Flying High Dollar Costs on the Rise for Paragliding Instructors
There’s more than one way to get an all-natural high in the Rogue Valley. Climb into a harness, throw your sail in the air, and jump off the side of a mountain.
Sounds too risky? The birds will disagree. They’ve got this sport mastered, and they’re willing to show novices where the thermals—columns of rising warm air—can be found.
Not that they can always be trusted.
“The crows and eagles always end up screwing me over,” says paraglider pilot Ian Flockoi of Gold Hill. “But I have pretty good luck following vultures.”
Besides a sail, a harness, and a bird or two to keep an eye on, the other essential ingredient for paragliding is a buddy. At the top of Woodrat Mountain just south of Jacksonville, on this particular day in June, Flockoi is the only pilot at what is normally a busy launch site.
Although there are other good places around the region to go paragliding, this is the place most pilots prefer. As Flockoi puts it, “Why travel when you’ve got a world-class spot right in your backyard?”
Like a flock of birds, the substantial community of local pilots doesn’t keep a flight schedule. They just head to the top of Woodrat on any good flying day, and there are usually other pilots there.
Today is a fluke, but it could also be a portent of lean times to come. For new pilots, tandem flights, where an instructor is harnessed in with them, are the way to get started. Getting those flights, at least for a while, is going to be a challenge. There’s no lack of instructors—33 are currently listed on the US Hangliding & Paragliding Association (USHPA)’s website in the Rogue Valley. Unfortunately, most of these instructors are not currently able to offer tandem flights off of Woodrat Mountain because it’s suddenly gotten much, much more expensive.
Paragliding instructor Sam Crocker has been offering tandem flights to adventurous locals and tourists, some of whom go on to become licensed pilots, for over 15 years. Last year, however, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management)—the keepers of Woodrat Mountain—started enforcing the use of Special Recreation Permits on the mountain. That means instructors must maintain a three million dollar insurance policy, the cost of which Crocker estimates to be about $1800 a year.
Unlike car insurance, paragliding insurance is paid per flight, so the more tandem flights an instructor offers, the more they pay. Most paragliding instructors only teach part time, so for many, says Crocker, the cost of doing business will just be too high.
“I’ll probably break even this year,” says Crocker, “and maybe make money next year.”
Which is too bad. Flockoi wasn’t kidding about the fact that Woodrat is a world-class paragliding destination. The way the wind moves through the valley, buffered by neighboring hills and ridges, means that pilots that take off here can fly longer and farther than anywhere else, and it’s ideal for beginners, too.
When Flockoi finally gets a driver to take his truck down to the landing zone at a nearby winery, he unfurls his sail and is air bound within minutes. Staying below the aircraft, watching what the vultures are doing, and checking in via walkie-talkie with his ground crew, he finds his bliss.
Meanwhile, frustrated instructors on the ground must make a choice. Ante up and keep teaching, or just stick to solo flights. And while it’s tempting to blame the BLM for making things difficult, the reality is that insurance is a necessity in a commercialized sport that involves aviation.
“The intent is not to shut everybody down,” says Crocker. “But we’ll have to wait and see how many instructors are left by the end of the year.”