Hanging on Air

When we decided to move to Chattanooga, one of the attractions was it’s proximity to Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding Park.  Hang gliding wasn’t really on my bucket list, but it was on my husband’s.  For me, I just hate to miss out on anything.  So, adventure number one was the Introductory Experience.

We arrived at the park office at quarter ’til 8AM.  The office perched high above the valley with an ominous looking concrete . . . slide?  The words that popped into my head when I saw it were, “Ramp of Death.”  But wasn’t so much a ramp as a concreted coating on the top of the mountain that started out looking reassuringly level and then took a nasty bend at almost a 90 degree angle, directing my gaze straight down a 2000 ft drop.   My stomach started doing flips–and not for joy.  Fortunately for me, the Introductory Experience package we’d signed up for did not include that kind of leap of faith!  Instead, after signing in, we were led down the mountain to the valley below to start learning on the bunny hill.

I love learning.  It’s the best part of life.  But the frustrating thing is how slowly new lessons sink in.  Especially when it includes making your body do something it’s never done before.  Picking up a hang glider and running across a field with it is one of those things.  It looks easy enough.  But finding the right spot on your shoulders to balance the weight of the glider is tricky and sometimes painful.  Then, there is wind.  There was no wind until I put a glider on my back, but as soon as I had wings, there was air moving me in directions I didn’t want to go.  The glider is designed to take flight.  You would think that would make it easier to carry.  But getting it to fly straight isn’t all that easy.  Especially when your airspeed is something less than 3 MPH.

Then there is the difference between knowing what you’re supposed to do in your mind and actually doing it.  I vaguely recall an article about how your brain has to build new neural pathways to allow you to perform an action that you have not performed before–being told what to do is not sufficient to allow you to do it until your brain finds a way to communicate the appropriate action for each muscle fiber to take and can coordinate all of those actions.  My brain seems a little stubborn.  For example, one of the things we were told when we graduated from the flat ground to the actual bunny hill was that we needed to run and keep running until we had taken three steps in the air.  Until you haven’t hit ground for three steps, you really haven’t launched.  The instructor repeated this message 9 more times as we each did our ground test hanging in a glider on a stand.  I said this to myself over and over as I prepared for my first launch.  “Keep running.  One, two, three steps in the air.  Keep running.”  But when I started down the hill and I felt myself lifting off the ground, what did I do?  I stopped running.  Then I landed hard, belly-flopped onto the ground and drug my body flat across the grassy slope at a rate of speed fast enough to make the tops of my feet feel like they were on fire.

But why did I stop running?  I know how to run.  I don’t need a new pathway to tell my legs how to move.  Yet, apparently, there is some message heavily coded in my brain that says, “Don’t run when you’re airborne.”  Where did that come from?  I’ve never run into the air before except in my dreams.  Maybe I stopped running when I was dreaming?

After gliding (dragging?) down the hill on my belly one more time, something in my brain clicked.  I couldn’t remember when I stopped running.  I couldn’t remember the feeling of running in the air.  It took two belly flops for me to even realize that I stopped running too soon.  The third run, that was a primary thought in my mind, “Just keep running.”  Not just before I started down the hill, but as I was picking up speed, feeling the harness pull against me, feeling myself lifting into the air, “Just keep running.”  And I felt myself running in the air, lifted off the ground, suspended by wings.  Then, I stopped running.  It was a glorious few seconds of flight.

Later that afternoon, we went for a tandem ride, each of us gliding with an instructor.  Being sympathetic to beginners, Lookout Mountain uses ultralight airplanes to tow tandem rides from the ground rather than having us run off the cliff together.  Saved from jumping off the cliff!

My instructor, Clayton, checks in to see how I’m doing.  To tell the truth, I’m not sure how I’m doing.  During take off, the glider starts to climb almost immediately, but there are a lot of jerks and bumps while being towed.  Watching the plane in front of us bumping up and down in the turbulence creates visions of horrible crashes in my mind.  I keep reminding myself that a glider is forgiving and there is plenty of room for recovery.

After detaching from the tow plane, we soar above the valley.  When you look out the window of an airliner, you don’t think about the experience of the wings.  Today, I am strapped to the wings–exhilaration and a small beep of terror compete for my attention as the air rushes around me.  Clayton finds a thermal and we circle our way up to nearly 3600 feet.  I’ve been in helicopters and a sailplane, but neither provides the view from a hang glider.  There is nothing between you and the ground.  I wonder how an eagle spots a fish.  I imagine spotting a fish and diving towards the earth with the assuredness of being born for flight.  I experience “eagleness” for a brief moment.

But the moments of exhilaration are clouded with fear.  I feel the tension in my body that indicates adrenaline is flowing.  I cannot relax although I try.  When I do relax for a moment, the glider bumps in an invisible shift of rising and sinking air and I am tense all over again.  I wonder how anyone can feel secure suspended from a giant kite?  I wonder why I am there.  Then, I return to that moment.  That instant of soaring above the earth experiencing lift and rushing air and the endless view.  There is no wondering and no fear when I am no where else in my head.  When I am mentally where I am physically, I am simply there.  No thoughts of crashing, no thoughts of falling, no thoughts of any kind.  I breathe in and I enjoy.

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