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Wings of the Sea and Sky

I stood alone atop a wild, windswept hill, scuffing the ground with the toe of my shoe, watching as puffs of dust swirled away from me, and then slowly shifted directions, drifting back up the hill towards me.  Far below, dozens of sail boats bobbed like tiny corks in twin crystal blue harbors, while thin gray clouds draped the sky overhead, blotting out the rising sun. Behind me, my paraglider was spread, half-unfolded, a crinkled pink and blue horseshoe atop a small bare patch of dirt, while the rainbow of lines ran through knee high grass up to the risers in my hands. To the right, left, and about 20 feet down the hill, tall, sprawling thickets of prickly pear cactus formed a short, narrow corridor through which I could pull up my glider and run. 

I scuffed the dirt several more times, studying the building wind and mentally rehearsing my launch through the unforgiving terrain, knowing it had to be perfect.  Otherwise, my dream of flying on Catalina Island might come to an abrupt, prickly end…

Two Harbors, Catalina Island

Santa Catalina is one of California’s Channel Islands.  It is a beautiful, mostly undeveloped island located approximately 30 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. I sailed out there for the first time this past New Year’s and after just one glimpse of the rolling hills and clear blue waters, I was already dreaming about the view from the sky.   I thought it would be so amazing to combine two of my passion into one trip! Sails and paraglider, my wings of sea and sky! 

I did some research and reached out to other pilots for help, and to the best of our knowledge, we determined that there should be no legal issues in regards to air space or conservation land restrictions.* At the same time though, I couldn’t find evidence of anyone else who had actually flown a paraglider on Catalina.  I knew of a few speed wing and paramotor pilots who had done so, but it seemed there might have never been an actual free, soaring flight.  This made the prospect a little more daunting, as I would be going it alone, but also a little more special, as it would sort of be my site!   

At the same time though, it was easy to see why other pilots might have shied away from flying here.  Not only is access limited by 30 miles of open ocean, but the island itself is wild and ungroomed.  Though dirt roads and trails offered viable landing options, launching was another story.  With hillsides draped in cactus and thick brush, there was very little clear space to spread out a wing and run.  Without the assistance of a motor or the shorter lines on a more compact speed wing, launching would require extreme precision and even some amount of luck for the wing to clear the ground without line snags!

Besides launch, there was also the weather to consider. After multiple visits over the past year, I had started to become familiar with  the rainy mornings, gusty afternoons, fog drenched evenings, and rapidly changing conditions.  There seemed to be very few clear windows for a flight here, which meant playing a game of patience and conditions.  And so for many days I waited…and waited…and waited…until…

…one morning, I poked my head out of the boat hatch, and knew it was finally time!  The typical morning clouds were lighter and higher than usual, with not a drop of rain to be felt! The flag in Isthmus Harbor was fluttering gently in a north west wind, the exact direction I needed for the launch I had in mind.  I eagerly dressed, grabbed my kit, powered up the dinghy motor, and feeling both nervous and excited, headed to shore.  

After a quick, 1.5 mile hike to the top of a ridge overlooking the harbors, I arrived at the knoll where I had planned to launch.  As expected, the wind was swirling lightly about the top of the ridge, in typical Catalina fashion, quite unable to make up it’s mind. But there were enough WNW cycles that I knew if I timed it right, I could launch safely.  There would be no room for error in this launch though, so as I spread out my glider I took extra care to arrange the tips in a perfect horseshoe and make sure every line was clear of obstacles.  

And then I stood waiting, taking in the desolate beauty of the morning, scuffing the dirt and watching the dust drift up the hill towards me.  The wind was too light at first for my short launch runway, but within minutes it had already grown stronger, the tall grass around my legs bowing backwards and my wing fluttering hopefully behind me.  With a last double check of my harness and helmet and a deep breath, I dropped my chest forward and ran!

There’s this great moment in my GoPro footage, where you can see both my feet, skimming just above the cactus that marked the end of my launch runway, and my face, splitting into the happiest, goofiest smile of relief!  To be honest, it was a little closer than I would have liked, but I had done it! I was in the air over beautiful Catalina Island, soaring over blue water and hundreds of boats. I was able to find some lift along the ridges and enjoy the views, before landing smoothly on one of the dirt roads below. It was a such a dream come true moment, made even more special by the curious people who stopped by to ask about paragliding or even take pictures with me!

I was so happy with the entire flight and the fact that I was able to pull off a tricky launch and fly a beautiful, new site on my own.  It’s well known that I’ll never win an award for being the boldest or most confident pilot, so days like this one are truly special for me!  One flying dream down, many more to go! 

*Update! A few weeks after this flight, another pilot followed in my wake and flew on the Island.  Upon landing, he was informed by a ranger that they would prefer us not to fly there. However, one of my speed wing friends was told by a different ranger that flying was okay, so it looks like there is some confusion as to the regulations on the Island.  As pilots, I do believe we should be conscientious, so until further, conclusive information can  be found, I would suggest that we stay out of the Catalina skies for now.  Thanks everybody! 

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2 Comments
  • Ken Tompson
    Posted at 19:02h, 09 October

    I know some guys who flew paragliders at that place back in the 90’s but not many people do. Its not worth the effort to get out that way.

    • Katie Jo
      Posted at 23:01h, 09 October

      It definitely is a trek to make it out there! But I’m often sailing out anyway just to hike and explore, so bringing the wing along just sweetens the deal! I hope to get more info on the legality/restrictions soon.