Parapente interview

The following is a transcript of my interview with  Nicole Mclearn, the only Canadian woman on the Paragliding World Cup!

What is your favourite type of flying, ex. Long distance, acrobatics?

I prefer to do long distance Cross Country (XC) flying.  I like the challenge of trying to get from A to B while flying over new-to-me terrain.  Flying over country that most people never get to see is really neat; it’s also very cool to realize that what you just flew over (mountain pass, canyons, etc) would take hours or days to cover on foot, but I flew over in a couple of minutes.

Do bigger people do better?

The laws of physics says all other things being equal, bigger people do better since they fly a bigger paraglider.  Small people can get around this by getting a bigger paraglider (one that they would otherwise not fit), and then adding ballast to artificially increase their mass.  However this only works to a certain point…at some point the extra mass you would have to carry around to equal a bigger person would be too much for you to lug around on the ground, and be a potential burden for hard landings.

I know some small people who fly with 15kg!

Are there any handicapped (deaf, wheelchair-bound) paragliders?

I personally know of at least one guy who’s a paraplegic and flies in a wheelchair.  Lars needs 1 person to help out on the takeoff (usually his wife), but once in the air he’s indistinguishable from the rest flying-wise (other than the actual wheelchair hanging underneath).  He uses a special harness that basically attaches the wheelchair to him (and it’s a special 3-wheelchair, the 3rd wheel on front is for stability which he also uses for other outdoor stuff).  Takeoff is easy if it’s groomed (no big rocks etc to roll into) and so is the landing (like landing an airplane).

You can read about Lars here:

Where is your favourite paragliding site?

Despite flying in a bunch of somewhat exotic locations, my favorite site is Sun Valley in Idaho.  It has a lot of what I like in paragliding: amazing scenery, high mountains (takeoff is at 9000′), an easy way up the mountain (the gondola…it’s a ski hill in winter), lots of XC routes (so you don’t get bored with flying the same terrain every day), and lots of other stuff to do if you don’t want to paraglide that day.  You can also get uber-high there.  The legal ceiling in Canada and the USA is 18,000′ (above that the government mandates only airplanes are allowed) but cloudbase can often be 22,000′ or higher in Sun Valley, so you have to be careful to stay legal even though you can technically get higher.  At that altitude you need supplemental oxygen (anything above 13,000′ you should, although I usually don’t bother below 15,000′).  But from that altitude you can see everything, just like looking out an airplane window, but without the window in the way!  The other thing I like about Sun Valley is that at those altitudes, the mountains are bare of trees at the tops and often have snow year-round, so it’s particularly scenic to see jagged pieces of rock pointing up at you as you fly overhead.

What countries have you paraglided in?

Canada (NS, NB, Alta, BC), USA, Mexico, Dominican Republic (the actual flying site was on the border with Haiti), Brazil, Australia, Colombia.

What site would you like to visit?

The “best” paragliding is arguably in Europe, since they have the infrastructure to support it (lots of small mountain towns with roads, gondola access to many mountains, lots of public transit to get back, lots of XC routes, lots of pilots around to fly with).  I haven’t yet been there in the 11 years I’ve been flying but it’s next on my list of places to visit.  My next trip may be either Spain or Turkey in the summer since those countries are hosting more legs of the World Cup in 2011.

Outside the World Cup and for recreational flying, the place I keep thinking I’d like to visit are the sand dunes in Namibia.  I’m not sure if the paragliding is any good there (I haven’t really done any homework on this topic yet) but I’ve always fantasized about flying those gigantic sand dunes that are 1000′ high and it’s just sand as far as the eye can see.  I think that would be an awesome sight to behold.

What do you carry with you on those long flights?

It depends on if I’m planning anything special or not…

If I’m just flying my local sites then I don’t bring anything special.  My regular equipment includes a first-aid kit and a survival kit in case I land in the wilderness and have to spend the night, or hurt myself landing etc.  I also fly with a bunch of instruments like a GPS, cell phone, SPOT (like an emergency locator beacon), and 2-way (Ham) radio.  With that stuff I can keep in touch with people.  I also usually fly with food and water (and the water doubles as ballast) since it can be several hours before I land and get home/to a restaurant, etc.

Sometimes a bunch of us plan to do a vol-bivouac flight.  This is where we take off, fly, and land someplace in the mountains where we spend the night and re-take-off the next morning.  In those cases I’ll bring along a sleeping bag and thermorest in addition to food.  If it’s several people we may take a tent too (and split the pieces up amongst the group so no one person has to fit it in their harness).  The tent is also handy to escape the mosquitoes which come out at dusk.

How do you eat on long flights?

I bring food and water that is easily eat-able and drink-able in flight if I need it.  I usually don’t eat or drink if it’s a short flight (less than 3 hours), or not baking hot.  On longer and/or hot flights, I’ll drink and eat in flight, during the long glides in between the thermalling.  I’ll bring Powerbars, Clif Bars, or similar food (something that is easily opened with my teeth and isn’t messy).  Water-wise I keep a small bottle of water handy for the in-flight part, and more water for after I land.  On my harness I have a cockpit (it suspends over my lap) that I store this stuff in that I can access in flight.  Other pilots use a Camelbak that they store in the back of their harness with a drinktube running over their shoulder.  I don’t usually do this as if it’s cold, the drinktube will freeze up and you can’t drink.  If you keep it in a cockpit it stays warmer and ice-free.

What is your personal distance record?

