Four Pilot Moms Who Inspire Us This Mother’s Day

Q&A with four hang glider/paraglider pilot moms about their love of free flight

May 10, 2019

Mother's Day is this Sunday, and we’re celebrating the flying mothers in our community! From learning to paraglide at age 69 to taking family (and solo) flying trips, we spoke with four pilots moms who remind us that flying is for everyone. We heard from Lisa Lesser (a biwingual pilot in Northern California), Merin Sazinas (a paraglider pilot and tandem instructor in North Carolina), Donna Glazier (a paraglider pilot in North Carolina--and Merin’s mom!), and Kara Shapiro (a paraglider pilot in Montana) about how they got into flying, the best parts and the challenges of the sport, and their future goals. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How long have you been a hang glider/paraglider pilot? What got you interested in it?

Lisa Lesser: Many years ago, I was on vacation and did a tandem hang gliding flight. Then I had kids and got busy and I never really even thought about it again. One day in 2014 a memory kind of popped up and I called John Simpson, who ended up being my instructor, and two days later I was having a lesson on the beach in San Francisco. I got hooked and I took lessons intermittently for a year, then I decided to commit and I started to fly a lot. In 2016 I wanted to do a flying trip for my birthday in November, and one of the instructors here was doing a paragliding trip to Chile, so I was like, “I should learn how to paraglide!” And so for six weeks I really committed to learning to fly paragliders, did an SIV, flew a lot, and went to Chile.

Merin Sazinas: I’ve been a paraglider pilot for over five years, probably longer. My husband was getting more into paragliding and was going to get his certification, and so we decided to do it together. I first tried kiting and a short flight, and basically fell in love with it the moment my feet lifted off the ground.

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Donna Glazier and Merin Sazinas kiting in the Cayman Islands

Donna Glazier: [My daughter] Merin was seriously dating [her now-husband] Dima, who had paraglided when he was around 20. He had an accident and decided not to paraglide, and then later in his 30s he decided he wanted to do it again. I knew nothing about paragliding and at the time I just said, "Merin, that’s too dangerous, don’t do it." We went out to California to visit my mom, and he went to do a ground handling class and asked if I wanted to come watch. By this time they were engaged, so I just wanted to be polite and said yes. And at some point during the lesson, the instructor asked if I wanted to try it, and for some reason I said yes. They hooked me up in a harness, the instructor brought the wing up, they put a rope tether on the front of me, and then said to run. I lifted up in the air and was probably not even 6 feet off the ground, but I went forward quite a way and landed, and I said, “I’ve got to do this.”

Kara Shapiro: I learned from Eagle Paragliding in March of 2018. One of the reasons why I wanted to give it a go is my husband has been flying for several years (since 1993) and I thought it would be really fun to be able to do hike-and-fly’s together in our hometown, and travel around. Our daughter is getting a bit older, so when she’s out of high school I think it would be fun to just travel and be able to do it together.

What do your kids/your family think of you flying?

Lisa: For my kids it’s normal. They’ve come to watch me a few times. My older one is 9 1/2 and is very interested in everything about the wing, she’s helped me set up my hang glider and loves learning all the parts. She says she wants to learn to fly, and I tell her to ask me again when she’s a teenager. All of my non-flying friends always ask my husband, “Do you fly also, why don’t you do it?” He’s very supportive; he’ll watch the kids when I do flying trips. It’s just not his thing. He does golf trips with his friends, and I go on flying trips with my friends. We do music stuff together, so that unites us.

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Lisa Lesser flying her hang glider

Merin: My family was a little skeptical at first, but then we convinced my parents to try it and they actually got their paragliding certifications. My mom [Donna] got it when she turned 70 and they’re both pilots as well now. We are always planning different trips with paragliding in mind, to Europe, to Costa Rica, to many different places. Now I have a 14-month-old baby, and she’s been to 9 countries [since she was born]. Some people make paragliding out to be something more of an individual sport, but when you do it as a family, it can actually provide an avenue where it really brings the family together in going on different fun trips that can be enjoyable for children, where you have a vacation but also flying.

