Since we made our first attempt to hang glide a year ago, we had already filled out the paperwork and watched the video. Once they put my harness on and fitted me for a helmet, things moved pretty quickly. A little too quickly.
My tandem partner, Rex from Arkansas, brought me over to the hang glider and clicked a couple carabiners in place. I tried to not let the lack of warm chatter or the skull and crossbone ring he was wearing distract me from what I was about to experience. He told me to lay flat in the harness, hang on here and off we went across the field being pulled by the airplane. Suddenly I was thinking, "Maybe I should have reviewed that video just once more." I thought I might get a little "here’s what to expect" commentary, as is common with a lot of our adventures. Before I knew it we had climbed to 2,000 feet. Rex did let me know that when he disconnects from the airplane we’ll drop a little.
He was right – it was like a dip in a roller coaster, that same bottoming out feeling. It was a clear day, 80 degrees at 9 a.m.. Even though the air was thick, we could see about 40 miles Rex said.
While I was gliding through the air I thought about all the things I’ve read about eagles. They typically don’t fight with other birds, as I understand it, because they can exist in higher atmospheres. So instead of scrapping, with a flap of their strong wings they literally "rise above". I felt like an eagle while I was up there peacefully floating and circling above the mountain. That’s a feeling I want to hang on to. We built up speed and did a fly-by of the ramp at the top of the mountain – another roller coaster effect. Being the experienced hang glider I am, Rex let me take over for a while. Actually, it flies itself to some degree. When I let go of the bar completely, that was like neutral. Pulling my body over the bar accelerates while pushing away from the bar slows down or actually stalls it.
Rex’s job definitely goes in the "this doesn’t suck" category. He said the judge told him he could go to jail, or become a hang gliding pilot. I’m not entirely sure Rex was kidding.
All too quickly we were headed back to the field for our smooth landing. This really was a lay-glide-land experience; aside from a couple whoopdies, it was not an adrenaline rush, rather a pretty calm experience. And one I’d highly recommend. 🙂
It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys. But up here, there are no turkeys. There are eagles, hawks, buzzards and a variety of other avian life that apparently like to fly with the gliders though.
Lookout Mountain Flight Park is known as the premier hang gliding location in the U.S. for a number of reasons. They have both an airfield for tow-up gliding, and a premium mountaintop location for jump-off launching. This allows the best of both worlds depending on weather conditions, and their southern location extends the gliding season far beyond what is possible in northern climes.
I talked Colette into going up first so that I could get some good photos (full gallery HERE), and all of a sudden it was whiz-bang-pop, she was strapped in and the ultralight was towing her away into the wild blue yonder. No time for adrenaline, no time for second-guessing, it was no nonsense, get in, sit down, hang on and shut up.
I was immediately grateful for the new Nikon D90 camera that we bought. Trying to capture these moments with a point-and-shoot simply would not have done the trick. The pictures tell the tale, especially when they banked around for the final buzz over the pavilion. I’m guessing by the mile-wide grin that this didn’t suck 🙂
I had really anticipated more of an adrenaline rush when it was my turn, but strangely enough I felt nothing when getting strapped in, towed up, or gliding. It’s not a gut-drop feeling, it’s more like the calmness of sailing. I mentioned this to my tandem partner Eric, and he said that they were going to call gliding ‘sky sailing’ but decided to call it ‘sky surfing’. I haven’t surfed before, so I’m still likening it to sailing in my head.
The plane tows you up at roughly 30mph (the airspeed indicator on the glider is graduated in mph, not knots – weird!) to around 2,800 feet, then you pull the cable and it’s like a stall – you drop to 15mph and everything goes silent. The buzz from the airplane engine is gone. The wind just dropped 15mph. It’s you, the sound of the airlift over the wing, and a sea of blue and green as far as the eye can see. Peacefulness, redefined.
Eric was the perfect tandem partner, and was tipped well for his time. As soon as we cut loose from the ultralight, he handed control over to me for the duration. Flying the glider at altitude is pretty simple – hold on to the uprights, and shift your entire body weight in the direction you want to turn, feet first. A little dab’ll do ya though – make a light correction and then back off since the glider will continue in the direction that you banked it.
Experienced gliders routinely stay out for 2-3 hours on average by observing the birds circling in thermals, and then utilizing those same thermals to gain some altitude for additional airtime. 7,000 feet is called ‘cloudbase’, and is where a lot of the regular glider pilots try to stay. Eric said that his longest time aloft was 7 hours – of course this was with a backpack full of food and water, and I didn’t bother to ask what he did when he needed to pee 🙂
I managed to find two different thermals and gain some additional altitude by circling repeatedly in them. Eric was very mindful of the time though, and pointed me back towards the airbase when he realized that I was definitely pushing his schedule out.
Then came the really fun part – after circling the airfield twice to get down to landing angle, he told me to land the glider. Wuuuuut? flying at altitude is one thing, landing the thing is another. I can take a motorcycle at 180mph down the front straight at Road America, slide it sideways at 100mph through Turn 1 at Grattan, and brake from 140 to 40 in Turn 9 with the back tire off the ground with nary a butterfly, but landing a plane with no engine AND a passenger gave me a bit of a nervous tic. Eric guided me through the process though, pull the bar back to my knees to put the glider in a steep dive, then push out to flare and land safely. One hop off the ground due to a little too much flare, and we were wheels-down safely without any muss or fuss. I could get used to this!
All in all – $200 for a day worth of instruction and a tandem flight – awfully cheap for a thrill ride like this! No real gut-wrenching moments, just more of a serene sense of nature. I highly recommend giving it a try if you end up within a few hours of Chattanooga for any reason!
We even managed to talk Colette’s brother Jason into coming up from Atlanta and doing it! He was doing his instruction in the morning with a tandem in the afternoon, so we met him at the instruction hill and snapped some photos of him doing free-flight off the training hills and then headed to Hillbilly Willy’s for some local barbecue at lunch. Unfortunately his tandem was cancelled in the afternoon due to weather, but that just gives him an excuse to come back and do it all over again 🙂