After what was nothing short of an amazing introduction to paragliding on Saturday, we quickly got into the routine of driving up hills and running off them. Sunday morning was spent at the Pines – a site near Myrtleford that was good when the wind turned southerly – and for the afternoon, and all of Monday, we had the legendary ‘Old’ Bill deliver the course theory to us. Bill – who is, in fact, old enough to justify his name – falls into the category of one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, sitting alongside legends such as Mr Anderson, my history teacher. With a history of captaining ships in the merchant navy to flying sail-planes, he backed up almost every piece of theory with a comical anecdote that made digesting the fairly dry aviation theory so much easier.
Tuesday saw us back at the Pines, where I was still having trouble running out my launches, converting the last metre of descent into forward motion to save my now quite sore feet, which was a worry. Also bad habits were creeping into my launch technique, resulting in me launching my wing into a tree, luckily with no harm to the wing or me. We made a return to Mystic on Wednesday – after the very short descent from the top of the hill at pines, the flagship launch site felt perilously high again – and on my third flight, I finally got up the courage to land myself.
Up until this point, as I came in on my final approach the instructor on the ground would tell me exactly when to flare – or pull my brakes as hard as could in other words – the glider, so it would pitch back and land as softly as possible, but it’s very hard, even as a skilled observer, to judge exactly when to call the flare over the radio, as not only do you not experience the landing air conditions first hand, but also have to judge how long the pupil will take to respond to your call, so my landings tended to be harder than they needed to be. All these hard landings and sore feet had me genuinely worried that I might be doing some damage and had me doubting whether I’d be able to keep up with the sport if I couldn’t land safely, but as soon as I started judging the flare myself, my landings turned into something of an art and I finally felt comfortable with the sport.
It’s quite scary to think that, up until this point, I was committed to an intensive and costly course based on having enjoyed flying a sail-plane a few times and admiring the photography of a para-motor pilot from Inverness, so it was more than a minor relief to finally, confidently say I was loving what I was doing.
At lunch that day, the other Bill (Bright has a serious problem with everyone having the same name) took me for a tandem flight which turned into my first ever thermalling experience, and took the course to a whole new level of amazement. Just a minute off the launch, Bill steered us into the first thermal that took us hundreds of metres above launch, just far enough for me to be thankful that he’d told me to wear a coat, and for the next forty minutes we cruised above Mystic, the Wandiligong Valley, and Reliance Ridge. It was also my first time taking a camera with me – I wasn’t quite bold enough to take my 50d this time, but still, my 350d doesn’t exactly fall into the dispensable category, especially with a 10-20mm lens bolted to the front of it – so most of the flight was spend glued to it, savouring my first experience of unrestricted aerial photography.
Thursday saw me really getting into the flying, emulating yesterday’s tandem flight with a 40 minute solo flight of my own: my first time above launch on my own. I’d spent most of the day before that, seething as I watched my unfortunate flight timing miss all the thermals that were then so clearly marked out by the other students circling and rocketing skywards in. Friday, although not as unstable as Thursday, saw me starting to feel the lift and maintain height in thermals on my own. Saturday was bitter-sweet: our last day of flying and I didn’t catch any good thermals, but I did get to see Al (short for Albania, as none of us could pronounce his real name), a rather big guy who seemed to sink out of the sky on every flight, finally catch a thermal and experience what we’d been raving about for days: the smile on his face was priceless.
Sunday was exam day: multiple choice can only be so hard, unless the questions are worded stupidly, so even though I got 98% I still contested the 2 frustratingly vague questions that cost me my geeky ace-crown. Then it was time to say goodbye to Kieran, Kieren, Brad and Al and say goodbye to paragliding for a while to deal with the pressures of the real world. But wait, I’m a backpacker with no job, nor schedule, so for me it was only the beginning of my flying career in Bright…