On the Wings of the Mountain Gods
Hang gliding and paragliding in Montana
Nick Franczyk soars over Missoula after launching his hang glider from the summit of Mount Sentinal. Photo By: Anne Sherwood
Craig Johnson, a new hang glider, prepares his wing for flight. Photo By: Anne Sherwood
Andy McRae, a paragliding instructor from Bozeman launches off the Story Hills for early spring practice in Bozeman, Montana. Photo By: Anne Sherwood
Photographer Anne Sherwood's feet float as Andy McRae, a paragliding instructor from Bozeman, flies them over downtown Missoula. Photo By: Anne Sherwood
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TO UNDERSTAND NON-MOTORIZED AVIATION IN MONTANA, IT HELPS TO EMBRACE MYTHOLOGY. The Greeks have their Olympus. Hang glider pilots have Mount Sentinel.
At just over 5,000 feet, its summit hardly reaches into the ether. But Missoula’s “M” mountain gained instant popularity in the sport's wild heyday of the 1970s. This is where it all began, and this is where the immortals reside.
Standing on top of Mount Sentinel, I’m tucked snugly into a harness connected to not only a very impressive-looking hang glider, but also someone who actually knows what he’s doing. I try desperately to think of Zeus, or at least his 1970s counterparts — the wild-eyed daredevils sporting home-built wings that elicited thrills and astonishment at the mere fact of survival. However, never having done this sort of thing before, Icarus just keeps popping into my head.
“Run, run, run!” says my conjoined mentor from immediately behind my right shoulder. He starts running, leaving me little choice in the matter. It’s funny how thoughts can simply disappear when you run as fast as you can off the side of a mountain. The wind fills our wing, and suddenly we’re aloft.
I’m on a tandem flight with Jeff Shapiro, owner of Missoula’s Five Valley Hang Gliding. Below us, the city sprawls — the university, downtown, the ‘burbs off in the distance. I catch a glimpse of the “M” out of the corner of my eye, hikers trudging up the hill, the dome of the field house. Legend has it that Bill Johnson, said to be the first hang glider pilot in the state, once landed on the field house roof. An onlooker had mistaken his wing for a crashed plane, and when the fire department arrived Johnson had already broken down his glider, stuffed it into a bag — and mustered up the nerve to ask the firefighters for help lowering the large sack to the ground.
“They never even realized they were helping him make his getaway,” recounts longtime Missoula hang glider pilot Mike Davis. “They got up there, and he was gone, the glider was gone, and they’re looking around for a crashed airplane on the roof of the field house.”
Davis has loads of stories about Montana’s pioneers of flight; after all, he was one of them. Davis remembers seeing the earliest rigid-wing hang gliders sailing off Sentinel as an adolescent, but his father made him wait until his 18th birthday to pursue the sport.
“I turned 18, moved out of the house, and bought a hang glider, all in the same week,” Davis says. That was in 1976, when dozens of pilots flew throughout the state. Most of the pilots were college-aged if not younger, brash kids with an eye for thrills. Equipment was sketchy but cheap, and in those days just flying from the top of Sentinel down to the bottom was a rush. It wasn’t long before pilots figured out how to read the winds and the rising thermals, and the goal became soaring high above the launch point, spending as much time in the air as possible.
“You’ll never find two flights are the same, and you’ll also never get bored with it, because there’s always something different you can do,” Davis says, listing off soaring, cross-country flights, competitions, and aerobatics.
But it’s not the old days anymore. “The 18-year-old wild-eyed kid is pretty much gone from the scenario,” Davis says, replaced by older and more upscale pilots. More expensive and more complicated — but safer — equipment is to blame. Nowadays, Davis says, pilots pull up in fancy SUVs, not worrying about the price of gas.
At age 50, Davis says he’s happy to be able to do the sport at all.
“When my feet leave the ground, I don’t think of anything except exactly what I’m doing at the time,” he says, explaining that thoughts of work and family issues disappear. “All I think about is me, the glider, the air, the thermal, the lift I’m dealing with, can I make it over the next mountain … Life becomes much, much simpler.”
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