Donna: [Our kids] really liked it, but at the same time I think they were afraid for us. Because we were a lot older, of course. It was funny because, instead of me cautioning Merin, “Oh, be careful,” and all this, that’s what she does to us now. “You guys, be really careful, watch this and watch that,” etc., etc. So we find that quite humorous.

Kara: My daughter and [my husband] Jeff came down with me over spring break and hung out while I learned to fly at Eagle, they were both pretty excited and proud of me for overcoming my fears from trying to learn how to fly maybe a couple decades ago. For me, standing on the training hill, that first flight was pretty intense. I was taking in some deep breaths, trying to relax and listening to Mitch, who was my instructor, just coach me through it. It was pretty stressful, but it was easy for me to get over it because I really wanted to paraglide.

What has it been like for you participating in a sport practiced mostly by men?

Lisa: I used to travel with a lot of guys, so I’m used to being around a lot of male energy and doing adventures and trips with them. I feel like that gives me an advantage in handling big personalities of people trying to give me advice, where they do it because I’m a female, and they don’t give as much advice to the men….Flying’s my fun, so I don’t let all the big personalities get to me in any way.

Merin: Especially when I first started flying, I didn’t know a lot of lady pilots, so you’re just down in the mountains with all the guys. Now I’ve gotten to know more and more lady pilots, especially internationally. I think as a lady pilot, you make the paragliding into more of an art versus just the sport. So feeling the wind, feeling the wing, and just making it more graceful and focusing on the art of it. It makes it something that I think could be really appealing to a lot of women.

Donna: Not only am I a woman, I’m an older woman. I didn’t learn to fly until I was 69. I’m now 74. And so I think some guys just don’t take me seriously. But when they see me fly, then that’s a different story. And then, I’ve gotten to be quite good friends with a number of pilots internationally because we travel around the world to fly. So in that sense I’ve been accepted.

Kara: In Missoula we have so many women pilots now. I’ve been around the Missoula community for decades where it has been mostly men, and everyone’s been super friendly, nice and very supportive…Then all of a sudden our community grew so largely with women that it was really cool to have a bunch of women who were also learning. The men still outweigh the women, but the camaraderie is really great and it makes it fun.

Do you think being a mother has influenced any aspect of your flying?

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Kara Shapiro after her third mountain flight (photo by Jeff Shapiro)

Lisa: I think I have different risk management and time management than non-parents. I have to choose my time wisely, like at Fort Funston, if I’m going to land on the beach [instead of landing back on top of the ridge], it might take me a lot longer to get back to my car to get home for the night. So I might have to choose to not fly because I don’t have that extra hour to walk back up. Also, if I learned to fly before I had kids, I might fly a totally different way. I’m definitely on the more cautious end because the risk-reward for me is a different balance than for non-parents.

Donna: For me, when I’m flying, I’m focused on my own skill, I’m focused on what I’m doing at the moment. And I’m not really thinking about anything else other than what I’m doing. I find that very freeing, because the rest of my life, I am thinking about my family, I am thinking about their needs or my needs. But when I’m in the air, it’s just me, the air, and my equipment--my wing, my harness. And I really like that experience.

Kara: When I first said that I wanted to learn how to paraglide, there was part of me that felt like I needed to follow through with it as an example. I feel like my reasons for learning have been, one, to overcome a fear and feel pretty proud of myself for doing that, and then two, to just be a role model to my daughter. She’s watching, obviously, every move I make, and this lets her know that you can have fears, but you can also overcome them. It’s really important to live life, to push yourself so that you can see that by pushing yourself, you grow. And she’s definitely seen me grow since learning how to paraglide.

For you, what is the best part of hang gliding/paragliding?

Merin: I think it’s being in the air, flying. I think every person has dreams of flying, and it’s basically making that dream that usually might happen during the night into reality, where you’re soaring through the sky, looking at an amazing view, and feeling yourself lifted by the air. That’s just an exhilarating feeling.

