Learning to Fly


Steve Mammano

As a college student at the University of Utah, it is hard to stand out as someone who participates in high-adventure outdoor activities. There is always someone trying hard to talk you down about a gnarly line they skied or a hard route they climbed. Paragliding is one of the least popular sports as far as participation amongst students goes, but that is quickly changing. More and more college students are seeing this as a goal for them and pursuing the sport. Recruiting new people into the sport is great, but the most prominent problem with this is the college mindset. This applies to just about everything for a college student — have the most amount of fun and excitement as soon as possible for as cheap as possible. As any experienced pilot will know, that is not the way to have a long flying career. Observing the college mentality on free-flight, we realized there was a significant need for more of a community in the sport for young people beginning their careers as pilots.

The Paragliding Club at the University of Utah was formed to create a smart, safe, and educational way to expand the youth community in the free-flight community. Our club at the University of Utah is not the first one to do this — the Hang Gliding Club at Virginia Tech has a great program that we were lucky to get pointers and examples from. The ultimate goal of the college clubs is to have a form that can be replicated at other colleges and universities around the country, leading to the formation of new generations of pilots that can carry on the sport for many years. The Utah club is still very new, but we are utilizing a format that can be duplicated at other institutions. This format was developed from the observation of the Virginia Tech Club, ideas from mentors and thoughts from club members.

The most prominent question asked when people hear about the club is what they need to do in order to fly. All you have to do is show up. No payment, no experience, no gear necessary. Our goal as a club at the U is to give students free introductions to the sport with no experience necessary. This introduction will likely include a tandem flight, ground handling practice and maybe even some small flights on your own (all weather dependent). The most difficult part of this process is simply showing up and being excited. If you show up with a smile on your face, you have already surpassed everyone else.

Soon after one gets hooked on the sport, the constantly repeated question is asking what the progression will look like. If you come to a few club days and decide the sport is indeed something you would like to take further, we will set you up with one of our partner schools. These are full-time, paid instructors who have more resources, time and experience to take you to the next level. Telling someone how long it will take to learn is not an easy question. Every student comes from a different background, and thus handles the learning faster or slower. Typically, people with lots of previous athletic experience catch on quicker than those who do not. Usually, students will be somewhat competent after 15-20 sessions of hands-on learning. A session is classified as a full morning or evening of hands-on experience. There are technically ‘checkboxes’ and statistics a student should have before being signed off as certified by an instructor, but some students are not ready to be signed off at those points and can take longer.

Paragliding is dangerous. As with all adventurous outdoor sports, there is risk involved which is balanced with the seeking of enjoyment. The danger level in paragliding is extremely dynamic and dependent on so many factors that it is hard to give telling safety statistics. For a conservative pilot who only flies in smart conditions and does not push the limits, the sport can be extremely safe and they will likely never have an incident. For a pilot that is constantly taking uncalculated risks above their training level, the sport can be extremely dangerous. With our club, we hope to build a community of pilots who are smart and make the sport as fun as possible without taking any unnecessary risks.

Our hope is to spread the excitement about this sport to one of the largest outdoor adventure-spirited schools in the nation. Essentially, we think it’s not fair that there are 30,000+ students at the University of Utah and there are less than ten of us enjoying one of the best adventure sports out there. All you have to do is show up with a smile. For updates on events, follow Utah Paragliding Club on Instagram or contact the account to be added to the message group.