Soaring for Her Salary

Running off the top of a mountain with a passenger strapped to her chest is part of Becca Bredehoft’s job as a tandem paragliding pilot.

By Lila Edythe
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SOFIA JARAMILLO

Bredehoft’s dog, Rok, tries to keep up during a solo outing at Curtis Canyon on the eastern side of the valley.

Bredehoft’s dog, Rok, tries to keep up during a solo outing at Curtis Canyon on the eastern side of the valley.

“IT TOOK A little while for my mom to think this was a good idea, but now she’s totally on board,” says tandem paragliding pilot Becca Bredehoft about her current career choice. Bredehoft, thirty-one, went for her first tandem flight—as a passenger—in New Zealand when she was twelve. Her father and brother also did tandem flights then, but mom opted out. Back stateside, several months later Bredehoft, her dad, and brother were taking paragliding lessons, making the nine-hour drive most weekends from their home in Billings, Montana, to Salt Lake City, which offered the nearest paragliding school at the time. Bredehoft began flying solo when she was fourteen and completed the requirements necessary for her novice pilot’s rating at sixteen.

“I have this journal entry I wrote after my first-ever flight—the one in New Zealand. I remember being totally blown away by it, but the whole entry is about how much my brother hates me,” says Bredehoft. “It’s pretty hilarious looking back on it now. That was the very beginning of how I started this whole path to a paragliding career and all the entries are about Patrick. Nothing really about flying.”

While she was in college at the University of Colorado Boulder studying Spanish, Portuguese, and environmental studies, Bredehoft met a crew of Jackson Hole-based paragliders. “They were all awesome and talked about how awesome the flying was in Jackson,” she says. “I came up to check it out and never really left. By my senior year I was scheduling all of my classes for Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’d use Wednesdays for homework, and I’d drive to Jackson every weekend.”

Bredehoft enjoyed flying solo for years, but eventually came to want to share it with family and friends. Of course, a licensed paragliding pilot can’t just buy a tandem harness and wing—that’s what paragliding “parachutes” are called, wings—and take someone out. To even get to the point where you can begin training to be a tandem pilot, you must have a minimum of five hundred solo flights. “Then you have to do a minimum of twenty-five flights with other pilots in your tandem seat,” Bredehoft says. “But your first tandem one has to be with an official tandem administrator. You have to keep doing these flights with other pilots and checking in with the tandem administrator until he’s happy. You might have to do fifty flights before that happens. It’s not a definite number.”

Becca Bredehoft has been a tandem pilot for five years and flying for twelve years. She took her first paragliding lesson at age twelve.

Becca Bredehoft has been a tandem pilot for five years and flying for twelve years. She took her first paragliding lesson at age twelve.

BREDEHOFT FIRST FLEW with a tandem administrator in 2007. By 2010 she had earned her tandem license and was a pilot with Jackson Hole Paragliding. But being a commercial tandem pilot wasn’t a no-brainer. “My original motivation for learning to fly tandem was to share it with family and friends,” Bredehoft says. “But once you drop $5,000 or $6,000 on a setup that is only good for tandem flying, you wonder how you can pay for it. I really had to think about taking something I did for fun and turning it into work. It’s a double-edged sword. You can share your passion with other people, but there’s also a business side and less fun stuff associated with it.”

What’s the job interview like for a tandem paragliding pilot? “JH Paragliding doesn’t really hire people from the outside,” Bredehoft says. “Most people who fly for us started flying in Jackson Hole and grew up into it. I was here flying for a good many years before I started flying for them.”

When conditions permit, Bredehoft usually has three scheduled flights with clients each morning—7:45, 8:45, and 9:45—daily from June through August. Flights are scheduled in the morning because that is when the winds are optimal at the top of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort tram in Teton Village, from where the majority of JH Paragliding flights leave. If the winds are still good after Bredehoft’s 9:45 flight she and the dozen or so other JH Paragliding tandem pilots “go fishing” for clients. “It’s pretty easy to find people that want to go flying,” she says. One day last summer another pilot got eight commercial flights in a single day. “That’s the most anyone has ever done at the Village,” Bredehoft says. The scheduled JH Paragliding flights are often booked up weeks in advance.

