Dreams of Flight and Teachable Moments
“Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”
- Jonas Salk
Who among us has not dreamed of possessing the power of flight? Perhaps the most pervasive and enduring of dreams since my youth were of the ability to fly with the birds. Sometimes those dream flights were enabled by wings, sometimes through invisible means like Superman. There was even a dream, strange in waking hindsight, where I used a boomerang that captured the air and allowed me to soar aloft by changing the angle of attack into a headwind. So many ways I dreamed of flying, and as is the nature of dreams, they only seemed nonsensical once awake. But two things remained the same for all these widely different dreams; they always returned, and they always left me unsatisfied once awake. I still wanted to fly.
However, my dreams of flight, both waking daydreams, and the actual REM unconscious fantasies have left me unmolested by distraction for a couple of years now. Something has changed. That change is that I now really do fly. And since learning to fly, I’ve stopped dreaming about what I wish were true. Somehow, becoming a paragliding pilot and living the dream makes the subject of dreams no longer relegated to my subconscious. And while correlation is not to be confused with causation, at least anecdotally, I believe my real-life flying and no longer dreaming of flying are linked. There was, after all, a brief return to dreams of flight when I could not get airborne for a while during the COVID pandemic.
The Journey So Far and Teachable Moments
Just two months after my first lessons in ground handling, kiting, and towing for my early, nascent efforts at flight on a paraglider, I found myself in Costa Rica. Looking out over a cliff with a majestic view of Dominicalito, I recall saying for anyone who would listen, “this shit just got real.” I was about to take my first actual solo flight and launch off that imposing height, fly over the lush Costa Rican landscape, then land on the beach. Except for the brief return of the dreams during the previously mentioned winter months, this marked the end of my slumber flights. And this flight was everything I hoped it would be. Share the experience here if you wish.
Three months after returning from Costa Rica, and I was off to Colombia for another flying adventure. The Colombia trip marked the transition from jumping from some height and flying straight down to the landing zone to actual flying. I recall hearing friends talking about “flying” when I first started paragliding and honestly finding it somewhat silly. “Why were they calling it ‘flying’?” I wondered. They weren’t flying, I thought. They were jumping off a cliff and, at best, gliding a long time down to the LZ. But in Colombia, I was introduced to “thermaling,” or riding the warm, rising air higher and higher, looking down — way down — at the launch site from which I started. Eventually, I found myself at cloud base. I was entering the cloud formed by the same thermal updrafts I had hitched a ride on to get to this elevation. Entering the cloud necessitated, by the way, a technique called “pulling big ears” to stop going up and getting sucked “into the white room” and getting disoriented inside the cloud. Pulling big ears is called this because you cause the wingtips to fold in and flop around in the wind. Folding your wingtips in like this causes your wing to lose much of its lift. And it does look a lot like two big, floppy dog’s ears.
Fast forward just over a year, and I’ve just returned from my second trip to Colombia, with intervening flights in Utah and several states in the American Northeast. Colombia offered another excellent learning experience and a chance to fly with old friends and make new ones. In addition to my first true cross-country flights, this trip presented several significant, teachable moments. While I am sharing here for all to see, these may be of use and interest to a relatively narrow audience. Those who do not participate in paragliding will likely have little interest or knowledge about what I’m going to share. Paragliding pilots with at least as much experience as I have, or more, will likely already know these lessons better than I do. But I learned, or perhaps relearned, a couple of valuable lessons and decided to share in case it is of use to others.
The easy lesson first. Don’t launch if you are not comfortable launching. Sometimes the best flight is the one you don’t take. I was on launch with many other pilots, all trying to get into the air, so I felt pressure to launch in less-than-optimal conditions for me. I was doing a reverse launch, facing my wing on the ground with my back to the direction I was about to launch (just as at the 45-second mark in this video). Winds were light, and I was near the edge of the launch. I didn’t feel completely comfortable with this because I had to run backwards down the slope to inflate my wing. As a result, when I turned, I stepped into a small hole, or maybe just tripped over my own feet, and ended up rolling down the hill a bit. Twisted knee resulted, and I wore a knee brace the rest of the week. I was lucky it wasn’t worse. I should have just waited until I had more room to maneuver or for stronger winds.
The second and more critical lesson came in dealing with my first cravat. A cravat occurs when a wingtip gets folded in and tangled in one or more suspension lines. I was launching, and just as I was hitting the edge of the slope, someone yelled, “stop, stop, stop!!”. I tried to kill the wing, but I was already going airborne, so I just decided that I would fly if I had lift to fly. People were still yelling behind me, so I looked up to see what was going on, and I saw a big cravat on the left side of my wing.
In the short version of the story, I cleared the cravat and felt I had done a great job. I flew to the LZ to have a beer and ruminate on my success in dealing with my first flight malfunction. The guy who had yelled for me to stop landed and came over with a big smile on his face telling me how lucky I was. Because of the language barrier, I was missing part of his message.
Now I’ll tell you what I did right and what I did precisely wrong in hopes some may learn from my experience.
