I don't know when I got
to take up hang gliding, but an introductory lesson was supposed to
been my birthday present some six months earlier. After several
attempts to line up lessons, my life partner Dani found a place in
She finally made arrangements for a couple days of lessons through them
on an upcoming weekend.
The class started off in a
10am Saturday. We ended up having an even dozen people (counting
Dani and me). My friend Valerie (who lives in Houston when she
away in grad school or on an internship) met us there and brought her
John with her as well. John had been looking to take lessons
with our interest. When Val mentioned her plans for the weekend,
he wanted to join in as well.
The instructors were an
Fred was a retired engineer from NASA. He was about 70 and did
of the talking. The other instructor, Bruce, was perhaps twenty
young and was a lawyer. He only interjected bits every now and
or spoke up when Fred defaulted to him for supplementary
Fred covered most of the theory behind how gliders work. He was
into the math with a lot of physics terms thrown in like vector
and moment (a version of inertia relevant in systems involving
I think John (who is a physics major) and I (a high school physics
were the only ones who not only followed what he was talking about, but
we actually were interested. Eyes glazed over among the rest of
class at the first appearance of the math, but Fred made the material
accessible by giving examples for each of the terms in the
Specifically, Lift = 1/2 p v2 cl s. In plain English
that means is that fast moving wind is most important to getting off
ground (and staying there), but the angle the wings attack the wind and
the surface area of the glider (or plane, etc.) are critical as well
reasons that ought to be obvious to anyone who has tried to keep an
over their head in a gusty thunderstorm.
The "lecture" wasn't really
but it was certainly entertaining. There were lots of anecdotes
what happened to flyers when things went wrong. For example,
not taking things into consideration all-important details such as
their harness into the glider before launching or flying too close to
low pressures of storm clouds and finding themselves getting sucked
The stories were always interesting, even if the presentation wasn't
Around noon we broke for lunch
down to a park a few miles away to practice running and launching...
not actually flying yet. We learned how to assemble gliders by
and assisting the instructors as they put them together. They
out a pair of them, so we split into two groups by weight class and
trying to get off the ground. This was all on a flat, level
Short of an aeronautical miracle, there was no chance of us really
to the air just yet.
What you don't realize when you
flyers take off is that it takes a while to learn how to hold a fifty
pound glider and keep it steady while you're running. You need to
keep it straight on, not angled downward, upward, to the left, or to
right, and the slightest deviation means the wind will magnify your
into an impossible angle and bring the attempt to a swift
Within the first few runs, the class had managed to end up turning
possible combination of the wrong direction, and that's just getting
Once you get the glider up to an
speed, you have to switch hand positions while still running.
hands are pointed downward as though holding a large golf club angled
in each hand, then you rotate them (while still in forward motion) so
they're now holding the glider the way you would an umbrella
Basically, you're running with a big chunk of mylar and metal that you
almost have to let go of completely to get in a position to push
so that the glider tilts up and catches the wind. You're doing a
lot of things at the same time that more or less have to be
only it's all brand new, so you haven't learned them yet.
you have to think about everything at once when it's happening entirely
too fast for you to think about. This is why the first lessons
involve even an incline, never mind running off a cliff.
There wasn't a lot of wind on
though, so we only just barely got off the ground most attempts, and
was only if the run didn't end in a fall. I never fell, but
other students did, repeatedly, in some cases. We continued
through practicing our runs (and falls) until around 4pm, before we
for the day.
We were all exhausted and had
of a real sunburn. When Val, John, Dani, and I all went out to
that night, we were various shades of pink leaning toward the red end
the spectrum. The plan was to see a late movie, but I reluctantly
played the party pooper and said I was too tired to stay awake through
one. The rest admitted they were as well. We were all in
mid twenties to early thirties, and half a day of pushing a glider
already had us worn out. We all headed off to bed relatively
Good thing, too, as the next
day we went
out to a different spot (this time with a hill!) to get started trying
to fly a bit for real. Seeing as how Houston is basically flat,
and Bruce brought us out to a levee where we could get a running
Aside from the fact that a raised incline provides flyers with some
there is also the benefit of what is called ridge lift. This is
you get when wind is directed upward by the angle of the incline which,
in this case, was the levee.
There wasn't a lot of wind on
day, but a little bit came and went while we were out there. On
of his runs, John took off and was really flying (not just gliding a
or so off the ground like we had been up to that point). The wind
happened to come in at just the right moment, and he lifted smoothly up
about 10 or 15 feet in the air. Up to this point, no one in the
had managed to get more than a couple feet off the ground. John
as surprised as any of us. There was a mix of emotions on his
as he yelled down to the rest of us, "What now?!" There was water
in front of him from the bayou the levee guarded, so he couldn't keep
indefinitely, but he didn't want to come down on those of us who were
at the bottom of the slope waiting for our turn.
