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Original Issue

Winged Migration

Paraglider Will Gadd soared into the record books with a harrowing solo flight across the Grand Canyon

I have a lot of flying dreams," says Will Gadd, "and this is as close as I can come in real life." For the last 10 years Gadd, who is 37 and lives in Canmore, Alberta, high in the Canadian Rockies, has devoted himself mostly to adventure paragliding; on Sept. 7 he became the first person to paraglide across the Grand Canyon. "Years ago I flew over the Grand Canyon in a jet," Gadd says. "I had just started gliding then, and I remember thinking how cool it would be to glide over it. It's the wildest desert landscape, the most amazing piece of terrain anywhere in the world."

Gadd did the four-hour flight in a 15-pound glider made mostly of ripstop nylon--"the lightest aircraft in the world, basically a tent," as he says. Gadd's adventure began 15 miles southwest of the canyon's South Rim. A truck driven by a member of his three-person support crew towed him some 1,000 feet, like a kid running with a kite, to give him enough momentum to get airborne. Maneuvering to find thermals, currents of rising air, he had ascended to about 17,000 feet by the time he reached the canyon's edge and went into his glide, during which he flew eight or nine feet forward for every foot of descent. "The most fear was going on glide," he says. "Once you start, it's absolute commitment." Gadd would either make it the 10 miles across from rim to rim or end up on the canyon floor.

"If you blew it, the landing would be hectic," Gadd says. "There's much more wind down there, and it's a very convoluted canyon, lots of spires and ridges. It would be easy to get blown backward into a cliff and fall down it as your wing collapsed. And even if you landed, you'd still be in the biggest canyon in the world, and there are a lot of places where it would be tough to climb out." Gadd flew with climbing rope and gear, plus a day and a half's worth of water. A friend, Chris Santacroce, flew a motorized hang glider to act as a spotter in case Gadd went down. (An expert climber, Josh Briggs, was waiting on the South Rim in case Gadd needed help extricating himself from the canyon.)

After a scare just past the North Rim--the thick, wooded Kaibab National Forest made landing tricky--Gadd touched down in a meadow off Route 67, the Grand Canyon Scenic Highway. "It's like 3-D chess, and I don't think there was one minute when I wasn't trying to figure out where to go in the air," Gadd said last week from Canmore, where he was decompressing by painting the fence around his house red. "Time seems to fall apart up there. It seems endless, and like nothing." --Daniel G. Habib




To avoid the canyon's swirling winds, Gadd (inset) took his 15-pound glider to nearly 18,000 feet.