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Donna Glazier flying at Palo Buque, Iquique, Chile

Donna: When I’m up in the air, I am really happy. I love the view, I love the beauty of it, I love the feel of it, I love the challenge of it, I love the independence of it, and all of that wrapped into one. I don’t think I can divide it out as to which one would be more enticing. I love it all. And I love the camaraderie with the other pilots…And the other thing I love is that paragliding’s an equalizer. By that I mean, once we come out of the air, we’re all in the van going back to our hotel or wherever we’re staying, and we’re all talking about our experiences. And my experiences are seen as just as valid as anybody else’s experiences. In other venues, a woman, especially an older woman, is not necessarily taken seriously or they’re kind of discounted. In fact, some older women talk about becoming invisible. But when you’re paragliding, you’ve been in that same air, you’ve dealt with the same challenges that every other pilot did that day, and they respect that. And so, you’re treated more as an equal.

Kara: It’s such an amazing view when you’re up in the sky. Just to be flying is pretty spectacular. Another awesome aspect is to be able to go flying with friends, talk about it afterward and just feel pretty free.

What are your future plans or goals for hang gliding/paragliding?

Lisa: I really want to fly at Yosemite. That’s a big flying goal. One of the reasons I’ve absolutely stuck with hang gliding is I really want to fly Yosemite and have my kids come. I’ve never been to Yosemite and I’ve lived in California for 10 years--I only want to go there when I fly there. I just want to be flying a really long time.

Merin: As a pilot you’re always looking to improve your skills and continue to refine your technique and continue enjoying it and going to different places. And for me, I think especially being a mom, just enjoying safe, beautiful flights is what I’m looking for.

Donna: I’m going to be traveling some more, going back to Costa Rica and to Iquique. We’re also going to go to Italy to fly. If I were younger, I would probably do more acrobatic flying. But at my age, no way. You have to be really fast, and although I have pretty fast reflexes, I would never do it at this age. But I still love to ridge soar, I love to thermal, I want to continue that and continue going around to different great sites and flying….And it’s really, really nice as a family. I’m really enjoying it. I’m looking forward to when my granddaughter’s ready to fly.

Kara: I want to be paragliding for a long, long time. My goals--I just got done with an SIV clinic with Cloudsurf Paragliding which was amazing, and scary, and overwhelming. But, I had so many firsts: first boat towing, first maneuvers, and I went ahead and threw my reserve since it was a safe environment to learn to do it. It gave me so much confidence….I just want to keep progressing in a positive way.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Lisa: Last year I did mostly paraglide, I’m thinking this summer I’m probably going to try to hang glide more because I’ll have more time….At the beginning of last year, actually, I got really addicted to doing both in the same day. I’d go paraglide and see my friends in hang gliders in the air, so I’d have to go and set up my hang glider. If I don’t see anyone hang gliding, it’s fine, I like paragliding--but when I see a hang glider, I really want to fly it.

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Lisa Lesser flying her paraglider

Kara: I think it’s one of those things where if you have the drive and you want to learn how to do it, you can take it as slow and easy as you want. I’m a very, very conservative pilot, so I just need to go really slow, but there are other women in our community who are just crushing it and go at a bit of a faster pace because that’s what they’re comfortable with. I feel like paragliding is for anyone.

Merin: Now we actually own a paragliding site. We have Sky Retreat in the Blueridge Mountains on the East Coast…At first we were launching off our driveway. Every time the weather was good, we had about 20 pilots showing up at our house and crashing in our living room. We thought that we should get a couple cabins, get more land, and it just developed into a whole retreat….Really the goal [of the retreat] was to bring families together. And I think that’s something with paragliding as well where a lot of people don’t think about it as bringing families together, but it can be a sport that actually can do that because you can travel together and have really unique and amazing experiences.

Donna: It’s a wonderful sport. I wish more women were in it. I think they would really love it if they would give it a chance. It’s a very self-validating sport, and you’re very self-reliant. You’re the pilot, you’re the one making the decisions, ultimately it’s totally your responsibility. There are challenges, and it’s very satisfying to meet the challenges and do well.