By Dominique De Vito | Featured in the May 2016 Issue
A beautiful day. A light breeze. A hawk soaring overhead, wings outstretched, floating, flying. Who hasn’t wished they could extend their arms and take flight? Well, wishes can – practically – come true right here. How? Paragliding.
Yes, paragliders are a presence right here in the upper Hudson Valley! The flyers have flocked here on the wings of a French-born outdoorsman whose journey led him to the foothills of the Taconics in Millerton, NY, where he runs a flight school called Let’s Go Paragliding. The man is Benoit Bruneau, and his philosophy and objective are as easy-going and inviting as the name of his business. When you have an opportunity like this in your back yard, what else is there to say but, “Yes, Let’s Go Paragliding!”
What is Paragliding?
Paragliding is the sport of flying in a paraglider. What is a paraglider? Bruneau describes it as a “flying toy in a back pack.” A paraglider is a large “wing” made of rip-stop nylon from which ropes extend to a harness where the pilot sits and controls the aircraft. There are no rigid parts, which makes getting ready and taking off super easy – and which makes paragliding so accessible. There are different types of paragliders, and they’re assigned based on the pilot’s weight and proficiency – a training glider for beginners; an intermediate glider for club-level, recreational pilots, and an advanced glider for competition-level flying.
What delights Bruneau and other pilots is the simplicity of the mechanism and the experience. Weighing in at 30 pounds or less (depending on the style), and folding up into their own back pack, Bruneau says, “You can easily hike and fly, or take your paraglider on the bus, the subway, a plane, on a gondola at a ski resort, take it out, and you’re off.”
Pilots will confirm that the gliders are easier to maneuver in the air than on the ground. They’re designed to gently lift you off the ground once you’ve been trained to properly take off. There are two lines to use for steering, which is also done by shifting your shoulders. Once you’ve reached the level of being a recreational pilot, all you do is strap yourself into the harness and a helmet, catch the wind, and let the wing do the rest. A paraglider moves slowly and steadily, and recreational pilots tend to fly for two to three hours at a time, reaching heights of up to 15,000 feet.
A hang glider, by contrast, is constructed of rigid wings. A hang glider will fly faster and farther, but it weighs 45 to 90 pounds, must be transported on a rack on your car, carried from there to a launch site, and assembled properly before it can be launched. Assembly can take 30 minutes or more.
Paragliding should in no way be confused with parasailing, either, which is the beach-side recreation experience of being strapped in a parachute and dragged along by a speed boat. Granted you are air-bound and the experience can be exciting, but it is not a gentle flight that you control.
Benoit Bruneau grew up in La Vienne, France, where from a very early age he was an outdoor enthusiast. As a teenager, he was already teaching skiing in the winter and kayaking in the summer. He went on to become a certified instructor of these sports as well as mountain biking, climbing, spelunking (exploring caves), and whitewater rafting. Even with his feet firmly planted on the ground, or on pedals, or in boots, or on the sloshy bottoms of rafts, his eyes kept returning to the skies. “When I was kayaking on a beautiful river,” he explained, “doing a very scenic canyon, or riding my mountain bike, I was thinking about flying.
“One day I started taking lessons,” he continued, and of course, that led to more and more flying. “After I did my first cross-country paraglide, I sold all my outdoor gear,” Bruneau confessed. Next came the two-year process of French certification to become a Brenet d’Etat (Instructor). That was almost 20 years ago. Since that time, Bruneau has taught paragliding everywhere from the French Alps to the environs of Montreal, Canada, to upstate New York. He founded Let’s Go Paragliding in 2008. In 2010, he was named the Paragliding Instructor of the Year by the US Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHPA) – an incredible honor.
Bruneau is a huge fan of the USHPA, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to “unpowered free flight.” Established as an association for hang gliders in the early 1970s, the corporation moved from southern California to its current home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the late 1980s. Paragliding was incorporated in 2006.
“The individuals, clubs, and schools that are involved are getting more and more professional,” Bruneau noted. The USHPA bestows a number of awards annually to recognize the dedication and accomplishments of its members. Instructor of the Year is one of them, and in 2010, Benoit Bruneau received it. A huge honor, he claims being its recipient deepened his resolve to “improve everyone’s experience of learning to paraglide and be a pilot.” You can hear him entreating you: “Let’s Go Paragliding!”
The USHPA now boasts over 100 chartered local chapters and clubs around the US, where everyone from beginners to recreational and experienced pilots have a community in which to share their sport and passion. Nine of them are in New York State, and one of them is the club out of which Bruneau conducts Let’s Go Paragliding. It’s the Mount Brace Outdoor Club, which hosts the Mount Brace Flight Park.
Mount Brace and Learning to Fly
The Mount Brace Flight Park is part of the Outdoor Club, which offers opportunities for paragliding and hang gliding. The inter-connected institutions were established when Ciaran Egan and Paul Hogan bought the land for the purpose of developing a flying site. “Thanks to them, the school can operate on the land, which is a rare privilege” Bruneau acknowledges.
For the safety of its members, protection of its purpose, and for community relations, there are strict rules for membership and participation, but that is as it should be. Even to go and observe the pilots you need to respect the rules of the park, sign the necessary waivers, and be sure you’ve let others know where you are. It’s all part of being an ambassador for these amazing sports.
So how do you get started?
Let’s Go Paragliding offers instruction at five different levels – everything from a from a three-hour “discovery” session to intensive training. There is a program in which you can take up to a year to get to the P2 level (Novice Pilot). All instruction is done by Bruneau and his team of certified pilots, who are committed to providing exceptional instruction and experiences.
“Paragliding has something to offer everyone at all levels,” Bruneau says. “Recreational pilots enjoy a flight and then, after they land, often have a beer and barbeque with fellow pilots and friends. Explorers can take on cross-country flights, where they try to cover as much distance as possible. The current record,” he notes, “is 318 miles in 11 hours, done in Brazil. And,” he adds, “there are pilots who are adrenaline junkies and like to do tricks and acrobatics.”
Whatever the level of participation, he has seen paragliding enthusiasts quit smoking, lose weight, even change jobs so they could fly more. It’s easy to understand why. The desire for flight is as old as humankind, celebrated in art, architecture, myth, and legend. The image of a bird’s wings outstretched in flight, catching a breeze, is the epitome of freedom, exhilaration, and being one with the world.
Considering all the experience Bruneau has had paragliding, teaching, and being an active outdoorsman all over the world, it’s a huge compliment to Millerton and the Hudson Valley that he chose here, of all places, to operate his business. Part of the decision, he admits, was made by his wife taking a job in Manhattan – and the establishment of the Mount Brace Flight Park – but Bruneau’s voice echoes the strong feelings he has for Millerton and this area when he says, “The scenery is fantastic when we can soar with the view of the Hudson River, the Taconics, and the Catskill Mountains in the background.”
He describes himself as a passionate man whose perfect day involves “a lot of flying – touching the clouds with friends, landing safely and having a lovely evening with the family.” He continues, “I want a long, injury-free life as a pilot, and to fly as much as possible.”
Another reason to love this area: Yes, let’s go paragliding.
To learn more about Let’s Go Paragliding call (917) 359-6449, visit www.letsgoparagliding.com or email them at email@example.com.