Image depicts a person in a wheelchair paragliding against a partially-clear blue sky.

Edition 21 | Summer 2020

Adaptive paragliding in Utah

by Karam Gafsi

When the wind allows it, it’s the town of Draper, Utah, where many first take flight.

Atop a mountain range in Draper known as “Point of the Mountain,” people of all kinds visit to run off its edge and soar the skies.

The wind whisks these visitors away and carries them upward, sometimes thousands of feet aboveground—enough to make the highways of Draper look like a trail of ants bustling between board game-like miniatures of houses, restaurants and an IKEA.

Many have been able to experience flight off Point of the Mountain, as well as many other locations nationwide, thanks to the efforts of Project Airtime, a nonprofit based in Draper.

Project Airtime specializes in introducing paragliding free of charge, regardless of any physical or cognitive disability. Thus, opening up a world of flight to those who would typically not have access to paragliding such as amputees and those who use wheelchairs.

It was because of Project Airtime that Sherene Ricci was able to travel to Draper for a paragliding flight.

During a battle with cancer, Ricci made the decision to have her left leg amputated after the cancer reached her leg’s sciatic nerve. Since the amputation, Ricci has utilized crutches to get around.

Residing in Missoula, Montana, Ricci traveled to Draper after getting in touch with Project Airtime with the hopes of paragliding off Point of the Mountain.

Ricci said becoming an amputee has led her to seek out more adrenaline-fueled activities that she wouldn’t have regularly done before losing her leg. She sees paragliding as adventurous rather than intimidating.

“I like to scare myself a little sometimes,” said Ricci. “I spent a lot of time being afraid of dying of cancer, and that’s no fun, so I might as well be afraid of something that’s beautiful and amazing.”

It’s people like Ricci who led to the development of Project Airtime, according to its founder, Chris Santacroce.

Santacroce said Project Airtime is meant to offer free paragliding to those who may have their “horizons limited” in terms of what is deemed possible. This includes those with mental or physical disabilities, veterans and elderly who may not be aware that paragliding is a possibility.

Image shows the faces of two people paragliding. Their faces and the top of their parachute is visible.

“We really take everybody flying,” said Santacroce. “That’s our mission statement. We are taking people that are rising up against adversity.”

Project Airtime came about as Santacroce continued to encounter those who needed adaptive equipment to be able to paraglide. As a result, the nonprofit examines the needs of those they take paragliding and finds ways to get them into the air by offering solutions, such as flying with an adaptive chair.

With the increasing accessibility of paragliding nationwide thanks to the nonprofit, Santacroce said he sees Project Airtime as the “temporary custodians” of a movement allowing more people to experience the excitement of paragliding. While Project Airtime is based in Utah, the nonprofit will also work with paragliding pilots nationwide and ship out adaptive chairs for their consumers.

“We have a broad reach,” said Santacroce.” All of a sudden, we had multiple chairs and we had multiple pilots. And all of a sudden, we had flights happening in Missoula and Seattle the same day they’re happening here [Draper].”

After arriving in Draper, Santacroce met with Ricci to coordinate a tandem paragliding flight that would make use of the adaptive chair; however, once they got to Point of the Mountain, they encountered an issue.

The wind was not cooperating.

 On site that day was Joe Stone, a professional paraglider and ambassador for Project Airtime. According to Stone, while the wind speeds were optimal, the wind was not blowing the right direction for a safe flight.

“That’s just part of paragliding sometimes,” said Stone. “You just gotta say no and wait for a better time to get in the air.”

 After a few hours of waiting, the wind had finally decided to allow Ricci to fly.

Ricci was transferred and secured to the adaptive chair as Santacroce guided the wing into the air. The Draper wind billowed into the wing overhead.

Santacroce began to push Ricci and her chair forward. Just as they reached the edge of Point of the Mountain, Ricci’s wheels began to hover above ground.

Image depicts Ricci and her chair lifting off the ground and taking flight.

And up they went.

Santacroce and Ricci soared along Point of the Mountain, enjoying a view of the small town of Draper.

Eventually, the two landed at the base of the mountain, about 280 feet from where they had originally begun to hover.

The flight was over; however, according to Ricci, there would be many more to come.

“Would I do this a million times?” Ricci asked. “Yes! Yes, I would. I definitely want more of this.”

According to Stone, it’s experiences like Ricci’s that Project Airtime exists to provide.

“I think the biggest misconception is something like paragliding isn’t possible for people with disabilities,” said Stone. “It’s proven to not only be possible, but way easier than most people think. I think it [Project Airtime] has really opened up a lot of people’s eyes.”  

Stone said that by experiencing paragliding, people with disabilities can gain a greater sense of confidence that “trickles down” into other areas of life. “By taking that energy we get from going out and doing these exciting things, we can bring that into everyday life,” said Stone. “It creates a higher quality of life when we have more opportunities to get out and experience life.”

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Karam Gafsi

Karam Gafsi | Writer

Karam Gafsi is a multimedia journalist with a love for all things video as well as magazine writing. He is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Through his videos and his writing, Gafsi strives to keep his audience not only informed, but entertained.

Read more by Karam Gafsi.