You, a Breeze and Meters of Cloth

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You, a Breeze and Meters of Cloth

Paragliders are people who find it more fun to jump off mountains than to hike across them. On a recent Thursday afternoon, Max Lee and Yoo Ki-dong drove a sports utility vehicle across the dry, cracked ground of a dammed river bank to a hill on Eo island.

They hiked to a clearing, unfurled their parachute-like gliders, harnessed themselves in, slipped on ski glasses and helmets and waited for the wind to die down a bit. "Gusts are bad," Mr. Lee said, measuring the wind at 6.5 meter per second. "The best conditions for take-off are a steady breeze."

When the breeze dropped below 6 meters per second, Mr. Yoo pulled taut the strings that connect his glider and harness, and was suddenly afloat.

Moments later, a man in a brown suit and sneakers huffed to the top of the hill. An avid paraglider from the area, he said, "I heard about this place, but I thought the hill was too low to actually fly from. This is strange, but I can see that conditions are good for ridge flying." He discussed wind and topography conditions with Mr. Lee, exchanged business cards, then hiked back down the hill. This is evidently quite a community sport.

Cloudbase, an aviation school at Esom airport on Eo island, is getting ready for paragliding to pick up again now that the ski season has ended. Paragliding is a year-round activity, but it peaks during spring and fall in Korea.

Most people use the airport on Sundays, when the landscape erupts with brightly colored ultralights and gliders. Expatriates, especially GIs from Camp David and Osan Air Base, tend to visit on Saturdays. Weekday visitors are usually devoted fliers. A hostel and restaurant are on the grounds, so some people vacation at the airport.

About two years ago, the owner of Esom airport, Lee Gyu-ui, a pilot who trained at the Korean Air Force Academy, hired a hang gliding and paragliding instructor who speaks some English. Paragliding has since, appropriately, taken off.

Paragliding has been around in Korea since the 1980s, but it only started becoming popular in the early '90s. There are about 20,000 paragliders in Korea, according to the Korean Hang and Para Gliding Association.

At Cloudbase, there is a one-day crash course ($70), a four-day course ($300) and a seven- to 10-day course ($500). Lessons include theory, safety, equipment structure and other video instructions in English. Real-life practice follows ground practice.

Paragliding is cheaper and easier to learn than hang gliding or flying an aircraft. It is also cheaper to learn paragliding in Korea than most other countries, as equipment is less expensive. Several internationally known equipment brands, such as Edel and Gin, are manufactured in Korea. What costs $5,000 abroad can be found for $3,000 in Korea.

The allure of paragliding is that flight is possible without a motor and you can launch with your own two feet. At about 11 kilograms, the gear is fairly lightweight and can be folded and stuffed into a harness that doubles as a backpack.

When asked why he began paragliding, Mr. Yoo, who won the national college paragliding competition last year, says, "Ask anybody who's into sky sports, and you'll find out there is no why." Later, he elaborates: "When I was young I wanted to be a pilot, but my eyes are bad. I didn't get into the college I wanted, I didn't get into the major I wanted, so I kept searching for something fulfilling." Paragliding was it.

Max Lee's first flight was 30 seconds, but he recalls, with wonder in his voice, "I was airborne, riding in heaven. I feel so close to understanding nature." He has since clocked a five-and-a-half-hour flight in Australia, and competed around the world.

The best launch areas are free of artificial congestion and are filled instead with open air and natural beauty. Eo island is such a place.

Korea is no Spain or Australia, the two top countries for sky sports, but on a clear day at Eo island - two or three hours southwest of Seoul - Jebu island and the cities of Inchon and Ansan are visible to those floating in the air. The view of the sunset across the sea is also spectacular.

While paragliding is the most popular course at Cloudbase, the school also offers courses in hang gliding and flying ultralight aircraft.

Hang gliding is another means of flying without a motor. Hang gliders take off on stiff, wing-shaped gliders. The equipment is bulkier than paragliders, and launching requires stronger winds. Compared to paragliding, hang gliding is more expensive and takes longer to learn.

U.S. federal aviation regulations define an ultralight, or microlight, as a single-seat powered flying machine that weighs less than 115 kilograms, has a top speed of 55 knots (101 kilometers per hour), stalls at 24 knots (28 miles per hour) or less, and carries no more than 5 gallons of fuel. The definition varies from country to country, as Australian regulations includes two-seaters in the category.

There are about 200 ultralights in Korea, and 1,500 licensed pilots. "You can fly to Cheju island on one of these, but it's not quite legal," Lee Gyu-ui says with a wink.

People used to skydive from two-seater ultralights, but the opening of Incheon International Airport has put an end to that.


Take the subway to Suwon on line no. 1. Get on bus 400 or 400-1 to Sa-gang. If you call before you arrive, one of the instructors will pick you up. Otherwise, flag down a cab, if you can find one, and tell the driver to take you to the gonghang (airport). Cloudbase can be reached at 031-357-1078 (limited English service available).


Wear warm athletic wear and sneakers. Don't forget sunscreen and sunglasses.

Para gliding is expensive.

Lessons are not cheap, but once you have learned you can fly independently. Equipment costs about $3,000 and has on average a life span of 10 years. Maintenance is minimal, and most launch areas do not charge for usage. Compared to the costs of leisure activities such as skiing or golfing, paragliding is quite affordable.

Para gliding is for the young and crazy.

Para-gliders range from middle school students to grandparents. The Ms. Mr. Club, a Korean sky club, has 60-year-old members.

You'd be foolhardy to risk death, or at least, injuries to your ankles during landing.

Learning safety procedures is one of the main reasons why taking classes is encouraged. Safety cannot be emphasized enough. Always wear your helmet.

Now that the sport is older and more developed, most injuries are due to excessive showmanship.

As for ankle injuries, you learn to watch the breeze and how to land safely. Max Lee said, "If it's just fear keeping you from trying it, don't be such a pessimist!"

by Joe Yong-hee

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