Enjoying the open skies - on a hang glider or paraglider

- Most Saturdays, weather permitting, a group of people would gather at South Mountain Park, to test their hand-gliding and paragliding skills, high up in the air.

The group belongs to a club called Arizona Hang Gliding and Para Gliding Association. It ha been around since the early 1970's.

On a typical Saturday, a number of people would gather at the TV Towers Lookout to watch these hang gliders and paragliders, One by one, people who gathered at the TV Towers Lookout will watch hang gliders and paragliders run off a cliff...literally.

"South Mountain is one of our favorite places to fly," said Gingher Leyendecker, President o the Arizona Hang Gliding and Para Gliding Association. Leyendecker is a paraglider herself.

"We say 'run off'," said instructor Chandler Papas. "We don't jump off. It's not BASE jumping. It's a very uplifting feeling and smooth, incredible feeling."

Unlike jumping from an airplane or BASE jumping, those who paraglide must first fill their paraglider with air, before the runoff.

"We stabilize the wing before we launch, so the launch process is very smooth," said Papas, who did a tandem launch with a student. Students can train from four to 12 months.

"Make sure they understand everything that is involved," said Papas. "From cost commitment to time commitment. Really everything they need to know if they want to become a paraglider pilot."

In the air, pilots riding the updrafts and thermals will have to watch for hawks circling in the thermals, along with dust devils, in an effort to help them get a lift that is hundreds of feet above their launch point.

"Thermals are like waterfalls," said paraglider Gavin McSweeney. "There's a part that's going up, and a part that's coming down as well."

"It's like a dream," said Ian Snowball. "It's like living a dream really."

Snowball, who is a club member, has been hang gliding for 23 years.

"After my first tandem flight with an instructor, I haven't been able to put it down," said Snowball.

For some, hang gliding is a serious matter. One hang glider at the South Mountain holds the hang glider record.

"He made it past Tucson to Rio Rico, 136 miles off this site right here," said Snowball.

As for Snowball, who was hang gliding, he landed about an hour after he began the hang glide, at a school nearby.

As for the safety of hang gliding and paragliding, Snowball said this.

"It's a lot safer than driving on Valley freeways."

Others, like Leyendecker, said it is about as safe as scuba diving. Papas said it is as safe as one makes it. As for the club, they work closely with the city of its Saturday flights from South Mountain. To fly, one must be certified by the National Hang Gliding and Para Gliding Association, which means schooling is required.

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