During my first flight lesson a number of thoughts swirled through my mind, such as, “Heyyy, look at me! I’m flying all by myself,” “Oh crap, I’m flying all by myself,” and “Gee, it’s only 8:00 am. I bet no one else I know has already learned how to fly today. Most people are just settling into their offices, preparing for their daily agendas. Suckers! Not me, I’m flying. Flyyyying!!!”
It’s no secret that Utah is known for its world class skiing, mountain biking, climbing, and polygamy, but This Is The Place is also renowned as a global paragliding mecca. The Utah Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (UHGPGA) lists 46 flying sites across the state that offer a diverse range of aerial textures and require varying levels of technical ability. Some are by invite only—catering to pilots who are extremely advanced, and evidently well connected, but the crowning glory of Utah’s flying scene is located 23 miles from Salt Lake City at the southern end of the valley. The Point of the Mountain, referred to by its devotees simply as, “The Point,” is endowed with some uncommon features that make it a hot spot for seasoned flyers and noobs alike.
In the 1920s, people were dragging homemade gliders up the mountain’s south side to experiment, but paragliding at The Point didn’t edge into popularity until the early 1990s. In 2008, after much time spent wading through much bureaucracy, waiting for the State of Utah to acquire the property in a compacted land swap with the adjacent gravel companies, and getting the legal teams to sign the deal, the community of pilots finally won their quest to protect the unique area as The Point of the Mountain State Flight Park. It’s maintained as a partnership between the UHGPGA and the State of Utah’s Parks and Recreation program and includes maintained roads, a public restroom and information kiosk for visitors. Other sites could follow suit after seeing the success of this park, but for now, it remains the only one of its kind.
Twenty years ago, when the sport was still in its infancy, guys like Will Gadd, Brad Gunnuscio, Bill Belcourt, and Steve Mayer, started flying at The Point. It became their domain and they became the best in the world. They started flight schools, navigated through airspace restrictions, and set records around the world. Today, these paragliding pioneers continue to pursue the sport as voraciously as they did when they began, with no seeming indication of a dulling affection. They are still out there taking to the clouds and bird calling each other as they float through the friendly skies. Gunnuscio, who launches from his backyard at The Point, can easily be spotted looping his acro-wing or introducing a tandem passenger to what “benching up in a thermal” means. Mayer’s Cloud 9 Paragliding is the largest paragliding school in the country, doing more than 700 tandem flights and certifying an average of 50 students each year. Cloud 9 is also the go-to purveyor of wings and flying gadgets. Gadd broke the world record for distance paragliding three times. And just last August, Belcourt and his buddy, Chris Galli, broke the North American foot launch record with a 173-mile journey that ended in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
The fact that it has the distinction of being the only State Flight Park is just part of the reason Point of the Mountain has become a premier flying destination. The geographical set-up of The Great Salt Lake, and Wasatch mountains with the valley nestled comfortably in between, not only makes the snow oh so powdery during the winters, it also elicits smooth, lifty air, with fairly predictable ridge soaring conditions year-round. Sitting pretty at almost 5,200 feet, the ridge that divides the park has gorgeous views of Lone Peak to the north and Mount Timpanogos to the south. Flights of an hour or more are quite common here and the prevailing winds make it possible to fly the south side in the mornings and the north side in the evenings. There’s also drive-up access at both sites, so gliders don’t necessarily have to hike and have the option to launch and land in the same vicinity.
These assets also make it one of the best places in the world for learning how to fly.
There happens to be a gently sloping “bunny hill” on the south side of The Point, which creates a relatively safe zone for new nest jumpers. If you have ever craned your neck out the car window to get a better look at the paragliders in the sky while driving near the Point of the Mountain, you must admit that you are at least curious. Good news, you don’t have to be Superman to fly. You have options. You can take a spin in a tandem for about $100 or get certified as a pilot by the UHGPGA. There are roughly 3,800 continuously certified pilots in the United States and only about 300 consistent members in the Utah chapter, with perhaps 50ish pilots who haven’t officially joined the club, so the community here is rather small and tight-knit. Most of the accidents you hear about are usually the result of foolish fellows who bought a wing on eBay and tried to figure it out on their own. Assuming you want to avoid a mid-air collision ending in lifelong paralysis or death, taking a course is the smartest way to go. Many instructors charge a flat rate, generally around $1000 for full certification, so you can take as many days to earn your wings as you need to. Plus, there is a strong chance that your instructor will be some kind of paragliding world champion.
Consider yourself warned. After you take your first flight, you’ll become a nylon junkie. There’s no avoiding it. The experience of launching yourself airborne will far exceed any of your prior achievements in the realm of previously dormant personal aptitude discovery. If you sack up and suit up, you will fly by yourself on day one. For most, it takes less than two weeks to fully certify. Though the technical aspects of piloting can be somewhat overwhelming at first, because you have to learn about factors like katabatic winds and air-wakes, you don’t have to be a genius to figure it out. Like most extreme sports, you develop a feel for it and eventually it becomes second nature.
Paragliding, too, is completely weather dependent. Good pilots learn to speak the language of the skies and so become masters at predicting optimal flying conditions and the probability of safety from launch to land. The ideal wind speed for flying at The Point is 12–18 mph, but gliders must also consider the wind gusts, direction, and trends. When you’re learning to fly, and want to check soaring potential before you commit to going, it’s a good idea to make sure the FAA hasn’t listed any temporary flying restrictions for the area that could thwart your plans. The most prevalent sites for gathering detailed information are noaa.gov, and mesowest.utah.edu, a national database housed at the University of Utah that displays surface maps and current observation data from the 73 weather stations across the state. Windfinder and WindAlert are user-friendly mobile apps that are convenient for the glider on the go. And if cross-country flying is what you’re after, xcskies.com has interactive maps and tools that are helpful for flight planning. Of course, there’s no substitute for actually being there in person to check the conditions yourself. Perhaps while you’re there waiting for the winds to shift in your favor, you’ll meet some VIPs (Very Impressive Pilots), who can show you a few tricks.
Did you ever wonder why they use the word “grounded” as a term for punishment? I never considered it until I went flying. Now I get it. Once you fly, everything else—barring a visit to The Moon—seems restrictive. I believe Buzz Lightyear shares my sentiment.