TOM JOHNS, 64, is the first human to launch from atop Blanchard Mountain south of Bellingham at the site that is now called Samish Overlook. It was spring 1988, and Johns and his hang-gliding buddy were flying at Cap Sante in Anacortes. They looked across the Sound and noticed a new clear-cut at the south end of Chuckanut Ridge. His friend pointed to the spot and told Johns, a Boeing engineer, “We gotta go look at it.”

Paragliding pilot and instructor Peter Stark points to the island toward which Stephen S. Howie is supposed to run during their tandem launch at Samish Overlook, south of Bellingham. Stark’s instructions to Howie were to keep running, even after his feet were off the ground. He’d let him know when to stop. (Maria McLeod)
One minute you’re texting … then you’re running … then you’re FLYING

A few weeks later, Johns and three other pilots drove up the back side of Blanchard Mountain to a logging road they assumed led to the new clear-cut and came to a stop at a locked yellow metal gate. They parked and prepared to hike up the rest of the way on foot. At the last second, Johns’ wife, Lori Johns, suggested they bring along his glider, which was in the truck. Johns was hesitant at first. The glider weighed about 60 pounds, and his harness was an additional 35. No one knew how far it was to the spot, or whether the weather and terrain would allow them to launch once they arrived. But Lori’s optimism won out. She grabbed one end of the wing, and her husband carried the other.

“So that’s how it happened that I got here at the launch site with a glider when nobody else did,” Johns says. “And it just happened to be a perfect day for soaring.”

Tom Johns launches over Samish Bay from the Samish Overlook — one of thousands of flights he’s taken. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Thirty-three years later, Johns is still flying his hang glider from Samish Overlook. What was once a fresh clear-cut littered with slash piles and stumps has transformed into an inviting recreation area with a paved parking lot, vault toilet, picnic tables and two grassy overlooks that serve as launch sites for gliders, and dramatic views for 80,000 visitors a year. The west-facing launch site opens to views of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. From the south launch, visitors gaze over Samish Bay to the gold and green patchwork of farmland that expands like a well-tucked blanket across the Skagit Valley. In addition to being a prime hang-gliding and paragliding launch site, Samish Overlook is the payoff view for those who hike or ride horses along the Blanchard Hill Loop, an 8.6-mile trail through the Blanchard State Forest.

Johns, who is retired and lives in Everett, estimates that over the course of more than three decades, he has flown 7,000 flights and been in the air for 2,600 hours. He is rated an H5 pilot, the highest rating obtainable through the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, or USHPA — “ush-pah,” as the pilots pronounce it — the nonprofit organization that establishes standards for pilot training and certification.

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In terms of his preferred wing, Johns has come full circle. He started with a beginner glider, progressed to an intermediate, then a high-performance wing. He took part in distance competitions and speed gliding. Now that he’s retired, Johns has regressed back to a beginner glider similar to the one he used in the early ’80s.

“It’s just the purity of flight I enjoy,” he says. “It’s the easiest glider to handle. It’s the quickest to set up and break down. I can carry it on my shoulder.”

Johns’ favorite flying memories involve “low saves,” when he thought his day was done but at the last minute discovered a thermal lift and used it to tunnel himself up — pilots call it “coring” — to circle within a bubble of rising hot air, riding a thermal thousands of feet up, and buying more time aloft.

HANG GLIDERS AND paragliders are constantly on the prowl for one of two kinds of lift: ridge or thermal. Ridge lift occurs whenever wind blows against the side of a hill and is forced up and over the top. By flying next to a hill, pilots are likely to find air that will get under their wing and push them higher. While ridge lift is fairly predictable, thermals are a different animal. They can occur anywhere and generally indicate that the sun has warmed up a spot on the ground to the point where it releases a warm column of air that then rises up into the sky.

When pilots locate thermals, they turn in tight circles to stay within the rising air, using the same technique raptors use to gain altitude.

One low save that Johns remembers came when he was taking part in the 1995 U.S. Nationals, a cross-country competition held that year at Chelan Butte. Lori Johns was driving ahead and communicating with Johns to help him locate lift and stay aloft. The goal was to reach Wilbur, Washington, a tiny town 60 miles east of Chelan. But as Johns approached Banks Lake, just past the halfway point, he realized he was way too low to make it across. He radioed to Lori in hopes that she could find a thermal he could use to increase his altitude.

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On ground level, thermals look like dust devils, swirling along the ground. Just when it seemed as if Johns was going to have to land, Lori located a thermal and radioed to Johns, telling him where it was. When he made it to the spot, Johns was no more than 50 feet off the ground.

“But sure enough, it was a thermal, and I was able to core up that thing and get up to 9,000 feet or so and fly across Banks Lake and keep going,” he says, shaking his head. “You could never do that with a sail plane or any other aircraft.”

