Field Notes: Paragliding in Hawai‘i
Each month Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vibrant and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: Paragliding.
photos: Bill Hockensmith
WHAT IT IS
Paragliding is an extreme sport in which participants jump off mountains while strapped into harnesses suspended from parachutelike nylon wings. Paraglider pilots keep their non-motorized craft aloft by riding the updrafts that form along mountain ridges, as well as rising columns of warm air known as thermals. They soar at altitudes of 2,000 feet or more and can stay up for hours. While accidents can be fatal, enthusiasts claim the sport can actually be quite relaxing. As one puts it, “There’s nothing more peaceful and calm than the feeling you have when you’re floating up there.”
WHO ARE THESE CRAZIES?
O‘ahu’s paragliding community consists of a tightly knit band of about 50 pilots. They regularly host visiting pilots from around the world, who come for the scenery and Hawai‘i’s “buttery smooth” trade winds. Most paragliders are men. Some are testosterone-dripping, Type-A thrill seekers. Others are mellow, laid-back souls who just love to fly. Some prefer cross-country trips, hopscotching from one ridge lift or thermal to another to travel as far as possible. Others are drawn to aerial acrobatics and the high g-forces they involve.
Paragliders typically adopt monikers, such as Reaper, Motorhead and One-Eyed Jim. (The latter used to be Waianae Jim, but some visiting pilots mistook Waianae for One Eye, and the new name stuck.) Even a guy whose real name is McCloud—which, to a non-paraglider, might seem perfect for someone who likes to play among the clouds—felt compelled to adopt a proper paraglider handle. He’s known as McStalker.
The Hawai‘i Paragliding Association, which provides liability coverage for its members, has permission from landowners to launch from about a dozen spots around the island. The three most popular are at Makapuu, Kahana Bay and Nanakuli. Carrying their flying gear on their backs, pilots hike to the takeoff spot, then fly back down.
LZ: Landing zone.
Bombing out: Landing immediately after launching.
Roto: Short for rotor turbulence, the bad air on the downwind side of large objects, such as palm trees, or Olomana.
Cloud streak: A line of clouds that forms behind warm, rising air, creating, in essence, a visible pathway in the sky for cross-country soaring.
Cloud suck: The feeling of lift pilots experience near the base of a cloud. Meteorologically speaking, it’s actually rising warm air that creates the phenomenon. Or, as one paraglider explains, “It’s not that the clouds suck, it’s that the Earth blows.”
Tossing the laundry: Term paragliders use for deploying the emergency parachutes they wear. (Yes, they wear parachutes. They’re not that crazy.)
According to the Hawai‘i Paragliding Association, the local record for distance was set by a visiting Mainland pilot named Josh Cohn (a maverick with no nickname). Last year, Cohn flew 35 miles from Makapuu to the North Shore, landing on the beach at the surf spot known as Backyards.
The local record for time in the air—5.5 hours—was also set last year. An O‘ahu pilot named Maddog set it when he flew from Makapuu to Kaaawa and back, twice. He could have stayed up longer, but landed early because, as he said, “I had to pee.”
Three people have died paragliding in Hawai‘i, from 1991 through 2013, according to the state Health Department.
Did you know? The FAA has no licensing or training requirements for paraglider pilots. It does, however, prohibit them from flying above densely populated areas.