Dawn is a reporter for the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

Not just for the birds

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Paraglider Dominique Le Sellin says pilots need basic weather knowledge to read winds and stay safe. Photo/John Borren
Paraglider Dominique Le Sellin says pilots need basic weather knowledge to read winds and stay safe. Photo/John Borren

Want to fly on fabric wings? So do many locals and tourists, who come from around the globe to soar above the Bay of Plenty.

The popularity of hang gliding and paragliding has ballooned, evidenced by membership in the national organisation of glider pilots.

The head of the New Zealand Hang Gliding Paragliding Association (NZHGPA) says the group has grown from 750 to around 950 members over the past two years.

Enthusiasts say our region boasts some of the best sites in the country.

48 Hours reporter Dawn Picken watched Mount launches and landings to learn more about the sport and the people who love it.


It's a sparkly-water blue-sky Sunday as we rumble up Mauao's four-wheel drive track in Dave Shaw's truck.

Along the way, Shaw and two other members of the BOP Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club, Alex Leinhardt and Chris Evans, talk about the cost of gear (from around $3000 for a second-hand paraglider, to more than $10,000 for a new carbon fibre hang glider), the awe of free flight and the odd unplanned landing spot.

Pilots say they don't jump from hills such as the Mount, instead, they step off and
rise with air currents. Photo/George Novak
Pilots say they don't jump from hills such as the Mount, instead, they step off and rise with air currents. Photo/George Novak

Evans, an advanced level paraglider with 20 years' experience says, "We've had to land in some spaces we didn't intend to, especially inland. You can be caught by wind conditions at valley level, ground level, when you're coming in, the wind can be quite strong."

Evans says he once landed in water in Australia.

"What did you do?" I ask. "Swam like hell," he replies.

He says the sport is not inherently risky.

"My doctor tells me it's much safer than downhill biking. I've come off my mountain bike a few more times."

Shaw asks Leinhardt, "All your landings are perfect, aren't they?"

Laughter is followed by Leinhardt's reply: "You only really land in farmers' paddocks. The interesting part is flying over bush country and hills and looking down at the view."

Evans says, "Hopefully, you're not having to land in a forest, which has happened a few times. I've hugged the occasional tree."

Leinhardt says, "He's a tree hugger - brings new meaning to the word."

The 52-year-old claims to be the world's oldest hang gliding novice. According to NZHGPA, he's still a step above beginner.

Paragliders and hang gliders must be licensed pilots under Civil Aviation Authority rules, which means an initial outlay for lessons and gear.

THESE DAYS IT'S PRETTY MUCH SAFE, UNLESS SOMEONE'S MADE A BAD CHOICE AND FLOWN IN BAD WEATHER. THE GEAR'S SAFE, AND WE'VE COME A LONG WAY IN THE LAST YEARS OF THE SPORT, IN TERMS OF SAFETY.
Wayne Roberts

Bay of Plenty paragliding instructor Wayne Roberts says he charges $250 for an introductory flight. Gear hire plus lessons for a full license cost about $2500.

Pilots are bound by visual flight rules and learn basic meteorology and theory while training.

Roberts says students can solo within a day or two from a hill such as the one above Tay Street Beach while he maintains radio contact.

"These days it's pretty much safe, unless someone's made a bad choice and flown in bad weather. The gear's safe, and we've come a long way in the last years of the sport, in terms of safety."

Hang gliders and paragliders must also belong to the national association, NZHGPA.

Both kinds of gliders are foot launched. Unlike hang gliders, paragliders have no frame, just a series of baffles that inflate as the glider moves through the air. They're lighter and more compact than hang gliders.

Gliders are allowed to fly 1500 feet over the Mount, but may fly up to 6500 (with permission) over the Kaimai Ranges, according to BOP club members.

They say ideal wind conditions are speeds of five to 15 knots, though hang gliders can handle higher winds.

Photo/George Novak
Photo/George Novak

National NZHGPA President Evan Lamberton says Mount Maunganui (elevation, 232 metres), is one of the most popular soaring sites in the country.

"Air is blowing onto the hill from the ocean. The air is forced to go up as it hits the hill. You can only fly in that patch of rising air, and stay on the wave and ride it."