Johns’ eyes glitter when he tells stories about flying. He likes to talk about “flow experience,” where you’re so immersed in an activity, so completely absorbed, that you don’t even remember you have a life on the ground.

“Once in a while, you get to really enjoy the view,” he explains. “Most of the time, you’re concentrating.”

WHILE JOHNS is the first person to fly from Samish Overlook, Jesse Williams, 41, recently broke the record for the longest paragliding flight from the site. This April, he spent more than 5½ hours flying from Blanchard Mountain to Rattlesnake Lake near North Bend, covering more than 85 miles.

Jesse Williams soars in his paraglider over Samish Bay. Cross-country pilots like Williams are constantly on the lookout for potential landing sites, in case they suddenly have to find a place to come down. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Some hang gliders wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days, when the skies were free and they were soaring alone. Williams and the new generation of paragliders are excited by the growth of their sport and don’t mind sharing the sky, even if it turns into what paragliders call “a gaggle,” or what Johns prefers to call “a swarm.”

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Hang gliders and paragliders have a rivalry that some compare to the tension between snowboarders and skiers. Luckily, the ideal conditions are different for each wing type, so the weather tends to keep the two groups separated. Hang gliders, which have a rigid structure, can handle stronger winds and are ridden lying down, Superman-style. Paragliders, which have no frame, are safe to fly only in winds of 10 miles per hour or less. Paragliders also are ridden in a seated position.

From Williams’ perspective, every paragliding pilot is another data point he can use to judge where the lift is and where he needs to go to gain altitude.

“It’s a good thing,” he says — “most of the time, as long as you’re good at gaggle flying, working together and not getting into each other’s way.”

Unlike hang gliders, which require a roof rack to transport and then assembly before launch, paragliding wings can fit into a backpack, allowing pilots to potentially hike to their launch site. Williams has competed in two of the most grueling hike and fly races: the X-Alps, a 1,000-kilometer race across the Alps from Salzburg to Monaco, and the X-Pyr, which traverses the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean. In those multiday endurance events, participants hike up mountains and then fly as far as they can before landing and hiking up to their next promising launch site.

Over the years, Williams has become adept at finding lift to extend his flights. He estimates that, during his record-breaking flight from Blanchard Mountain to North Bend, he circled his way up at least 20 thermals.

Jesse Williams soars over Samish Bay in his paraglider. Over the years, Williams has become adept at finding lift to extend his flights. “I see the air in a different way than just about anybody,” he says. “You’re reading the clouds, looking at different wind patterns, watching what different birds are doing.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

“I see the air in a different way than just about anybody,” Williams says. “You’re reading the clouds, looking at different wind patterns, watching what different birds are doing.”

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For cross-country pilots like Williams, the obsession doesn’t stop with searching for lift. They also are constantly on the lookout for potential landing sites, in case they aren’t able to locate thermals or ridge lift and suddenly have to find a place to come down.

Western Washington has an abundance of trees, which can make landing spots a challenge. Plan A for Williams is to land on public property, but, if he has to, he will land in private fields, trying to avoid livestock and crops. He has been yelled at by landowners, but usually people are understanding, he says.

“The vast majority of people when you land in their field are just excited and want to know where you came from,” he says.

After jumping out of his Tesla, Jesse Williams shows off his new collapsible sign that he takes with him in case he’s stranded miles from his planned landing area.   (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

PARAGLIDERS AND HANG GLIDERS share a healthy fear of crashing and an awareness that the sport they love is potentially deadly. Sometimes accidents result from pilots attempting something beyond their ability. Other times, pilot complacency or inattention can lead to midair collisions or an unexpected loss of lift and a crash landing into the treetops.

Four years ago, Thomas J. Olney, a 64-year-old retired marketing professor at Western Washington University, was killed during a paragliding accident after he suffered a “collapse” after launching from Samish Overlook. A collapse means Olney’s paragliding wing lost air, causing him to quickly lose altitude. In Olney’s case, this happened once initially and then a second time as he was trying to regain control.

USHPA keeps track of fatalities and injuries, but only from pilots registered with the group. The last full report, from 2017, included six fatalities from paragliding and one from hang gliding. Of those deaths, two of the paragliding victims were “speed flying,” which involves using a smaller paragliding wing and flying at high velocity closer to the ground. One of the 2017 victims was involved in a midair collision with another glider near Chehalis. Two paragliders drowned after missing their landing zones and landing in the ocean.

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Martin Palmaz has served as executive director of USHPA for the past 11 years and has been part of the sport since he first tried hang gliding in 1984, when he was 14, on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. Palmaz says the USHPA studies every fatality and injury report to make recommendations and safety tips that keep the organization and its pilots as safe and safety-oriented as possible. But he says the sport is inherently dangerous, and pilots know those risks.

