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Airborne Rodeo: the Unnatural Urge to Fly

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Sweeping through the skies in engine-free silence. Paragliding over the Alps sounds idyllically peaceful, unless you’re some intravenous adrenaline addict, like our writer Rupert Dodds.

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[two_third]The weather commanded me to take to the air. That day one of Austria’s greats, a local aviator hero and former world champion was out, planning to set a record. We were training on some possible race routes for the up-coming British Championship Competition.

Up on the slopes, 1,000 metres above the Zillertal valley floor it was cold and crisp. Grass and drifts of snow and a hot, blue sunny day all set the blood of free-flyers racing. When the sun heats a rock, hot air rises. And fast. The chat amongst pilots is full of excitement along with respect for the power of these mountains and the air that gushes off their menacing, heating stone.

Equipment ready, eight of us pilots good to go, and we begin to leave earth one by one. Fortunately we’d all laced our boots on tight because we were literally sucked straight up to 4,000 metres in a ripper thermal, such a narrow column of air that were it visible we’d see a twister. A tornado of air sucking everything in its wake skywards from leaves to glider bags, even the hats off of innocent women and children.
The trick is to keep wing and pilot in the middle of this vortex and ride in it to gain as much height as possible. And ideally wing above pilot while violent invisible forces resist.  Those that don’t keep the wing in this zone can tumble out and may have to throw the reserve parachute as they plummet earthwards. It is truly seat-of-the-pants flying.

One moment there’s lovely grass firmly underfoot with cheery insects and little Alpine flowers you can see in detail. But within seconds you behold the entire mountain range miles below stretching off into Italy, Switzerland and France. I swear you can see the curvature of the earth. But not for long. When the ripper reaches heaven it begins to slow and, because we are practicing racing, it’s morally incumbent on us to shriek woooohooo, thank that thermal, check GPS and terrain and then race off down the route striving to go as far and as fast as possible before the next shot of air hooks us in like a drug.

So then we’re zipping along a ridgeline and I’m below it and flying pretty close to precipitous scree and rock faces dotted with tiny patches of grass and snow. I think of the old adage: you’ve not crashed until you’ve actually hit the ground. Well I’m so close to I feel half-crashed already, especially as I’m below the height to deploy the reserve parachute safely. Not that I’m worried. I know it won’t be long before a thermal shoots me back to where the air is nice and thin and those razor-rocks look like distant dinosaur backs. But for the moment it’s all senses pricked for any tumbling air which could swat me out of the way to bounce down a cliff-face – not good.

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It can happen at any time when flying that a radical washing machine of air rips the wing out from above and puts it somewhere else… sometimes below. You don’t want this and it’s not funny. You do have to think of it however, to be prepared. So I scuttle down the ridge watching the rocks as sharp as razors and my friend Hans is flying above, slightly higher and thus safer. I can’t help wishing I was up there with more cliff-face-clearance.
There was no warning. In an instant, the wing is below and in front of me and turned 90 degrees. Blink and you’d miss it. Not that there’s time to blink now. The rock face is coming up faster than free-fall speed. Instinctive reaction required: get the wing back above. All the subconscious tricks in my 20 years of flying now fire together to make this happen. But at the mercy of the washing machine of nature, and at this height above the rock face, that isn’t very likely. Every fibre of brain and body is bent on survival. I’m not thinking that even if I do get the wing back above me, that might just make me pendulum and smash straight into the menacing rock-face.

One nanosecond and it shot beneath me. The wing’s back above but it shoots too far behind and is collapsed 90 degrees off track, facing straight toward the jagged cliff. There’s no time to think. I’m going in and fast. It’s all pure reaction and instinct. No time to plan for the impact. I know this is not going to be good. But before I can even think of my fate I’m down with a massive crack. Must be legs or back gone, or both. If I am alive, that is. Obviously be alive if I’m thinking of broken legs and back. I look around to take stock of the crash. Unbelievably, I have landed on a tiny patch of grass, the only one on this near vertical razor.

Heady with the euphoria of my surprising immortality, I still keep to my senses knowing that if my back is broken I mustn’t move. I begin an unrehearsed check-list. Feel bones in arms – check. Bones in legs – yes. Ankles too – good. A surge of excitement runs through me: I might not be a badly broken boy after all. No really major injuries. How the hell did I pull this one off? I start gentle movements to see if the back is good. It’s fine. Juicy bubbles of jumping joy and I want to dance and scream in disbelief. Just metres in any direction from where I actually landed would have meant a shattering of bones and almost certain death. I thank God just in-case. Buddha too, and Allah and my lucky stars, all of them. Feeling like a man freed from death row.

