Gaining Air

The alarm goes off at 5:45AM.  I groan.  It’s Sunday after all; shouldn’t I get to sleep in?  I roll out of bed and feel all the places that are kinked, sore, and bruised from yesterday’s hang gliding adventure.  My neck and shoulders are burning.  I remind myself that I am only going to feel worse tomorrow morning after doing this a second day, then I get moving.  Coffee, face wash, and a glass of water all wake me up.  Pat is up and in motion.

Once again, I run around gathering everything necessary for a morning on the training hills followed by tandem flights.  For someone who doesn’t own any hang gliding equipment, this is an amazing amount of stuff.  First, I pack my camera bag, then I pack a change of clothes and stuff it in my new tripod bag.  Next, I pack my laptop, Verizon MiFi, iPad, iPhone, and all required power cords along with my wallet, sunglasses, etc. into a laptop bag.  Now, you might wonder why I need an arsenal of electronics to go hang gliding.  The truth of the matter is, I don’t.  But, I need this bag for the same reason Pat is gathering up pillows while I’m packing my bags:  we are going to have 5 hours to kill between the morning hill flights and the 5PM tandem flight.  I might as well make it a productive 5 hours.  Next, I grab my bag with my five fingers shoes and our water bottles.  When at last we’re ready to roll, I hang such an assortment of goods off my appendages that it’s not clear I can fit through the door.  Pat relieves me of a couple of bags and go on our way.

Having learned from yesterday’s mistake, we stop at a gas station in Trenton, GA before we get to the country roads that lead back to the training hills.  They let us use their employee restroom and we buy a couple of granola bars.  When we get to the training hills, I, of course, have to go again.  Back to the nasty outhouse I go.  I wish I would have brought a nose plug, but I survive.

This time, I am not only on time to help put together the gliders, but I am required to put together my own.  Today, Pat and I will each have our own glider.  Assembling a glider is a little scary.  As you read the instructions and put each piece in, you think to yourself, “I’m going to fly in this thing and if I don’t do this right, I’m going to die.”  It’s a lot of pressure.  But, I manage to get the thing together and ask for some help when I’m not sure if I’ve got it right or not.  The thing that surprises me is that the ribs that make the wings rigid are rods that simply slide into pockets and rest loosely against the front bar that creates the leading edge of the wing.  Seems like they should be attached somehow.  The other thing that surprises me is the places where it’s OK for the glider to be severely bent.  For example, the bracket that attaches the wheels to the down tubes is completely askew, but I’m told that there’s no problem with that bracket.  However, bends in the wing ribs are bad.  Bends in the front tubes on the leading edge are especially bad.  While I understand why the wing needs to be a particular shape, I’d kind of like my landing gear to be just as straight.

I get my glider together faster than Pat (I had a little more help).  I load it up onto the trailer and hop on, holding the strap that keeps it from tipping backwards in one hand and bracing the front of the glider with the other to keep it down in the trailer.  We bump along over the grass and to the back hill, climbing to the top in no time.  I am the 3rd person to make it up the hill.  Dan, the instructor, arrives only minutes after I do and the first students start launching.  The air is calmer today and we hope for a good day with lots of flights.

My first flight is an improvement over the day before.  I am encouraged that I am able to get air right away, although I still fail to correct my direction and spin out when I land in the middle of an unplanned turn.  An interesting thing is happening as I gain confidence–I am starting to have one more conscious thought that I remember each flight.  I remember the feeling of running in the air.  I remember letting my hands loosen and slide down the bar.  I remember trying to turn the glider.  This is all a lot of improvement–earlier flights, I could not tell what I had or hadn’t done or if I’d had any actual thoughts at all.  Now, I am able to discuss my flight with the instructor and realize that I was not keeping my eyes on target.

My next flight, I realize when I am not looking at the target and correct a little earlier.  Each time, something new is achieved and remembered.  It’s interesting to observe myself learn.  While I wish I were one of those natural athletes who can take on any physical task and instantly conquer it, my slow learning process at least gives me the opportunity to understand how I learn.  I notice that there is a point in each flight where I go from experiencing the exhilaration of soaring to the fear of landing (I have an assortment of scrapes and bruises from yesterday).  When I shift from the feeling of flying to the fear of falling, I start to forget what to do.  But, each time, I get a little further before that panic sets in.  Even after a particularly painful landing the flight before.  In that flight, I am caught by a cross-wind and turned dramatically to the left.  I shift my weight but I don’t change direction.  I assume I’m shifting the wrong direction and shift the other way, which makes matters worse and then I fall to the ground, literally bouncing off the grass and getting completely airborne a second time before landing for good.  The entire flight from when I left the ground to the second time I landed lasted about 8 seconds (based on the times of photos Pat shot).  Both knees hit when I landed the first time; they are bruised and swell slightly.

But the next flight, I still get better.  Now I know that I was correcting in the right direction, I just didn’t have enough speed to be able to control the glider in the wind.  I work on moving the bar in and out.  When I push the bar away from me, I get more lift.  When I pull the bar in, I get more speed, but in a downward direction.  I realize I am moving the bar too much–I need to stay light in my hands while I adjust.  I realize this just as I come in for another landing after a 7 second flight.  I get in one last flight–8 today all together–before the wind starts to kick up.  Pat gets in his last flight right before me.  He pulls his hamstring as he launches himself from the hill.  He is done.  I’m already spent and am happy for the excuse to call it a day.  I get my last flight in.  It’s smooth and controlled, although the wind has died and I don’t get as much lift as I have on previous flights.  That’s OK.  I wanted to have a controlled landing and I did.  I am not breaking any learning records on the hill, but I’m OK with that.

With Pat hobbling badly, we decide to postpone our tandem flight again.  We make the drive back up to the pro shop at the top of the mountain.  Once again, a crowd of tourist has gathered around the launch ramp only to be disappointed that no gliders are launching today–the wind is from the wrong direction again.  However, a tandem flight is towed up from the landing strip below, so the tourists (us included) get to enjoy watching that flight soar by.  I go inside to get a book that we need to pass a test to graduate to the next training hill.  While I’m paying, I hear a girl screaming and many people laughing.  Pat tells me when I return outside that the glider buzzed the pro shop and scared the girl to death.  We were surprised–I wonder if this is a boyfriend taking his girlfriend for a tandem flight since none of the pilots we flew with in our previous tandem flight did anything to intentionally scare us.  In any case, we’re glad to see them land safely on the airstrip below.

Pat limps back to the car and I drive us home.  Once again, we are exhausted.  I find myself wondering if there is a workout we can do for hang gliding preparedness!

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