Being a professional pilot and climber has been a vehicle for Jeff Shapiro to discover new places, new cultures and most of all, to connect with people. When he was asked to help pass on sky-knowledge at a paragliding event in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, more than the flying, it was the pilots he looked forward to meeting most. Sharing and learning, while being grateful for all there is to experience, is the best path toward a nice fire and great food at the end of the day.
Photography: Jeff Shapiro
Bubba Goodman is a legendary character. In the early days of competition hang gliding, he was pioneering the skies above fabled sites like the mighty Grandfather Mountain in his home state of North Carolina. In those days, innovation, both good and bad, within the designs of hang gliding equipment was as fast and furious as the pilots who flew them. The risk of participating in this era was a far cry more than where the sport is today. But Bubba both survived and thrived and by the time I first met him, we were racing modern gear in Florida and enjoying all of what had been learned, sometimes the hard way, over the previous decades.
Fast forward to today and like so many (including me), Bubba has embraced the convenience and freedom found by making the switch to primarily flying paragliders. Paragliding and hang gliding are similar in that both types of foot-launch flight utilize wind and thermals for the pilot to stay aloft and sometimes, to travel great distances on only the power of nature.
The game is simple in either aircraft. You run off a mountain into flight while trying to find lift generated by wind or sun. If you do, you gain height much like the birds we see circling overhead on a beautiful day and then glide off into the distance to the next potential source of lift. If you find this seemingly invisible ride to the clouds, you get to keep going. If not, you land. It's a fun game but it's also where the advantages of a paraglider can be attractive.
A hang glider is a fairly large piece of equipment and along with a harness, helmet, etc., landing far from a road makes getting back to your car or truck a heavy and awkward “adventure”. A paraglider on the other hand, is really nothing more than a bed sheet with strings. It's simple, you wrap it up, put it in a comfortable backpack and start walking. In fact, if you're healthy and fit, landing in the middle of absolutely nowhere is really... no big deal.
Down the road from his beloved Grandfather Mountain, Bubba bought some land on top of another perfectly situated launch site called Tater Hill. Having your own private hang gliding/paragliding site is awesome, but for obvious reasons, better if shared. Bubba's passion for flying led him to create an annual event to gather pilots from all over the country. The Tater Hill Open is a competition shaped for the flyer looking to learn how to race, more efficiently fly cross-country or to just generally fly with other like minded pilots. The goal is less “to win” and more an exercise of camaraderie, education and the chance to fly challenging tasks each day while staying safe and having fun.
Over the years, Bubba has invited a few experienced pilots to come to the Tater Hill Open to teach clinics and generally do their best to help pilots improve their skills. Last year, he reached out to my close friend Dustin Martin and I, but due to Covid, neither of us were able to participate. When Bubba phoned again this year, we both jumped at the chance. I'd never flown in the heart of Appalachia and hoped we could pass on some of the lessons both learned and earned over the years of racing hang gliders and paragliders around the world. Also, anytime I can fly with Dustin is a bonus. Dustin is not only one of my very best friends but he is also part bird. He holds the current world record for open distance after having flown 761 kilometers, further than anyone ever, over a 11 hour day in the air. Any chance to share the air with him, while at the same time helping other pilots improve their skills over the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains, is a chance I wouldn't miss.
Photography: Jeff Shapiro
We arrived fully aware that the weather was always “the captain of the ship”. In past competitions, rain had dominated but this year was different. No less than epic flying was had every day, except one which was handily spent resting, eating good food grilled over an open fire and connecting with a diverse group of pilots. My good friend Andi, a South African who I first met BASE jumping years ago, helped Bubba organize the event this year and while at her house, she made a hot bed of coals to cook burgers, chicken and brats for pilots still buzzing from the week's flights and personal bests. There's something that food and fires, stories and sharing new experiences does to fuel and inspire more of the same.
Each pilot came from a different background, had different goals and certainly different experiences. While flying, we're all in our own harness, flying our own glider and essentially alone. We get to saturate and stew in the raw experience of surfing clouds, flying with hawks and increasing our perspectives of what can be done. At the end of the day, that flight evokes an emotional response that is hard to “give” someone else in the form of a story.
Part of the magic of free-flight is that its essence can only be found in the present and only by actually experiencing it. But, although two pilots might have had very different flights, you can look at another flyer and not have to tell your story because it becomes obvious at a glance that they've seen what you've seen. No explanation is required because in their own version, they were there. That kind of sharing is special and creates bonds and fast-friendships that are hard to find in other more routine lives.
Photography: Jeff Shapiro
With that said, stories still flew each and every evening, and where better to laugh about that crazy glide you made or, the Red Tail hawk you got to turn circles with or, the spicy landing, than around the warmth of a dancing fire. The ease of rolling out the simple grill, putting brats and burgers, listening to the sizzle while cracking open a favorite beer or bubbly water made for a great stage to animate each day's wild adventures in the air.
On one of the last days of the event, during one such evening, I remember looking around at the smiling faces in the fading daylight. Lightning bugs were flickering on and off like some kind of crazy dream and I was once again reminded that more important than any lesson, learned or taught, was the connection found with people. Laughter and happiness are contagious. In the midst of Covid and all of the other things happening around the world, laughter and happiness were two things I was happy to “catch”.