My longest distance record is about 160km.  I did this in Manilla, Australia, in 2007.  I’ve had several 120+km flights as well in Canada and the USA.  My personal Canadian distance record is 138km.  The world record is something like over 500km, set in South Africa.  The best places to get big distances are Texas, South Africa, Brazil, and Australia.  However we are thinking the Canadian prairies offer potential as well since there’s lots of open spaces, wind to push you along faster, and not too much airspace issues.  We figure we can get 300+km there if we can get in the air via truck-towing.

Have you ever been injured while you were flying?

I’ve been injured several times.  Most times it’s minor like a sunburn from being too high, or tweaking an ankle after landing in a field and stepping in a gopher hole.  But I’ve been hurt significantly 3 times.

One time I had a collapse just after takeoff (like in an airplane, the most dangerous part of the flight is the takeoff and landing) and didn’t have enough altitude to fix it so I crashed into the rocks below (about 50′).  Broke my back (vertebrae T11, T12, and L1) and was in a back brace for 6 months, and didn’t paraglide for almost a year.  But it healed cleanly and I’m essentially 100%, except for being 1″ shorter 🙂

Other major injury was an after-landing injury.  I had landed and not yet disconnected from my paraglider when a gust of wind reinflated my paraglider and jerked me off my feet and landed on my shoulder.  This dislocated my shoulder so had to go to the hospital to get it popped back in.  I was out of commission for about 3 months while it healed.

Third injury was top-landing related (when you land on the mountain next to where you took off).  It was a competition and I had launched with a tangle in my lines, so I was top-landing to fix it.  But I landed in some tall grass which was hiding a pile of rocks so I twisted my knee after my foot got stuck in the rocks and slightly tore my meniscus.  Needless to say that was the end of that particular comp and I was off flying for about 1 month while it “healed” (although meniscii don’t heal per-se, it was a small-enough tear that surgery wasn’t warranted and I’ve since regained regular function).

Paragliding is dangerous and most pilots who stick with it know somebody who has been hurt.  It’s kind of like riding a motorcycle…you can mitigate the dangers but not 100%.

What is your favourite part of the world cup?

I love the fact that no matter where you go in the world, you end up seeing the same people!  Many of the World Cup pilots are personal friends but live all over the world, so the World Cups are the only way to see them in person (outside of emails, Facebook, etc).  We get the chance to catch up and essentially enjoy everyone’s company.  The other main thing I love about the World Cup is the fact it takes place all over the world, so I get to do a lot of traveling.  For instance, the next legs of the World Cup in 2011 are Korea, Turkey, Spain, Austria, and Mexico.  I’m hoping to go to either Spain, Turkey, or Mexico.  Since paragliding takes you to places not usually visited by tourists, we get to see parts of the countries not usually seen by the casual visitor, and meet people you’d otherwise not meet.  For instance, in my recent trip to Colombia I landed in a small village and met some wonderful people who had never seen a Caucasian woman before (let alone one coming out the sky in a paraglider).  We had a wonderful time and I was invited into one person’s home, sat in her kitchen, and she cooked me up a meal of fish and plantains while the village kids watched through the windows.  I’m pretty sure you don’t get that every day when traveling the usual tourist routes!

What is your least favourite part of the world cup?

Well I’d have to say it’s the fact that the task committee (the pilots whose job it is to decide on the route for the day) will often be too enthusiastic and set tasks that are too long, for too many days in a row.  I don’t mind long tasks (eg. 100km+), but I do mind it if they put too many long tasks in a row.  After a long day I’d rather the next day be a bit shorter (eg. 50 or 70km) so we don’t get run-down too quickly.  After 2-3 days in a row of 100+km tasks, I’m pretty tired and not at my optimum.  I think it’s also unsafe to have too many long tasks in a row; people will get tired and that’s not good for safety (like trying to drive 12hours a day in a car, for 2-3 days in a row).  I prefer the task committee to mix it up a bit and put shorter tasks in there every so often, especially after a really long task.

What is the best you have done in the world cup?

Well I’ve only been to 2 World Cups (Chelan in USA and Roldanillo in Colombia) although I’ve been to several Pre-World-Cups (test competitions to decide if they’ll do it for real the following year).  I decided to skip the 2010 Superfinal back in September due to my new glider not showing up in time and I didn’t want to show up with my old one 🙂  I’m hoping to do more in the future (ie. this summer and next year).  My best showing was in Chelan 2010 where I came 67th (out of 125) overall and 3rd in the women’s division.  Roldanillo was much tougher since the pilots attending where of a much higher calibre than I’m used to.

However, I’ve represented Canada at the FAI World Championships several times.  This is a separate championships, kind of like how in football there is the NFL and CFL (2 separate leagues).  Most people think of the World Championships as the “Olympics” of the paragliding world.  I’ve been to the World Championships in 2005, 2007, and 2009 (they are every 2 years; next one is this summer).  I think my best showing was at the 2007 World Championships in Australia where I came in 114th (out of 150) overall and 15th (out of 27) in the women’s division.

When was your first year in the world cup? 

I think I started competing in 2003, where I attended the Canadian National Championships in Lumby, BC.  But I didn’t start competing internationally until 2004 when I attended the Pre-World Championships in Brazil and a Pre-World Cup in Dominican Republic.

My first year in a full-on World Championships was in 2005, in Brazil.  Technically, 2010 was my first year in a full-on World Cup, where I attended the USA (Chelan) leg.

Merci Beaucoup Ms. Mclearn!

Pour toutes ses aventures allez à son blog


  1. […] Parapente interview […]

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