“Hi, mama!” echoes a tiny voice from the sky underneath the shadow of a green parachute in pursuit of a soaring red-tailed hawk. The hawk, along with the voice, is caught in a thermal uprising coming off the warming Pacific during a paragliding practice jump at Elings Park.
The voice is from my 5-year-old son, Nikita Gruzdev, as he circles the sky on a tandem jump with Mitch Riley of Eagle Paragliding. The team floats in and out of the line of sight with the sun as they drift through the Sunday sky. After about 15 minutes of airborne time, the duo glides in for a perfect touchdown in the long grasses among a dozen paragliding students and some tiger-colored greyhounds.
Nikita’s smile covers his face as the squealing ensues. “It’s fun, mama. It’s really, really fun!” he says, immediately asking for more. “It’s like eating air!”
Riley laughs as he recoils the thin fibers and double-checks Nikita’s multi-buckle harness. Within minutes they are repositioned, run a few steps into the afternoon air, and are again in flight. Nikita’s tiny green sneakers poke out in front of him as he reclines in his first-class canvas seat.
Riley understands the thrill flying holds for kids. He took his first flight when he was 8 years old and has now been mimicking birds professionally for more than 10 years. The youngest tandem rider he has ever flown with was 3 years old, and the youngest he has certified was 13.
“It’s more of a maturity thing than an age limit,” he said of his youngest certified student. “She has a really good head on her shoulders, makes good decisions, and has great skills.”
Riley has been flying all over the world, including three winters teaching and flying tandems in the Himalayas of Nepal. “It’s my obsession and occupation,” he said.
He has also flown professionally in India, Colorado, Idaho, and now Santa Barbara. “This is a good place to work in the industry,” he explained. “It’s great to fly in the mountains.” His longest flight in this area was to Santa Maria and back.
The car ride home is filled with Nikita’s tall tales of touching red-tailed hawks in flight and recounting the miniature size of the things below — namely, me. “Do you know how little you were from up there?” asks Nikita. “Like an ant!”
When asked if he is interested in someday learning to fly solo, he said, “When I’m a fireman, and I’m not busy spraying out volcanoes, then I’m going to do some more paragliding.”
Then his grandfather raised a warning: “I think he’s going to be a thrill seeker.”