A Natural High

A Natural High

© John Heiney 1984

For many thousands of years man has watched the birds with envy and contemplated the wonderful freedom of personal flight. Hang gliding is the realization of Man's oldest dream: to fly with one's own wings. We are the privileged first generation to see this dream become a reality.

Although Man probably will never fly by flapping wings, we now have the ability to soar in exactly the same manner as the large soaring birds such as eagles, condors, and buzzards. To soar means to maintain or gain height above the ground using natural lift.

The larger birds, being too heavy to fly for very long using their own muscle power, have learned how to fly without flapping their wings. They attain high altitude and stay aloft for hours by sensing and circling in columns of rising air called thermals, a natural phenomenon caused by the Sun's heating of the Earth’s surface. This special gift of nature is known as thermal soaring.

Also, birds ridge soar by gliding in rising air produced by wind striking a cliff or mountain and deflecting upward. If the air is rising faster than the bird is gliding down, then altitude can be maintained or gained.

These same techniques are used by hang glider pilots to gain thousands of feet and fly many miles. During a cross-country flight a pilot gains altitude in one thermal, glides to where he believes the next thermal will be, and hopes to regain his lost altitude to continue his journey. The slow flying speed of a hang glider allows a flight to be initiated by running off a mountain, and allows controlled, foot landings to be made in small areas.

Sailplane pilots have long used an instrument called a variometer to assist them in their soaring. It tells the pilot if he is going up or down and at what rate. Hang glider pilots now use them too, as well as altimeters and two way radios. The variometer is helpful in finding and centering in the lift, although an experienced soaring pilot can use his own body senses to accomplish much the same thing.

In the Owens Valley in east central California, where many world records have been set, it is not uncommon for a hang glider to reach 16,000 feet above sea level and cover a straight line distance of 100 miles or more during summer months by gaining in one thermal and gliding to the next.

Larry Tudor of Draper Utah flew 221.5 miles in July of this year. Larry launched from the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lone Pine, California and landed ten hours later near Austin, Nevada, making, this the longest flight to date on a hang glider.

The current weight-shift controlled, foot-launched hang gliders have a 10 to 1 L/D which means they will go ten feet forward for each one foot loss in altitude. Modern sailplanes have about four times this performance rating so there is room for improvement. The designer's problem is to increase the performance without adversely affecting the turning characteristics, and still allow the glider to be foot launched and landed and fold for easy transportation on top of a car.

The name "hang gliding" comes from the fact that the pilot is supported by a harness that hangs from the glider. Steering is accomplished by shifting one's weight in the direction of the turn using a control bar which is rigidly attached to the glider and an integral part of the glider's structure. Speed is controlled by weight-shift in the fore-and- aft direction. You pull the bar in to speed up, and push it out to slow down.

Hang gliding's reputation as a dangerous sport developed in the late sixties and early seventies when the gliders actually were unsafe. The evolution of' today's advanced hang gliders with their designed-in safety features has transferred to the pilot the burden of blame for the relatively few mishaps that do occur. The safety of hang gliding today depends largely on the attitude of the individual pilot.

Almost all hang glider pilots carry a parachute as part of their harness so if a structural failure should occur, the parachute can be deployed to bring the pilot end glider down together. It is a logical safety precaution; however, rarely needed.

The United States Hang Gliding Association is the nationally recognized organization for hang gliding in the united States, whose function is the self-regulation of the sport. The sharply improved safety record over the past few years is a credit to this organization. The hang glider manufacturers comply with glider testing procedures recommended by the Hang Glider Manufacturers Association, another self-regulatory group. No taxpayer dollars are spent to regulate hang gliding.

The majority of hang glider pilots feel that it would be unfortunate to have their craft lumped together with powered ultralights in the Federal Aviation Administration's inevitable regulation of that rapidly growing activity. The hang gliding community realizes that attention to Federal Aviation Regulations is necessary in order to coexist with general and commercial aviation operations; however, further regulation of hang glider manufacture and operation should not be necessary in view of the continuing success of self-regulation.

Hang gliding is a widely misunderstood activity due in part to its inaccessibility to the general public. In the early days there were many coastal ridge soaring and training sites in the suburban areas of California, making it visible to spectators. The loss of most of these sites due primarily to landowner liability fears, has reduced the public's view of this aesthetically appealing sport. In the mountains, where most pilots soar, the launch areas are remote, often at the end of a bumpy, dusty, switchback road. The landing areas are somewhat more visible, but the gliders are often too high to be noticed by people on the ground.

Generally there are only several days each summer when the meteorological conditions are adequate for long distance flights. At most sites local flying around the launch area is the norm, and cross- country attempts the exception.

Although hang gliding has been restricted mostly to mountainous and coastal areas in the past, soon flatland dwellers will be soaring cross-country with the development of safe towing methods. Hang gliders will be towed aloft by ultralights and released in the same manner that sailplanes are towed by airplanes.

To learn any type of flying takes a serious commitment and a considerable amount of time. It is strongly recommended that the beginner seek out a hang gliding school with instructors certified by the U.S.H.G.A. Anyone who has gone through the process of learning to fly will stress the importance of proper, regulated training and avoiding the temptation of learning from a friend or by trial and error. There is no quick and simple formula for acquiring the knowledge needed to fly a hang glider.

Check the yellow pages under "hang gliders" for a school in your area, or write the U.S.H.G.A., P.O. Box 1330 Colorado Springs CO 80901-1330 for a list of hang gliding schools and dealers. Lessons should cost about $480 for a twelve day package, which includes the use of the schools equipment (glider, harness, helmet, and two-way radio). When you have completed your lessons you will be in the market for your own glider. Prices vary from $600-$1200 for a used intermediate glider, to $1600-$1900 for a new intermediate, and $1900-$2400 for an advanced high performance design. When buying a used glider, remember that those manufactured before 1979 are generally considered to be unsafe.

Since the beginning of the hang gliding renaissance fifteen years ago, an estimated 40,000 former ground bound humans have joined the world of the birds. To describe the enlightened feeling of having mastered the fundamentals of unpowered flight might well be beyond the limits of the written word. The notion of kinship with the eagle, one's alliance with the wind and the sun, your only enemy: your own limitations. To be able to get naturally high and actually rise above the irritations of modern living is of incalculable value.

Despite the rapid evolution from ground skimming glides to cross-country thermal soaring, hang gliding remains a recreational activity that the individual can pursue to whatever level he/she wishes. Some prefer the even dependable lift of a moderate sea breeze on an ocean cliff to the illusive often turbulent lift of midday inland thermals. The fulfillment derived from hang gliding is personal and dependent on individual preference.

A most effective natural tranquilizer can be found in a glide from the top of a mountain in the smooth air that usually occurs in the early morning or late afternoon. Advanced pilots can take advantage of the occasional gift of light from the moon for a midnight flight, a conscious dream of unequalled sensations.

Hang gliding has redefined personal freedom. Technology has made the equipment safe, experience has made the teaching process effective. Now the most wonderful flying experience is available to anyone with normal strength and coordination, and a responsible attitude. Man's oldest dream has become his newest consciousness. We are living the dream. We can fly.


Published in Westways September 1984