I'm running on top of the world's highest sand dune hoping to attain enough speed to soar through the air after jumping into the abyss. My heart is racing from the exertion of running in sand in addition to my fear of heights and bodily injury.
That was my impression of hang gliding before actually doing it.
According to Andy Torrington of Kitty Hawk Kites, my misconceptions aren't unusual. He knows the public perception of hang gliding is very different from the reality. As Andy says, "Hang gliding has a reputation problem that we are doing our best to change one person at a time." I can attest to that.
Despite my fear, I'm an adventure junkie and soaring through the air using nothing but the power of the wind has long fascinated me. On windy days when I was a child I would take an open umbrella, run along the patio, and jump off the top step hoping to catch enough wind to fly a few feet before landing on the sidewalk below. Sometimes this would actually work and the feeling was enough to keep me doing it over and over. So, when I found myself in North Carolina's Outer Banks on a family vacation, I couldn't resist hang gliding's allure.
Jockey's Ridge State Park -- not far from where Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully flew the first airplane -- is ideal for hang gliding because of its steady winds and soft, forgiving sand dunes. And, Kitty Hawk Kites is the world's largest hang gliding school.
Taking off from the dunes
My three-hour hang gliding lesson began with a video including safety information and flying instructions. The mechanics of flying a hang glider are surprisingly simple. You steer by shifting your weight from side to side. This is called roll control. You control the hang glider's speed by moving your body backward or forward over the control bar using small, smooth movements. This is called pitch control. You stop by flaring, which is pushing the control bar farther forward. That's basically it.
After the video, the real fun began. Mike and Alex, my instructors, plus four other students and myself trekked through the sand to our "runway" at the top of one of the higher dunes. Already exhausted by the time I reached our destination I was happy to let the others go first. We were lucky to have perfect winds. Not too strong. Not too light. Blowing steadily. Watching alleviated many of my concerns because no one failed to lift off; Mike and Alex had hold of the hang glider the entire time (ropes are attached to the wings); and no one was ever more than 10 feet above the ground while in flight. When my turn came I was excited, but still afraid that I would fail to lift off on any of my five attempts.
I strapped myself into the hang glider and did a preflight check with Mike and Alex looking on attentively. Then I stood up, said I was ready, and started running in tandem with Mike and Alex, who were holding the outer edges of each wing. Much to my surprise I didn't have to run very far or very fast before the wind took over and my feet cleared the ground! I was flying and the feeling was astonishingly similar to what I felt as a child with my umbrella. All too quickly I was at the bottom of the dune and told to flare. Landing upright I felt proud and exhilarated. By the fourth flight I didn't want to land and asked what would happen if I refused to flare. Mike laughed and said I would end up on my belly in the sand, which I could do if I wanted. I chose to follow instructions and preserve my dignity.
Ultimately I realized all my fears and misgivings were unfounded. I had a bit of trouble controlling the hang glider, but that's because of my extraordinarily weak arms. The hardest part of hang gliding is walking back up the dune, even when you have two instructors to transport the hang glider for you.
Tandem hang gliding
Two days later I was ready to try a tandem flight and, as a result of my fantastic lesson experience, I wasn't scared. That is until I was strapped into the hang glider. Then I felt like a life-sucking parasite suspended above Andy, my tandem flight instructor. To make matters worse, we had to wait for our tow pilot, giving me too much time to think about why someone who's afraid of heights would choose to go 2,000 feet into the air with nothing separating her from solid ground but a big kite. In contrast, Andy was exceptionally calm and gracious.
Finally, we were ready to go. Lift off was pleasant and non-fear inducing, although the fuel smell coming off the tow plane made me feel slightly nauseous. As we continued to rise, I become aware of how loud the wind is and how much colder it is in the air than on the ground. Starting to feel overwhelmed by fear and discomfort I had to remind myself to relax and enjoy the unique feeling of non-motorized flight.
At a little over 2,000 feet, Andy dropped the line to the tow plane. Then I was truly flying using nothing but the power of the wind. Andy turned control of the hang glider over to me, and it was surprisingly easy to maneuver, even easier than my previous experience on the dunes.
By the end of the flight I was feeling safe and secure in Andy's expert hands. That is until we were about five feet above the ground. Then I started thinking evil thoughts about our speed and how hard the ground is, however, my fears were once again unfounded. Andy brought us in so smoothly that I didn't feel the slightest jar when we touched down!