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We Alaskans

Among the birds: Alaska paragliders take to the skies

  • Author: Alli Harvey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 10, 2016

For Bob Edelen, flight sounds like a dream: He wears a backpack that lets him soar above his home and neighborhood, looking down on trees, birds and valleys. Sometimes friends wave from their porches.

A powered paraglider gets Edelen aloft. Along with about 20 other Alaskans, he enjoys the freedom of flight with a device that fits in the back of his car and takes only 15 minutes to set up. He doesn't need a runway to take off or land, and he doesn't need a hangar to store his gear.

The device he flies looks like a wide, fan-shaped motor affixed to his back, a harness and a canopy billowed out above him. Powered paragliding, also called paramotoring, offers Edelen the mobility of a small aircraft, with the advantage of feeling fresh air on his face the whole time.

Paragliding was originally a niche European sport known as "slope soaring"; early wings were a spinoff from parachute design. The term paragliding was coined and popularized in the 1980s. A decade later, the sport arrived in Alaska, and it has gained popularity over the last 10 years as safety and comfort have increased, while instruction has become standardized.

It's also a highly visible sport. Paragliders frequently take off near popular places like Alyeska Resort with plenty of onlookers.

Edelen usually takes off from Potter Marsh, near the Anchorage home where he grew up. He hasn't always been into paragliding, though.

In the past, he's raced snowmachines and motorcycles; skied downhill, cross country, and across water — all in an effort to find "his" outdoor thing. He learned to fly small airplanes, although it's been years now since he's done so. Between the maintenance and expense — including the aircraft itself, storage, annual inspections and licensing requirements — Edelen decided to give it up.

Then one day a couple of years ago while driving home from Big Lake, Edelen saw people flying with backpacks. He was intrigued enough to stop the car. He talked with the paramotorists, and learned what he needed to do to try it himself.

Would-be paragliders, with or without a motor, are required to go through a curriculum provided by the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. Local instructors are certified to administer the curriculum, which requires a series of tests and at least 25 flights. The program covers everything from weather to flight dynamics, exploring what creates lift, gear and more. Paragliders must know and abide by federal aviation regulations and flight restrictions.

Jake Schlapfer of Anchorage instructs both powered and unpowered paragliders. He requires students who want to paramotor to learn how to "free" fly first.

"A person should learn how to fly first before they jump in with a 50-pound motor on their back and squeeze the throttle," he says.

Schlapfer has completed almost 3,000 flights over the last 20 years without injury or incident. "I'm pretty proud of that, but it's not about my flying skills. It's about deciding whether or not to fly that day."

By teaching students to free fly even if they ultimately wish to use a motor, Schlapfer is helping them develop good judgment.

Free flying is preferred by many Alaskans. The state is home to roughly 100 paragliders who are registered members of the Arctic Air Walkers (a nonprofit promoting and providing skills and safety training for paragliders); only about 20 of these paragliders use motors. One of them is Anchorage resident Bob French. French owns a motor but hasn't used it in a few years. He prefers paragliding without the motor because to him, paragliding down is a reward for hiking uphill. Plus, he doesn't have anything on his back, and it's quiet: "I'm basically in this lounge chair trying to find thermals." The skill of navigating thermals, or currents of thermal air moving upward, is what keeps him and other paragliders aloft. French's longest non-motorized paraglide flight was four hours — roughly the time it takes a powered paraglider to run out of gas.

The optimal season for non-powered paragliding is limited, however. According to French, spring is the best time of year. After that, thermals become harder to find, making it more difficult to fly without a motor.

Enter the paramotor.

"There's a very adventurous spirit here for flight," Schlapfer says about Alaska, "and people want to continue to fly after the summer season is over."

Edelen prefers to fly with his paramotor during winter. The air is thicker. He has more free time. It also helps him relax.

"It just takes all the stress away. You can't concentrate on anything else in your life other than what you're doing, because you can't be distracted and have anything else in your brain.

"Some guys get that from riding motorcycles, the freedom that you get when you're cruising down the highway. But (with a motorcycle) you're gravity-bound. You're on the earth. But (with paragliding), you're defying gravity — and then when you land, everything is neutral. There's no force pulling you down or pushing you up, there's nothing tugging on your body. When you land, you're just totally equal with all forces in the universe, basically."

It is amazing and intriguing to see Alaska from the air or watch paragliders from the ground. Edelen recounted a recent flight around his neighborhood in South Anchorage.

"Just before Thanksgiving I took up from Potter Marsh, and I flew up toward DeArmoun (Road). I flew up around my house here, and I flew up into Bear Valley. I've been here my whole life, so I know my friends' houses and the back roads. I recognize everything in the air because I've done it from the ground. I've got people standing out on their decks and they're hooting and hollering and taking pictures of me. It's kind of a crowd-gatherer."

Sightseers are welcome to watch fliers at Potter Marsh, a popular paramotoring spot in the winter, and Fire Lake in Eagle River. For information on paragliding in Alaska, check out or

?Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

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