“Anything aviation-related has its own level of risk involved,” he says. “That’s true for us as well. Fatalities happen.”

Hang gliding and paragliding fall under FAA guidelines for nonmotorized ultralights. Federal Aviation Regulations, or FAR, provide minimum restrictions. For example, ultralight pilots can fly only during the day; they are restricted from flying in areas where they could encounter airplanes; and pilots are prohibited from dropping things on people or property below them.

Aside from that, regulation of hang-gliding and paragliding pilots is left to “the ultralight community.” As the preamble for FAR 103 states: “The FAA has chosen not to promulgate federal regulations regarding pilot certification, vehicle certification and vehicle registration, preferring that the ultralight community assume the initiative for the development of these important safety programs.”

USHPA is a private organization that has no governmental authority but does provide members with a pilot rating system, from 1 to 5 (beginner to master), for hang gliders and paragliders, a structured instructor certification program, a training structure for tandem flights and liability insurance coverage for members.

Katy Bigelow, of Edmonds, puts together her hang glider on the launchpad at Samish Overlook. Tom Johns is in the background. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

During his tenure at USHPA, Palmaz has seen the rise of paragliding, the steady improvement of technology, and the ability for gliders to stay in the air for longer distances and periods of time. USHPA currently has 9,000 members. Since it began almost half a century ago, it has issued more than 100,000 memberships.

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THE USHPA CHAPTER representing Whatcom and Skagit counties in the northwest corner of the state is the North Cascades Soaring Club. Scott Rauch, 61, is its president. On a cloudy day just after a hard rain, Rauch pointed up from Samish Overlook to other members of the club who were hang gliding overhead. Jeff Beck is the group’s safety officer, he says. The assistant president is Nick Ireland.

“That’s him right there,” Rauch says, pointing toward a purple and white wing that glided across the sky.

The 40 or so soaring club members have an “adopt-a-site” maintenance agreement with the state Department of Natural Resources to help maintain and preserve Samish Overlook, mow the grass and organize work crews to fix potholes in the logging road that leads up to the site. As club treasurer Stacey Reynolds puts it: “We help DNR with anything they ever need.”

Hyden McKown is the Baker District Recreation Manager for DNR-managed land from Skagit River to the Canadian border. The DNR gets a limited amount of state money to maintain Samish Overlook and 10 campsites at nearby Lily and Lizard lakes. Much of the money required to maintain the overlook, which is classified as a dispersed recreation site, comes from grants.

“The grants we apply for are quite competitive,” McKown says. “The grant funding for the maintenance of Blanchard is not always a guarantee.”

McKown says the growing popularity of Samish Overlook is straining the limited resources available. He noted that the site attracts 80,000 visitors a year but has only 23 parking spaces.

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Paragliders wait in a line to launch over Samish Bay from the overlook.  At left is Subir Sidhu of Woodinville, who goes soaring nearly every day conditions are right. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

“We’re at max capacity as it is,” he says. “We’re out of real estate up there.”

LIKE A LOT of paragliding enthusiasts, Peter Stark, 35, fell in love with the sport not when he first tried it himself, but when he saw others doing it and realized soaring through the sky without a motor was possible.

Stark grew up in upstate New York, where the only flying he witnessed was paramotoring, or powered paragliding, whose pilots fly with a giant fan mounted on their back.

“When I moved to Washington, one of the first things I saw were people flying on Blanchard Mountain,” he says. “I was blown away that they could stay up without external power.”

Stark took lessons and got into the sport full-bore. He is now positioning himself to open a certified paragliding school in Whatcom County — Bellingham Paragliding. While Stark is at ease working the winds and soaring above the mountains, he did not begin as a confident pilot. In fact, his first day flying solo at Samish Overlook, he didn’t launch.

“I was like a deer in the headlights,” he says. “I froze.”

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His instructor realized Stark was not in the right frame of mind and told him, “Today is not your day.”

The next day, Stark returned to Samish Overlook and flew almost immediately.

“It was the coolest thing I’d ever done in my life up to that point,” he says. “I loved it.”

A paraglider launches off Samish Overlook over Samish Bay on a beautiful June day. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Stark has a carefree attitude that belies his deep knowledge of paragliding and safety. Since his initial flight from Samish Overlook, he has taken his love of flying across the country and around the world. Last year, he spent a month in Turkey flying over the Mediterranean Sea. Three years ago, he went on an 11,000-mile motorcycle trip across the United States with his paraglider, and he flew anywhere he could find to launch. “I barely even used my phone,” Stark recalls. “I would just ride until I saw something that looked flyable, and I would go fly it. I had no plans, no goals. I just wanted to go fly the mountains.”