Lamberton and others agree inland flying, such as from the Kaimai or Paeroa Ranges is trickier and riskier.

"They use thermals - [air] pockets that rise all the way to cumulus clouds. Thermal flying can be turbulent. It takes a higher level of pilot ability to go cross-country. On a windy day, you've gotta be careful. You can get hurt quickly if you go too fast."

Lamberton says he's flown distances up to 70 kilometres from a site in the Paeroa Ranges, south of Rotorua.

Paragliding competition organiser Johnny Hopper says the site is the best on the North Island.

"It has delivered the most consistent national competitions, statistically. It has a nice component of flying over mountains and flatlands like the Reporoa Valley."

Dave Shaw prepares
his hang glider for take-off from the north face of Mount
Maunganui. Photo/George Novak
Dave Shaw prepares his hang glider for take-off from the north face of Mount Maunganui. Photo/George Novak

Back at the Mount, Shaw parks at a plateau near the top of the North face and unloads his glider. Evans and Leinhardt unpack their gear.

Meanwhile, German paraglider Florian Markel prepares to launch. The 24-year-old says he took his maiden Mount flight the day before.

He's been flying three years. He walked up the Mount lugging around ten kilograms of gear and is ready to ride the thermals.

On his first attempt, winds push him and his wings into Shaw's carbon fibre hang glider.

"Somebody help him out," says Shaw.

Leinhardt, Evans, and our photographer, George, work to untangle lines and straighten Markel's wing.

Evans offers instruction during the fourth attempt: "Push forward, push forward. Hands up..."

Shaw gives Markel a final push. He rises above the ground, then dips just enough so his pack scrapes the side of the hill before an air current lifts him above the sea.

Success.

Next off the Mount is Evans, who enters the air on his first go with a nudge from Shaw.

Evans swings both legs in front of his body as he leaves Mauao.

Onlooker Karl Pohio says, "He's up and away. This guy's done it before. Man, that's super cool."

Pohio says he once tried tandem paragliding from a grassy knoll in Nepal.

"It was an amazing adrenaline rush. It was quite exhilarating and I felt really safe."

Last to go is Shaw, a building company owner, 30 year gliding veteran, past club president and one of its first members.

"I got really hooked on it. There's nothing like the freedom of free flight."

Shaw says the adrenaline rush fades over time, replaced by a kind of mid-air meditation.

"It takes your mind off work and everything. We can hear the wind noise. "

Shaw spits on his gloves to help his grip. He manoeuvres his green-winged glider to the edge, steadies himself against the wind, and launches.

Dave Shaw says the adrenaline rush
fades, to be replaced by mid-air meditation.Photo/George Novak
Dave Shaw says the adrenaline rush fades, to be replaced by mid-air meditation.Photo/George Novak

Our group lands gently on the Mount Main Beach. Another paraglider, Dave Edwards, arrives in the style of Road Runner, skidding in fast on the sand.

Shaw asks, "Were you sweating up there?"

Edwards answers, "No, that was perfect."

He tells 48 Hours, "I play in the air and have a ball. I like the rush...the ground rush."

Shaw, Evans and Leinhardt say they don't do aerobatics.

Evans quotes a saying, "There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."

There are, however, pilots like Dominique Le Sellin, one of two local women in the Bay of Plenty gliding group, which has around 50 members.

Dominique Le Sellin snapped this shot while paragliding above the Mount. Photo/Supplied
Dominique Le Sellin snapped this shot while paragliding above the Mount. Photo/Supplied

Le Sellin started training in the Pyrenees Mountains in France in 1998.

Le Sellin met her husband at the Mount while paragliding, and he delivered a pre-flight proposal there last year.

Her husband, David Washer, is president of the BOP gliding group, while Le Sellin acts as secretary.

She says female pilots are safer than their male counterparts.

"It's dangerous when you're a male and have a big ego. If we don't feel safe, we just walk down. A lot of boys feel strange walking down, or beginners are a bit too keen and not safe enough."

I told the glider group on our way up Mauao how my ten and eleven-year-old children talk about wanting to run off a cliff and fly.

Evans replied, "It's the same for us. We just never grew out of it."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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