Former Air Force pilot becomes oldest to paraglide
JACKSON — Fred Miles doesn’t speak much, but he can hum his way around a melody, and the one coming out of his mouth this past summer as he looked down from the top of the Bridger Gondola at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” by John Denver.
But Miles, 103, wasn’t going home via a car or a road just yet. First he was going tandem adaptive paragliding.
It would be his first experience flying, seated in a wheeled cart with a paraglider behind him. It would also be the record-setter for the oldest adaptive paraglider to fly in the United States.
But as his son, Greg Miles, reminded his father just before the flight, it would be far from his first time navigating the skies.
“Part of the reason you’re not going to have a problem is because of your flying experience,” Greg, a former town councilor, told his father.
“You’ve seen a lot of crazy things over the years, I’m sure,” Greg said, “so hopefully this will be enjoyable.”
The senior Miles first piloted a plane 81 years ago after joining the United States Army Air Corps, which eventually became the Air Force. He joined the force after graduating from Syracuse University with an engineering degree and flew in World War II, again in the Korean War and afterward for some time, for a total of 30 years.
During his time in the military, Miles once nose-dived his plane into the Bodega Bay in northern California — where he was stationed and where he met his wife — when its engine caught fire. He survived only because a fishing boat picked him up and laid him against the boat’s engine for warmth.
But that was about a half-century ago and a few things have changed.
Miles was born in Canastota, New York, came to Jackson Hole from his home state three years ago, and recently moved into Sage Living. He’s among the oldest people to have lived in Teton County but continues to give the young guns a run for their money outdoors.
Just over 20 years ago, at the advanced age of 81, Miles scaled High Exposure, a 250-foot multi-pitch climb in the Shawangunks in New York with Greg. He enjoyed it so much that he continued climbing for the next several years.
He remained active, taking care of his property and planting trees on it, until he broke a hip at the age of 100. He never fully recovered from surgery and sometimes uses a wheelchair. But he’s swift with his walker, Greg said.
And he still knows how to read the sky.
Sitting in a wheelchair near the top of the Bridger Gondola, at a bit over 9,000 feet above sea level, awaiting straight, upward winds for take-off, Miles looked up and said, “Lot of airspace up there.”
“I’m ready to take you into that big airspace, my friend,” his co-pilot Richard Pethigal said. “Get you back into the sky.”
Left- and rightward winds kept Pethigal watchful as he, Jackson Hole Paragliding owner Scott Harris, and tandem instructors Wesley Huestess and David Robinson waited for the right conditions for liftoff.
In anticipation, Miles looked around again and said, “This is no man’s land.”
Then, for a few moments, the windsocks pointed upward and Harris gave the go-ahead.
Pethigal, Huestess and Robinson grabbed hold of Miles’ cart, and then Pethigal said, “1, 2, 3, let’s go!”
Seconds later, Pethigal and Miles were in the sky, gliding in a way not dissimilar from the single-engine plane Miles had flown for much of his career.
They flew for 15 minutes — with views of the Gros Ventre range, the Tetons, Miles’ new home and the town where his son has thrived.
“It was almost like flying an airplane,” Miles said soon after landing at the base of the ski resort.
Greg asked his father how the flight was.
“It was very nice,” he said. “I enjoyed it — nice and smooth.”
There was one issue with the whole arrangement, which Miles first brought up before he became the oldest person to tandem paraglide in America. He wanted to fly himself.