Still toying with the idea of getting our novice hang gliding certification (although also still not convinced I ever want to launch off the mountain), we signed up for a second round of hang gliding lessons. We upgraded our introductory package to a weekend package, which gives us 15 more hill flights and 1 more tandem flight each. Today is the kickoff of our weekend. The alarm wakes us up early and we scramble to gather all the gear we’re taking with us. We actually do not need anything other than a change of clothes and water, but I, of course, must take my camera. And, the fact that we will be done on the hills by early afternoon but our tandem isn’t until 5PM means that we need things to do. That means I’m taking two laptops, iPad, iPhone, and MiFi. We also take air mattresses and pillows in case we want to take an afternoon nap. We have more stuff than if we were traveling with an infant.
But, we get the car loaded and we make it out the door in plenty of time to fill up the gas tank and still get there early. The entrance to the training hills is about 40 minutes from our place. But once we get to that entrance point, there is a long dirt road full of pot holes, rocks, and ruts that we must make our way down. It adds an extra 10 minutes, although it’s a little faster in the mini van that it was last time when we made the mistake of coming in Pat’s lowered BMW.
By the time we make it over all the bumps, I really need to use the restroom again. Believing there are no facilities at the training hills, I start to head into the woods, but I see a man heading down a mown path and stop, thinking I don’t want to walk up on him if he’s headed into the woods for the same reason. When he returns, I follow the same path he took to discover that there is an outhouse at the end of it. Now, I have used many outhouses and, while none generally smell good, some are tolerable and some are really only appropriate for acts of desperation. This outhouse appears to be occupied by mice. I assume they have some rare disorder that causes a complete loss of smell. The mice are not home right now, but their nesting and seed shells occupy the majority of one corner of the outhouse. That is the most pleasant part. I stand in front of the open door looking in and contemplate the pluses and minuses of just going in the woods anyway. In the end, I opt to hold my breath and practice my balance inside the outhouse because I figure at least it’s private and I’m running out of time to find a good spot both because I have a very full bladder and because I’m supposed to be on the field by now. Mental note: make a pit stop at the nearest town tomorrow.
When I arrive at the field by the storage unit, I discover that I am supposed to be learning how to assemble my own glider and that Pat and the guy we will be sharing our glider with today, Craig, are already more than halfway through the process. I get there in time to watch the final steps and perform the pre-flight check. Pat tells me on the way to the hill that now that he’s seen how a glider goes together, he’s a little worried. He was expecting it to have more parts that are fastened or something. I decide not to think about it too much.
My first flight is not a flight at all. It’s a run-and-crash. I try to review what I did and didn’t do, but I have no conscious memory of what actions I took or didn’t take. I assume that I stopped running too soon. Pat, on the other hand, gets airborne like we were just hang gliding yesterday. He seems to have retained what he learned last time.
My next turn, Gordy, the instructor, reminds me to loosen my grip and let the glider fly and to keep my eyes on my target. I get a good start and launch well, but perhaps I loosened my grip a little too much because I am suddenly much higher than I expected. I am also pointed towards the woods instead of my target and headed towards the 4-wheeler used to tow the hang gliders back to the top. I confess: I scream. I know I did something to turn the glider back to straight, but my brain is not processing information at a conscious level, so I cannot say for sure what it was. However, whether I did the wrong thing or just did too little, too late, I found myself diving towards earth, landing hard, and spinning out at the stop so that I ended up facing the hill. The good news is that I landed before I hit the 4 wheeler.
Despite the crash landing, the feeling of flying stays with me. The moment of lift off when my feet were running in air and the sudden realization that I am flying make me want to do this again. I realize that I’ve been pushing myself into this. This is the first time that it really felt fun. Every run previously was more about “I can do this, too” than it was about wanting to be in the air. I scraped my ankle on the first landing and it’s oozing blood. My shoulders and upper arms are already bruised from carrying the glider. My knees are bruised from landing too hard and too fast against the ground. But now, I really want to get good at flying off this hill.
Unfortunately, there is a big crowd on the hill. The wind is gusting and changing direction. We need a calm, gentle headwind to safely launch and land. There are 10 gliders up on the hill all vying for a turn at the precise moment the wind is right–we can launch only one at a time. Plus, the morning ground school has now joined us on the hill to try to get their first flights in, adding 8 additional students and 3 more gliders. But there are only short windows to launch in and everyone must launch into a headwind, so things slow way down as we take turns waiting for the wind to cooperate.
We stand-by as Gordy holds another trainee poised for take off, waiting for the wind to calm down. When it does, it changes direction. The student moves from one side of the hill to the other to try to catch a headwind. Then the wind changes again. This switching of direction slows the whole process down even more. It’s not easy to move from one side of the hill to the other with a 90+ pound wing on your back in gusting winds. Even more troublesome, the gliders start lifting off the ground on their own when the windspeed gets too high. We start having trouble keeping gliders on the caddy coming up the hill. First one flips in the wind, then another.
Between gusts of wind, Gordy manages to launch a few more students. However, as I get on deck, I watch an experienced student in front of me get caught in a crosswind that causes one wingtip to catch the ground as she runs down the hill. The glider goes airborne, spins, and then drops her on the ground hard. She is OK. She didn’t get high enough into the air to get seriously hurt, although I supposed she could have twisted an ankle or something easily enough given that she wasn’t launched yet.
Gordy announces that we’re going to call it a day and that we’ll try to fly down if the wind will let us, but we should take our gliders back after we land. He looks at the windsock and looks at me and says, “I’m nervous about this wind. Are you nervous?” I say no. I’m really not–I have confidence in my ability to heal. He decides to walk me further down the hill so that I’m launching from a lower altitude. The wind dies and I launch safely, but I get little lift because there is suddenly no wind at all. It’s not quite the day on the hills we were hoping for, but we live close and walking away with only some bumps and bruises is far better than risking serious injury,
Pat and I discuss the odds that we’ll be able to take our tandem flight. We decide to drive up to the pro shop at the mountain launch and reschedule since we don’t want to hang out all day only to have to reschedule anyway. When we get up there, there is a crowd of disappointed tourists who were hoping to watch hang gliders launching from the mountain. The wind is blowing the opposite direction needed for a safe launch, a tailwind, which we learn is called “over the back.” The person in the pro shop thinks it’s a good idea for us to reschedule our tandem flights for tomorrow–apparently they have already moved people from Friday to Saturday and the schedule is over booked.
We head on home, tired and slightly disappointed, but still excited about the experience of flying and looking forward to returning tomorrow.