High-Flying Fun

Yegor straps into a bucket-seat harness, attaches himself to a growling motorized cable system that an instructor revs up, and waits for the wind.

After a pause, his paraglider canopy explodes like a giant jellyfish against the force of a billowing wind. He braces, tears through the field sprinting like a roadrunner, and takes off into the sky.

Yegor is flying.

On a recent spring day, a small group of paragliding fans drove to a field bordered by a cemetery and cathedral in Anosino, a sleepy town 20 kilometers northwest of Moscow. Their goal: to shoot skyward and be suspended there.

Yegor Terentyev, director of the Cross Country paragliding club, is their guide. He soars in tandem with students and propels enthusiasts into the sky several times a week to fulfill their dream of being in the air.

"Each person tries to live according to his own tune," said Igor Nikitin, vice president of the Joint Federation of Light Aviation of Russia, or SLA, who regularly goes up in his deltaplan, a motorized, hang glider-like craft. "Some love being in the water, so they swim. And then, some people just want to fly."

The SLA is a nongovernmental, privately funded association for sky sports with aircraft weighing less than 495 kilograms, including paragliders, hang gliders, ultralight gliders and amphibian aircraft. The association provides guidelines on safe flight and organizes competitions. It also tries to stop the regional authorities from selling the valuable empty plots from which enthusiasts fly, Nikitin said.

There are 3,000 to 4,000 people involved in such sports and 300-odd clubs across the country, Nikitin said. Every summer, 50 launch spots around the Moscow region are filled with air-sports enthusiasts, who also go to the Crimea, Turkey and Bulgaria to fly.

Down on the ground at the Anosino field, Vladimir Korovinsky, a tall, long-haired lumberjack of a man who is an instructor for the Vector school, fiddled with the paraglide tow unit at his feet.

The makeshift stationary winch -- a high-speed, motor-driven cable winder -- was connected to a wheel-mounted tow unit, which was reeled out to a distance the length of two football fields.

Joyce Man / MT
High in the sky above Anosino, it is easy to understand why such risks are taken.
Between the two units was a cable to which the paraglider was attached with a mini-clamp. At Korovinsky's signal, the tow unit rewound suddenly and quickly, hauling the person into the air.

This is one mechanical method of liftoff from flatlands, but gliders can also use motor-driven propellers. More often, they rely on nature: rising warm air or uphill winds that run through their sails.

Once airborne, the paraglider tenses and slackens two lines connected to the canopy for control. Altitude is gradually lost, and the glider veers left and right for a soft landing.

Air enthusiasts admit their sport can be dangerous if safety guidelines aren't followed. There are two to 10 fatalities each year in Moscow, said Nikitin, and about 40 nationwide.

The level of danger in ultralight aviation, however, is not far from that of automobiles, and rests somewhere between transportation in a car and on a motorcycle, he said.

From high in the sky above Anosino, where roads, cathedrals and freshly turned farmlands of Podmoskovye are visible, it is easy to understand why such risks are taken.

Olga Rudenko, 22, first went paragliding while studying at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where a friend also used to offer his private jet for joyrides.

From her first paragliding flight, Rudenko was hooked. The Russian investment banker decided to continue once back in Moscow.

Her friends rarely make good on promises to accompany her, however, and she is resigned to going alone "because there aren't that many crazy people out there."

Now taking a course, she studies theory, does exercises and logs flights toward a certificate offered by her school.

Schools use SLA standards as guidelines for certificate requirements, but the country as yet has no unified rules for air sports, Korovinsky said.

Courses can set you back several hundred dollars.

The Cross Country beginners' program with exams, theory and 39 flights, including three in tandem, costs the ruble equivalent of 350 euros, or $474 (www.cross-country.ru).

A similar course with Vector costs 14,000 rubles, or $542 (www.flyschool.ru).

The Moscow Aviation Institute (State University of Aerospace Technology) offers yearlong basic, graduate and postgraduate courses for the ruble equivalent of 1,600, 3,600 and 500 euros, respectively (www.mai.ru).