Excitedly gathering up the wing, all I can think of is flying off this mountain to proclaim my longevity to wife and friends. I will probably be cackling away to myself for weeks to come. But no, fate rears up again and slaps me into humility. Apparently disorientated from my euphoria, I have slip on the sheer slope and Newtonian destiny is back to haunt me. There begins my second tumble, this time with me wrapped inside my wing. You’re on a rock face you monkey!

Unable to see anything but light then dark, then light then dark, the ball of me and paraglider material bounce down mountain. No mental cheers now, I turn to firing the final charge of electricity into my ragged survival glands. Then suddenly we’re sliding, no longer rolling. I quickly manage to get my boots to the downward end of the paraglider rock-sleigh. With a thud one boot gets a lock on a good firm rock and we thump to a stop.
Silence. Quiet as death itself. Motionless moments full of grace. I recite my litany again, checking limb by limb, bone by bone. This time, once more, there’s no major damage. I berate myself: this must be the last time. I have to get off this mountain safely.

I dread unwrapping myself from my nylon sledge. Will I see I’m about to fall down something steeper? Clearly I’m nowhere near the valley floor because although the tumbling felt like it took a lifetime could only have been 30 or so metres from my starting point.

I move deliberately slowly, now with the knowledge that though I again feel euphoric with the joys of cheating death, this may not be the end of the story. My boot has gone straight through two surfaces of the paraglider. I’m amused at how therapeutically my fears turn outward – worried more for my flying machine… will it still go? There’s no getting around the fact that I am injured and still have to get off this mountain. Flying will be one hell of a lot easier than walking. It’s too steep for a rescue helicopter.  Gradually I peek out of my Dacron duvet. I’ve come to a halt in a narrow but very steep dry melt gully. Not perched on a precipice after all.

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Relieved, I carefully unwrap myself, bundle up the tattered glider and begin the very slow traverse to slightly less vertical ground. Laying the wing out with holes in it and broken flying lines was as terrifying – all my hopes now lay in its airworthiness. My adrenaline pumpers had seized and I was overcome with a sick feeling of stale adrenaline as well as the will to get off this unfriendly slope and down onto the sunny valley floor. Down to safety to tell people I was OK and get to the hospital.

The wing laid out and as ready to fly as the poor battered thing could be, I took a last ditch leap from my would-be conqueror cliff. The wing came up. It flew! It lifted me off the ground and were up in the air together. Unbelievable. And yet… everything appeared to be coming up at me a bit faster than I’d like. Looking down at the rapidly approaching, sharp pine trees I should easily have cleared. It now looked as if I was going straight into them. Clearly the damage to my wing had been much worse than I had anticipated. To top that, I was in rapidly sinking air too. For a moment I almost gave up and just let go into the trees. I had a sense of defeat as I yet again faced the irrepressible will of nature’s adversity. But somehow another bolt of survival instinct came from nowhere and I found myself gingerly but instinctively searching for some rising air, fully mindful of the fact that were I to encounter a ripper thermal right now, it would probably do just that to my wing – rip it. The sense of hope and fear weighed down with weariness made it very difficult to fly with any skill but the amazing thing about this sport is how in the moment It forces you to be. When it’s life and death, that’s human nature.

White knuckled and as beaten as my beautiful wing, I projected all my love onto her, just to get us over the trees. Please put us down safely on soft earth. Gradually and as gently as you could ever wish for, we started to rise. First neutralising the sinking air and then ever so slightly going up. It was truly beautiful. It was like… well, like walking on air. Over the trees we went with metres to spare and down the valley until I could see the tiny spring flowers in the cool, deep green grass. So deep that as I buried my face in, kissing the earth, the grass blades were tickled my ears. Every detail on the tiniest blossom filled me with joy. I counted 13 beautiful white petals and wanted to see flowers and feel that ground very near to me forever.

After three days recovery in bed with what turned out to be broken ribs and internal bleeding, the British Championship Competition began and I joined the gaggle of other compulsive aviators. It just so happened that I was in the lead from the go, racing for the first turn-point. I looked back and saw the unforgettable sight of over a hundred other pilots chasing behind me like the Luftwaffe. But something had changed in me, and changed forever. All those tiny trimmings that we do to make the wing fly faster in a race suddenly didn’t matter. I dropped back a notch or two, finishing the race of 80km in 6 hours. For the first time my position didn’t matter. All I could think about was the thrill of being alive.[/two_third]

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