Saturday, July 27, 2002

The Early Years of Paragliding on Oahu

[This article by Jon Goldberg-Hiller is republished from our previous website.]

I arrived on O‘ahu to teach at UH in the fall of 1993, the date from which I can trust my direct knowledge of flying here. The earlier history stems from contacts I made with Island folks, and some Canadian pilots that I knew from my years flying paragliders on the Mainland before I moved here. I invite others with additional knowledge to contact me to make this history more complete.

Paragliding came to the United States in small trickles beginning in 1987 or 1988. John Bouchard, a well-known climber, was responsible for much of the early development, manufacturing wings and teaching a few intrepid pioneers what little he knew, and encouraging them to spread the sport throughout the US and Canada. In the early days, PG was primarily a tool for rapid descent by climbers, but by 1990 the equipment had progressed to the point that soaring flight had become both possible and the new grail for questing pilots.

Hawai‘i missed out on the very early years, but this had been one of the worlds foremost locations for the development of hang gliding in the 1970s because of the abundant lift and the growing experience of surviving pilots. Those same combinations brought PG to O‘ahu in 1990, primarily at Kualoa Ranch in Kaaawa where PGs were footlaunched for teaching purposes, and towed behind a truck equipped with the Airtime of Lubbock (ATOL) system for extended soaring flights on the windward pali out front. The ATOL rig was operated by its designer, Jerry Forberger, who flew along with Bill Fulton, Greg Pierson and others. In 1991, a student paragliding near the cliff face hit some turbulence and broke every line in the Wills Wing paraglider he was flying before plunging to his death. It was an accident that was discussed around the world for what it could tell us about safer paraglider manufacturing. Locally, it was responsible for shutting down Kualoa to HG and PG, as well as souring many local hang pilots on this newer way of getting airborne.

About the same time, paragliding tourists arrived on O‘ahu for short stays. Dave Goto hosted the French champions (and PG pioneers) from Chamonix at Makapuu, launching from several places on the cliff face. Later, the Canadian champion, Peter McClaren, told me in 1993 that he had flown Makapuu the year before, probably from near what is now Cactus. He had always wanted to try since reading about the endurance records set by the Wills brothers, and he hadn’t heard of any other PG attempts.

I arrived in 1993 and contacted a few hang glider pilots to get the lay of the land. They were discouraging—the Kualoa death was fresh in their minds and they weren’t sure if PG was really safe or if they wanted to risk any more sites with another bag-wing pilot on the island. No one had really flown PGs since the fatality, and I assumed they really wanted me to go away. One HG pilot, Bill Fulton, who owned an old Corvette that he had last flown at Kualoa took me to Lanikai in November of that year and suggested that the summit might be an appropriate spot to try as HGs had flown it decades back. PGs had never tried it, he thought, and I’m sure he half-expected to see another zipper accident. Nonetheless, while hiking up we encountered a couple of locals who told us about the Austrian “Steve” (Chismar) who had been trying it out every now and then, landing in the park below on a straight glide (soaring hadn’t yet been attempted) and trying to teach a few of his friends to do the same. The winds were picking up while we were on the summit that day, and I decided to leave my Nunki in the bag and hike down. At least one place looked like it might work in better wind conditions.

A month later I successfully flew at Kahana Bay from a launch on the third spine (the one leeward of the present launch). I had gone again with Bill. This time I proved (to him) that death was not the inevitable result of PG as I made a smooth landing on the beach below in fairly north conditions. Getting up from the third spine would take some doing, I realized, and not having flown in ridge-lift conditions before, I couldn’t quite imagine how the airflow could ever take one above the side ridge.

A month later, several of my PG buddies from Oregon where I moved from came to join me for a week of flying and exploration. We flew from the summit of Mauna Kea, the first time it had ever been done with a PG. Later, we returned to O‘ahu and tried Kahana. The trades had stopped, and we sat, sweltering on the launch, waiting for a small puff of anything. All of us gave up and decided to look at Makapuu, if only to scout possible launches. To our surprise, the naturally perfect area the hang pilots knew as Cactus from the old days when they used to fly it, seemed to have perfect wind. We sat there for a while, kicking dust, looking at each other, wondering if we had the guts to give this a try. Three of us launched fairly easily while the fourth and last struggled for a half hour before getting airborne.

