that wafts steadily onto the hill from the direction you intend to fly. All other air, is complicated, and must be avoided, particularly when it cannot make up its mind whether its going up or down, forward or backward, or just wants to curl up and go to sleep. Beginners must also avoid meteorologists.

Paragliders are manipulated by pulling strings - one in each hand. Pull on the side you want to turn and you turn. So much for navigation. And to answer a frequently asked question, paragliders are always moving downwards and no special effort is called for to bring them down to earth. Many people worry about how they will get down again, when it is staying up that's a consummation devoutly to be wished. This can be done when the air goes up faster than we come down.

Air rises when it hits a ridge and tries to get over the top (simple complicated air) or when it heats up in contact with the ground (complicated simple air) or in waves (complicated air that you don't want to know about). As one begins to understand the air one need not come down but can go up instead. Paragliders have used rising air to go three miles up and 300 kms away.

Besides the wing, there is a whole range of accessories and equipment available. Safety devices like reserve parachutes that can be deployed when all else fails, air bags and back protectors when these fail too, harnesses that hold all these wonderful things and even have a little room for the pilot, sophisticated electronics that tell you how fast you are going up or down or sideways, where you are now and where you could have been if you weren't such an ass. There's something available for every conceivable need. All this stuff is useful in the right hands but can be a burden if carried unnecessarily.

Paragliding is fun if one chooses to make it so. The Flying Dutchman of Goa who soars for hours over the beach wearing only his wings and has the dubious distinction of being our first aerial nudist, enjoys the pleasure of flying with just the bare necessities. On the other hand we see some spoilt brats who own more equipment than they know how to handle and have to engage porters to lug it all up the hill. They would have you believe that they're off to the moon but always fall out of the sky in a minute or so. They are fun too, for the spectators. Wasn't it Shakespeare who wrote:

A heavy heart on faerie wings
Can never with the eagles fly
So never carry useless things
When trying to stay up in the sky
For swiftly through the air you'll pass
And surely land upon your behind.

Well, perhaps it wasn't the old bard after all, It doesn't rhyme.

Like all their predecessors, paragliders are getting better, safer and easier to fly each passing season. New technology and materials combined with an improved understanding of flying machines might even make them as obsolete as the ornithopter, in the very process of improving them, but their place in history is assured. They have brought us to a threshold which man, in his attempts at birdlike flight has ever been aiming to cross. If the original quest symbolised by Icarus and pursued by the tower jumpers and other worthies was subverted by the invention of the aeroplane and its military and commercial applications, it is now back on track. Soon we'll all have wings without becoming angels.

Everybody, including my grandmother, has at some time or the other, wanted to become a pilot. Perhaps all they really wanted was to fly with the birds. Besides some real airline pilots assure us that they are just sophisticated truck drivers. Could it be that driven by the restless urge of the spirit to rise above the mundane and the mediocre, we hadn't heretofore, such amazing wings to aspire to?

We have now.

Sidney D'souza
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