Second Place Writing – Sports

Griffen Smith

Second Place
University of Montana
$2,000 Scholarship

Launch zone: How Missoula is quickly becoming a premiere paragliding hub

By Griffen Smith

As dusk cooled the July heat, Joshua Phillips peered over the north wall of Mount Sentinel. He felt the strength of the gusts rise and fall as a warm breeze climbed the mountain.

Phillips saw a better chance with each cycle of getting a buttery, float-like-feather flight on his paraglide — an outdoor passion he’s been addicted to for the last five years.

As the sun set, he took a running start down the cliff, pulled off the ground, and began aerial laps above Hellgate Canyon on the light air that Missoula is known to provide.

“It’s pretty thermic here — we are not going down as fast as we could be,” Phillips said as he soared a thousand feet above the Smoke Jumper Trail. The Clark Fork River gleamed below. Rattlesnake mountains peaked out from afar. Hikers and animals looked like ants.

Each turn caught a new draft, boosting Phillips hundreds of feet above the ground: “It’s pretty f***ing magical.”

The paragliding community in Missoula has experienced a boom of new interest. Local instructors certified 40 new pilots in the last two years. Some pilots established new competitions like cross country paragliding. And with two idyllic launch zones, Missoula’s draw for resident paragliders and those passing though has picked up.

With the boom, however, comes a bottleneck of getting into paragliding. The small number of instructors have lesson requests backlogged two years deep. Other issues come from getting access to the sites, which at times have been restricted by air traffic concerns.

If one thing is for certain, Missoula’s skies are more crowded with the new generation of pilots.

A destination city

Montana features lots of places where people can fly in paragliders. Unlike most launch zones tucked away in remote mountains, the Garden City offers urban benefits.

Two launch points sit on the tops of Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel with developed trails and a Forest Service road for access. The airspace allows paragliders to touch down at a landing zone at the University of Montana’s south campus fields — making what would be a day trip for a normal flight into a two- to three-hour excursion right in flyers’ home turf.

Jacob Glass, a paraglider for the last four years, said he moved to Missoula in 2020 after he noticed the accessibility of the flying scene. Glass learned to fly in Tennessee in 2018 and moved to Oregon to be closer to better launch zones.

“I got really absorbed into flying,” Glass said. “I wanted to be in a place where I could do it regularly.”

Glass said his favorite way to spend his Saturdays in Missoula starts with a bike ride down the Kim Williams Trail, a hike up the Smoke Jumper Trail, a paraglide ride down Mount Sentinel capped off with a trip to the farmers market.

While Glass practically moved to Missoula for paragliding, vacationers often make a pit stop to soar off of the launch zones. People from neighboring cities like Bozeman come by for flights.

Paul Roys is the president of the area’s flight club called Glide Missoula. He said people have been flying hang gliders in Missoula for decades. Paragliding has really taken off in the last few years.

“The sport as a whole is growing like crazy,” Roys said. “There are very few places in the country where you have not one, but two launch sites.”

When he joined the community 15 years ago, there were a dozen hang gliders and two paragliders.

Roys couldn’t pin down a total number of Missoula club members for 2022, as some do not fly regularly. He estimated 50 dedicated paragliding pilots call Missoula home, with a few hang gliders as well.

Paragliding is also on the rise nationwide. Martin Palmaz, executive director for the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, said a majority of members live in the West, where the fastest growth is.

“We have seen strong growth in paragliding over the years,” Palmaz said. “Last year we saw approximately 10% growth in paragliding from the year before.”

In total, more than 6,000 Americans belong to a paragliding association.

Knowing the air

Back in the sky, Phillips carefully navigated the air currents while he rolled over ridge lines and bowls of earth along the west side of Mount Sentinel.

A veteran of more than 100 tandem flights, Phillips spent several minutes before the launch gauging where the wind came from and where the cross-breezes could cause problems. He watched for any thermal spots, another name for warm, rising columns of air.

Phillips explained he can feel the wind passing through his wing as he makes big turns over a wooded ridge line. Warm air columns pushed the glider higher in the sky. The air can change suddenly. Experienced pilots develop a sense of the winds by looking at the cloud conditions, weather station sensors and wind socks.

“It’s almost like you take all the terrain and turn it upside down and put it on the roof of a cave,” Phillips said. “The water would drip down in the ceiling (stalactites) and fall to the bottom of the cave. It’s the same way with the heat lifting off the ground.”

With the sun set, colder air quickly fills the shadows of mountains and lower elevations. But Mount Sentinel, with the golden-hour sunset light, can preform as a perfect wind tunnel for the warmer air leaving the valley.

