With the economy in the toilet and orange alerts intermittently pushing the flush handle, many people are postponing long-distance holidays. Want to forget about the unemployment rate and your mounting credit card debt for a while?
Jump out of a plane at 14,000 feet.
Soar above the bay on a glider plane.
Swing upside down on a flying trapeze.
Get high, without the airport security frisk.
"People work 40, 50, 60 hours a week. But when they're getting ready to jump out of a plane, they're not thinking about the bills," says Mike Tjaarda, owner of Bay Area Skydiving in Byron. "It's a quick reality check."
In Tjaarda's view, the best way to experience skydiving the first time is a tandem jump. After 45 minutes of instruction, you're ready to step out of a Cessna at 14,000 feet. But you won't be alone.
In a tandem jump, the student is harnessed in front of the instructor. This way, the student is the first one out of the plane and doesn't feel attached to anything but the parachute. But the instructor is there, just in case. The freefall portion of a tandem jump generally lasts 65 to 70 seconds. The four-minute canopy ride that follows gives new meaning to the idea of a "bay view."
Since safety is a priority, Tjaarda advises even tandem jumpers to be in reasonable physical shape. But Tjaarda, who served in the military during Desert Storm and has owned Bay Area Skydiving for three years, says he fosters an environment where everyone is welcome at a family-run place with frequent barbeques at sundown.
The average tandem instructor has done thousands of dives, and safety is a high priority. "Like any extreme sport, as long as you respect the sport, you'll be all right," Tjaarda says.
For those who want to work toward a license, Bay Area Skydiving offers an accelerated freefall program in which, after eight hours of ground school, you can be jumping solo.
Bodhi Kroll, owner of the Marin-based San Francisco Hang Gliding Center, has been hang gliding for 19 years -- and admits to a fear of heights. "Flying isn't the same as standing on a ladder or a rooftop," he says, "Just think of looking out of a plane window when you are flying -- are you scared?"
The high-altitude adventure trip from Mt. Tamalpais to the north end of Stinson Beach is a center specialty; depending on weather, the trip lasts seven to 30 minutes. The flight is tandem, on a hang glider built for two. Both student and instructor run down Mt. Tam, and when flight speed is reached -- in about 10 to 15 steps -- the glider lifts off. But when the wind is favorable, Kroll says, liftoff can happen in only one or two steps.
You can also learn to solo at San Francisco Hang Gliding Center. Lessons cover everything from learning to set up and balance the glider in the wind to hang gliding from the low bunny hills near the Berkeley Marina. Most people need 10 to 15 lessons before they're ready to fly solo off a mountain.
And most people just choose the tandem ride. Why?
"For the thrill of it," Kroll says.
An aquaglider is a hang glider with two pontoons attached to it, like a floatplane, but with its own power system for taking off and landing on the water. Kroll says he created his first aquaglider himself, converting a land machine into a sea craft because weather conditions often made it impossible for the San Francisco Hang Gliding Center to fly customers off Mt. Tam.
"We were running a hang glider company that was weather dependent," he explains. "The weather could be good on Mt. Tam, but bad at Stinson. We needed something to offer customers."
The center's aquaglide ride takes off and lands on the water at different harbors around the bay. As with hang gliding, a first aquaglide is often done in tandem fashion. The rider sits in a belted seat and can wear street clothes; Kroll promises no one will get wet. Even on the first lesson, a student can usually take over most of the flying.
Gliding in a sailplane with no engine, a narrow body, and long, thin wings is, Connie Indrebo says, "peaceful and thrilling at the same time."
Crazy Creek Soaring, run by Indrebo and her husband, Jim, since 1990, is a family-and-friends affair tucked into the hillside at the Middletown Gliderport in Lake County, north of Calistoga. The two haven't been shy about welcoming -- and encouraging -- anyone who might want to glide. Belinda Derenia, a newly licensed glider pilot, describes her start: "Jim and Belinda kept coming into the deli where I worked and asking me if I wanted to come for a ride. I finally gave in and went for one, and I was hooked."
