By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Laguna Beach Independent
On many clear evenings at sunset, a buzzing sound can be heard in the skies over Laguna. Tracing it to its source, locals and visitors may have a flash of surprise, delight, and perhaps a twinge of envy when they see a person flying over the ocean, dipping and looping with a motorized parasailing device known as a paramotor.
That person is usually Christian Gallo, who tried paragliding last year at the Torrey Pines Gliderport in La Jolla. Once airborne, he was hooked.
“Flying in a paraglider gave me this incredible sense of freedom and excitement that I can’t get enough of,” Gallo said. He first became intrigued with learning to paraglide a few years ago on Oahu as he watched a childhood friend soaring through the skies.
“It made me realize that we can achieve anything we set our minds to with the right mindset and determination,” he remarked. “Taking calculated risks is essential for my personal growth, so I’m drawn to extreme sports like paragliding.”
Paragliders like the ones that launch from Torrey Pines need a hill or a winch to launch. Powered paragliding, or paramotoring, is a form of ultralight aviation where pilots wear a backpack motor, Gallo’s choice of equipment.
Before a recent flight from a breezy hilltop, he told a curious passerby, “You’re at greater risk of bodily injury driving a car than you are up in the air like this. There’s no traffic up there. It’s so serene and so elegant it gets boring after a while. I’m not seeking adrenaline. The moment you’ve experienced adrenaline is when you’re putting yourself in a situation where you’re out of control because adrenaline is really fear.”
Gallo said that the unpredictability of where he might land because of thermal winds and random drafts is the worst part of a flight session. Timing and careful analysis of conditions are imperative. Prior to takeoff, he checks an app that shows him a meteorological data analysis of his precise location’s wind speed. Cautious planning makes the difference between neatly landing where he started or ending up miles away, crawling up a weedy hillside with a heavy backpack.
Seizing an opportune moment, Gallo runs about 10 feet and guns the propeller engine on his back. The thrust sends him airborne. He nods to an observer and climbs high into the azure sky. Once aloft, he uses two flight controls – left and right steering via the glider’s toggles and a handheld throttle to climb or descend.
Paragliders (including motorized ones) are classified as ultralights by the Federal Aviation Administration, so pilots do not need a pilot license or certification. However, it is recommended that pilots undergo formal instruction at a certified paramotor training school and possess extensive knowledge of the rules and regulations that apply to local airspace. Practice flights, ground training, and learning weather patterns, wind factors, accessible locations, and flight rules are necessary. Pilots must follow guidelines set by the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USPHA), including seeking that organization’s certification.
Pilots are allowed to operate under simple rules – the FAA’s Regulation Part 103 – that include limitations on where they can fly. No paragliding on private land without the landowner’s permission, over a congested area, or in a national park, nor in certain restricted airspace classes as set forth by the FAA. However, paragliding over the sparkling Pacific Ocean is permissible if the aircraft “does not fly closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle or structure, measurable in any direction, for example horizontally or vertically.”
Most flying is done between 25 and 30 mph. Depending on the flying conditions and the combined weight of the unit and pilot, a paramotor like Gallo’s ParaJet uses approximately one gallon of gas per hour. Pilots wear parachutes for safety; all harnesses have a reserve parachute to prevent aerial accidents.
Gallo noted that getting started with paragliding can be pricey, depending on what you’re looking for.
“On average,” he said, “you can expect to spend around $5,000 to $10,000 for a complete setup, including the paraglider wing, harness, reserve parachute, and a motorized unit like the ParaJet. And remember the cost of classes, which usually ranges from $1,500 to $2,000.
His motorized unit, which weighs nearly 100 lbs., allows him to climb vertically, reach higher altitudes, and maintain flight for longer durations than traditional paragliding.
With its motor, a ParaJet offers a significant advantage in flexibility and freedom. Pilots can explore greater distances, go on cross-country flights, and even participate in competitions. Additionally, the motorized system enables pilots to fly in varying wind conditions, opening opportunities for flights that might otherwise be impossible or unsafe with regular paragliding.
“Paragliding offers a fear-free experience that goes beyond the usual adrenaline rush,” Gallo said. “It brings a sense of flow and expansiveness. As a rare paraglider in Laguna Beach, flying mostly alone adds to the joy of soaring. It strengthens my connection with the ebb and flow of life and the vital force within.
“Paragliding allows me to tap into higher levels of creativity and understanding of myself and the universe.”
Gallo posts images and videos of his flights on Instagram @Mindexpansive.