BREDEHOFT IS THE only female pilot at JH Paragliding. Wherever she’s worked in the world—New Zealand, Nepal, Ghana—that has been the case. At 120 pounds, she does have to employ slightly different tactics than her male counterparts. “If someone tries to do something weird on a launch, I can’t catch them and push them off the hill like a bigger guy can,” she says. “I think I have to do more of the preflight psychology stuff than the guys do.”

Tandem pilots do not meet their clients until just as they’re about to board the tram. Between that time and the time they’ll be running together off the 10,450-foot summit of Rendezvous Mountain, Bredehoft “makes chitchat that helps me figure out if a client is scared, nervous, excited, or overconfident,” she says. “I’ve got twenty to thirty minutes to read someone,” she says. “Because we have so little time to figure people out, we do stereotype, but we also know that people can surprise you.”

Bredehoft says a New Zealand tandem paragliding pilot calls tandem clients “little assassins.” “He’s only kind of joking,” Bredehoft says. “Anyone can mess it up for you; we all keep that in the back of our heads.”

The most difficult part of a tandem flight is the launch, which is dependent on wind. If there is no wind, the pilot and client, strapped into the same harness with the client in front, run down Rendezvous Bowl at the top of the tram. The incline of the slope helps, “but we’re still talking about really running,” Bredehoft says. “We’ll start at a walk and I’ll be feathering the wing out behind and then we’ll just start picking up speed until the wind catches us and we’re up in the air.” If there’s a stiff wind—but not too stiff; when there’s too much wind, for safety reasons flights are canceled—launching is easier. You don’t have to run at all, in fact. “The wind will catch the wing and we’ll actually get yanked backwards and up into the air,” Bredehoft says.

THE DAY BREDEHOFT takes me for a flight, conditions are somewhere in between, and we briefly walk, then jog, before there’s no longer any ground beneath our feet. Both of us then settle back into the harness—if you’re seated correctly, it’s as comfortable as a sit hammock; if you’re not, the webbing cuts the blood flow to your legs off and it’s amazingly uncomfortable.

Flying solo, Bredehoft enjoys acrobatics. “It’s paragliding’s equivalent of a terrain park,” she says. “You’re doing all sorts of fun maneuvers.” With clients, she will do some safe maneuvers like wingovers, loops, and asymmetric spirals, but only if a client says it’s all right. Even with permission, “people do get sick in the air,” Bredehoft says. “I have not gotten vomit in my face, but I have friends it has happened to.”

“Tandem flying really isn’t all that different from flying solo, with the exceptions that you’ve got someone to talk to and you’re responsible for keeping someone besides yourself safe,” Bredehoft says. “But that is a big responsibility.”

Bredehoft flies with a client above Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Bredehoft flies with a client above Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

BREDEHOFT ADMITS SHE has had some clients assigned to her “that get that deer-in-the-headlights look” when they first see her. She says women either want to fly with her or with some “really big, strong guy.” “Honestly, I have no problem if someone doesn’t want to fly with me. If they’re second-guessing, I don’t want them attached to me. That’s not safe. Also, I want people to feel comfortable.”

Bredehoft’s favorite clients are the ones “who are really excited about flying,” she says. “I do get some people who it seems like they’re just doing it to cross it off a list and that’s not so fun. But those people are rare.”

Bredehoft once made a client cry. “We launched and she was pretty quiet,” Bredehoft says. “I didn’t know if she was quiet because she was scared or what. It turns out she was crying. She was able to tell me they were good tears. And then I said, ‘I’m going to start crying now, too.’ It turns out she had never been west of Pennsylvania before, and it was her first day in Jackson and she was so overwhelmed by the beauty and what she was doing. That was a great day of work for me.” 307/690-8726, jhparagliding.com

| Posted in JH Living
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