“YOU’RE GONNA HAVE TO BIG EARS MATE!!” shouted the instructor down the radio. “What?” whimpered the student being sucked up rapidly to 3000 meters “what the fuck is a big ear??” A big ear procedure involves gathering the outermost cords off your wing and pulling them in towards you; basically reducing the size of your wing by collapsing the outside. The result is that you fall out of the sky pretty rapidly. It’s not the thing you want to be told on your first ever paragliding lesson. “NOTHING ELSE FOR IT MATE, I’LL TALK YOU THROUGH IT” shouted the instructor cheerfully.
Welcome to learning to fly with instructor Geronimo. His style involves a lot of talking through things, usually whilst bouncing thermals in mid-air or coming into land for the first time.The problem was that all the students gathered in the field that day were outdoor types; iron-men, rugby players, mountain guides so it was assumed that we’d have a flying ability stored in our genetic make-up and so the fundamentals were rapidly disposed of. I’d liked the “She’ll be right” ethos of my friends in Australia but here purched on the edge of a steep hill in the French Pyrenees about to take my first leap into the sky it felt a little unnerving.
I have come to admire Geronimo and value him as one of the last larger than live characters the world is blessed with. This guy literally does not have an off-switch and be it performing incredible flying manoeuvres, amassing incredibly good looking women or negotiating mind-boggling business deals he pulls off each with incredible panache and a force usually only found in a tornado. He arrived at ours in a huge bus with a gorgeous blond blue-eyed Russian girl nicely decorating the front seat. He was followed by Instructor Beavis who owns a top of the range sport bike and who also had a skimpily dressed long-legged Russian girl in tow; she was literally gaffer taped to the mud-guard of the bike so she wouldn’t fall of as they sped over the twisting roads of the Pyrenees to get to our place. “Got some scissors mate?” were his first words when he came to a screeching halt in my driveway.
The first flight was supposed to be an easy glide from a wooded hill top into a field 400 meters below. It was supposed to take around 5 minutes and it was supposed to be a piece of cake. We’d get airborne and via the radio strapped to our shoulder we’d be talked through every little bit of the excitement. It started to go wrong straight away as student Nick launched into the air for his first ever flight; instead of descending in a graceful glide he just went up and up and up… until eventually he was so high that he was only just visible as a tiny dot silhouetted against the bright blue sky. Naturally Geronimo is so good that learning the basics such as the lay of the land or indeed correct flight procedure at each site are just boring trivialities that only pansies deal with and so can be completely ignored. The fact that the valley where we were to do our first flight features lots of power-lines and barb-wire fences and created strong up-drafts were therefore irrelevant. So Nick was sucked up into space but after 40 tense minutes of working up the courage he big-eared his way down. He landed safely sporting an ear to ear grin but visibly shaken by the experience. Much to the confusion of Geronimo the rest of us balked at having a try this afternoon and opted for a bar instead. Our turn came the next day and started with some un-expected ground based exercises; how to get the wing in the air and pull lots of cords; that kind of thing. We were however left ignorant of the finer details as Geronimo would not come out of his madly rocking bus to talk us through them. When the wind picked up enough to violently shake the top of the trees a no-fly morning was declared and we retired to student Chris’s house to watch instructional videos.
I’d learned that when inviting Geronimo to come and stay that usually two days turns into the equivalent weeks. Each morning you’d find him bounce off the sofa as you’d come bleary eyed down stairs clutching a coffee mug and storm out the house to do a ten kilometre run up a nearby col carrying a 20 kg ruck-sack. As you’d be having breakfast he’d come back down dripping with sweat and do countless one armed pull-ups. Nights would be spent slamming down shots and over a world atlas plan enough crazy missions to make Ranulph Fiennes' head spin. So in order to have enough energy to fly I had ducked and dived my way out of extending this hospitality. Chris however has a big heart and an even bigger house so all the flyboys and their gorgeous entourage were happily invited to stay for a couple of days. Chris’s patience was duly tested by the nightly orgies staged by the fly-boys in his Jacuzzi and the morning family breakfast being interrupted by a luscious Russian girl wearing nothing but a T-shirt sliding her finely manicured hand up his shorts and whispering “Chris, (rolling her rrr's as she talks) I have a beautiful dream about you” into his ear.