Crazy Creek offers gliders for one or two passengers. Single passengers have the heady experience of sitting up front in the sailplane, with the pilot operating the glider from behind; they might even have the opportunity to steer. Passengers sit reclined, as in a race car, and the transparent hatch that is lowered over them offers 360-degree views.
At Crazy Creek, glides start with a tow: A small, powered plane pulls the glider up into the air by a rope. Depending on wind conditions, the plane will either tow the glider to altitude or let it go as soon as it catches a thermal (a current of hot rising air). Once the tow plane disengages, a glider usually flies for 15 to 20 minutes, but that flight time is not set in stone. Gliders don't just float where the wind takes them. Pilots control the plane at all times and can stay up for hours.
Once soaring quietly at 5,000 feet, passengers can expect to see all of Lake County as well as north to the Sierras and south to San Francisco. "It's not uncommon to fly with a bald eagle," Indrebo says.
Adventurous passengers can opt for aerobatic flights that include loops and rolls and other upside-down fun. And diehards can study with a Crazy Creek Soaring instructor for a solo or private pilot license.
"Flying trapeze can be for anyone," Erick Methot, an instructor at the Circus Center, says. "Even if you're overweight, blind, or even have one leg. It's the personal will that matters. It's about pushing boundaries."
The Circus Center is a nonprofit group composed of The New Pickle Circus, the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, and the San Francisco Youth Circus. The school offers both professional and recreational classes to children and adults in acrobatics, aerial arts, contortion, juggling, stilt walking, tight wire, trampoline -- and, of course, in flying trapeze.
The flying trapeze instructor team is unparalleled in the area, boasting over 45 years of combined experience.
New students begin on a trapeze just 8 feet off the ground, but Methot promises that even first-timers will make the 22-foot climb to the flying trapeze before the end of the lesson. There, students will practice the "knee hang" and be caught at least twice by an instructor swinging upside down on another trapeze.
Of course, a new student is attached to a safety harness and "spotted" by a rope handled by one of the center's three instructors. New students also learn how to drop safely from the trapeze into the big net below. According to Methot, it takes about a year of training to learn to fly to a "catcher" without safety lines
The Circus Center holds its classes in a weathered gymnasium near Kezar Stadium where there's no pulsing music or gym attitude, just the clinks and clanks of a working circus gym, an enchanted world of mat-covered floors and trapezes dangling from the rafters. During class, it's not uncommon to see a man wrapped around a static trapeze, a woman dangling in a contortionist pose on a rope, and a trapeze student warming up on the trampoline.
In addition to its classes, the Circus Center hosts parties -- birthday, bachelorette, and corporate. A group can rent out the flying trapeze, and everyone who wants to can get a chance to practice a few moves under the watchful eyes of the instructors.
If You Want to Get High
San Francisco Hang Gliding Center
Tandem hang gliding: Monday through Friday, $275 (includes video); Saturday and Sunday $300 (includes video).
Tandem aquagliding: Monday through Friday, $275 (includes video); Saturday and Sunday, $300 (includes video).
Crazy Creek Soaring
18896 Grange Road
Middletown, CA 95461
Standard flight: Flight times for one passenger and two passengers respectively. 15-20 min. $130/$180; 25-30 min. $160/$235; 35-40 min. $215/ $290.
Aerobatic flight: One passenger only. 20 minutes (average) $205.
Bay Area Skydiving
300 Armstrong Road #26
Byron, CA 94514
Tandem jumps from 10,000 ft.: Wednesday through Friday, $145.
Tandem jumps from 14,000 ft.: Saturday and Sunday, $170. Discounts for groups of more than five people.
755 Frederick Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
Beginning flying trapeze: 7:15 to 8:30 p.m. Friday; 10 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday; 10 to 11:30 a.m. Sunday. $45 per class or $27 per class if you sign up for three or more classes at once. Class is on a drop in-basis, but call ahead to make reservations; class is limited to eight people.