Almost Heaven

By Don Beaulieu
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Ever have that dream -- the one in which you're flying effortlessly, soaring and banking through the clouds, a human F-16? Me neither. In my rare flying dream, I only manage to float about haplessly and get caught in tree branches, like a plastic grocery bag.

That's why, when I heard about paragliding, I knew I could finally live the dream I've never had. And that's what landed me in the mountains of central West Virginia a few weeks ago to try paragliding, to pursue human flight, a longing that has persisted since the first human witnessed a hawk soaring in the sky.

What is paragliding? If 40 is the new 30, then paragliding is the new hang gliding. Unlike its solid-frame, kitelike counterpart, a paraglider is more of a modified parachute connected to a harness. Both are designed to catch columns of rising air, called thermals, and stay aloft over long distances, and both are launched by running down a slope. But a paraglider is more portable (it fits in a backpack), quicker to set up and easier to master.

So you're ready to launch yourself into the sunset? Hold on, Mr. Incredible. First you need practice handling a paraglider and experience assessing weather conditions. You need training from a veteran instructor.

You need someone like Dwayne McCourt. McCourt has lived in this part of the Mountain State all his life, has been roaming its airspace since he learned to paraglide 11 years ago and has taught the sport for most of the time since then. He may know this land, and how to negotiate it, better than most. Though he'll only allow that "I know it pretty good."

Over the years, he's soared next to red-tailed hawks, spiraling skyward in the same thermal updraft. Once he flew over a mother black bear feeding her two cubs in a clearing. How long can you stay aloft (a good thing to know before flying over mother bears)?

"There's no telling," he said, after I'd arrived with my girlfriend, Jamie, for our first lesson. "The longest I've been up is 5 1/2 hours."

McCourt's outfit, Fly West Virginia, is one of a few in the mid-Atlantic region that offer paragliding instruction. Within a weekend, even a fledgling can experience flight. The first day involves drills in handling the glider on flat ground. On the second day you'll practice on a hill, where you'll probably catch air for the first time.

The terrain is predictable but hardly boring. It rises and it plummets. Sometimes its ridges ascend into rocky crests, skeletal remnants of ancient uplifts laid bare by time and gravity. People have settled this area sparsely and built roads only as the land's contours allow. In short, this magnificent landscape virtually demands to be navigated by air.

Out of his home base in Bolair, population about 200, McCourt helps people do just that. We drove out of town and down a long dirt road that passes under a defunct coal conveyor to the beginner's site -- a former mountaintop flattened by strip mining.

The process of removing entire peaks to extract their coal has leveled broad swaths of mountainside and left graded, treeless slopes -- perfect spots to launch paragliders. There's still plenty of wilderness to see, but the mining has scarred the land's natural beauty.

On our first day, we practiced what is called "kiting," or lofting the paraglider into the wind and controlling it on level ground. Then we ran down a few gentle hills with the paraglider poised above us. We didn't fly the first day, just skimmed the surface a bit, toes barely clearing the grass. It was somewhat exciting and somewhat unnerving, a teaser of what was to come.

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