I don't know when I got the bug to take up hang gliding, but an introductory lesson was supposed to have been my birthday present some six months earlier.  After several failed attempts to line up lessons, my life partner Dani found a place in Houston.  She finally made arrangements for a couple days of lessons through them on an upcoming weekend.

The class started off in a classroom at 10am Saturday.  We ended up having an even dozen people (counting Dani and me).  My friend Valerie (who lives in Houston when she isn't away in grad school or on an internship) met us there and brought her friend John with her as well.  John had been looking to take lessons coincidental with our interest.  When Val mentioned her plans for the weekend, he wanted to join in as well.

The instructors were an interesting pair.  Fred was a retired engineer from NASA.  He was about 70 and did most of the talking.  The other instructor, Bruce, was perhaps twenty years young and was a lawyer.  He only interjected bits every now and again or spoke up when Fred defaulted to him for supplementary information.  Fred covered most of the theory behind how gliders work.  He was heavily into the math with a lot of physics terms thrown in like vector summation and moment (a version of inertia relevant in systems involving rotation).  I think John (who is a physics major) and I (a high school physics teacher) 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 the class at the first appearance of the math, but Fred made the material reasonably accessible by giving examples for each of the terms in the equation.  Specifically, Lift = 1/2 p v2 cl s.  In plain English what that means is that fast moving wind is most important to getting off the 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 for reasons that ought to be obvious to anyone who has tried to keep an umbrella over their head in a gusty thunderstorm.

The "lecture" wasn't really very organized, but it was certainly entertaining.  There were lots of anecdotes about what happened to flyers when things went wrong.  For example, pilots not taking things into consideration all-important details such as attaching their harness into the glider before launching or flying too close to the low pressures of storm clouds and finding themselves getting sucked in.  The stories were always interesting, even if the presentation wasn't the most manicured.

Around noon we broke for lunch and headed down to a park a few miles away to practice running and launching... but not actually flying yet.  We learned how to assemble gliders by watching and assisting the instructors as they put them together.  They brought out a pair of them, so we split into two groups by weight class and practiced trying to get off the ground.  This was all on a flat, level surface.  Short of an aeronautical miracle, there was no chance of us really taking to the air just yet.

What you don't realize when you watch expert flyers take off is that it takes a while to learn how to hold a fifty plus 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 the right, and the slightest deviation means the wind will magnify your error into an impossible angle and bring the attempt to a swift conclusion.  Within the first few runs, the class had managed to end up turning every possible combination of the wrong direction, and that's just getting started.
Once you get the glider up to an air-worthy speed, you have to switch hand positions while still running.  Your hands are pointed downward as though holding a large golf club angled outward in each hand, then you rotate them (while still in forward motion) so that they're now holding the glider the way you would an umbrella handle.  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 outward 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 unconscious, only it's all brand new, so you haven't learned them yet.  Naturally, 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 don't involve even an incline, never mind running off a cliff.

There wasn't a lot of wind on this day though, so we only just barely got off the ground most attempts, and that was only if the run didn't end in a fall.  I never fell, but several other students did, repeatedly, in some cases.  We continued cycling through practicing our runs (and falls) until around 4pm, before we broke for the day.

We were all exhausted and had the beginnings of a real sunburn.  When Val, John, Dani, and I all went out to dinner that night, we were various shades of pink leaning toward the red end of 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 our mid twenties to early thirties, and half a day of pushing a glider around already had us worn out.  We all headed off to bed relatively early.

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, Fred and Bruce brought us out to a levee where we could get a running start.  Aside from the fact that a raised incline provides flyers with some altitude, there is also the benefit of what is called ridge lift.  This is what 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 this particular day, but a little bit came and went while we were out there.  On one of his runs, John took off and was really flying (not just gliding a foot 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 class had managed to get more than a couple feet off the ground.  John was as surprised as any of us.  There was a mix of emotions on his face 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 going indefinitely, but he didn't want to come down on those of us who were crowded at the bottom of the slope waiting for our turn.

There are two things you can control when you're in the air: pitch (up/down) and yaw (left/right), and almost anyone who willed themselves even a few inches off the ground (myself included) seemed only to be able to do one or the other at a time.  There were 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 good.  Whereas many students came down horizontally like they were sliding into third base, I always landed on my feet, albeit somewhat awkwardly at times.  A lot of people just scraped along on their side or belly and knees.  One lady who took the lesson with her college-age daughter kept going down 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 the day.  Every turn I had with the glider was better than the one before it.  I was integrating the information, and it was finally starting to become natural.  It was suddenly very windy as I got ready to start my run, 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.  However, I might simply have started flying backwards if the wind blew just a tiny bit harder, and that wouldn't have been good.  After all, given that this was an introductory lesson, I still really had no idea what I was doing.

I waited for a bit, then the wind calmed.  I started running, and somehow everything went perfectly.  Whereas many of my previous, windless runs didn't result in any real air even by 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 or more up (who can accurately gauge things in the moment?) and I was heading 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 just 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 end of the log right through the glider's canopy when I came down.

I managed to stay aloft heading toward 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 better land since I couldn't tell how quickly I was descending as it was.  I jerked the glider down sharply and made a pretty good landing on my feet considering how abrupt it was.  John's most impressive flight earlier beat mine in terms of time in the air and distance covered, but mine was 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.  Since 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 adjacent portion of the levee that the lower weight class was using was about ten degrees steeper, so the students on that one were able to get moving faster.  We switched over to that section later in the afternoon, but as fate would 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 airborne for a second before he stalled and came down fast.  On almost every attempt throughout the day Jose tended to jump as soon as he got any lift at all instead of trying to get more speed.  Contrary to your instincts, 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 yourself 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 for jumping, Jose was also one of the students who never landed on his feet, so on this (his final) landing, the glider hit the ground on the left landing wheel 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 adjacent to the point of impact buckled under the weight.  Jose was fine since the force of the impact was absorbed by the now-destroyed tubing, but this 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 before the water began, and I had every intention of covering that entire distance of that on my next flight.

Unfortunately, the glider Jose crashed was the one for the heavier weight class.  The majority of students were out of luck now since we were too big for the remaining glider.  It was getting late anyway, and many students were waiting out their turns and letting the more enthusiastic folks like myself go again in their place.  Now with the majority of the students grounded and generally exhausted, we had to call it a day.

After we packed up the gliders, Bruce talked about the options for continuing our instructions such as where we might take additional lessons and/or taking tandem flights where a student and instructor fly together in the same (albeit oversized) glider.  He pointed out that, no matter which path we chose at this point, we weren't 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, "That would be a good one to train from!"  I continued researching flying and made contact with the local glider community.  Dani and I recently purchased our own glider, so we're committed to following through on this adventure in the making.

Flying is frustrating at first, and at the end of these first two days of lessons, all of us were sunburned and sore in more places than I could list, but there's a little bit of reward in each incremental advance between being stuck on the ground to flying... 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.  Dammit.  I did it anyway.

Copyright 2007 Alexplorer.
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