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Damien takes flight!

After working for the San Diego Zoo for two years, I finally worked up the courage to take on Flightline, the zipline experience at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park! I have always loved birds and often stop to admire the hawks soaring at the Wild Animal Park each time I visit. I knew I wouldn’t be flying in circles, but I wanted to know what it would feel like to step off a ledge and not fall straight down!

I arrived at the Park early in the morning for a 10 a.m. “flight.” It was a beautiful July morning, and the Park was just starting to wake up. I decided to purchase a helmet cam, too, so I could save the experience and brag, of course, on facebook, youtube, twitter, etc. with a video of the ride. (View the video below!)

Our trainer, Jesse, reviewed how to fly safely on the Flightline and taught us about birds and some of the mechanics of flight, with the help of ostrich and condor feathers. We learned how to position our bodies to go faster or slower and then learned what we needed to do to “land” at the end of the line. Landing consisted of lifting legs to the sky to create some resistance and prepare for the braking columns at the end of the line. So much less graceful than a bird, I have to admit, but much better than flying in an airplane.

The shorter “fledgling” line would help us get familiar with take off and landing. Walking onto its platform, I looked down and thought, “This is it? Noooooo problem!” Jesse strapped each of us onto our line, gave us a few tips, and released us one by one; before I knew it, I was flying in a straight line above the ground, going faster and faster. It felt like being on a huge swing, only there was no backward motion. I could feel the air wrap around my body as I picked up speed and quickly realized how poorly humans are suited for flying! I didn’t have any beautiful feathers to guide me gracefully or eyes on the sides of my face to deal with the onslaught of wind! Why didn’t I wear sunglasses? It all came rapidly to an end as the landing platform approached and I pivoted my legs into the air.

Flightline's launching platform

We were guided to a caravan truck next to drive up to the main line for the big flight. I got to see areas of the Park I had never seen before. Arriving at the top of the hill, we were ready for our big flight! I was overcome by the view and the size of the line; I could see the entire Park, the surrounding mountains and sky, everything! And I was just looking straight out. Looking down, I realized how high up we were—900 feet! Jesse told us we’d be dropping about 400 feet at speeds of around 45 miles per hour. I started to get a little nervous as I got strapped into the line; the main line made the fledging line look like child’s play.

Asked if I was ready, I nodded as confidently as I could and stepped off the platform. The drop was gradual and easy at first, and I couldn’t believe how high off the ground I was. I realized that I would soon be passing over the larger open field exhibits and started to look down to see what I could find. The only thing I remember seeing was a rhino, and then the speed started to kick in. The wind really just enveloped my entire body with my face taking the brunt of the air. This must be why most birds have their eyes on the side of their face! Full speed now, I looked down to see my shoes zipping directly over trees just below, everything just a bit of a blur looking down. Looking up and side to side, I was just amazed by the view and the sensation of gliding down.

The final landing platform was approaching, and I could just make out a guide waiting to signal me to go into landing position. Once done, I hit the braking columns, and my flight was over—I was safely on the landing platform! Turning around, I couldn’t believe that I had just come from the top of the flight deck on the hill. It was so much smaller from this vantage point and seemed to blend into the hill. It was fantastic experience!

Next time I’d like to do a night flight. I think the view of a sunset taking the same flight would just be awesome. I left the Park that day with an even greater admiration of birds and a better understanding of the Park’s conservation efforts. If you decide to take a flight, bring some sunglasses, a camera, and a little extra courage!

Damien Lasater is a manager in the San Diego Zoo’s Marketing Department.