There are two things you can
you're in the air: pitch (up/down) and yaw (left/right), and almost
who willed themselves even a few inches off the ground (myself
seemed only to be able to do one or the other at a time. There
a couple runs where I either started off in a turn or ended up in one,
and I never recovered. Thankfully all my landings were really
Whereas many students came down horizontally like they were sliding
third base, I always landed on my feet, albeit somewhat awkwardly at
A lot of people just scraped along on their side or belly and
One lady who took the lesson with her college-age daughter kept going
on her hip like that over and over again. I have no idea what she
was doing wrong, but she managed to do it every time.
My best run was also my last of
Every turn I had with the glider was better than the one before
I was integrating the information, and it was finally starting to
natural. It was suddenly very windy as I got ready to start my
so I knew to hold off. As strong as the gusts were coming at me,
I probably could have lifted off without even running much.
I might simply have started flying backwards if the wind blew just a
bit harder, and that wouldn't have been good. After all, given
this was an introductory lesson, I still really had no idea what I was
I waited for a bit, then the
I started running, and somehow everything went perfectly. Whereas
many of my previous, windless runs didn't result in any real air even
the time I reached the bottom of the hill and had maxed out my speed,
this time I managed to take off about halfway down the incline. I
started going up and turning to the right. I was about ten feet
more up (who can accurately gauge things in the moment?) and I was
for the crowd at the bottom of the hill same as John had earlier.
The problem here was that class was sitting on a large log of driftwood
deposited sometime earlier when the water was higher, so I couldn't
expect the students to move and give me a clearing. Even if they
ran out of the way, I still might have run the upturned branch at the
of the log right through the glider's canopy when I came down.
I managed to stay aloft heading
the log and crowd, but I had to decide whether I should try to go over
them or to take the glider down prematurely. I figured I had
land since I couldn't tell how quickly I was descending as it
I jerked the glider down sharply and made a pretty good landing on my
considering how abrupt it was. John's most impressive flight
beat mine in terms of time in the air and distance covered, but mine
at least the second-best of the day.
My partner Dani didn't have
nearly as much
luck in her attempts though. She had a lot of trouble taking off,
and I don't know that she really ever got herself adequately in the air
to say she was flying. She just couldn't run fast enough.
there was so little wind to work with, it was up to all of us to get up
to a critical velocity that she never achieved. Actually, the
portion of the levee that the lower weight class was using was about
degrees steeper, so the students on that one were able to get moving
We switched over to that section later in the afternoon, but as fate
have it, not for very long.
Toward the end of the day,
Jose, a short,
stocky man in his early 50s tried the steep hill, but he was only
for a second before he stalled and came down fast. On almost
attempt throughout the day Jose tended to jump as soon as he got any
at all instead of trying to get more speed. Contrary to your
jumping does not allow you to fly. The only thing it accomplishes
is to prematurely put you in the air before you have been lifted there
via the glider. And if you're in the air, you can't propel
forward with your feet. If you aren't gaining speed, then there's
nothing to keep you in the air. Guess what happens next?
Coupled with his predilection
Jose was also one of the students who never landed on his feet, so on
(his final) landing, the glider hit the ground on the left landing
with him still hanging on. As a result, there was about 200+ lbs.
of glider and pilot on that corner of the frame. The two bars
to the point of impact buckled under the weight. Jose was fine
the force of the impact was absorbed by the now-destroyed tubing, but
was especially sad for me since I was next in line to go after him, and
I hadn't tried the steeper hill yet. This part of the levee also
had a several hundred more feet of dry land extending in front of it
the water began, and I had every intention of covering that entire
of that on my next flight.
Unfortunately, the glider Jose
was the one for the heavier weight class. The majority of
were out of luck now since we were too big for the remaining
It was getting late anyway, and many students were waiting out their
and letting the more enthusiastic folks like myself go again in their
Now with the majority of the students grounded and generally exhausted,
we had to call it a day.
After we packed up the gliders,
about the options for continuing our instructions such as where we
take additional lessons and/or taking tandem flights where a student
instructor fly together in the same (albeit oversized) glider. He
pointed out that, no matter which path we chose at this point, we
the same people as we were before that weekend's experience.
He was right. As enthused
as I was
before taking the lessons, I was absolutely obsessed in the weeks that
followed. Every hill I passed, I pointed out to Dani and said,
would be a good one to train from!" I continued researching
and made contact with the local glider community. Dani and I
purchased our own glider, so we're committed to following through on
adventure in the making.
Flying is frustrating at first,
the end of these first two days of lessons, all of us were sunburned
sore in more places than I could list, but there's a little bit of
in each incremental advance between being stuck on the ground to
if only for a few seconds at a time. I guess it would be corny if
I start pulling puns about getting "high" here, but you can't help but
sound trite when you talk about something this uplifting.
I did it anyway.