Fly like a bird

Soaring at Potato Hill with two Chico paragliders

“THIS IS AWESOME!” <br> Will Brown takes Liam Speer (below) on his first paragliding flight.

Will Brown takes Liam Speer (below) on his first paragliding flight.

Photo By Robert Speer

Will Brown is only 19 years old, but he’s been flying paragliders for years. The Chico State University student also has his private pilot’s license, and he’s also flown fixed-wing gliders, but paragliding is his greatest passion.

He likes to pass on what his father, a pilot for Alaska Airlines, said after he’d flown a paraglider for the first time: “Now I know what true flight is.”

On Sunday (Sept. 7), my 12-year-old son, Liam, and I joined Brown and Jon Stallman, who heads a new group called the Bidwell Park Fliers, to travel to a popular launch site called Potato Hill. Just a few days earlier I’d heard Stallman present a proposal to the Chico City Council to allow paragliding in Upper Park, and the way he, Brown and others described the sport, I was intrigued.

Paragliding is like parachuting, except that parachuting involves descending, while paragliding involves ascending. The airfoils, or “wings,” that lift the glider are designed to catch rising columns of hot air, called thermals.

Potato Hill looks out over a pretty little interior valley in the Coast Range a few miles west of Stonyford, which is about 35 miles southwest of Willows. From Stonyford the route up to the hill is roundabout along roads that become increasingly primitive, ending in sandy dirt, which is why the trip from Chico takes a good two hours.

Brown is licensed as a tandem pilot. He’d brought his tandem rig along and asked Liam if he wanted to take a flight. Liam later told me he was “pretty scared,” but he stuffed his fear and climbed into his gear.

Getting airborne in a paraglider isn’t easy for one person, much less two, but Brown did a good job of explaining things to Liam. Launching involves waiting for a good breeze, then pulling on the cords to lift the wing and running down the hill until liftoff is achieved.

The last thing I heard, as the duo sailed off into space, was Liam exclaiming, “This is awesome!” Stallman and I watched as they caught a thermal and lifted up, slowly floating out over the valley. “The boy’s going to remember this for the rest of his life,” I thought.

Photo By Robert Speer

By the time I’d driven down to the landing zone to pick them up and returned to the launch side, about two dozen other pilots had arrived. The day before, they said, the air was almost perfect. One pilot had flown more than five hours and covered 80 kilometers, putting down less than 10 miles from Red Bluff.

As they launched, one by one, they ascended above the hill and stayed there, circling like so many multicolored hawks or eagles. A group—flock?—of gliders in the air is a beautiful sight.

Liam and I picked up Stallman about an hour later at the landing zone. He was frustrated. He’d ascended to about 6,000 feet, he explained, but run into an inversion layer that he couldn’t get through to the “smooth air” above. The air at the inversion layer was “ratty, really bumpy” and was spooking him, so he came down.

Brown, on the other hand, stayed aloft for almost three hours and traveled more than 30 miles. Like all pilots, he carried a radio, so we were able to follow him in the car as he headed toward Stonyford, and then watch him land in a field just off the highway.

On the way home, after a quick dip in Stony Creek, we talked about paragliding in Bidwell Park. The City Council has given tentative approval to Stallman’s plan, but it still has to go through environmental review. The whole process will cost the Bidwell Park Fliers around $10,000. The group is willing to pay the money but wonders whether full review is really necessary.

From what I could see, it’s not. The only impacts are on the launch site, an area about the size of a large bedroom, and there it’s just foot traffic. Otherwise, the pilots will hike designated trails to the launch sites, their rigs in packs on their backs, and fly out, landing in areas where they will have no noticeable impact.

For Stallman and Brown and the few other paragliders in Chico, being able to fly in the park would be a dream come true. They’d no longer have to drive several hours to fly, and they’d be able to experience their hometown park in a new way. And people on the ground would enjoy the sight of these colorful human birds floating across Big Chico Creek Canyon.