The Art of Flight

“[The ability] to speedfly is basically the apex of human evolution,” Chris Mathies said, an MSU graduate and veteran pilot. “You can carry a wing inside a small backpack and hike and fly off your favorite mountain whenever you want.” Mathies asks us to think about all the effort that went into the evolution of human flight. Despite that, most of us view flight only as a way to travel, and often with trepidation. Paragliding is an opportunity to achieve the basic desire or dream of flight.

Paragliding was inventing by the French in 1978. It quickly gained popularity in Europe, but only in the last 30 years has it become commonly practiced in United States. When Andy Macrae, the owner of Bozeman Paragliding, began flying sites like the “M” 15 years ago, he said very few people understood what he was doing or had heard of the sport of paragliding. “It has become more known and accepted,” Macrae said, “Now when asked what I am carrying up the hill, and I say it’s a paraglider, they just tell me to have a good flight.”

Speedflying is an offshoot sport of paragliding. It was born far more recently and only in the last five years has it become popular in the U.S. The difference between the two sports, according to Macrae, is that while “paragliders go up, speedflyers go down.” Paragliders are several times bigger than speedwings, which allows them to gain lift and fly upwards in the right conditions. Speedwings, being much smaller, are built to fly faster and are incapable of gaining altitude. If you see someone at the “M” flying high in the air under a slow, large canopy, that’s a paraglider. If they are staying close to the ground, flying fast and their whole flight lasts less than a minute, you can be sure it’s a speedflyer.

According to Mathies, speedflying as a sport is where snowboarding was 20 years ago. It’s newer, and the pilots are thought of as a younger, more risk-prone crowd. But this is not necessarily the case. “Of the pilots I know, there is a scientist, engineer, electrician, fire fighter, doctorate of chemistry, MBA, lizard breeder and house appraiser,” Mathies said. “The only thing they have in common is love of the outdoors and the sport.”

According to Macrae, paragliding is “statistically as dangerous as horseback riding or motocross riding.” Mathies says that speedflying is dangerous for all the same reasons as driving. “It’s super easy to launch, super easy to turn, super easy to fly and land, but you’re going very fast and near the ground. Therefore, it is very high consequence. Cars are the same way — very user friendly, with incredible consequences if you mess up.”

When asked what is most meaningful about the sport, Mathies responded that it is not the adrenaline rush, but friendships formed through flying. “It takes a different personality to strap yourself below a piece of nylon and fly off a mountain,” Mathies said, “A certain amount of confidence, stupidity and arrogance is necessary. These are fun people to be around.”

If you’re interested in learning to fly, lessons from Bozeman Paragliding start at $200, with full pilot certification costing only $1400. Once you learn to paraglide, speedflying lessons are free. Tandem rides are also available starting at $150.