Jump for joy

A group of paragliding fans have banded together to practise the sport and bring colour to the skies

At the open field in front of the Marina Bay Cruise Centre last Saturday, curious anglers, foreign workers and cruise passengers stopped to take in the unusual sight of colourful "jellyfish" mushrooming from the ground.

These "jellyfish" are actually paragliders - parachute-like aerial equipment controlled by pilots using a series of lines.

The 16 pilots, from the seven- month-old Paragliders Association Singapore, were having their weekly ground practice to master control of their gliders.

But do not expect them to take to the sky. Life!Weekend understands that paragliding is not allowed in Singapore, hence the pilots stay on land and only practise their ground handling skills.

But that has not clipped the wings of the paragliding community here.

Last August, a group of enthusiasts formed the Paragliders Association Singapore to promote the sport here. Safra Adventure Club is also planning an inaugural introductory paragliding course in Bali later this year.

The association now has 35 members, half of whom are Singaporeans and the rest, foreigners living here. Depending on the weather and wind conditions, they gather for weekly ground practice sessions at open fields in Woodlands, Tuas or the Marina Bay area.

Regular practice of ground handling makes for an easier transition when they go overseas to fly.

The association's secretary Ivan Chang, 45, has about 15 years of paragliding experience. He says: "Before this, the paragliders here were lone rangers who practised on their own. But now, we are able to gather enough mass to create awareness among the public and authorities of the sport."

He adds that the association hopes to "promote comradeship among the community and make sure Singapore paragliders abide by safety rules overseas".

It organises regular paragliding trips to places such as Bali and the Himalayas.

Paragliding is a wind-dependent aerial sport where a parachute-like wing is attached to the pilot by a harness and a series of lines. Unlike parachuting in which the pilot leaps off an airplane, paragliding pilots are hauled up from an elevated spot by upward moving air.

These pilots control the direction and speed of the glider using two brake handles, each connected to a bundle of lines attached to the wing. To guide their flight, they use global positioning software or a variometer, which records changes in elevation.

Mr Chang says there are no paragliding schools and certified instructors in Singapore, so members go to places such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Nepal to obtain their pilot licence or to fly.

He hopes to get the authorities to recognise the sport and give guidelines on how to practise it here.

"At times, we have the police coming up to us and taking down our numbers. Though nothing bad has happened so far," he says, adding that the association plans to write to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore for guidelines on the sport.

The authority, which regulates recreational and commercial aerial activities here, did not reply to Life!Weekend's queries by press time.

The colourful gliders have attracted curious onlookers, some of whom eventually join the association.

One of them is property agent Jessica Koh, 40. While on a joy ride on her motorcycle last May, gliders at Woodlands caught her eye.

"I have never heard of paragliding and was interested to learn the sport as a way to overcome my phobia of heights," she says.

She took a four-day basic course with a private instructor in Malaysia before completing an Open Sky Pilot course at an Association of Paragliding Pilots and Instructors' flight school in Nepal. The five-day course, which cost ¤450 (S$730), allows her to fly under the supervision of an instructor.

On her first solo flight in Malaysia, she says: "It was scary. But I managed to overcome my fear."

She adds: "I love the freedom of flying like a bird. It is so peaceful and quiet up in the air."

Paragliding may be in its infancy here but the association's youngest member, Mr Deon Tan, a Nanyang Technological University maritime studies undergraduate, has high aspirations for the sport.

Mr Tan, 24, started paragliding four years ago after the word turned up in his Google search for the "most dangerous sport". He hopes to represent Singapore in international competitions such as the SEA Games, where paragliding is one of the sports.

The gravity-defying sport is not just for the young. At age 64, Mr Lee Poo Kang is the association's oldest member.

The father of three has loved airplanes from a young age. His hobby for more than 30 years has been operating remote control model airplanes. He owns Rotor Hobby Entreprises, a remote control aeromodelling shop on Kreta Ayer Road.

He was introduced to the world of paragliding four years ago, during one of the many trips he made to attend trade shows in China.

"Since my model airplanes can fly, why not get myself to fly too? Paragliding is also the most affordable form of flying, compared to a light aircraft flying course," he says.

A private pilot light aircraft licence course can cost about $12,000.

In 2009, he took a paragliding course in Shenzhen for 3,000 yuan and has been on paragliding trips in China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Bali.

One of his most memorable experiences was crashing into a tree in Taiwan two years ago. He was about to land when a gust of wind swept him into a tree.

"It is common to crash into a tree. I just used my glider like a tree swing while waiting for the firemen to rescue me," he says with a chuckle. He was not injured.

While most will baulk at engaging in such a high-risk sport at his age, he has the support of his wife, Madam Toh Yeow Hoy, 57, and three daughters who are in their 20s and 30s.

"As long as I can still walk, I will continue paragliding. I am very happy up in the air because I do not have to think about work," he says with a laugh.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 8, 2013

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