Written by Mark Zinkel - Owner of Elite Paragliding
Many Bay Area locals show up to paraglide with us with the intention of possibly getting into the sport later on. Flying with us is a good place to test the waters. If you are one of these people, please let us know before your flight se we can give you a more nuanced introductory lesson. Having said that, we must warn you; flying with us will become the most expensive flight you've ever been on. Once you're hooked you'll be going on paragliding trips all over the world, you'll own multiple paragliders, and will be sneaking out of work early when you know that the conditions will be perfect. This article is intended to provide unbiased advice for people in the San Francisco bay area wanting to learn to paraglide!
Interview Potential Instructors
You'll want to interview several instructors before committing to any sort of program. You'll want to find someone who you get along with well. Some personalities just don't mesh well with each other and there's nothing wrong with this, but they're not for you. You'll be spending a lot of time with this person. Get a sense of the instructors style. They should be a teacher, a mentor, and a guide; not just a good pilot. Most instructors will let you come out for an introductory day of training for a minimal fee. Others let you come out and observe for free. Use these days to your advantage and pick the instructor that's best for you. Picking the best instructor rather than the cheapest or most convenient will pay off for the rest of your flying career and plays a large role in how much you'll enjoy the sport later on.
The Two Common Methods of Training
Some instructors will have you flying off the hill on the first day you show up. Others will make you learn to control (kite) the wing on the ground before taking to the sky. After years of observation, I've seen the results of both training methods and can only vouch for the second. Learning how to deal with collapses, understand pitch control, realize what sort of control inputs work best for your wing, etc, are all things that can be done on the ground. Why learn them in the air where consequences are high? Students who learn to control the wing on the ground first end up with significantly stronger take off and (to a smaller degree) landing skills and are much safer in the air than those who learn by hurling themself off a hill.
Finding an Instructor vs Learning on Your Own
No matter what the circumstances are, learning to paraglide on your own is a bad idea. Everything you need to know about the sport can be read online or in a book, but that's not the point of having an instructor. Instructors are there to point out the bad things you're doing that you don't see yourself doing. They're there to point out the hazards in the sky that are obvious to experienced pilots, but invisible to newbies. They're there to calm you down when you need a cool head the most. Regardless of what you've read or what you know from previous experiences, you will have holes in your skills and understanding. Take the the faster and cheaper route. Get an instructor!
Some people are experienced in one discipline (skydiving, kite surfing, fixed wing airplanes, etc) and believe that they will pick up paragliding quicker than others. After training hundreds of people from various walks of life, I've not found this to not be true. In fact, I've learned that some of these groups are more difficult to teach as they need to unlearn certain habits. The only exception to this is powered paraglider pilots. These pilots will still have to unlearn certain habits and expand their skill and knowledge base, but they should already know the basics.
The Business of Paragliding Training
Sometimes the business of paraglider training gets in the way of producing quality students. School owners (most often the head instructor) get paid through class tuition and gear sales. This means that if they produce more students in a given amount of time, their business becomes more profitable. A quality instructor will not only teach students the absolute essentials, but will keep mentoring them after they've received their basic P2 rating (to be explained later). Talk to former students from different schools and learn about their experiences.
Final Notes and a Personal Endorsement
Paragliding is a soul filling sport and the Bay Area is a really good place to learn how to do it. Finding the right instructor will pay off tenfold later on in your flying career. Having seen different local instructors, their training sites, training styles, and former students, I'd like to endorse Rob Black of Penguin Paragliding. He believes in the ground control first method of training and gives attention to students for as long as they need it. He has good interpersonal skills and knows how to teach (he's a former high school teacher). Interviewing his school may be a good first step. If you'd like to speak to any of us at Elite Paragliding about learning how to fly, we'd be glad to talk to you. 650-735-2FLY (359).