Step off of Tiger Mountain at 1,800 feet and take flight — with a paraglider

July 2, 2011

By Caleb Heeringa

Seattle Paragliding tandem instructor Matt Amend and owner Marc Chirico help a paraglider pilot launch from Poo Poo Point. By Caleb Heeringa

You know that dream where you’re flying — where you’re able to look down on the hustle and bustle of the earth from thousands of feet above and the problems that normally seem so big are now as small and insignificant as ants?

The dream is real for the paraglider pilots who launch off the west side of Tiger Mountain every day that it’s not raining buckets. For more than 20 years, Marc Chirico has been throwing people off the side of the mountain — with paraglider and emergency parachute attached, of course.

It’s a career that started as a hobby that started with a dream that many of us have had — to drift above it all.

“It definitively got its start with nighttime dreams as a tot — dreams of escaping monsters or whatever it may be,” said Chirico, owner of Seattle Paragliding. “I find that to be true for a number of people.”

• • •

Chirico, who took his first flight in 1980, recalls asking a group of 20 or so paragliding students whether they had also dreamt of flying as a child.

“They all raised their hands,” he recalled. “It was kind of a goosebumps moment.”

Chirico has been responsible for countless goosebump moments since. He offers paraglider pilot rookies of all ages, shapes and sizes the opportunity to take a tandem flight (connected to a trained professional) for $175 on weekdays and $195 on weekends. That amount is deductible from the $1,800 it costs for the full course necessary for flying solo. Chirico said that happens routinely, as first-timers often can’t get enough of the adrenaline rush and the sense of freedom flying brings.

Flying day begins with a quick crash course in what to do in a tandem flight — roughly lean and run forward as fast as possible on takeoff and then hold on tight. You are then fitted with a harness and (for an additional $17) put on a shuttle to Poo Poo Point, at roughly an 1,800-foot elevation. Hardy souls can strap on the 75 or so pounds of equipment and hike approximately two miles up, or pay $10 to have the shuttle carry their equipment while they make the climb.

• • •

On a sunny Friday in May, about 40 people piled into the open back of a truck to be carted up the mountain. Many were frequent flyers who had caught the bug and were taking their 20th or 30th flight. Others, including an 87-year-old man, were having their first experience with paragliding.

Learn more about Seattle Paragliding at www.seattleparagliding.com or call 206-387-3477.

Chirico said he’s taken every type of person imaginable paragliding and there is little experience or physical ability necessary. Children as young as 3 have gone flying, as have seniors in their 90s. The company has helped a terminally ill person, a quadriplegic and a 342-pound man experience flight for the first time, Chirico said.

“Some people are just trying to check something off their bucket list,” Chirico said, regarding things people want to do before they die.

At least one was embarking on his first solo flight, after three tandems and hours of training. Chirico and other instructors appeared as excited as the flyer himself. They made sure the adrenaline was flowing — psyching him up for what was to come. Chirico produced a felt marker and began drawing on the flyer’s face — a ritual for all first-timers at Seattle Paragliding.

• • •

Once on top of the mountain, you are awarded views of Issaquah, Lake Sammamish and much of the Eastside. Your tandem flight instructor straps himself or herself to you and together you approach the Astroturf runway, with your paraglider draped on the ground behind you.

After a 1-2-3 count, your instructor gives you the green light to “torpedo” — pressing forward as hard and running as fast as possible. The glider catches the wind behind you, pulling you back. But soon you are moving forward one step at a time, gradually gaining momentum. By the fourth or fifth step you realize there is no longer ground underneath your feet. Looking down, all you see are the tops of trees.

Aside from the wind brushing briskly past your face, flying is a serene experience, with Issaquah sprawling beneath you and the contours of Tiger Mountain drifting past. It’s not unusual to look over and find yourself flying at the same pace as the birds.

• • •

Chirico said every flight is different. Calm winds can mean a flight as short as eight minutes. But often flyers are able to catch “thermals” — updrafts of hot and cold air that can lift a paraglider thousands of vertical feet and keep them in the air for hours. Experienced flyers leaving from Tiger Mountain have stayed up for six and a half hours, gotten to 12,000-foot altitudes and traveled as far as Enumclaw, Everett and, under the right conditions, over the mountains east to Cle Elum.

Flights can vary from tranquil, scenic drifts over Tiger Mountain and Issaquah to thrilling roller coaster rides. To get down to landing altitude, your tandem flight instructor often pulls hard on one side of the sail, sending you spinning hundreds of feet down in a matter of seconds. The feeling is akin to the drop on a big rollercoaster — your stomach is full of butterflies and you feel like you are free-falling through the air. The landing zone spins around beneath you as you corkscrew downward. The g-force is strong enough that Chirico suggests not eating a large meal beforehand. (Those who need convincing can find out why on a youtube video on Seattle Paragliding’s web site.)

Your first landing is often a less-than-graceful affair. Your instructor tells you to stick your legs out and keep them moving, but with your hips in your harness and your legs parallel to the ground, you’re more likely to find yourself on your butt the first time.

Though he does it hundreds of times a year, Chirico said he and his team of instructors have yet to tire of flying, which still brings him back to those childhood dreams.

“I prayed to be able to fly for years,” he said. “The good lord has granted me my wish.”

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