‘I instantly knew’: Women explain why they fell in love with paragliding

‘I instantly knew’: Women explain why they fell in love with paragliding

September 4, 2022

The sun was setting off Mount Elliot in Victoria the first time Natalia Huber went paragliding.

“I instantly knew this was ‘the thing’ that I had been searching for. I fell in love with paragliding in that instant,” she said.

Paraglider Natalia Huber in action at Long Reef on Sydney’s northern beaches.Credit:Nick Moir

Huber, 40, a senior change manager from Sydney’s northern beaches, found the stress release from the sport life-changing.

“It is one of the very few times in life where I am brought intensely into the present moment. Everything instantly disappears but the profoundly beautiful moment of soaring the wind or flying a thermal,” she said.

When Huber started paragliding in 2019, 95 per cent of the flying community were male. It wasn’t easy to connect with other women in the sport.

“Especially at regional flying sites and clubs where you may be the only female pilot,” she said.

Karen Waller, 41, is a health promotion officer based in Victoria. When Waller and Huber became friends, they created a WhatsApp group, ‘Women with Wings Australia’ for female pilots in November 2020.

The original purpose was simple – to connect and support female pilots in Stanwell and the Greater Sydney area. However, it rapidly evolved into a thriving community of 130 female pilots with varying experience levels from all over Australia.

It appears their efforts are working. Mark Pike, acting operations manager of Sports Aviation Federation of Australia (SAFA), says female pilots now account for 8.2 per cent, an increase from last year’s 7.8 per cent.

“There is quite a bit of work being done around the regional associations … running events for women. SAFA has been reinforcing the women in sport message with interviews with, and achievements of our female pilots,” Pike said.

Natalia Huber formed a group to help more women get into paragliding.Credit:Nick Moir

To increase the participation of women and girls in sport, the NSW government set up an initiative, Her Sport Her Way. Last year, Women with Wings teamed up with the NSW Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (NSWHPA) to apply for a grant to help female pilots in sports aviation.

The grant enables the group to improve female pilot retention, skill, numbers in competitions, and numbers in leadership positions. One of the ways they do this is by re-engaging pilots that have lapsed and delivering ‘check flights’ to re-license them and ensure they are safe to fly again.

After an 18-month break from the sport for health reasons, Catherine McMillan attended a refresher clinic in May 2021. The support was exactly what she needed to give her the confidence to get up in the air again.

“All the beautiful women I have met as part of this group, have also been highly instrumental in facilitating my transition into my current state of being consumed by a joyful, flying addiction,” she said.

Waller appreciates the personal growth that comes from a passion for flight.

“It is a constant journey that fluctuates between building your confidence and belief in yourself, to reminding you of humility, understanding your limits and having respect for nature and the elements that we fly in.”

Babushka Ferenczi has been paragliding for more than 15 years and questions why there is a lack of women in the sport. She says there is no physical strength limit that would prevent women from flying.

“The technical aspects are actually really simple,” she said. “It’s all about dexterity and being gentle.”

Judy de Groot is the grants coordinator of the NSWHPA. She says women have less time to dedicate to hobbies.

“Women are more absorbed in the needs of the family and household commitments. Men feel they can just get up and out the door,” she said.

Karen Waller paragliding.Credit:Colin Leggett

But de Groot is inspired by how many women do want to get out and fly.

“Women are running kids around to dance, sport and soccer. How much time is required for a hobby? You finally get to a Saturday and if the wind is flyable it’s not the women who say ‘it’s on – I’m going flying’.”

For Huber, the sport has given her a favourite memory of two paragliding girlfriends delivering her a cider as she landed in the field off Mount Emu in the Kiewa Valley.

“It was just so lovely to have my girlfriends there to share in my joy of what was my biggest solo flight at that time,” she said.

“I have gained a beautiful free-flying community with wonderful friends that support each other. I have had so much support personally from the broader flying community – I am eternally grateful.”

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