The Places You'll Go
Baron - 4
Baron - 3
Baron - 2
Baron - 1
the Cassutt - 2
Up in WV
Rico - 2
on the Roof
Out with Dwayne
once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth
with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and
there you will always long to return." -- Leonardo da
This was a surprising statement to be made in
the fifteenth century, when most of the worlds population was
too busy trying to stay alive to think many profound thoughts.
But given da Vinci's genius, it isn't surprising that he said
this for flight has always fascinated man. I would imagine that
down through time many humans have such feelings, but not the
ability to put them into such eloquent words.
came close, almost five hundred years before Christ, when he
said "Man must rise above the Earth-to the top of the
atmosphere and beyond-for only thus will he fully understand the
world in which he lives."
For those of us who fly
our own aircraft it's not surprising that a yearning for the sky
is in our DNA, and we scratch that itch each time we leave the
earth. But for some of us the desire to fly like the very birds
that inspired ancient man's longing, trumps flight in a
years ago I first witnessed paragliders while traveling by train
through Austria. Parachute-like inflatable wings with tiny
humans hanging beneath, wheeled and soared over the valley that
my train was traveling through. The memory is still fresh in my
mind after all these years, the bright slashes of nylon against
a cerulean sky, the whole scene framed by snow capped Alps.
When I returned home to West Virginia I searched, in
those non web days, for a place near me that I could learn to do
this. California had a couple of paragliding schools, but it
wasn't in the cards for me at that time, to travel so far and
take the time from work that it would require. Paragliding took
a back seat in my mind.
In the meantime, during one
trip to North Carolina, my daughter Stephanie and I each tasted
the sand of Kitty Hawk while trying out hang gliding at the
While the feeling of lift was exhilarating when
it occurred as we charged headlong down the dune, but our toes
were never more than six feet from the sand and the flight never
lasted more than a few seconds. Somehow the whole experience
seemed to pale during the struggle back up the steep dune
lugging the awkward frame of the glider. I was left with the
thought that hang gliding wasn't for me.
years later I sold a Cessna 414 to a buyer from Chicago and
during the course of the sale and getting him checked out in the
airplane, he mentioned that he was a paragliding instructor. I
probed him about what it was like and his reply was that I would
no doubt like it enough that I would probably neglect other
things for it. When I recalled my hang gliding experience I
asked how long it was possible to stay up. "If conditions
are right, you'll only have to come down to use the bathroom"
So inspired once again, I renewed my
search for a school near me. Finally, I found an instructor that
lived deep in the mountains of West Virginia, in a tiny hamlet
of 900 souls called Webster Springs. An unlikely place for such
a sport I thought, but I gave him a call.
In a very
laconic way which I later found defined him, Dwayne McCourt
admitted he did teach paragliding. If I wanted to come down and
talk with him, he said, he'd probably teach me to do do it if I
wanted. I made an appointment.
It was high summer when
I made the trip down to Webster Springs. The two lane blacktop
road twisted between forested green hills that showed little
evidence of human habitation except for the occasional dwelling
or house trailer. West Virginia summertime was in the air, as
much a feeling as a scent. It was a humid life cycle making
itself known, where death was not completely camouflaged by the
bursting celebration of leaf and bud, and it mingled with the
scent of grass and damp earth, of decay and unchecked vegetation
to form a feeling in me of hope and despair all at once.
down the steep grade into the sleepy little town always gave me
the feeling of descending into a giant hole. The small, deep
valley, surrounded by brooding mountains bespoke solitude, which
was there in spades, since the interstates and much of modern
life had passed it by a long time ago. If you found yourself
there it was because that was your destination. A traveler would
never pass through this town on his way to somewhere else.
century ago though, it was the bustling center of the thriving
West Virginia lumber industry. The business of the mills, the
five hot springs and the grand hotel that was there until it
burned to the ground, drew visitors and industrialists from the
north, some of them well known. A local mountaineer named
Rimfire Hamrick became a favorite hunting guide for such folks,
and was famous for asking John D Rockefeller, when introduced to
him and told he had come all the way from New York, "How do
you stand to live so far away?"
