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  • Writer's pictureErin Clark

First solo flight

I wanted that solo flight.

I did a tandem paraglide flight in July in Zermatt. I had never even thought about such a thing until the guy who was driving me around the tops of mountains looking for a herd of black-nosed sheep pointed the paragliders out to me and asked, “Do you plan on doing that while you’re here?”

“I do now.” I said, and headed to one of the companies once I was back in the town.

It was last minute for a popular activity on my last day in town. But they fit me in. Fate. I was terrified as we waited for a good breeze, and while my pilot and two guys holding me up by the harness ran and ran. But, the second we were airborne, I was euphoric. And grilling my pilot: “Could I learn this? Like, not just fly with someone like this, but actually on my own? How would I get myself off the mountain? How do people learn it? Where would I do it?”

“Oh, there are schools in Spain, for sure. You would probably need help getting in the air, but you could totally fly on your own. You need to get into this.” he said, and then we swooped around the Matterhorn for 20 minutes. Me alternating between elation and panic.

The first thing I did when I got home from Switzerland was look up paragliding schools in Spain. Goal: totally autonomous solo flight. But I didn’t say that when I emailed Jose at ZERO GRAVITY PARAPENTE. Instead I asked if it would be possible to ‘get some training and more flight experience. I can get around pretty good in mountains.’ I was seriously hedging. Prepared for him to be totally freaked out by my adventure ambitions and turn me down.

Sometimes pursuing autonomy while disabled is like staging a prison break. People say no. Sometimes my own body says no. I get sent back to my place where the wheelchairs are supposed to go. I break out again. I’m like that honey badger that won’t stay in his pen. But, in this case, I wasn’t trying to snuggle up to the humans. I was trying to snuggle up to the whole, wide sky.

Jose didn’t turn me down. He said, ‘Sure. No problem.” then found me the only accessible room in Algodonales, tracked down an adapted harness and trained himself in it for a few days before I got there to join the pack of student pilots all flying and learning together for the week.

“This is nothing new.” Jose would deflect whenever someone would wander over to comment on the harness and the student flying in it. He rented it from a guy who is also paralyzed who made it for himself so he could fly solo. So, there is at least that guy also doing it. But it was new to us. Jose had never had a disabled student before and I had my whole 20 minutes of previous flight experience.

“I’m doing nothing different.” Jose would say to me about what I was learning and how I was doing. And I could see for myself it was true. It’s pretty standard to toss pilots off mountains when they need a hand. And -ok- maybe other pilots don’t get carried around as much as I did, but that was arguably as much for Mau’s benefit as it was for mine. In the end, my wheelchair made almost no difference except that everyone else flew in standard black harnesses and I flew in a hot pink race car.

Which meant that the only true obstacle was my own anxiety.

“You’re gonna do a solo flight this week, right?” Mau urged me one night. We were sitting in the back of the van, driving me home to my vila just outside town after pack dinner. He'd had his first solo flight on his 3rd day of lessons. It might have been my 3rd day when he brought it up.

I sighed, “I don’t think I’m going to make it. I am still so nervous in the air and that’s with Jose right there.” the winds had been rough and the sky bumpy for days. “I’m preparing myself in case it doesn’t happen.” I was still hedging right up to the last day only now, not because Jose might say no, but because my own guts might.

The last day of the week of paragliding school dawned with perfect conditions for Ronda La Vieja. A place my fellow pilots had been gushing over their fond memories of all week. A place Jose kept mentioning, hoping the winds would be good on friday. And it did have a glow to it. A ‘this is the right place’ feeling to it. But that could have been from the fact that I started crying as soon as the van doors opened. I was going to fly on my own. Adrenaline and joy kicked in the moment I saw the sweep of valley I would fly over. I thought I would have to fight my anxiety at the edge, waiting for my wind. But I wasn't nervous, I was already surrendered to the sky.

The thing that stood out to me when I pieced together the footage that came from 5 different cameras was that the moment when I was the most on my own, the most free - was the moment I was also the most connected to my pack of pilot babes. Cheering at the top, waiting at the bottom, watching all the way through.

How many times have my profound moments of autonomy and adventure truly been moments of interdependence? Almost all of them. Be honey badgers, Kittens. And invest in each other. That's where the best soaring is.

Here is the video of my first flight.

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