Relying on 13 years of airborne experience, Santa Barbara paragliding addict Cormac O’Brien is now with 26 fellow pilots on their way to an aerial cruise of a lifetime: a 16,000-foot descent from atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Even before starting their weeklong trek up the mountain on September 21, each member of this Wings of Kilimanjaro team raised thousands of dollars for WorldServe International, which has built hundreds of clean-water wells across Africa since 2001.
“It’s a confluence of really cool things,” said O’Brien, an EMT by profession who personally raised more than $1,300 of the team’s current $155,000-plus tally. “It perfectly combines our love for flying and getting to do something good because of it.”
The paraglide itself, which spans over dozens of miles of untouched African wilderness, is considered one of the most difficult courses to attempt. “It’s something that’s only been done by a very small group of people,” said O’Brien. “It makes it that much cooler to say that we’ve done it once we make it to the bottom.” With unpredictable weather, the itinerary allots for an additional three nights to wait for safe conditions at the peak. They could take off as soon September 28 or as late as October 1, after which time they would hike down if the winds did not cooperate.
O’Brien came to Santa Barbara as a freshman at UCSB, and his introduction to paragliding began with a dare from his brother. “We were playing a game of volleyball at Elings Beach, and a paraglider passed by overhead,” said O’Brien. “I never thought that’d be me one day.”
After a day of lessons, O’Brien quickly became a junkie, connecting with a “beyond welcoming” community of enthusiasts around the world. He’s soared over seven different countries so far, his favorite trip being a flight with his brother over the weathered rooftops of his father’s hometown fishing village on Ireland’s cliff-studded coastline.
O’Brien’s brother left the hobby for good after having his first child, but O’Brien continued his craft and recently acquired a tandem pilot license. So he’ll also be piloting one lucky person down from Kilimanjaro. “They’ll basically just be a sack of potatoes,” said O’Brien. “You need someone to hold the selfie stick.”
After landing, participants will visit one of the Wings of Kilimanjaro–sponsored schools. Then O’Brien plans to scuba dive off Tanzania’s coast and, of course, spend a couple more hours in the air before he returns. “This is going to sound kind of hippieish,” said O’Brien, “but the sport itself is kind of spiritual. You instantly get catapulted into this trance-like focus where the only thing you have to focus on is flying. Everything else fades out.”