I’ve never been particularly afraid of heights, and I certainly wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of hang gliding in the dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C., a place chosen by the Wright brothers for its cushy, sand-padded landings and reliable westerly winds. I knew that even if I was the worst pilot in the bunch, I wouldn’t be plummeting hundreds of feet into some rocky crag. The level of risk was so minimal, in fact, that I almost didn’t bother. I mean, I’d have to give up an afternoon on one of the most pristine beaches in the U.S.—Corolla, N.C., home to the famous wild horses—for a few seconds of flight?
But the payoff, however brief, was worth the hassle and near-100-degree-heat of that afternoon in June at Kitty Hawk Kites when 11 other journalists and I clipped ourselves into rainbow-colored gliders with wingspans about the length of my Prius. The enthusiasm of the others in the group buffeted any “I-could-be-beaching” thoughts, though. In the coolness of the tricked-out bus transporting us from our lodging to the dunes (something arranged by the tour operator especially for us—not standard practice), we screened an instructional video, which inched a bit into the history of the sport and gave as good a picture of what to expect as any depiction of such an experience could. The most helpful aspect was actually seeing people using proper form (or not) on takeoff and landing, but I knew I would need constant reminders when it was my turn to fly.
And, thankfully, I got them. Once we arrived at the KHK headquarters, adjacent to Jockey’s Ridge State Park (where we’d actually be taking our lessons), we were first sized up and given harnesses by the four uber-tanned guys we’d be trusting with our lives over the next couple of hours. Three were college students on summer work duty; the lead instructor, Mike, was a year-round, seasoned pro. Mike helped us into the harnesses, which somewhat resembled bib overalls with adjustable straps where the seat and legs would be. Once we were fitted, we slipped the harnesses off again and each grabbed a helmet. Then, the hard part: the walk to our takeoff spot. That same soft sand that made Kitty Hawk a perfect spot for Orville’s and Wilbur’s trial-and-error flight experiments made for some aching quadriceps and calves over the quarter-mile-or-so journey. Plus, 100-degree heat and lunar-like landscape made me feel like I was in the Sahara, not a mere 5-minute car ride from the Atlantic Ocean.
We finally reached the canopy set up for us on top of the highest rise, from which you could actually (finally) see civilization, not to mention water and waves. There, we divided up into groups and were assigned to an instructor. By my luck, I ended up with Mike. Actually, it may have been by design—I was, at 51, the oldest one in the group by about 10 years, and a woman at that. It’s possible that they thought I, the matriarch of the group, needed to be paired with a more experienced guide. Now, know this: I am not insecure about my age. But I’m also not used to being the “oldest” in the group, either. Growing up, I was young for my grade—everyone was getting drivers’ licenses and buying beer before me. It’s only in the last 10 years that I have found myself the elder statesman in social situations—among the moms at my son’s school (I have an 11-year-old), in particular. Most of the time I don’t even realize it, until someone says something like, “Oh, my mother likes that show too,” and I realize that I probably graduated from college before they were born.
I admit, though—when it comes to physical tests, I feel like I have a little something to prove as a 50-plus person. Age doesn’t make me shy away; it adds a little fuel to my fire. So I was eager to get my wings and put into practice what we’d learned in the video.
Mike had me get back into my harness and check that it was snug enough to keep me secure. Then, I attached a loop connected to the harness by carabineer to a tether on the triangle-shaped frame of the hang glider, and positioned myself, belly-down in the sand, so that my hands were on the bottom bar.
Mike ran me through the basic instructions for proper form during flight. In a neutral position, your shoulders and arms should be relaxed with the bar directly under your chin. Pushing your arms forward will make the craft sail higher; pulling them back will send you lower. To steer, you move your hips and legs to the side opposite to where you want to travel. We practiced each of these positions a couple of times in the safety of the sand before takeoff.
We also ran through the landing, probably the trickiest part of the whole deal. To land, you want to “flare”—push your arms out straight in front of you, causing the nose of the glider to point straight up and allowing the wings to act as brakes.
Then, it was time to fly, or at least try to. Mike assured me that despite the somewhat strong headwind, I wouldn’t drift away—I’d likely only reach about 100 feet in the air, and Mike and another instructor would stay with me the whole way as I traveled down the slope of the dune, holding tethers on each end of the wings. “Relax,” he said. “Find a focal point on the horizon, and don’t look down.” Looking down would make the kite dive—staying focused on the water tower barely visible in the distance, would keep me aloft.
Knowing that I have an issue with relaxation in general, but especially when I’m risking if not life, but limb, I repeated Mike’s “relax; focus” mantra in my mind. I gave my carabineer one last check to make sure I was clipped in; waited for the OK signal from Mike, and started running, if you could call it that, in the smoking hot sand. I tried to keep running long after I thought I could stop, as Mike suggested, to avoid the typical beginner’s mistake of stopping too soon before the wind has a chance to take you. And I sailed. My eyes trained on that water tower, I felt myself flying, hearing Mike coaching me to pull the bar back slightly to get it under my chin. I wanted so badly to look down—don’t ask me why—but I didn’t. When Mike shouted, “Flare!” I did my best to push the bar out, felt my feet hit the sand under me and then … tipped over to one side. I didn’t “stick” the landing, Gabby Douglas-style, but I didn’t crash-and-burn either.
Mike and his assistant helped me to my feet, the assistant carrying the glider back up the hill (what a perk!). As we slogged up the hill together, Mike critiqued my performance: While my takeoff was right on, I needed to focus more on keeping the bar under my chin while in the air, and be more forceful in my “flare,” using my muscle to get that nose up for a perfect landing. “Here’s your homework,” he said. “Watch the other members of the group and figure out what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong.”
Among our group, there were some near-perfect flights and some fairly spectacular fails, which resulted in some apparently not-so-serious glider damage, but no real injuries save bruised bodies and egos. The standout performance (no surprise) was that of the 23-year-old professional kayaker-cum-daredevil who’d been jonesing to strap himself into a glider.
But I was no slacker, either. Having done my “homework,” I headed out for my second flight (our 3-hour lesson bought us a total of five). It was amazingly uneventful, in a good way—I nailed the landing this time. While each run lasted a couple of minutes at the most, I found myself understanding a little more the human fascination with flight, getting thrill that comes with taking a risk, and feeling even more certain that age is, as they say, just a number.
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