Fear floats away

As her 50th birthday approached in 2006, Kathy Walkley thought she had plenty to be scared about.

She was going through a divorce and the idea of being alone was intimidating. And the 52-year-old Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital pediatric infusion nurse always had been scared of heights and flying.

Then one day it hit her. If she was going to soar, she needed to face her fears.

“I take care of kids that have cancer,” said Walkley, who has lived in Tacoma for 30 years. “That in itself makes you realize how precious life is. You just have to live and not be afraid. To me, scary is having a child with cancer.

“Flying isn’t scary anymore.”

Flying was scary when Walkley decided to try paragliding in 2006. Considering the ding of a midflight, fasten-your-seatbelt warning was enough to make her palms sweat at the time, this was a giant step outside her comfort zone.

Walkley had always been adventurous in areas where she felt comfortable. She learned to row at 32 years old and found instant success racing against more experienced athletes. Now she coaches rowing on American Lake with the Rainier Rowing Club.

“My mom always said: ‘Nobody told you, you couldn’t do it so you do it,’ ” Walkley said.

But flying – let alone floating through the sky dangling from a massive fabric wing – used to seem like too much.

For 11/2 years a friend, paragliding instructor Todd Henningsen, tried to persuade Walkley to come along on a tandem flight.

“I never thought she’d say yes,” Henningsen said. “But one day she did.”

Henningsen took Walkley to the most popular local paragliding spot, Poo Poo Point on Tiger Mountain.

Henningsen even brought barf bags for the flight in case Walkley couldn’t handle the experience.

“I just remember being very focused and not saying very much,” Walkley said. “I was amazed how quiet and smooth it was. Suddenly all that fear – the fear of heights and the fear of flying – was gone.”

As soon as they landed Walkley not only wanted to go again, she’d set a goal to be able to fly on her own.

She enrolled in a paragliding school near San Diego and soon was a pilot.

Along the way other fears in her life went away too.

The fear of being divorced. Gone.

The fear of trying things that seemed scary. Gone.

She recently decided to learn to ride a motorcycle. So she bought a bike and rode to Yellowstone National Park, traveling 200 to 300 miles per day.

But as Walkley continues to broaden her horizons, she’s learned some lessons. The biggest is that you should never get too confident.

She learned this last year when she launched on a flight from Tiger Mountain in weather conditions that were probably too technical for her experience level. All went well for awhile, but as the flight was coming to the end she encountered a rotor – a pocket of twisting wind – that collapsed half of her wing.

She dropped 100 feet before the wing reinflated just 300 feet above the ground.

“But at this point, I was too low to get back to the landing area,” Walkley said.

So Walkley followed Hobart Road, making turns trying to delay her decent while she looked for a place to make an emergency landing.

“A friend saw me and said he knew he was going to have to call the paramedics,” Walkley said.

With trees and power lines all around, Walkley decided to land on the roof of a carport.

“I felt my feet graze the top of a tree as I came in,” said Walkley, who also knocked out the family’s cable television during the landing. “But I landed on my feet and I was fine.”

Henningsen was there and impressed to see his friend recover and pull off the emergency landing.

“It just goes to show you how safe paragliding is,” Henningsen said. “Try doing that in a plane.”

Packing her life with paragliding, rowing, motorcycling and working with kids has regularly left Walkley proclaiming: “I feel like I have the best life.”

“When you find something you are passionate about and you have success it feeds the fire in you,” Walkley said. “I feel like I can do anything. So what if I’m 52.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497