I mention Rimfire
only because in Dwayne I found the modern Webster Springs
equivalent of that ancient's independent and Mountain-bred
Dwayne, self effacing and quiet to the
point of taciturnity, lived in that tiny hamlet with his pretty
wife in a modern and very nice house by the side of the road
leading into town. I learned that he had traveled the country to
learn paragliding and earn his instructors rating, then
continued to travel and teach the sport. He was also a fixed
wing pilot and owned a couple of airplanes. I also learned that
I actually had spoken with him in the past, when he had called
about airplanes that I was selling.
getting acquainted a bit, Dwayne poked about his house gathering
equipment, bundled it up his in his arms and led me to the top
of a small hill behind his house. He strapped the chute on me,
slowly explaining various parts of it to me in his laconic way.
He spread the chute on the ground behind me and faced me down
the hill. The idea he said, was to run forward holding risers
above my head and let the chute fill. It would then rise and
become horizontal above my head. I was to keep charging as fast
as I could down the hill, until the chute lifted me. As I became
airborne, I was to straighten my legs and slide back into the
built in cradle which served as a seat, effectively retracting
my gear. On landing I was to slide forward, extending my legs in
the landing position.
Much to my delight, it worked
just as promised, and I made several small flights from the
little hill that day. None of them long or very high, but the
lift was there and I could feel the potential that waited on a
week or so later I got a call from Dwayne asking me if I was
ready to fly. He was going to be at his Piffer Mountain base on
Saturday, he said. I knew that Piffer was part of the
Appalachian chain which was located just to the east of my home
and that it was the real deal, not a foothill. In his opinion,
he said, I was good to go off the mountain, and if I thought so
too, I could meet him there. I wasn't sure at all, but I was
sure I'd be there.
That Saturday I stood dazedly
staring up at the mountain looming above us. It stretched up and
up, 3500 feet of green, framing a perfect day. The summer Breeze
was hardly moving the leaves on the trees.
pointed to a band of trees near the summit as the place where
the chutes could first be seen. In less than a minute one
appeared, ghosting into view above the forest, it's tiny human
hanging below like a fly in a spider web. My thoughts at that
moment could be loosely summed up as, 'gulp'.
torturous trip in Dwayne's car up the goat path that served as a
road to the top of the peak, we joined the twenty of so
enthusiasts attracted by the weekend of promising flying
weather. The launch area at the very top, was a rounded meadow
with the mountain falling away rapidly and descending to the
band of forest that I had seen from below. The landing area
where I had stood was hidden from view and it looked as if the
departing gliders were bound for a tree landing.
watching several takeoffs though, I saw that the lift of the
chute ensured plenty of space over the forest and some of the
departures were gaining altitude as they circled in the
Strapped up and procedures reviewed with
Dwayne, it was my turn to leave the mountain. I ran down the
slope and felt the chute billow and lift to overhead. The drag
was tremendous and as I felt I couldn't run further, my feet
left the grass and I was airborne. I settled back in the seat of
the harness. I was flying.
was flying and it felt completely natural, not unlike flying a
very slow airplane. The forward speed of the chute through the
air was just over twenty miles per hour, and as I sailed over
the wooded area I felt the nibble of a thermal. I tentatively
pulled on the left spoiler line and the chute obediently began a
slow turn in that direction. The nibble I felt became a bite as
I flew back into the effects of thermal and I began to rise, up
and up, still circling, until I was looking down on the
launching area that I had just departed. Higher and higher I
circled until the 2-way radio that Dwayne had strapped to me
crackled. "I didn't think you'd go soaring, so I hadn't
told you about the safety parachute yet" his slow drawl
came. His belated briefing came via the radio, 'should the need
arise', as I continued circling.
first flight lasted over half an hour and took me so high in the
thermal that I started to get chilly. The landing in the valley
below was good as I dodged the very large boulders that peppered
the landing zone, where a volunteer held a portable windsock. I
was down. I had done it. I had at last, after all these years,
flown like a bird.