Pilots from around the world have come to Bishop this week for the U.S. National Paragliding Championships. Pilots dangling from parachutes may be seen at times this week flying above the west slope of the White Mountains. With pilots searching for thermal winds to carry their non-motorized aircraft higher into the sky, the entire race is dependent on the weather.
The thermals that the pilots use to spiral up to altitudes are invisible and finicky.
Each day, race organizers check the forecast to plan the course for the day. As in a sailboat race, the pilots have to hit certain set GPS points where they make their turns and change direction. Competitors are judged on accuracy when they hit their turn points and how fast they complete the course. At the end of the week, the person with the most points wins.
The national championships take place over the course of a week because on any given day a race can be cancelled due to poor flying conditions. The goal is to race three times during the week-long event. So far the pilots have only flown one course, on Sunday. Competition on Monday and Tuesday was cancelled due to the weather, though many pilots could still be seen flying down to the cars below the launch point.
The course set for Sundays competition was 95 miles long. The 80 competitors flew the course in times of 3-5 hours.
The FAA doesnt allow paragliders to fly over 18,000 feet, but none the less thats high enough that pilots carry supplemental oxygen. They also have to wear warm clothes for the high altitudes, which are often too hot when the pilots fly low.
The weather sets the start point and the start time. One popular take-off is called Flynns. Its on a ridge just south of Silver Canyon near Laws. Usually the pilots take off in the afternoon around one or two. At the start of the days race, the whole flock of paragliders can be seen spiraling around each other jockeying for position. Once the race starts, that’s when you see the paragliders head off in one direction and the viewer can see that this is indeed a race.