Photo: Lexi Wheeler

Taking Flight without an Aircraft

At a picturesque Southern California facility, adventurous folks of all ages learn to soar like the birds.

Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course, in the La Jolla area of San Diego, sits atop cliffs with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. In 2008, Tiger Woods, limping painfully with torn ligaments in his left knee, won a dramatic U. S. Open playoff here. Thirteen years later, Spaniard Jon Rahm won the U. S. Open at Torrey Pines.

Today, however, the location is as famous for air sports as for putting greens. The attraction for many flying enthusiasts, who come from around the world, is the Torrey Pines Gliderport, which dates back nearly a century.

Newcomers to the sport sign up for lessons here; many start by going on instructional tandem flights to take the edge off.

Sam Tennant, a 30-year-old Arizonan, has been at the school for two weeks. Flying tandem sparked her interest. “It’s like a dream to be able to fly,” she says.

Sam is still in training and has yet to take her first solo flight. She fears failing and hurting herself but trusts the process and the instructors. She’s excited and will know when she’s ready.

Among the basics taught at Torrey Pines Gliderport is that paragliding starts with knowing your equipment: a helmet for safety and a wing or sail made of colorful high-performance nylon sheeting that inflates, allowing the pilot to take off and stay aloft. Modern gliders can range in size from around nine to 44 square meters. The small gliders are considered mini wings or speed wings; larger ones are usually tandem gliders. 

Pilots sit in different types of harnesses, buckled in loosely and comfortably. Most fly in open harnesses unless theyre mountain flying, and then theyll use a pod. People who “speed fly” have small harnesses with almost no protection. Harnesses are connected to the wing with a web of super-strong polythene lines called risers. Airbag padding is used to ease impacts but fliers dont usually need it because they typically launch and land smoothly and on their feet. But the protection is there just in case. 

A variometer—an old, essential aviation instrument used to measure an aircraft’s critical rate of climb or sink—helps glider enthusiasts ride the thermals safely.

The whole kit fits in a backpack.

Michael Renner, 43, is from San Diego and has been at the school for three weeks. Ive been wanting to do this since I was 12,” he says. 

Michael reveals that his biggest fear was hurting someone else. He got through the program by trusting his instructor and building confidence. Of his first flight, he says, I was so focused on the instructor’s words that I didnt really process it until I landed!”

James Winter, 31, traveled from Boulder, Colorado to become a paraglider. He calls himself “bird jealous.” He saw videos of people flying, looked up the school, “and that was that.” Two months later, he’s still here and thrilled.

Winter is not scared of anything. Paragliding, he says, is one of his “less risky” hobbies, way safer than motorcycling. Things moved smoothly for him as he literally learned the ropes. He was committed to progressing at a safe pace.

Getting used to ‘kiting’ took a couple days,” he says, referring to the techniques of handling the glider on the ground. “But nothing terrible [happened].” His advice? Try to relax and be confident. You learn stuff by trying new things.”

And you’re never too old for that: the oldest graduating student and paraglider at Torrey Pines so far was 103.

A Bit of History

Torrey Pines played a role in aviation industry. In February 1930, Charles Lindbergh established the first gliding distance record by flying along the bluffs here, from Mount Soledad to Del Mar. During the 1930s, “Bowlus Glider” sailplanes first appeared, soaring above the La Jolla cliffs. They were designed by glider pioneer William Hawley Bowlus, who had supervised the construction of the Spirit of St. Louis and given glider lessons to Anne and Charles Lindbergh. (Bowlus also designed the Road Chief, the first aluminum road-travel trailer, which Airstream later copied and promoted.) Radio-controlled model airplanes, progenitors of today’s ubiquitous drones, were first flown here. And in the 1970s, hang gliding in a solid frame was introduced, followed in the 1980s by early paragliding, using nothing but the wind.