First published in USHPA Pilot, paid for by Level Wings

Most agree that the first musings of speedriding began with David Barish (known as the inventor of paragliding) who in the 1960’s, worked on developing a parachute to lower the Apollo module back to earth in a steerable way. On October 15th, 1965, Mr. Barish took flight for the first time under a smaller version of his invention (27 feet by nine feet) and flew about 200 feet down Hunter Mountain Ski Resort in Hunter, New York. The canopy had a funny shape and NASA eventually chose a standard round parachute for the Apollo mission, but the funny parachute and the idea of flying down a mountain under a canopy lived on. He and his son dubbed it “slope soaring”, traveling to ski resorts around the country in an effort to prove it was a viable summer activity.

Francois Bon as the world's first tandem passenger

The first paragliders

Jumping forward to June 1978, Jean Claude Betemps, a French skydiver and mountaineer, became the first known person to foot-launch a skydiving canopy off a mountain, followed closely by Andre Bon. After sharing his new passion with some of his skydiving and mountaineering friends in the early 1980’s, he met a wide-eyed 12-year-old named Francois Bon in 1986. Francois was captivated by the idea that people could fly off of mountains. He took a tandem flight with Jean Claude, after which Francois was completely enamored with human flight. Each week, Francois called Jean Claude to see if he could take some flying lessons and help with the paragliding school. If Francois had a day off from school, he spent it with Jean Claude, seeking out every morsel of knowledge and moment in the air he could find.

Once Francois learned to fly, he began to test his skills against other pilots through accuracy landing competitions and thermal flights with turn points to reach. These competitions held his attention until the mid-1990’s, when he saw Sebastien Bourquin, Richard Gallon and Andy Hediger doing big wingovers and barrel rolls. Francois’ last thermal competition was in 1996 and by that time he had started dedicating more time to flying freestyle and acrobatics (acro). In 1999 Francois watched acro legends such as the the Rodriguez brothers and Mike Kung. The SAT had just been invented, and Kung had perfect helicos that widened the eyes. Part of reaching the next level in dynamic flying was flying smaller wings, which had more energetic characteristics as a result of higher wing loading. Acrobatic gliders were about 22-24m2 in size at the time but quickly shrank. In 2000, the Rodriguez brothers made a 12m2 glider and Francois Bon made an 11m2 glider in the pursuit of more dynamic flying. Speedflying and speeriding were soon to come.

Francois needs to get down the mountain

Living in the French Alps, Francois had been a lifelong skier. He also was acutely aware of how difficult it is to run in snow so he took his glider to the mountains and launched it with skis in the early 2000’s. Soon thereafter, he found that skiing down a mountain with a glider overhead was magic. Not only were untracked areas accessible for a few beautiful turns, but jumping over crevasses and rocks was as simple as flying away. A new problem was presented and needed a more specialized tool to solve it. Francois wanted a glider that made it easy to match terrain and have fun while descending a mountain.

Francois’ first job was as a mountain porter in the French Alps at the age of 15, as well as a ski patroller and ski instructor. He loved being in the mountains and flying from the tops was a very logical progression for him. Flying down in a matter of minutes through smooth air was much more enjoyable than walking down what he had already walked up.

A better tool for the job

The gliders he had been flying worked, but he knew that there could be a better tool for the job. Francois pitched the idea of a skiing specific glider to a few manufacturers and friends in the business of glider construction; none of them bit. However, after showing around some speedriding videos, Francois finally struck gold. A manufacturer agreed to bring Francois on board in order to develop specific tools for the job of getting down a mountain on skis.

With his descent of Mont Blanc du Tacul, 2005 is the first year Francois considers speedriding to really exist. He took his love of flying down the mountains to the next level next with his best friend Antoine Montant. They not only had been competing against each other for quite some time but had also been teaming up on all manner of hike-and-fly missions. In 2006, they were the first people to fly off the Eiger in Switzerland, and Antoine made the first speedriding descent of the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi while Francois was climbing past Mont Blanc du Tacul to the true summit of Mont Blanc to claim the first speedriding descent from the highest point in the Alps. It was an incredible day for the two of them. The combination of mountaineering and flying took the two of them around the world. They effortlessly descended huge mountains, sometimes together, sometimes on their own. In 2008, Francois made the first flight off of Aconcagua, which earned him a nomination for National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

Dreams come true

The first iteration of specially made speed riding tools worked incredibly well. Under those first specifically designed canopies, Francois and Antoine had success beyond their wildest dreams at the time. In 2007, Francois, Antoine, and five other other friends, flew from near the summit of Mont Blanc to the bottom of the Chamonix valley below, skimming the snow here and there along the way. These designs worked well enough, but after a few years of putting the product to the test, it was time for something new. Francois teamed up with another friend to improve on the original designs and develop models of wings.

A new era

Most recently, in 2018, Francois launched Level Wings with his good friend and mountaineer Malcolm Wood. Malcolm is involved with the business side of things, while François focuses his energies on designing and flying perfect wings. With Level, he has taken his experience designing and flying two previous lines of wings, along with the inputs of pilots around the world. The Fizz and Fury are designed as speedriding wings, with the former being appropriate for students to make their first speedriding flights and the latter designed for expert use on the steepest and fastest lines. The Flame, a wing more oriented towards foot-launching, has already garnered a cult following around the world; pilots around the globe rave about it. It’s easy to pick it up and immediately feel at home. The simple and predictable motion at all speeds and ranges of the trimmers puts a smile on everybody’s face. Variety is also where the Flame excels in its many different sizes. Francois has been known to thermal his 18m2 and 16m2 as well as speedride his 8m2 and smile about every size in between.

Flying with friends is fun

How good was that?

There was a twinkle in Francois’s eye from the beginning. He dreamed that flying down mountains could link many types of people; from skydivers to skiers, mountaineers to paragliders, and everybody in between, they could all appreciate flying down a mountain and the tools developed specifically for that job. Skiers can appreciate the knowledge that paraglider pilots have of the air, and mountaineers can appreciate how to choose a line and flow down a mountain like a skier. Everybody can trade knowledge to each other and enjoy what David Barish, Jean Claude Betemps, and Francois Bon set out to do in the first place. Fly down a mountain and have fun. As Francois says, “The goal is always pleasure. You land, you smile, you say ‘Ah fuck, how good was that?!’”