Aerobatic paragliding looks a little like an Olympic gymnastics floor routine — only without the floor. "This guy will be up there...
Aerobatic paragliding looks a little like an Olympic gymnastics floor routine — only without the floor.
“This guy will be up there, 2,000 feet in the air, hanging like a big kite, then bam, he’ll cut loose and come screaming, twisting, diving toward the lake. He’ll do 100 loops in the air, right over the top, then touch a wing to the water, maybe a toe, before swooping back up and landing on the beach. I’ve been paragliding 27 years, and I’ve never seen some of this stuff before,” says Marc Chirico, who runs an Issaquah paragliding school called Seattle Paragliding.
Chirico and Utah resident Chris Santacroce have been organizing Aerobattle, an aerobatic paragliding (the pros call it “acro”) competition every year since 1999, and it’s the only such competition in the country. This year’s “festival of flips” will take place this weekend, fueled by a smoky hamburger barbeque and set to the soundtrack of local paraglider-cum-DJ Jim Magnuson’s jazz beats.
Niki Sue Mueller, one of Santacroce’s students who practices acro in Jackson Hole, Wyo., is looking forward to watching the pros twist, tuck and tumble through their one- to seven-minute routines during this two-day extravaganza. She’s also looking forward to competing herself … kind of. “I’m really nervous,” Mueller admits. “I’m mostly there to learn.”
Aerobattle began seven years ago as a big-time event, offering a $5,000 purse and drawing competitors from 13 countries, but has since settled into what Chirico calls an “underground paragliding-cult affair.”
“There are a lot of serious international competitions, world cups and stuff, but since this is the only one in America, it can’t take itself too seriously,” says Santacroce, who has competed in and judged Aerobattle in the past.
Spectacle of the extreme
Seattle Aerobattle 2006 takes place 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on Sunset Beach at Lake Sammamish State Park, Issaquah. Optimal viewing hours are between 1 and 5 p.m. An informal awards ceremony (involving a picnic table and several fog horns) is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday. For directions and information, visit tigermountainparagliding.com/aerobattle,
or call 206- 387-3477.
Traditionally, competitors have represented every level of ability in the sport. Professionals — Santacroce estimates there are “maybe 50 total” in the U.S. who are good enough to compete abroad — will come to Aerobattle to “gear up on home soil,” while amateurs like Mueller will come to try their hand at competition outside the big leagues.
The disparity of skill levels makes Aerobattle “partly about the competition, and partly about the spectacle,” explains Chirico. In professional acro competitions, as in figure skating, maneuvers are judged and awarded points according to the level of difficulty. But at Aerobattle, a panel of six judges will award extra points for Evel Knievel-like costumes, theatrical sportsmanship and unorthodox tricks, so everyone has a chance to win. In years past, competitors have risen to the occasion, performing routines wearing bunny suits and pirate costumes, and punctuating tricks with colored smoke.
One by one, each of them will be hauled up — literally flown like big kites — from the back of a ski boat. When the competitor reaches sufficient height (usually 2,000-2,500 feet), he’ll release the tow line and perform as many tricks as he can before landing, ideally, on the beach.
Regardless of their skill level or gift for shenanigans, all the Aerobattle pilots first got hooked on basic, recreational paragliding — a sport that is about as similar to the competition’s envelope-pushing freestyle flipping as a Sunday road trip is to the Indy 500. “Paragliding is in slow motion. It’s about the relaxation and the views,” explains Santacroce. “Acro turns up the dial. These guys pull as many Gs as a fighter pilot up there — two-and-a-half, three Gs. It’s extreme.”
“You can see spots, get dizzy or pass out and get wadded up in your glider,” says Abe Laguna, who finished 13th at this summer’s U.S. Paragliding Championships (which doesn’t involve acro) in Sun Valley and who will compete this weekend. “If you can’t get your reserve chute out, that’s no good.”
There’s danger in the air
And that’s no overstatement. Like all “helmet-sports,” acro has its risks.
Ironically, Mueller explains, she, and most acro pilots, first experienced basic aerobatics while practicing safety maneuvers for recreational paragliding. “You start out practicing deflating a wing and recovering in a safety course,” Mueller explains, “and pretty soon, you’re thinking, ‘Hey, this is fun!’ “
But for Mueller, one of the few women in this male-dominated sport, acro maneuvers turned out to be more than just fun. “A few weeks ago, I was just flying — no tricks or anything — and I hit some turbulence over the mountains. I started falling and had to pull my reserve chute,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to react like that if I didn’t have the confidence from practicing acro over water. I guess it saved my life.”
While no one has ever been hurt at Seattle Aerobattle, there have been a few heart-stopping moments. A video of Aerobattle 2003 shows a competitor losing his energy halfway through a loop, then collapsing into his wing and falling nearly 700 feet. “The whole crowd was screaming,” Chirico remembers, “Then the reserve chute came out, everyone roared and he landed lightly in the water. It was great.”
Mueller doesn’t seem overly concerned about safety at Aerobattle, either. “That’s why you do it over water,” she says. “If you mess up over land, it’s a whole other story.”
Indeed, since its inception, the motto of Aerobattle has been, “Some will loop and some will splash!” and, evidently, the “splash” part is half the fun. “Why do people come to car races? To see them crash, right? It’s the same with this. It’s part of the game,” Chirico says. “People come out to see the carnage.”
The infinite tumble
People also come out to see what’s new on the acro scene. Because paragliding is a relatively new sport (it evolved from hang gliding in the late ’80s), and acro is even newer (it evolved from basic paragliding in the ’90s), many new tricks make their American debut at Aerobattle. First there was a trick called “the S.A.T.” — a noninverted swinging maneuver — and then “the helicopter,” wherein the pilot spins his wing above him. This year, it’s a trick called “the infinite tumble,” “which looks like someone jumping rope with their glider,” says Santacroce. “No one I know knows how to do it.”
As for Mueller, she’s not quite ready for the infinite tumble. She’s mostly “stoked about hanging out with the real pilots,” she says.
“Compared to them, I’m just a baby. So, uh, come to watch them. Not me,” Mueller laughs. “It’s going to be a spectacular show.”
Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or firstname.lastname@example.org