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
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
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!