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GL in New York Times

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 21, 2006 1:15 am    Post subject: GL in New York Times Reply with quote


An Open Chute, a Gust of Wind and a Sport Is Born

Published: March 18, 2006

THE DALLES, Ore. — Steve Schieberl made a short hike from his car to a hilltop one recent morning in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge. After a swig of Red Bull, he floated his parachute in a light breeze with the help of a friend, ran a dozen steps down a 45-degree slope and launched into the air, reaching about 30 miles an hour toward the bottom of the hill and punctuating the curling ride with a whoop as he toed down.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Dan Self soaring in California. In ground launching, a parachutist simply opens his chute and runs down a slope.
Another quick rush from the new sport of ground launching.

It is somewhere between the soaring action of paragliding and the freefall of BASE jumping, in which daredevils leap from precipices with parachutes. (BASE is an acronym listing the preferred jumping-off points: building, antenna, span, earth.) Ground launchers get the sensation of rapidly skimming downhill. For action-sports enthusiasts like Schieberl, constantly in search of air and speed, ground launching offers both.

Schieberl, 28, and his sidekick Dan Self, 27, both skydivers and BASE jumpers who live in Portland, have launched frequently in the Columbia Gorge, enjoying rides up to 80 seconds long and dropping up to 2,000 feet at more than 70 m.p.h.

In addition to saving the cost of the plane ride needed for a skydive and avoiding the potential hassle from authorities over BASE jumps (they are illegal in most areas), ground launching has another advantage.

"You don't have to worry about your chute opening, which is nice," said Self, a loan officer by profession. "If it's not open, you can't get off the ground and fly."

The two men found out about ground launching two years ago when Jim Slaton, a well-known parachutist, offered the first training school for the sport in central California, south of Kings Canyon National Park.

Slaton, a former Army Ranger, promotes swooping competitions, in which parachutists jump from low altitude aircraft and follow slalom-like courses while doing acrobatic tricks.

Ground launching traces its roots to a swooping competition in which low clouds prevented aircraft from flying, and a competitor decided to launch from the ground instead.

Schieberl, who works as a Web designer at a Portland advertising agency, was among the first five people trained at the camp. Slaton estimates there are about 150 launchers in the United States and 400 worldwide.

Schieberl quickly passed on what he had learned to Self, and since then they have been taking advantage of the Columbia Gorge's steep but approachable hills and its howling winds, which are known to windsurfers and kite boarders as well. The two have coached a dozen other skydivers and adventurers in ground launching. They have attracted mystified onlookers and so far, apart from a couple of liability-conscious ski-area officials on Mount Hood, they have mostly had the tacit approval of authorities in the region.

"One cop did ask me if I had a poached coyote in my parachute sack," said Schieberl, who sports a mop of blond hair and a spike in his lower lip.

Recently, the two were launching at a smaller training hill because the winds were light.

Getting a lightweight parachute, designed to open in a high-velocity freefall, to fill with air is a delicate marionette act, with the launcher pulling on his leg and shoulder braces, and hand toggles while keeping the wind at his back.

"Even experienced skydivers could spend hours trying to get it to open and still not do it," Schieberl said.

With a little coaxing, Schieberl and Self got their chutes overhead, spun around and launched. Self, who is taller and heavier, had some trouble getting down the length of the hill, several times sliding as if into second base as his chute stalled.

Toward the end of a couple of hours of launching and trudging up and down a 200-yard slope, Self and Schieberl made a deft swoop down the hill side-by-side about 10 feet from each other, their nylon wings sizzling with speed.

In California, Slaton hopes to see more of those scenes across the country and around the world. He now has schools on California's Monterrey Peninsula and in Ukraine. The Army has signed him to train its Golden Knights parachute team in low-altitude jumps. He is also designing small parachutes specialized for ground launches.

Gin Gliders, a South Korea-based company, has started making smaller, faster ground-launchable parachutes to complement larger paragliding chutes built for lift.

Schieberl said he had joked with Self about opening a training school in Oregon. But right now, the emphasis is on getting as many runs as possible. Standing at the launch site, Schieberl gestured to the surrounding hills of brushed wheat stalks to indicate what holds his attention. Then he looked down the slope in front of him and prepared to fly.
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