A Flight Above Carbon Beach

Malibu Magazine took off with veteran paraglider and guide Claude Fiset for an exhilarating new perspective of our home town. 

Written by Molly StrawnPhotographed by Julie Wuellner

MalibuMagJW-Paragliding-23.jpg

Generally, sane people don’t want to jump off ocean cliffs in Malibu. But when you’re attached to a paraglider and one of the best instructors around, the death-defying adrenaline rush suddenly seems like a lot more fun. With over 20,000 passengers flown over 29 years and a perfect track record to boast, Claude Fiset owns the only paragliding company in the city, Uptimal, taking beachgoers soaring high over Malibu.

Initially geared for a career in mechanics, this engineer chose to pursue his dreams of flying high for a living. He was instantly hooked on the new sport of paragliding the first time he tried it. At the age of 24, the sport soon dominated his life while he lived in Canada. The same day as his first flight, he bought his own paraglider. Soon he was buying more, jumping from anywhere he could, flying down icy rivers at night and reading every paragliding magazine that he could get his hands on. He was determined to learn the ins and outs of his new passion.

  Claude Fiset founded Uptimal, Malibu's only paragliding company.

Claude Fiset founded Uptimal, Malibu's only paragliding company.

“[My friend and I] both tried it. My friend never did it again, and I never could stop,” Fiset said. Fiset started his career working in his intended profession: engineering. For a few years, he worked at one of the largest firms in Quebec before discovering that the company was involved in numerous scams to cheat their clients. Having just discovered paragliding, Fiset was rapidly losing interest.

“I would drive to work, and I would look at the flags and think it was the wind day to go flying. So I would take the next exit, turn around and go fly. I wouldn’t even show up for work,” Fiset said. “The work they had for me was not very interesting.”

Today, he not only has over ten thousand flights under his belt and owns three businesses, but he has utilized his engineering experience to develop products for paragliding and the biomedical field. He is also an advanced skier, mountain biker and kayak instructor.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, Fiset popped up paragliding schools and businesses wherever he could, first utilizing small mom-and-pop ski resorts as his primary locations. “It wasn’t ideal, but it worked,” Fiset said. Soon, he was offering paragliding flights and lessons at the largest ski resort in Quebec. As the sport became more and more popular, Fiset’s schedule was always booked with new perspective flyers. He kept his school open there for eight years before buying another paragliding school in Whistler, British Columbia where he spent five summers and two winters. The other three winters he spent on the Big Island of Hawaii. But no matter where he was, Fiset was hooked on the unbridled freedom paragliding offered him.

MalibuMagazineJW-34.jpg
MalibuMagazineJW-14.jpg

“There’s nothing better than that, as far as freedom,” Fiset said. “You leave your problems on the ground, and you fly away.” After two winters on the Big Island, he realized Hawaii was not quite his financial or customer target. It was while still running his businesses in Canada and Hawaii that he took an RV trip to explore California for five months. That trip changed everything.

“I took the RV down here, traveled all over the place, looked for the best place to run this business,” Fiset said. From there, he made the game-changing decision to move his business to Southern California. “I figured there’s so much money and 10 million people right there, so I moved to the area,” Fiset said.

He tried testing the winds in numerous cities up and down the coast before settling on Malibu. His paragliding business here has been up and running for 15 years now with Fiset spending about eight months out of the year in Southern California and the rest of his time in Costa Rica. Fiset takes off from high in the Malibu hills and lands directly on Carbon Beach.

fullsizeoutput_25a8.jpg

“Malibu is especially good because you’ve got the ocean breeze,” Fiset said. “The distance between the beach and the mountain top is two and a half miles, which is considerable. It is a good environment to generate all those good updrafts.”

Denise Lynn, a customer of Uptimal, took high to the sky with Fiset for her unique perspective on the Malibu Coastline. “If you want to have an amazing experience in the beautiful city of Malibu, consider paragliding with Claude. His passion for the sport is obvious and makes the entire experience much more enjoyable,” Lynn said in an email interview. “Surrounded by amazing views of mountains, coastline, and ocean, the day just won’t get much better.”

IMG_7403.jpg

Ken Dixon, a fellow paraglider with four years of experience, calls Fiset a meticulous pilot who is continuously pushing the boundaries. Dixon started flying in the same area and has assisted Fiset for three years, helping get people up and down the mountain safely. “He is one of the best pilots I’ve ever worked with,” Dixon said. “His knowledge level is very advanced.” On top of taking people soaring, he has utilized his engineering talents and knowledge of CAD (computer-aided design) programs since 2001 to make his very own fan and motor system for powered paragliding. Powered paragliding gives the flyer an extra push and more control in the air allowing Fiset to take off directly from the beach.

When he looked into buying a powered paragliding fan for his business, none of the devices on the market met all of his needs. Dissatisfied with his options, he set out to make his own with better fuel reserves and better body positioning in a compact travel-friendly size. His design features a unique two-motor system specifically for powered paragliding. The motor is so quiet, Fiset says, that people often hear the waves and the road traffic instead of him. The frame of the engine is designed to collapse on impact, making rough landings even safer. Heavy gasoline is also positioned closer to the body, making the same amount of fuel feel lighter. The fiberglass connecting robs are also easy to replace so that pilots can get back up in the air the same day they break. For the finishing touch, the entire system can be broken down and fit inside a 28-inch suitcase. “I think it is better engineered than all the other ones. It just feels right,” Fiset said. “The motors are very high performance.” Paired with the great winds along the Malibu cliffs, Fiset can take off with a passenger with minimal effort.

He continues updating his designs, using them for his business and selling to avid paragliders. At the end of the day, however, simply paragliding along the ocean still holds Fiset’s heart. The hills above Malibu Pier offer the most consistent wind for the best ride around.

MalibuMagazineJW-46.jpg
MalibuMagazineJW-50.jpg

“A business like [paragliding] keeps you a little younger. You’ll see when you try it,” Fiset said. “For me, it was a life changer.” Fiset believes that he will never know everything about the sport of paragliding. Learning about developments day to day and year to year keeps him a constant student, something he very much enjoys.

“It’s something you keep learning,” Fiset said. “There’s no point in anyone’s flying career where they think they know everything. There’s always something new. It’s an art.” Looking to soar high into the sky with Fiset? After meeting you at the Carbon Beach access, he drives high into the Santa Monica Mountains with you, where you take off for your scenic flight across Pacific Coast Highway and finally lands you directly back onto the sand. MM

Holly Bieler