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SAN DIEGO: Riding on air

First of an occasional series

Paragliders over Torrey Pines Gliderport

Paragliders over Torrey Pines Gliderport | ©Greg Gross

My thing is seeing the world, but when you live in one of the world’s more desired tourist destinations, sometimes you just have to acknowledge the obvious. So every so often, I’ll be showing why people love coming to San Diego.

To celebrate the return of British Airways to California’s second largest city, I thought I’d kick things off with a nod to San Diego’s ties to aviation, past and present.

The history of American flight also happens to be the history of San Diego.

The first successful glider in the United States flew here in 1883. Aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss first taught the Navy to fly here in 1911. The plane that Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927 may have been called the Spirit of St. Louis, but it was built in San Diego.

You can check out a lot of that history for yourself at any of several aviation museums scattered across the San Diego area, the biggest and best of which would have to be the San Diego Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park.

Inside, you’ll find everything from replicas of Lindbergh’s famous monoplane to modern jets fighters to full-sized replicas of U.S. space capsules and even an exhibit devoted to Star Trek.

You don’t even have to go inside (although you should). Mounted outside the building are an SR-71 Blackbird, still the world’s fastest plane after almost half a century, and a Sea Dart, a tiny jet fighter that actually could take off and from and land on water.

The museum is located almost directly under the flight pattern of the city’s main airport, Lindbergh Field, and you’ll see and hear jet airliners flying overhead throughout your visit.

I never realized how fitting that was until just now.

Actually, lots of people like to fly here, especially on the weekends.

They just don’t all like to use airplanes.

They call this a paraglider It looks a bit like a parachute, but with three important differences:

  1. You don’t have to jump out of an airplane, just off a cliff.
  2. It’s completely steerable, and
  3. You don’t merely fall. You FLY.

One of the most popular places to do this is the Torrey Pines Gliderport in the La Jolla area of San Diego, near the University of California, San Diego campus.

They fly everything here from model sailplanes to hang gliders and full-sized sailplanes, as well as the paragliders you see here. Winds off the Pacific Ocean hit the sandstone cliffs here and flow straight up, creating a reliable source of lift.

This has been a popular place for what pilots collectively call “soaring” since 1930. In fact, Lindbergh was the first to fly a glider off this cliff, which may explain why it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Instructors will take you paragliding with them. Even with your eyes closed, you can tell when they’re are flying with a novice or a passenger.

The delighted screams give them away.

If you’d rather just watch, you can do that for free. A small cafe sells sandwiches and cold drinks. Picnic tables scattered on the grounds and a rooftop observation deck provide the perspective.

If you’re lucky, you might see a red-tailed hawk briefly fly along with the humans and show them how it’s done.

The pelicans, gliding by effortlessly in their V-formations, can’t be bothered.

This is a great place to admire the view of the San Diego coastline, to get a few lungfuls of fresh sea air, or just reflect on what a miracle it is to fly.

San Diego A & Space Museum
2001 Pan American Plaza
Balboa Park
San Diego CA 92101-1636
PHONE: (619) 234-8291
HOURS: 10 a.m, — 4:30 p.m. daily (no admittance after 4 p.m.)

Torrey Pines Gliderport
2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive
La Jolla, CA CA 92037-1004
PHONE: (858) 452-9858
(don’t worry. You’re still in San Diego, even if
La Jollans are loathe to acknowledge the fact)

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