When Kari Castle was a little girl, she had a recurring dream about flying over her neighborhood like Peter Pan, landing and taking off at will. Today, to see Kari Castle in flight is to understand that dreams can become reality. You clap your hands and believe. Castle is the most decorated woman in hang gliding, and she is the first and only woman ever to qualify for the U.S. National Hang Gliding Team. So far, she has accumulated fourteen U.S. National Championships and three World Championships, plus a Canadian National Championship and several state, national, and world records. Not content to dominate in only one field, she’s also won multiple U.S. National paragliding titles. And although this athlete has already proven that she can take on the best – women and men – Kari Castle thinks there’s nowhere to go but up.
Castle was born in Royal Oak, Michigan, in 1960, and she got her first taste of hang gliding in 1981. She was a natural in the air. For a while, Castle stuck to a 9-to-5 job to cover her expenses, but eventually she moved to Bishop, California, to pursue her “flying addiction” full time.
Bishop is in the Owens Valley, one of the world’s most famous locations for flying. The Valley provides some of the strongest lift on the planet. “Flying here can be categorized as ‘extreme’,” Castle explains. “It’s known for big air and world record flights – but also for turbulence.”
Just as Castle mastered the Owens Valley, she also mastered her competition in contest after contest. She won the very first U.S. Women’s National Hang Gliding Championship she attended, in 1988, and thirteen more U.S. titles came fast and furious. In 1996, she captured the first of her three Women’s World Hang Gliding Championships. But women weren’t her only rivals. Many high-profile hang gliding events welcome athletes of both genders, as long as they survive the rigors of qualifying. In 1993 Castle made headlines when she became the first woman in history to win a major competition (the Sandia Classic) over a mixed-gender line-up, and when she entered the Canadian Nationals in 1995 – the sole woman in a field of elite men – she won the gold there, too.
Meanwhile, Castle had also taken up paragliding in 1988. “I was ready to try something new, and hey- it flew, didn’t it?” Castle laughs. She was crowned U.S. Women’s National Paragliding Champion in 1995, 2001, 2002, and 2003.
Castle thrives on a non-stop lifestyle. Besides participating in top paragliding and hang gliding competitions throughout the year, including Hang Gliding Worlds and Paragliding Europeans, she’s a paragliding and hang gliding instructor, and she leads tours both in the United States and in far-reaching locales like South Africa. Her skills in the air, which also include paramotoring and piloting ultra-light aircraft, make her a popular choice for film, print, and stunt work, and she has appeared in movies such as Flying with Condors, as well as in a number of videos and advertisements. (It doesn’t hurt that she climbs, bikes, skis, kites, and surfs, either.)
And there are always records to be broken. Castle currently holds the women’s world hang gliding records for open distance and declared goal, which she set in Zapata, Texas, in July 2001. Her next goal is to break the same records for paragliding, and a return to Zapata is in the works to do just that. “I would like to break the tandem hang gliding open distance record, too,” Castle notes. “I’m planning on flying with my 60-year-old client and student, who happens to be a woman.”
As a warm-up of sorts, in April 2004 Castle set a new Florida Women’s Distance Record (202km/125.5mi) in hang gliding at the Flytec Championships – where she placed sixteenth overall, third among American pilots, and first among female pilots.
While Castle shows no sign of letting up in cross-country events, she’s excited to extend her range to some of flying’s newer disciplines. “I’ve entered three speed-gliding events, which I loved more than I expected!” she says. “And I love the idea behind ‘swooping’.” She finishes, “I would also like to enter the aerobatic competitions in paragliding, but I need to put the practice time in first!”
After more than twenty years of being a cross-country queen, can Kari Castle really hope to succeed at aerobatics?