Flight with a hangglider. Soaring flight is the goal for most pilots. Flights with no lifting air known as sled runs is possible from hills or mountains. Soaring flights may last for many hours depending on the meterological conditions and the pilots skill and stamina.

Safety have improved radically since the start of hang-gliding in the 1970's, and it is now quite safe compared to other similar activites like paragliding, sailplanes, base jumping and skydiving.

There are hang-gliding schools in most areas, people who try to learn by themselves usually end up dead or badly hurt.

Hang-gliding competitions involve flying a task that consists of a route around a number of turnpoints. The route is normally from 50km to over 250km depending on the terrain and weather. Pilots find thermals generated by the suns heating of the ground and climb by flying inside these. When the pilots reach the cloud base altitude they glide on to find a new thermal. The pilot who completes the course with the fastest time win. The pilots fly with a GPS receiver that record a tracklog to prove correct rounding of the turnpoints and start/goal time.

The normal cross country competition is quite boring to watch as a spectator, as pilots become a dot in the sky and disappear for hours until they come fast and low into goal hundreds of km away. Another more spectacular competition format is speedgliding, which is the hang-gliding equivalent to downhill skiing. The pilots have to pass through gates flying down a mountain at speeds over 140 km/h and altitudes of only a few meters. Red Bull is a major sponsor in this sport.

Flying a hangglider can be an andredalin pumping expirience like in speedgliding, or calm and beautiful when thermalling up with a bird of prey over the mountains.

First Flight

Spring 1972, La Jolla, California

I looked out the third story window of my dorm room in Tioga Hall, on the John Muir campus of UC San Diego.  It was a blustery afternoon saturated in that weak golden light you get on a western coast in the late afternoon. Something caught my eye over the tops of the gray eucalyptus trees.  A flash of color, then another, and then I saw Daedalus soaring above the edge of the cliff and out over the blue pacific ocean. Man as a demigod, flying without a motor or even much in the way of an airplane at all. Yup, hang gliders! 

I'd read everything I could find about these grass skimming, bamboo & plastic flying hobbyists. Flying their homemade kites off any convenient cliff with an even remotely survivable landing zone. Irresistible!  I'd seen a gang of them jumping into the roaring onshore breezes at Terramar in Baja California.  The old ones flew, or more accurately fell, at about a 45 degree angle.  So, at a coastal dune beach like Terramar, with a matching slope and a roaring wind, you could fly all the way to the water.  Three feet or so off the ground the whole way.  I already knew in my sinews that I wanted to do this, and with that one glance out the dorm window I had a new mission statement: learn to fly

When you are 22, it's still relatively easy to just blank out the entire universe in the hormonal focus of your newest passion, whether that be a redhead, or a learning to fly.  I jumped in my car and five minutes later pulled into the Torrey Pines Glider Port parking lot. There were a handful of cars parked there, a combination of beachgoers, and people like myself who had seen the kites and driven in for a closer inspection. No one was in the air, but down by the cliff’s edge a tall dark haired guy was standing next to a hang glider that looked like a giant moth, red and blue wing panels with two giant yellow dots.  By the time I reached the group the tall guy was hustling a group of silent gawkers, asking if anyone wanted to go up with him.  To my delight, there were no volunteers, so I marched right up and said, "hey there, I'll go. I want to go!"

The tall guy smiled and motioned me out to the edge of the cliff for a quick preflight briefing. Okay he said, "I’ll do all the flying, you just stay cool and hold on."  He picked up the kite and showed me how to slip into one of the plastic seats. It looked like, and turned out to be, a child’s swing set seat.  He strapped a car seatbelt over my thighs and, together we walked into the buffeting wind toward the edge of the cliff. 

The cliffs of Torrey Pines are remarkable.  Several hundred feet of uplifted marine sandstone, hovering over the inappropriately white sand of Blacks Beach.  It seems remarkable now that I don’t remember feeling any fear at all. I was standing next to a guy I’d never met before, strapped into a flimsy wing of nylon, aluminum tubing and wires looking down 250 feet to the beach and ocean. The tall guy said "run!" and we hobbled the last few steps to the precipice, pushed the control bar in front of us and slid gently into space. I will never, ever, forget the rush of exhilaration I felt as the wind caught our wing, all the rattling chaotic noise became still, and we began to climb straight up above the cliff’s edge. A sublime passage from turbulence to laminar flow.

Only the sun, the wind and the sea far below were in front of us. Below, the little crowd was watching in disbelief as we soared over their heads. The tall guy guided the kite effortlessly, shifting our weight to swoop and dive through the strong updraft of salty ocean breeze. He shouted over to me through the rushing wind, "wanna fly it?"  I nodded and soon I could feel him relaxing the pressure of his hands on the bar as I took more and more control. After a few moments, he took his hands off completely, holding on to the lines of his seat and was smiling like a maniac as I drove us around and around.  

Flying a hang glider is not hard at all.  In fact it's almost completely intuitive.  You shift your body weight by pushing the control bar around and the kite does what you ask it to. Push the bar forward, you go up.  Pull it in, you go down. Triv. It reminds me of that scene in The Matrix, where they download some gnarly control programs into Neo's brain and he can suddenly do fantastic stuff.  Like fly.

We stayed up over an hour,  traversing the length of Torrey Pines cliff, then flying out towards the sea and away from the lift, only to race back to the safety of the cliff as we lost altitude. The remote controlled glider crew says that you can fly a brick off Torrey Pines.  There's just this huge mass of lift blowing straight up.  When you are flying a hang glider, you feel the lift intuitively.  'Ahhh, now that is the stuff, let's stay in the middle of that,' or 'whoops falling like a rock, run away screaming!'  It doesn't take any "thinking," really, or reading the variometer needle like in a real airplane.  You just do it.

At the end of the flight, we carefully built up a couple hundred feet of altitude above the edge of the cliff,  then made a sharp turn back over the glider port and away from the sea. Suddenly the ground was racing by, hauling ass beneath us, and we were losing altitude steadily. Then we banked into another short steep turn, back into the wind, and settled gently on the pavement like a giant smirking seagull.

"That was incredible," I said as soon as we unbuckled from our seats. "Yeah, pretty bitchin huh. Hey, you were pretty good up there, are you interested in flying for me?" I restrained myself, or at least tried to. "Dunno, who are you anyway?" The tall guy laughed and handed me a cheap looking business card. "Bob Wills," he said, "my company is called Wills Wings and we’re the best flyers in the business."

I got to know Bob pretty well over the next few years and one thing I never heard anyone accuse him of was modesty. I flew with him, worked for him and competed against him as he helped the sport of hang gliding spread throughout the world. I considered him a friend and was one of the many who were saddened when he was killed in a dumb stunt years later.

I drove back to my dorm room in kind of a daze, realizing that a part of me would never be the same. I had flown! I knew what it was like to fly like a bird, feeling every current and eddy of the wind with my hands and eyes and skin. There’s nothing else like it, that’s about all I have to say about that!

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