That afternoon it also blew a hoolie and so we settled down to watch a 70’s instructional video about the joys of paragliding; hearing what was being said though was difficult as there was a helluva lot of thumping and howling coming from the bedroom just above the sitting room. Still the next morning bright eyed and bushy tailed we loaded up into the bus for another try at this flying thing. A suitable hill overlooking a rather cold lake was deemed perfect. Nick showed true courage and offered to launch first. “If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it” he said and got airborne. His flight was the epitome of perfection and a joy to behold; like a bird he met the thermals head on and glided over the lake, valleys and mountain crags as if he’d been born to do nothing else. His ecstatic whooping down the radio got the rest of us beginners still standing on the launching pad eager to taste this feeling for ourselves. But as always it is Ladies first. As a form of payment Geronimo had also taught his Russian babe the finer art of flying and this was to be her second solo flight. She launched soon after Nick and equally displayed some graceful flying talent until she slammed into a French pilot and his tandem client also out flying this lovely morning. An airborne collision between two paragliders is always spectacular and we watched in awe as both wings tangled then collapsed and the 3 fliers came crashing towards the ground. The images that Nick managed to take show the shock, anger and terrified facial expressions of all three very clearly. It was only the professionalism of the French pilot that saved their lives; he worked like a manic to un-tangle himself and with only 100 meters to go before they hit the ground both wings were free from each other and popped back open. A cross wind carried the Russian babe into a tree where she hung until the rest of us arrived in the bus. After witnessing this latest excitement, I nor any of the other students were that keen to fly that day. We all stood around the tree and looked up, the Russian babe dangled in the breeze suspended from her wing and said “I need a fucking cigarette”. We climbed up and un-tied her and brought her to the ground where we were confronted by a group of French pilots come gun-slingers. It seemed that there was a strict flight plan and we’d been flying totally the opposite direction we were supposed to fly. We avoided a nasty show-down by blocking Geronimo’s wild fist swinging and by pulling the “geez were only stupid English” card. A subdued group climbed back into the bus and headed for the nearest bar.
Still the show must go on and I got my chance at flying the very next day. Suberbagneres is the tallest hill in the area and the Paragliders share a landing strip with small aircraft. As I prepared my wing to launch from this monster I was approached by a French pilot who casually asked if I knew what I was doing; it seemed that he had to bin his flight plans for the day; conditions were a little bouncy as he so nicely phrased it. I told him that I hadn’t the foggiest but was sure that once in the air Geronimo and Beavis would talk me through it all. He shook his head and as he walked away he tapped his forehead several times. Nick Chris and James were already in the air and after several attempts to get it right I soon joined them. This flying business is awesome; you just hang suspended from a huge wing, pull a few cords and become a bird. Town looked like a toy-world with tiny people like ants in an ant-heap going about their business. A crow flew alongside me for a few minutes before the urge to show off overtook it and with amazing acrobatic stunts it swirled its way into the empty sky. The mountains revealed nooks and crannies I had never seen before and the feeling of total calm was un-expected. Wow!! I could see the attraction of this incredible sport. It was a shame that it had to end and that I still had to land; this even-tough I was very capably talked through it by Geronimo could be described as nothing more than a painful thump. Still I caught the bug and hurried back into the bus for another go. Up to the top of the hill we all went again; everyone totally buzzing from our first flight and nervously joking and laughing about our amazing experience. The fact that we were the only ones still at the usually thriving launch pad didn’t register and once again Nick , Chris, James and then me took to the air. The next flight was as the French pilot said it would be; bouncy as hell. My wing shook, and rocked and at times it felt as if someone was physically pushing me up from below. It was all very exciting and I was actually looking forward to landing. However as I approached the landing strip I saw an aeroplane line up to land directly in front of us. It was still high in the air above the landing strip and seemed to be gunning directly at the four of us still in the air. I waved pathetically hoping that the pilot would see us also coming in to land. Chris was directly below me and I watched in horror as he lined up in a direct collision course with the aeroplane. The outcome of this little mishap would be much more predictable than the previous day’s excitement with the Russian babe and with a certain amount of fascination I watched what was going to happen this time. Off-course I am happy to report that the flimsy nylon wing didn’t collide with the solid aluminium one and that Chris flew over the top of the plane un-scathed; he did however have to lift his legs a little to allow this to happen. When we landed we were swamped by a huge crowd of very angry French people. A lynch mob had gathered. Their picnic of freshly cut baguettes, sausison and inevitable goats cheese lay untouched under the trees that lined the airstrip. They jostled us about trying to decide who was in charge and when we pointed to the rocking bus at the edge of the airstrip they all stormed over there in unison. Heart still beating from this morning’s excitement we looked on as Geronimo faced the roaring crowd and explain in terrible French that he had no-idea that this landing strip had a special site designated for aeroplane activity and another for paragliding activity. Did they not know that he instructor Geronimo is above such pettiness and triviality as flight-plans? Well bugger you then, I’m off in my bus and will not be coming back. It was sad to see him go; like Cool Hand Luke and Don Quichote before him the world needs a good bit of irreverence to stop the dullness that knocks daily at our doors. Geronimo, even-though it was a mad ride at times I salute you!