For an expert pilot like Phillips, riding the correct winds can not only keep a glider in the air longer, but push the craft higher in the air. A strong thermal can send a paraglider up to 15,000 feet above the Missoula Valley.

“It’s a valley phenomenon and it’s super-smooth too,” Phillips said, pointing out how long gliders can float on the light air. “Typically the flight from Sentinel is 6 minutes. We’ve been in the air for at least 12 minutes this flight.”

Long-term backlog

Becoming a paraglider takes years of instruction and practice. The system focuses on mentorship, when new riders fly with experienced paragliders. Most of the new people come from Jen Bedell’s Blackbird Paragliding, Missoula’s only official flight school.

Bedell said most years she has a dozen students, each going at a different pace. For the past two years, she has been teaching double that number and her waitlist has filled up for next year.

“It’s definitely been more busy, and I am kinda a one-person show,” Bedell said. She originally ran the flight school with her husband, Casey Bedell, an advanced pilot who competed across the world. But in 2018, Casey Bedell died in a paragliding accident while at a competition in Chile.

Jen Bedell kept the business going, flying students in tandem and assisting on solo flights. While she said it has been overwhelming, she’s satisfied teaching the next generation of Missoula pilots.

It could take from 6 months to a year to learn how to paraglide, according to Roys. Pilots must complete a certain amount of hours flying with an instructor to get to a P2, or beginner pilot status.

Even after someone gets that P2 status, national paragliding rules mandate they still have to be supervised by an intermediate (P3) or advanced pilot (P4.)

Only P4 pilots can fly people in tandem or instruct fellow pilots. Bedell estimated that maybe half a dozen P4s reside in Missoula, making the teachers far outnumbered by students.

“A huge amount of knowledge is passed by just going,” Roys said.

When Phillips decided to fly on July 26, he messaged the paragliding club’s WhatsApp chat, telling folks they had a 30-minute window to join him for a pickup truck ride up Crazy Canyon Road. By the time he drove off, four flyers appeared on mopeds, bicycles and pickup trucks.

Phillips, who has a P4 designation, doesn’t mind the company. He often trains others to fly. The quintet peered over the launch zone together, listening intently to Phillips describing the wind conditions.

None of the other pilots had ever launched off of the north cliffs of Mount Sentinel. Some were nervous, but Phillips watched each pilot launch, giving advice as they left the ground.

“This is why I do it, to get that next generation into the air,” Phillips said, adding a phrase someone told him from a competition this year. “This sport wouldn’t exist without community. People need to be willing to teach the next generation.”

With the high demand to learn, he’s taken on three of his own students, with another two waiting for next year.

Risk factor

Flying hundreds of feet above the earth, depending on the wind and piloting skills, can hold many dangers. Dozens of paragliders have crashed in Missoula, most recently in July 2022 when a pilot flew into a tree near the designated landing zone.

In total, paragliding has killed at least 18 Americans and injured hundreds more from 2017 to 2020, according to limited data from the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.

Roys said accidents happen, but estimated that 99% of errors are human-caused. A majority of paragliding injuries come during the learning phase. As in many other outdoor sports, each pilot must make their own choices.

“In the end it’s a calculated risk,” Roys said. “It’s also a numbers game. We are going to have accidents with this many pilots. An old paragliding term everyone knows is ‘launching is optional — landing is not.’”

Expanding the sport

While most on-lookers see paragliding as a quick glide from peak to landing zone, the sport has several disciplines, including cross county and aerial tricks.

Different types of wings serve for flying thermal columns thousands of feet above the ground. Others are designed to make barrel rolls within feet of obstacles. Some designs cater toward beginner pilots, while others allow more complexity in function.

A more traditional practice is cross country paragliding, where pilots attempt to travel as far as they can on one flight. Currently, the distance record from Missoula landed one pilot just south of Helena.

While cross country is booming, Phillips hopes to expand with an offshoot called “Race To Gold,” where flyers attempt to complete a route of certain locations all in one flight.

For July, Phillips designed a path that went from Mount Sentinel to Mount Dean Stone, then to University Mountain, to Mount Jumbo, above the Ten Spoon Winery before returning to the south campus landing zone.

It is a task only intermediate or advanced pilots can do, but Phillips hopes he can get a team of flyers to take on the challenge.

Phillips said he has been transformed by paragliding. Much of his free time goes to getting a flight in, which he often does with his wife Susanna Phillips. As he prepared to land his tandem paraglider with the setting sun silhouetting the valley, he had the same mindset with the other thousands of flights over Missoula.

“This is what I do,” Phillips said. “I share flights with people. You have to pay it forward. If I am the one to help out, inspire confidence and give pointers, it might just be the best feeling in the world.”


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