The air was smoother than anything any of us had ever felt, and even though the sun was quickly lowering we soared with a sense of magical disbelief. Disbelief was also what the hang pilots felt as we flew in front of the boxes as they were getting ready to launch. “Hey, it’s paragliders” I heard one shout. After launching, they flew around us looking us over, but not smiling too much. As it began to get dark, I landed first near what looked like the LZ (which was green and lush in those days, watered and cared for by the city), and a hang pilot dived after me. He came in hot, probably in anger for invading his ridge, and whacked hard, breaking two downtubes. Duff King looked sheepish when he introduced himself to me, his indignation muffled by the humiliation of a hard landing. And rather than threatening me, which I have long suspected was his original intention, he just shook my hand and walked away. It was January 26, 1994, and I knew after tasting that air that the HG pilots just couldn’t keep me away.

After my friends left, some of the HG pilots that I met that night, including one new one who was bi-wingual, took me to Makua where we flew. Early 1994 also saw flights from Haleakala on Maui where a small group of pilots had begun to congregate, and from Lanikai where the mysterious Steve Chismar and Des Walsh and I met and began to fly regularly, always landing in the park even after long soaring flights. Other pilots were few, mostly connected with the university; in fact, there were almost two times more academic degrees than PG pilots in 1994! Lanikai and Makapuu were the two sites we would fly and we pushed the envelope many times until we could finally learn our own limits. My logbook records many long flights above Lanikai when I spent as much time going backward as going forward, and I once required 30 minutes to fly from launch to above the park 100 meters away.

On December 21st 1995, the first flight from the pali was made. Des, Fred Klemmer and myself climbed Mt. Olympus from St. Louis Heights with our wings. It took 4 sweaty hours, the first in the dark of the early morning, before we reached the windless summit. Wayne Haight who had just started flying assured us he recently had seen an open space large enough to launch at the summit, but when we finally saw it we thought for certain that it couldn’t have been what he had meant. Laying our wings into that steep and cramped space hanging over a 2000 feet drop and then committing to a forward launch was heart-pounding stuff. But, despite one frightening aborted launch by Des, we all had good flights, landing on the golf course below while the curious police helicopter hovered above. We all expected to get arrested, but instead we were treated to a golf cart ride by the management who gave us each a cold beer, slapped us on the back, and then politely told us never to do that again.

In late 1995, the first flights were made from Nanakuli. Finally, we had a reliable thermal site, even though it often left us feeling a bit beat-up from the long hikes and the explosive thermals. BJ and Nalu who were dubbed (approvingly by them) “the cowboys” for their secretive and iconoclastic styles, particularly their desires to learn everything they could on their own, finally began to fly with the other pilots in early 1996, about half a year after they began flying. Although they relished the hard-scrabble image of Cowboys, they improved many launches, grooming them meticulously. Before their arrival, we had flown Lanikai from the East launch in all weather, taking the inevitable 40 percent left-side collapse in NE days that the rotor produced as just the cost of getting airborne. BJ and Nalu began to cut the present launch between the boxes, and we all discovered that Lanikai didn’t have to involve a hair-raising launch.

In August of 1996 we all began experimenting with XC at Makapuu. Although our encounters with the HG pilots had been mostly distant and sometimes still frosty, they were helpful on these first XC attempts, showing us where cowshit thermal was and teaching us how to cross Puu Okona. Pete Michelmore arrived on the island the next year, and his XC experience helped us all connect the dots on May 21, 1997, when six of us flew to Windward Community College and beyond. The world had opened up in a new and exciting way.

In 1996 and 1997, Dillingham was added to the list of regularly flown sites, and we all began to fly Kahana for real, having discovered the secret of endless soaring. At first we would hike nearly to the ridge-line at Kahana, making it a tough 60 minute hike. Later we learned to let the wind do the work. Nanakuli was still flown a lot, as was Lanikai, and, of course, Makapuu.

Joining HHA

It was the continuous Makapuu flying that led a few of us to see the necessity of connecting up with the HG pilots. They were neither especially mean nor nice to us—we were tolerated, but at a distance. Nonetheless, there was constant grumbling about the safety of our continuing to use Cactus, and many imagined bad consequences of the impossibility of our controlling access to the site. I talked with Duff about the need to let us in—no chance of regulating access if there wasn’t some acceptance of our legitimate right to be there. He agreed in principle, but when I attended the annual HHA meeting in 1996 a wall of opposition to the paraglider pilots was put up by several old timers. They just weren’t ready.

In 1997 I was voted onto the board, the first time a non-HG pilot had served. I was a minority voice, but my intent was clear: I wanted to show the hang pilots that the PG pilots were sensible, and interested in the most of the same things they were. It was also an opportunity to learn the special concerns that hang pilots had, and to understand the suspicion that because we had access to other sites, we might endanger Makapuu through careless use.

The next year two paraglider pilots were elected to the board, and the PG pilots were granted official recognition.

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