Paraglider Starts Ride From Hot-Air Balloon
By Jane Mahoney
For the Journal
Two thousand feet above the desert, Dave Prentice perches on the edge of the gondola, his foot tapping slightly as the hot-air balloon billows above us.
"OK?" asks pilot Jonathan Wolfe as his tie-dyed Gloria Caeli balloon ascends above the scrub brush and sand of the West Mesa. He glances at the variometer. "Twenty-two hundred feet ... twenty-three," he calls out. "It's time."
"OK?" he repeats.
"Just PDA," says Prentice, his eyes focused, his demeanor utterly calm. "That's pre-drop anxiety," he explains, for my benefit.
If I was experiencing a slight case of nerves on my infrequent hot-air balloon flight, I couldn't help but ponder Prentice's emotions.
After all, the 32-year-old paraglider pilot was about to climb out of the balloon basket, dangle in a harness 3,000 feet above the desert floor, and then drop with his paraglider in free-fall flight until his ripstop nylon wing unfolded and inflated to send him soaring like a bird.
Paragliding, a fast-growing sport of nonmotorized human flight, is normally a foot-launched endeavor. Pilots carefully unfurl their 30-foot inflatable wing on hillsides or mountaintops, double-checking lines and fixing tangles before running to catch the thermal winds that lift them skyward.
Prentice, however, is one of fewer than five pilots in the world willing to perform the complex paraglider deployment from a hot-air balloon. And his friend, Wolfe, is one of the rare balloon pilots willing to launch a paraglider from the sky.
"Danger Dave is dangling," Wolfe radios a photographer standing ready in a nearby balloon to record the scene. "Three, two, one," he counts down, peering over the edge to check on his soon-to-be-gone passenger. "And GO!"
With a quick flick of the release line, Prentice is gone. Within seconds and several hundred feet below us, the 30-foot wingspan of the glider unfurls and the sky explodes in yellow and red fabric. Joyful whoops and shouts drift on the cold morning breeze.
"Some people make their own mountains," says balloon pilot Joe Hale, owner of the Hale-ucinations balloon transporting the photographer. "We had a beautiful 9,000-foot peak this morning."
Prentice, an Albuquerque native whose love of on-the-edge sports has taken him from bike racing to rock climbing over the years, discovered paragliding and hang gliding about 15 years ago and promptly set his sights on the sky.
Currently sponsored by the French paragliding manufacturer Ozone, Prentice is one of about 30 professional paraglider pilots traveling a competitive world circuit and chasing world records in both distance flying and aerobatics. His goals include becoming a member of the U.S.A. Nationals team and attending the world championships in Brazil in 2005.
Already, Prentice has broken a world open-distance record, staying aloft on a summer day in 2002 from Zapata to Ozona, Texas, a distance of 240 miles entailing 81/2 hours in the air. And just this fall, Prentice placed second in the paraglider nationals championships in Telluride, Colo.
Although Ozone pays for Prentice's gear, trips and competitions, the former medic supplements his income by training other fliers.
"I flew 350 days last year," he says. "Now, it's kind of enjoyable to take a day off."
Prentice made his first paraglider drop from a hot-air balloon about four years ago after searching nearly six years for a pilot willing to take him up. Wolfe, a paraglider pilot himself (although he's never launched from a balloon), had long thought the sports of paragliding and ballooning might mesh.
The two men were introduced by a mutual friend on a Thursday; by Sunday they were in the sky for the first nerve-wracking drop. In the three days between, Prentice sewed his first D-Bag, or deployment bag, designing a packing system he hoped would enable his wing to pop free and unfurl without entanglement while the 140-pound pilot free-fell through the sky at a rate of about 40 miles per hour.
"A mix of emotions" is how Prentice describes the first jump. "Fear of the unknown. Elation."
Wolfe has never gotten over "the weirdness" of watching his balloon passenger climb down the side of the wicker basket to dangle several thousand feet above the ground. Nonetheless, the pair has performed more than 20 drops since that first time.
After four years of revisions to his bag and packing system which he likens to the folds of an accordion Prentice says his successful balloon drops have climbed to nearly 90 percent. He figures his self-designed bag and packing system might prove marketable in the future.
It's still scary business, however. As Prentice says, it's "pretty tricky and not for everybody."
"The big trick here is that the wing must come out of the bag and inflate cleanly," Prentice explains. "You can't lay it out, inflate it, and check the lines as you normally would when taking off from the side of a hill."
Prentice's PDA or "pre-drop anxiety" doesn't subside until the wing is open and he's soaring, searching out the thermals to take him from one cloud street to the next. After the initial drop, the skillful spins, stalls and maneuvers that can create 5 Gs pounding his body become pure fun and the stuff of championship titles. But until that moment when the wing inflates, each balloon drop is preceded by a day or two of fitful sleep and the mental resolution of imagined, complicated scenarios.
"The first three times, I couldn't even open my eyes," Prentice says, who admits to a few lengthy free falls when the glider wing or lines tangled. "Now I enjoy the actual drop and can look up to see the wing."
In case of complications, Prentice carries a reserve parachute on his shoulder.
"I was a medic for many years," he says. "I certainly live life knowing that death is a possibility in fact, it creates an energy in me to live life to the fullest. I can accept the possibility of death it's always lurking in my mind.
"But I try not to dwell on it."