To clear the cravat, I first attempted pumping the brake line on the side of the cravat. Trying to remove the cravat using the brake line was worse than useless. It almost caused the near-crashes I’ll describe in a moment. Then, I remembered learning to pull the stabilo line to clear a cravat. I reached up for the stabilo line, and after pulling it two or three times, the cravat cleared completely. The stabilo line is the outermost suspension line of the paraglider, and pulling it causes a small collapse on that side of the wing. As a result, most cravats clear relatively easily. It was a great feeling. Upon review and discussion with more experienced pilots, I was reminded that I could have also pulled “big ears” on the side of the cravat to clear it. If the big ears did not clear the cravat, then I could go for the stabilo line. Also, by body shifting to the right to maintain straight and level flight, I could have easily cleared the terrain until at a safe altitude for clearing the cravat.
But here is the real teachable moment, and as a kinesthetic learner, I need to experience something to really learn it. I immediately tried to clear the cravat the moment I saw it. WRONG ACTION! I should have practically ignored the cravat and flown straight out to the valley to gain altitude above ground level, clear the terrain and other obstacles, and only then deal with the cravat issue. “Steer and clear” is what I was told to remember if this happens again, and it probably will. Steer away from the terrain, then clear the cravat.
Because I tried to clear the cravat immediately and to do so by pulling the brake on the cravat side, I violently dove towards the trees, then overcompensated to avoid the trees. This dive toward the trees was because I focused on clearing the cravat and not keeping my wing flying straight. Then I attempted to remove it again, only to dive towards different trees. A third time I tried to clear it, only to descend towards an entirely different paraglider launch site — with a whole new group of pilots all yelling advice to me that I wasn’t hearing.
Again, there is nothing here most of my paragliding friends don’t already know. But for my peers and junior pilots, feel free to learn from my mistake. If you get a cravat, the wing will usually fly just fine until you have enough elevation to clear the situation without fear of crashing into trees. Just body shift the wing opposite to the opposite side of the cravat to steer away from the terrain and avoid using the brake lines until you can clear the cravat. Perhaps the most important lesson from this for me was that the wing would fly just fine with a cravat just so long as the pilot does not try to overcompensate.
This whole experience reminds me of a joke I recently heard on a podcast. “A paraglider is the only aircraft in the world that you taxi in reverse, assemble during takeoff, and maintain while in flight.” True.
These are lessons I won’t soon forget! But in the course of flying, a lot of flying, I’ve had no dreams about flying.
Theories of Dream
Curious about this change in my dream patterns, I consulted friends who are working psychologists and learned about competing theories on why we dream. Some of these theories resonate more with my own experience than others, but personal anecdotes are not data. Who knows why my sleeping brain works the way it does and if the absence of lying in my dreams is even directly related to my real-life activities? My personal experiences alone cannot confirm or deny any of the prevailing theories of dreaming, but it does make for interesting consideration.
Activation-synthesis theory suggests dreams result from stimulation in the brain that brings thoughts to our awareness, or brainstem activity during REM sleep and stimulation of the limbic system. This theory comes from Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, two Harvard psychiatrists who proposed the theory in 1977. Hobson and McCarley suggested that dreams result from the brain trying to make sense of basic biological processes that take place during sleep. One interesting takeaway from this theory for me is Hobson’s five key dream characteristics. Remember how I said one of my dreams of flying involved a boomerang that I held in front of me? Two of Hobson’s five key dream characteristics are illogical content and acceptance of strangeness. I have often thought about how illogical content and acceptance of strangeness are normal parts of the dreaming process. By the way, the other three key characteristics are intense emotions, odd sensory experiences, and difficulty remembering.
Threat-simulation theory suggests that dreams are a way for our subconscious to prepare us for real-life threats. Basically, a dry run of challenges we may face. According to this theory, dreams are a sort of threat simulation during which the mechanisms for threat perception and avoidance are rehearsed. From an evolutionary perspective, those who most effectively dream reactions to threats are most likely to live long enough to reproduce. An interesting hypothesis that comes from this theory is that actual threats encountered by an individual should lead to an increased threat simulation response, or dreams. Perhaps my comfort with flying, justified or not, has removed my subconscious mind’s perceived necessity to rehearse worst-case flying scenarios.
Some sleep and dream researchers believe dreams are a way for our brains to organize knowledge and memories. Brain connections are formed during these dream-states, which help with memory recall. These memories are “indexed” for easier retrieval when needed. In this theory, dreaming is a way for the brain to problem-solve, make decisions, and prioritize. One might think I should be dreaming of flying more than ever, according to this theory. After all, every time I fly, I learn new things and become more aware of just how much more I have yet to learn.
I’m no psychologist, nor do I play one on TV. I won’t attempt to guess which theory, or theories, best accounts for my dearth of flight dreams since I’ve started paragliding. In fact, it seems somewhat counterintuitive based on the best explanations for dream utility. If, for example, the last theory listed above holds, one should expect me to dream more of flight now than before. After all, I routinely do fly hundreds or even thousands of feet above the ground. Depending on the nature of the lift encountered, either ridge or thermal lift, I may fly for hours. Sometimes only landing because I’ve gotten cold, hungry, or maybe need a bio-break of some kind. With all the attendant sensory inputs, it would stand to reason my subconscious mind may need to process this, prioritize it, and store it in memory for easy retrieval when next needed. But no, not so much, not for me. Actual flying has somehow convinced my subconscious mind that dreaming of flight is now superfluous.
While my old dreams of flight were entertaining, dreams are not as fulfilling as the real thing. I am quite happy to truly fly and save my dream states for other, perhaps unobtainable, desires.