TELLURIDE – Change is in the air for local hang gliding and paragliding pilots.
The town’s purchase of the Valley Floor has once again given the Telluride Air Force, a group of about 10 hang glider and paraglider pilots, a safer and more expansive landing zone. The local flying group plans to use its reinstated access to the Valley Floor as an opportunity to bring new members into the flying community.
The reacquired landing zone (known as the “leisure zone”) gives the organization the ability to share the sky above Telluride with other qualified pilots in the national and international flying community.
“We are in the midst of a renaissance,” said local paraglider pilot Josh Williams. “We want to promote free flight in the valley and we want to introduce more people to the sport.”
For years, hang glider and paraglider pilots were allowed to land on the Valley Floor, but they lost their coveted access in 2003. It was a huge blow for the Telluride Air Force, as their landing zones were then restricted to the Telluride Town Park (referred to as the “seizure zone”) and the Pearl Property, a fenced-in field near the west entrance of town. While both of these zones are sufficient landing zones, they are not ideal, especially for hang glider pilots, who need a lot of gliding room to safely land their aircrafts.
“The loss of the Valley Floor impacted the number of pilots on TAF and the general morale of the group,” said Williams. “It definitely stifled hang gliding in Telluride.”
Craig Pirazzi and Kevin Smith are two locals that have continued to fly hang gliders in the sky above Telluride. “Over the years we got used to landing on the Pearl Property,” said Pirazzi. “It’s a limited space and the ground is wet a good portion of the summer.” According to Pirazzi there is also a barbwire fence on the west boundary of the property endangering pilots and greatly limiting their landing options. TAF is currently trying to get the town to remove the fence.
“There is a small but amazing group of pilots here in Telluride,” said J.R. Nershi, a long-time pilot that began flying hang gliders in Telluride in 1978. “We haven’t had a lot of youngsters coming up in the club, but that’s changing now.”
In particular, the Telluride Air Force is now seeing a greater number of paraglider pilots. Paragliding doesn’t require as much landing space, so the Pearl Property landing zone provides plenty of room. Paragliding is also popular because it has an easier learning curve than hang gliding, and the equipment is more affordable and more portable.
This year alone the Telluride Air Force has had four new paraglider pilots join the club. That’s the biggest jump in membership in 10 years. And while the availability of the Valley Floor as a landing zone will help increase the sport’s popularity in Telluride, there are still a few hang-ups.
“Right now a big issue for us is the prairie dog holes,” said Pirazzi. “With shifting winds, it can be dangerous and easy to twist an ankle.
“All in all it’s nice to have the Valley Floor back,” he said. “It’s much better than the Pearl Property for landing high performance wings.”
Members of the Telluride Air Force are hoping the public access to the Valley Floor will help them revitalize the Airman’s Rendezvous, which dates back to the late 1970s. Originally organized by the Telluride Air Force, the Rendezvous exposed Telluride as a world-class flying venue.
“Telluride is legendary in the flying community,” said Nershi. “It’s a special place for everyone that has had the chance to fly here. It creates a strong camaraderie among pilots from all over.”
Another function of the Telluride Air Force is to control and maintains flying access points, launches and landings in the area. “Our job is to police the flying site,” said Nershi. “We check guys out that want to launch Gold Hill, make sure they have the flight hours, site briefings and orientation. It’s our job as local pilots to try and keep people safe.”
According to members, Gold Hill is hands-down the best launch site in the valley. The club strives for safe and clean flying records so as not to lose one of the few sites that keep free flight alive in Telluride. Local pilots serve as liaisons between the ski area and the greater free-flight community.
“We are trying to keep people from shutting our site down,” said Nershi. “Telski is receptive to our club but they are just being cautious about liability.”
The history of free flight in Telluride is closely linked to the ski area and one of its original ski patrollers, Jeff Campbell. Campbell brought the very first hang glider to Telluride in 1972, when he had only a mere inkling as to how to use it. He and fellow ski patrollers would launch their hang gliders from snowmobiles on the ski area before realizing that Gold Hill presented the perfect launch site.
“I’m proud to say that free flight in Telluride started with the ski area,” said Campbell, adding, “I’m glad to see that it still exists today.”
Hang gliding took Telluride by storm in the early 1970s, leading to the establishment of the Telluride Air Force by Chris and Don Dusatko in 1974. Other familiar names tied to the club’s inception are David and Mitch Stanfield, Jon Miseti, Jack Carey, Nershi, Gary Gross, Junior Mahoney, Tom Taylor, Johnny Stevens, Luigi Chiarani, Nick Kennedy, Gus Guest, and Dennis Stuntsman, to name a few. In 1978, Telluride hosted the World Hang Gliding Acrobatic Championships, which brought in world-class pilots from all over the globe. Over the next five years they also hosted the Airman’s Rendezvous. “Those were the days!” said Campbell. “It was so fun to be on the front tier and leading edge of something.”
According to Campbell, hang gliding and paragliding in Telluride is here to stay. “Flying these mountains, there’s not one person that returns to the ground without having had a life experience,” he said. “Flying is a wonderful pursuit. Once you learn how to read and navigate the sky you never let go of it. Like DaVinci said, ‘When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.’”