Skydiving and Hang Gliding in the Willamette

By Bethany Carlson

IMG_6433_peter_and_john-1“I knew I wanted to become a hang glider in the 5th grade,” says John Matylonek, the founder of the Corvallis-based Oregon Hang Gliding School. “Flying has been man’s dream from the beginning. Hang gliding is as close to becoming a bird as possible–the wing becomes an extension of your body.”

Hang gliding joins skydiving and paragliding as popular “extreme sports.” A skydiving company, Eugene Skydivers, rounds out the mid-Valley offerings.

About 100 students go through the Oregon Hang Gliding School every year, with about 10 percent continuing training to become independent, accomplished hang gliders. Matylonek moved here in 1991 and says, “I recognized the place as a wonderful place for training.” He says that western Oregon is the hang gliding training area for much of the Pacific Northwest. An introductory full day lesson costs $130 and a kids’ introduction is $90.

Peterson Butte, near Lebanon, is a popular location for both hang gliders and paragliders. In the summer, the northern Oregon coast is popular. The Oregon Hang Gliding School’s area of operations moves back to Corvallis for the rest of the year. “The wintertime is a great time to train,” says Matylonek. “It’s cool, the air is very smooth and coming from the east, and we have some nice east-facing training hills.”

Even Mary’s Peak, that local icon, gets in on the action. Mike Steed, of the Portland-based Cascade Paragliding Club, reports that he’s facilitated several paragliding expeditions on Mary’s Peak in the last year. “Mary’s Peak is a little unusual in that there’s hiking involved. (Paragliders) need a certain level of skill there, because the landing is a little sketchy.” It also depends on where the clear cuts are during a given year. Steed, who’s been paragliding since the ‘90s, continues “We’ve done it in snowshoes.”

Matylonek emphasizes that “(hang gliding is) five feet off the ground, with most of my clients being kids.” Safety comes first and “There is no ‘getting the gist’ of hang gliding,” which includes following training directions and not skipping steps to save money. Hang gliding is distinct from skydiving or bungee jumping, he says, in that a lot of training is required to become really proficient. “It’s an art form. It’s a skill that requires harmony with nature, harmony with yourself–physically and emotionally. It requires more personal growth, so it’s that much more rewarding.”

That said, both skydivers and hang gliders provide a beginner-friendly atmosphere. “It’s a gradual step-by-step process by which you garner skills, and you always feel comfortable at every step of the process,” says Matylonek, of the hang gliding school.

Comfortable, by contrast, is not the word that most of us would use to describe skydiving. What’s that quote about jumping out of a perfectly good airplane? This writer found her toes curling at the mere sight of photos of happily airborne skydivers. Yet, Eugene Skydivers makes it accessible. According to their website, there’s no uncomfortable falling sensation and “it feels more like swimming than falling.” “Anybody can do this–women are equally as effective at this sport as men,” says Urban Moore, the owner of Eugene Skydivers. “It’s between your ears.”

Eugene Skydivers reports that a tandem jump, where a student jumps along with an instructor, can be trained for in under an hour. A first tandem dive, including training, costs $199. Reservations are recommended, particularly on the weekends. Eugene Skydivers is located in Cresswell, just south of Eugene. They also offer the Accelerated Freefall (AFF) training, a five-hour class that, after at least seven jumps with instructors, prepares students to dive on their own. Moore says 700 or 800 new students are trained every year. A few return for a second jump or more training.

“It’s perceived as a really scary, dangerous thing to do when it really isn’t,” says Moore. “I’m at almost 9600 jumps and I still enjoy doing them at (age) 65.” Injuries are uncommon and tend to be on the bruises-and-sprains end of the spectrum. They’ve been jumping since 1991, and the sole fatality in that time was caused by a health issue not related to the landing. “We acknowledge that the risk is there, but it’s a manageable risk,” says Moore, describing safety innovations such as automatic-release reserve parachutes and audible altimeters that alert a diver when they need to deploy their chute.

Moore says some people go skydiving in order to get over a fear of heights, and continues, “For others it’s just a liberating thing–if they can do this, they can do whatever. It empowers them.”