Get Out There

Local glider pilot history dates back to Mt. Tod days

 | March 22, 2021

Ian McCarthur and Brad Henry sat down with SPIN to discuss the history of paragliding and hang gliding in B.C. and Sun Peaks’ role in its evolution

A signed poster from the first annual speed gliding championships. Photo provided by Ian McCarthur.

Hang gliding and paragliding have been flying high in the Sun Peaks area for over forty years, according to Ian McCarthur and Brad Henry.

Turns out Canada’s history of hang gliding and paragliding competitions, and the evolution of the sport, are intertwined with the resort. 

McCarthur and Henry told SPIN that Sun Peaks was, and still is, the perfect venue for national and international level flying competitions.

McCarthur was one of the early hang gliding trailblazers in Sun Peaks and the first ever Canadian Speed Gliding Nationals were originally directed by McCarthur in 1998 and ‘99 as well the B.C. Provincial Championships and Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) sanctioned Speed Gliding Grand Prix.

Henry was a rookie at the time of those early competitions, which introduced him to FAI (the international body of piloting competitions) events and standards of flying and safety. The events gave Henry his first taste of competition and launched his piloting career to competitions all over the world.

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The Sun Peaks FAI competition was one of the first held in B.C. and was during a time when the piloting community was transitioning from the golden days of hang gliding, to the modern era of paragliding.

McCarthur remembered it was an age when the budding new paragliding pilots were taking over the skies with their large, colourful canopies.

“What we were seeing in the sport was that hang glider pilots were getting older and more potbellied, whereas the paragliders were young, bouncing, vibrant and athletic…who’d drink us under the table. It was embarrassing,” remembered McCarthur. “But now I know it was a generational thing.”

“The paragliders were just getting their way, the hang glider pilots were starting to notice their [club] was being broken up a little bit,” said Henry.

That gang of hang glider pilots had deep roots in the Sun Peaks community and some of them were ski patrollers in the Mt. Tod days.

McCarthur had just graduated highschool in the late 70s and landed himself a spot on ski patrol with a fellow named Neil Smith, who was the first to hang glide at Mt. Tod.

Smith taught locals to do the same, through his unofficial flying school The Smithsonian Institute of Pure Flight on homemade hang gliders he built in the Burfield Lodge.

“[His] preferred teaching method was to take the student down the Five Mile strapped into a seated harness on a tether, and together would fly 20 feet off the ground with them,” said McCarthur. “Of course, you could never do that now.”

Obviously, flying is inherently dangerous. There are liability issues and crashing concerns. This combination of difficulties gave rise to a flying hiatus at Mt. Tod sometime during the 1980s.

McCarthur recalled several close calls while hang gliding over the Crystal Bowl, when launching off of ski runs like Sunnyside, The Chief, or Backdoor was the norm. 

The two styles of flying that the Mt. Tod hang gliders did was speedflying and cross country flying. Speedflying is when pilots fly only 20 or 30 feet off the ground at speeds of up to 70 km/h, whereas cross country flying takes pilots across vast amounts of terrain high in the sky.

“It was all about the glory, everybody wanted to be a daredevil,” McCarthur recalled. “Lots of guys would push the limit a little too far and get themselves in a bad spot.”

McCarthur said it was a time where pilots were “fast and loose” and there were many times where he or his comrades would “take off like wounded vultures” and be forced to abort launches.

He said there were no rules for pilots but if they did have one, it was to wear a helmet, even though most didn’t bother because they figured they wouldn’t live beyond the crash.

“I got a bit sloppy on one particular launch and I could see I was not going to make it over a tree,” he said. “The right wing caught the ground and I turned it into the mountain and I took it to the shoulder.”

Eventually, Mt. Tod ski area management wanted nothing to do with the daring group of hang glider pilots and their low safety standards. 

Pilots eventually realized helmets and reserve parachutes played an important part in the safety of the activity and the technology of the wings was also refined.

An unnamed hang glider flying somewhere over Sun Peaks way back when. Photo Ian McCarthur.

Over the next decade hang gliding continued to evolve, paragliding became more popular and McCarthur went through a marriage and separation. 

He would eventually return to ski patrol, flying, and opened a bed and breakfast in Whitecroft called Sun Valley B&B around 1994. He also brought the regulated provincial, national and international hang gliding and paragliding competitions to the resort with a sufficient risk management plan that was enough to please Sun Peaks’ lawyers.

Sun Valley B&B was a hub for pilots during the competitions where they received cheap rates and shared stories of close calls, bad jokes, and of course, beers.

Henry was a regular guest at the B&B during his rookie years and the cheap stay was perfect for the stereotypical pilot who didn’t care much for a regular job as it would get in the way of flying time.

“Ian was such a great organizer and really good at encouraging people to fly,” recalled Henry. 

Henry was flying on a brand new paragliding wing and remembered the beauty and perfection of flying over Sun Peaks’ geography.

“It was during the alpine flower season. You’d be flying around with 20 other wings in the air, there’s people looking at the flowers and at the same time all these colourful wings in the air. It was quite spectacular,” Henry said.

The hang gliding cohort was initially pushed back against the new way of taking to the skies but were starting to come around, remembered McCarthur.

In contrast, paragliders were slow and the hang gliding community thought the big, bulbous wings looked like jellyfish in the sky, whereas the sharp angle of the hang gliders were more comparable to a shark’s fin.

Eventually, paragliders increased in popularity due to their light weight and stability in marginal conditions.

“I remember quite a few events where conditions weren’t very good and the paraglider pilots went out and just absolutely slaughtered the hang glider pilots,” McCarthur said with a laugh.

McCarthur added the Canadian National Championships returned one last time to Sun Peaks in 2009 which was directed by Ralph Herten.

Nowadays, Henry is hoping to carry on the torch and legacy McCarthur ignited in Sun Peaks with his own round of competitions called the Sun Peaks Aerothlon, a relay race which includes trail running, mountain biking and flying.

You can watch a promotional video on an aerothlon that took place in Pemberton last year, which features Henry, by clicking here.

McCarthur said he’s excited that the dream of competition flying in Sun Peaks is still alive. 

“The work that Brad is putting in, that’s huge. The whole idea of run, bike and fly. I mean it’s just brilliant, he’s going to bring it all home.”

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