‘Sky god’ chases state paragliding record 

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Most West Virginians who travel south drive through the Big Walker Mountain Tunnel along Interstate 77 in Bland County, VA. Richard Gillespie wanted to fly over the same mountain. 

He’s a paraglider, which means that he runs off of mountains with a “wing” (parachute) attached to a harness in which he sits. No motor. No power. No rigid frame for the wing. Just a seat and lines attached to the wing which allow him to control direction, pitch, and speed. 

Two weeks ago, Richard took off from the top of Peters Mountain in Monroe County, WV–with only his wing (and a backup chute in case of trouble)–chasing the record of the longest paragliding flight in state history. A record that has jumped around the state from once atop Spruce Knob in 2016 and more recently in 2019 at High Point, WV. 

“I figured if I could make it to over Big Walker,” he said, “I would have a shot at the record.” 

‘Sky god’

“In our paragliding community, Richard is known as a ‘sky god,’” Barry Rich tells me. “He has serious skills at sniffing out thermals, traveling very far distances, and staying aloft for long hours, just like a migrating eagle.”

Barry created and maintains a launch site at property he owns on the peak of Peters Mountain. 

“I’ve always been drawn to the Bible verse Genesis 2:15,” he offers, “which says God put man in the garden to work it and take care of it. My mother was quite the gardener, and she passed part of her legacy to me.”

Barry Rich created a launch on his land at the peak of Peters Mountain.

Barry is a paraglider too. He’s surfed and whitewater rafted, but it all pales in comparison to paragliding. “The sport compares to nothing else I have ever done,” he says. “I daydream about it all the time.”

The view from Barry’s launch today. Richard calls it “pristine.” Barry thinks “manicured” is a good way to describe it.

‘The higher I am, the happier I am’

Richard began paragliding in 2007 while living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He attended a school to receive training and then began taking flights. 

He’s originally from Greenbrier County, WV, but now lives in Washington, DC. He flies recreationally for fun across the country, and he also recently began competing. 

At the Chelan Open 2023 this past summer, Richard competed for the first time in a sanctioned competition. You might wonder how you compete in paragliding?  

Organizers set up routes, which they call tasks. Pilots then compete to see who can compete the tasks in the quickest time. At the Chelan Open, they completed three tasks over a week’s time (weather interrupted several days of competition). 

Out of 150 pilots, many of which have competed and won world events, Richard finished 24th overall. “I felt good about my results and will do it again,” he says. 

What draws him to the sport? “The higher I am, the happier I am,” he tells me. He says that paragliding allows him to live in the moment, focusing only on his flight as he sails through the sky.

An average flight on the east coast would be at around 6,000 feet up in the air. Out west, he explains, pilots routinely fly at twice that, or 12,000 feet. 

“You can fly at any altitude with the right conditions,” he explains. “There are guys who have flown over Mount Everest.” 

How do paragliders fly?

Richard launches from Barry’s site at the top of Peters Mountain. He takes a running start and allows the wind to lift him into the air.

I ask Richard to explain to me simple how he’s able to fly. He says, “It’s like surfing the mountain.”

He describes two ways pilots stay airborne–dynamic ridge lift and thermal lift. 

“Dynamic ridge lift happens on almost any mountain.  In West Virginia we have these nice long ridges that run for miles that look like waves on a sea from up high,” he says. “When the wind flow lines up perpendicular to the mountains, it’s called ridge lift. It’s the air rolling up these mountainsides creating the rising air we call dynamic ridge lift.”

“The second type of lift is thermic,” he tells me. “Hot air rises from the earth and forms cumulus clouds, so as long as you fly under them you have a pretty good chance of finding a thermal. You can also watch the birds and follow them. They show you the way to the thermal.”

Big Walker Mountain

Which brings us back to Richard’s attempt at the longest paragliding flight in West Virginia history, which is 74 miles. 

His plan was to take off from Peters Mountain, ride the ridges to Pearisburg, and hope to find a thermal that would take him up and over Big Walker Mountain. If he could make it over Big Walker, he felt confident he could glide on down to Fancy Gap Mountain and make it all the way to Mount Airy, NC. Which would be longer than the current record flight originating in West Virginia. But things didn’t go exactly as planned. 

“I was getting pretty low towards Pearisburg, VA,” he remembers. “I saw three broad-tailed hawks circling together, so I turned and headed right to them and found a thermal.” It took him high enough to climb over Pearis Mountain. 

“The birds showed me the way,” he says. 

Richard took off from Peters Mountain (the green circle) and flew 46 miles in nearly four hours before landing at Big Walker Mountain in Virginia (the red circle).

That thermal took him all the way to Big Walker, but he was too low to climb over it. He was forced to land in a farmer’s field there. He made it 46 miles, flew for nearly four hours, and hasn’t given up hope that his path can lead to a new record. 

“It’s certainly possible,” he believes. And Barry Rich agrees. 

“I predict Richard will eventually tag the West Virginia state distance record,” Barry says.  

Life lessons

Record or not, Richard will continue flying. He enjoys the serenity of the soaring experience, feeling the birds, clouds, and air rushing by. 

“When you’re flying, you want to take all the best opportunities that come to you,” he explains. “To do that, you need knowledge and skills. I try to think about that a lot in life. Opportunities come and you need to have the ability to take advantage.”

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