Learning to fly a hang glider

Or how I nearly wet my pants
By Michael Hodgson | Photo by Pexels
Like Icarus centuries before, I found myself attached to a set of wings — a hang glider to be exact — wondering if it were really possible to soar like a bird and break away from earthbound limitations.

Thanks to an editor who found far too much humor in imagining me leaving the earth (even if for just a few seconds), I had been volunteered to learn to fly a hang glider for a feature story.

As a result, I was now gazing down a slight incline above a lovely field dotted with cow-patties (this “slight” incline became monumentally steeper the longer I stared toward the bottom). As the wind wafted up the hill in unpredictable spurts, sweat rolled from under my helmet and down my cheek.

The possibility of flight currently seemed very remote. It wasn’t that my instructor didn’t offer the necessary enthusiasm. In fact, he practically bubbled over with encouragement during ground school. And it wasn’t that he had made flying a hang glider look exceptionally difficult. Indeed, our first few test runs on flat ground went smoothly enough. During these, he helped me set the nose angle and learn to run so the hang glider lifted off my shoulders slightly.

Actually, the problem was my get-up. It’s hard to feel light and airy while confined in a padded, black harness that is just loose enough to allow breathing and yet constricting enough to remove any question regarding gender.

And now, standing half-way up the hill, with my head tucked inside a bright yellow helmet and my hands clutching a 60 pound-going-on-300-pound hang glider underscored the futility. Fly? You’ve got to be kidding.

“OK, the wind’s good so let’s lift the glider and start to walk like you did in ground school,” he urged.

And so I half-waddled, half-walked, with the harness riding up places no harness should ever go.

“OK, now let’s run,” he suggested.

Run? In this get-up? I felt like I looked more like a parade float trying out for the Rose Parade than a hang glider pilot.

“Remember, let the glider float up, let it float. Keep running. Don’t stop running!”

I ran. And like in ground school, the glider floated off my shoulders. I ran faster. The glider tugged at my harness and lifted me up, then set me down. I kept running, and then my feet were no longer touching the ground. The glider was pulling me up with it. I must have looked like a modern-day Mary Poppins. The sky was mine.

It didn’t matter that I was only a few feet above the field. Time and space became irrelevant. The ground slipped back gently under me after a few seconds and my feet touched lightly down. A few quick steps to stay under the hang glider and I was an earthbound creature again with one noticeable difference. I had experienced the true feeling of flying like a bird — and I actually craved more.

Hang gliding is wonderful in its simplicity. Believe it or not, a hang glider needs no wind to fly. The glider’s wings provide the necessary aerodynamic force, the pilot provides the balanced weight, and gravity serves as the engine. Simple, but true.

There are no fancy controls, either. A pilot is comfortably suspended in a harness that is attached to the balance point of the hang glider. By precise shifts of weight from side-to-side, a pilot turns his or her craft from right to left. Shift forward and the hang-glider dips.  Shift back and the glider climbs or, upon landing, stalls and floats the pilot gently onto the ground.

Most remarkably, I discovered, is the fact that if you let go of the hang glider, it will naturally level off and point into the wind, nearly trained by laws of aerodynamics to fly itself.  Rather humbling to consider that a sack of potatoes suspended in a harness could fly a hang glider as well as I did on any given day.

While I rested after three successful, but short practice flights, I stared at a series of  flags set several hundred yards away as targets. They flapped tantalizingly in the wind. My longest aerial adventure up until that point had left me wondering if the flags could ever be reached.  Determined to make my last effort a good one, I started my fourth flight at the highest point on the hill. I began my walk, then my stagger, then my run. The glider pulled me off the ground.

With my instructor below shouting commands, I shifted my weight to compensate for the wind that was pushing my glider in a direction I didn’t want to go. It fought me. I fought back. It rebelled, and a wing began a steep bank toward the ground. Granted, I was only about 20 feet off terra firma, but a specter of dread was now peeking around the wings at me. No, I wasn’t afraid of the sudden aerial maneuvering (one that elicited enthusiastic applause from below) or the speed at which the ground was now rushing up to meet me. What I was afraid of was the sudden stop I would encounter at the end of this particular flight pattern.

Dipping deep into my bag of pilot tricks (being only my fourth flight, the bag didn’t really have a lot in it) I decided on the only prudent course of action … panic! Fortunately, the particular method of panic I selected for my impending face plant into a field full of cow pies was to let go of the hang glider, grab my personal joystick (yes, that one), squeeze my eyes shut and scream:

“Ooooooommmmmmmmyyyyyyyygawwwwwwwwddddddddddddd!”

The hang glider, now recognizing it had sole control of the situation since its passenger was exhibiting all the piloting skill of a quivering bowl of gelatin, snapped its wings level mere feet from the ground, whipped forward into the wind and began to climb. I felt my feet brush the grass as we glided skyward.

Still flying with my eyes shut, I realized that one of two things had occurred: either the impending impact had come and gone, and I was now floating among the angels, or I was indeed flying and had somehow avoided the inevitable. Slowly, I pried my hands from between my legs, cranked open my eyes, forced my mouth closed and began to breathe. I was actually floating on a cushion of air above the field, descending toward the flags below.

I grabbed the control bar in front of me and flew on for what seemed an eternity. My entire being now focused on the farthest flag at the bottom of the hill. Cool air rushed past my sweat-drenched face, chasing away any residual fear as the ground slipped quietly beneath my feet. It felt effortless and free. As I touched down, the most distant flag was now but a few feet in front of me.

My instructor ran up and clapped me on the back.

“Nice bit of flying up there.”

I grunted as I pried off my helmet.

“No, I mean that maneuver you made was a real advanced one.” He was practically gushing.

I didn’t want to burst his bubble, so I just smiled and nodded. “Yeah, felt pretty good making that move and then flying down to the flag.”

“Ready to go up again?”

As I wriggled out of my flight harness, I glanced over at him. “You know what I really want? I want a beer.”

Every successful panic attack deserves a beer, don’t you think? My next time to fly a hang glider could wait for a while.