As mentioned before (How Much Does It Cost?), when we go to the local park to kite our paragliders and practice our ground-handling, we get a lot of questions asked of us. We also get a lot of people talking about us and a lot of pictures taken. It can be distracting to hear people talk about you – especially if they are wrong about what they are saying* – while concentrating on keeping your wing steady, and it is a bit intimidating to have a whole lot of cameras pointed at you, but I have come to see it as is a valuable part of the training process.
Many paragliding launches are pretty inaccessible: largely unmarked, up logging roads, requiring 4-wheel drive vehicles. You may get a few ATVers, hikers, and other random folks, but most of your audience on launch is other paragliders. That can be intimidating too, but chances are that they are mostly thinking about their equipment and their upcoming flights and are only paying enough attention to you to make sure you get off safely.
There are some launches, however, where you do end up with a larger non-pilot audience. Blanchard, in Washington State, is a paragliding and hang gliding launch in a public park. The road up never gets rougher than a smooth gravel road, there's a big parking lot, and there are hiking paths and horseback riding trails nearby. This video is one I took of Russ launching back in April of 2012. At the very beginning, you can see a small group of people and a camera or two in the background:
That's a pretty small audience compared to the one we had a couple of weeks ago. Russ and I and our fellow paragliders Ducky and Jim arrived at the launch at about lunch time for a second round of flights and found two hang gliders setting up and attracting a crowd. There were probably about twenty people (and a couple of horses) hanging around. Some had been waiting awhile and had lawn chairs set up. While we started sorting out our lines, the two hang gliders launched, but the crowd didn't dissipate. Now they wanted to see what we were all about.
Later on, talking to the hang gliders on the landing zone, they mentioned the major advantage they have over us when there's a crowd around: when they launch, they always run forwards. When they are waiting for the right wind cycle, they face down launch, away from everyone, and when it is time to go, they run away. Paragliders doing a reverse launch – as we all were that day – face their wing, and therefore face the audience while they wait. When we pull up, we can be all too aware of the cameras flashing and the reactions of those watching, since we face them.
There was a time when so many people watching would have made me completely freeze up. I might not have flown. I don't generally like being the centre of attention. But as I was setting up my paraglider to fly off after the hang gliders, I realized that I was OK. Not thrilled to have so many people watching me so closely, but I was focusing on my launch and upcoming flight, not on who was looking and what they were saying. Spending so much time at the kiting park had inoculated me to the stares of strangers.
I flew, and Ducky flew, and Jim drove the vehicle back down to the landing zone. Russ, who does enjoy an audience, was the last one off the launch, and he still had quite a crowd. When he felt the wind starting to come up, he gave his usual charming grin and gave a little speech:
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, it has been a pleasure. Thank you for being such a great audience, but I must now depart..."
And... the wind died. So he had to stand there, watching the wind sock, until the next cycle came up and he could launch and fly away. Not exactly the exit he'd been looking for, but the wind doesn't always know its cues. I'm sure he still looked good in the pictures, though.
* No, we aren't going to take off. No, we're not kite boarders. No, our bags aren't full of weights to keep us on the ground. Please, ask us or just admit that you don't know.