As children we all dreamed of being able to fly. We imagined that somehow we would walk to the edge of a cliff, pause momentarily to take in the view and jump off. We would spread our arms as if they were wings and suddenly soar skyward, entering the realm where only birds were meant to go. Inevitably, as time passed and we grew older we began to dream a little less and focus more on reality. We gave up the absurd dream of flying; after all, humans weren’t meant to fly.
The dream of flight we all had as kids isn’t so absurd after all. In fact, it’s easier than you might think.
The sport of paragliding was born through a prediction made in 1954 by British author Walter Neumark, who believed that due to recent advancements in parachute design, a parachutist would one day be able to go airborne by running over the edge of a cliff or down a slope. This prediction fueled innovation, and the design of the parachute evolved into a sectioned cellular structure shaped like a wing. The cellular structure allowed air to flow in through an open leading edge and into a closed trailing edge, filling the canopy with air to make it semi-rigid and subsequently create lift. This new design, known as the ram-air, allowed parachutists to be towed into flight down a slope. In 1974 a group of three French men in Mieussy, France took the first unassisted self-powered flight, and with that flight the sport of paragliding was born.
Since its inception, the sport has grown rapidly, with pilots taking flight at locations worldwide. One of those locations is a stone’s throw away from Bellingham.
As you step out of your vehicle at the parking area nestled into the west face of Blanchard Mountain, the first thing you’ll notice is the beauty of the area that surrounds you. The Samish Overlook is perched above a sheer rock ledge that stands some 1,258 feet above the chilly waters of Samish Bay. The views on a sunny day give you a magnificent vantage point to look west over the sparkling waters of the Salish Sea to the islands of the San Juan archipelago, and to the south over the ever-changing postage-stamp farms of northern Skagit Valley. After taking in the views and walking down from the parking lot towards the clearing of the overlook, one thing becomes clear: 1,258 feet is a long way down. But why look down when you can look up?
Above you, eagles and hawks soar in the rising thermals created by the warm air rushing upwards off the farmlands of Bow. These thermals allow the resident birds of prey to effortlessly soar for hours on end. These same thermals make Blanchard Mountain a go-to spot for paragliders around the Northwest.
When paired with the right winds, the thermals support flights that last for hours on end. According to Scott Stabbert, president of the Northwest Paragliding Association, winds blowing from the south or west at 8-10 mph are the ideal conditions for taking flight at Blanchard. These winds blow straight into the face of the launch areas, filling canopies with ease. Once their canopy is filled, pilots take those few fateful steps down the launch area and part ways with the earth below. They are flying, and suddenly the ground completely falls away to Samish Bay some 1,200 feet down. Stabbert says Blanchard is best for flying during the spring and fall when the air is unstable, and thermals can carry you thousands of feet above the mountain.
As pilots rise in the thermals, the view above Blanchard opens to the north and east with unobstructed views of Mt. Baker. Skilled pilots can hop from thermal to thermal, soaring up one thermal column and targeting another on the glide down before riding the new thermal skywards. This is known as cross-country flying, and many pilots believe this is human flight in its purest form.
Whether it lasts 30 minutes or three hours, every flight must come to an end. Paragliders at Blanchard Mountain land in a designated area on the valley floor just north of Bow. From there they can be shuttled back to the overlook to do it all over again in a matter of minutes, allowing for multiple flights in a day. This is helpful for newer pilots looking to hone their takeoff, flight and landing skills through repetition.
If you want to take a shot at the sport of paragliding, there are only a few hurdles to get over. First you will need to decide if it’s something that suits you. A good way to do this is take a tandem-assisted flight.
Northwest Sky Sports offers tandem flights at Blanchard. The instructor will teach you some paragliding basics and even let you take the controls for a moment. If you fall in love with flying, which you probably will, you’ll need to acquire some equipment. Paragliding requires two main pieces of equipment: a wing and a harness. The wing, also known as a canopy, is what allows the pilot to capture the air and take flight. This is going to be
your biggest investment. A high-end wing will likely set you back $3,500-4,500 with good used ones available for around $2,000. The wing is attached to a harness, a lounge-like seat that supports the pilot’s weight during flight. The harness is attached to the wing via suspension lines. A harness will run in the ballpark of $500. You will also likely want to invest in a reserve parachute for insurance in case of a mid-flight emergency, and a nice two-way radio for communication with other pilots while in flight. One other useful piece of equipment is a variometer, a device that measures the rate of climb or descent. A variometer allows pilots to target the core of a thermal to maximize altitude gain and flight time.
Once you have gathered all the necessary equipment it’s time to seek out instruction and get informed. Stabbert says to plan on spending around $1,800 for a school that will provide you instruction as long as you like.
“You can pay less for an instruction package that will only get you up to a certain rating, but long-term training and education is worth it,” he said. The training is necessary as the USHPA (United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association) rates pilots based on skill level with five levels of certification. The rankings go from P1 (beginner) to P5 (master). Blanchard is rated for pilots at a P2+ rating, which means they have completed at least 25 flights along with demonstrated ability to manage all stages of flight as well as passing a written exam.
With the right equipment and training, your childhood dream of flying can become a reality, and with a prime spot to fly right in your backyard, nothing is stopping you. The next time you catch yourself gazing up at birds elegantly soaring through a beautiful sky, just remember – it is possible.
You can fly. x
Getting to Blanchard Mountain
Take I-5 exit #240. Head west on Lake Samish Road for approximately .5 miles. Take the first left onto Barrel Springs Road. After approximately .6 miles, turn left (T intersection). There is an old, rusty-looking barrel gate, swung back on this road. We've never seen it closed. Go approximately 2.2 more miles to the end of the road.