Fledgling Part II

Recovering from a long day on the mountain.

Continued from Fledgling:

After breaking a down-tube on my first mountain launch, I have to figure out how to pick up my glider and carry it off the field.  I make it across the field and a couple of instructors run over to help.

All-in-all, I am not sure I’m ready to launch again.  But, back up to the top of the mountain we go.  I spend the ride back to the top hoping the wind has shifted.

But, no.  The wind is still good and there are plenty more gliders for me to break.

I set up the next glider with my hands shaking.

When it’s my turn, I am feeling nauseous.  I contemplate backing out.  But, I step up onto the launch ramp for the second time.  I get set, the instructor tells me the wind is perfect, I call clear and start the approach without hesitation.

This time, the launch is good.  However, when I look at the airspeed indicator, it tells me I’m flying too slow.  I pull in for speed, but the glider starts oscillating like I’m flying too fast.  I go back and forth trying to decide if the airspeed indicator is wrong or not.  Then I hit a small bump in the air.  My glider rises suddenly and then drops back down like a giant puppeteer has just jerked an invisible string.  I experience a moment of panic.  I start talking to myself out loud, trying to keep my wits about me.  I keep it together through a few more small bumps and find myself safely over the landing zone.

I have a repeat problem with suddenly being out of altitude.  As I start to make the final turn for the landing approach, I realize I’m too low and I square up the glider and roll it in instead.  No broken down tube this landing.

However, I do end up far from the breakdown area.  Gliders are really not meant to be taken for a walk.

The instructor who helped me after my first landing comes over and congratulates me.  He compliments me for my decision making.  It’s like a consolation prize–in spite of all my mistakes, I didn’t make a final, critical mistake.  I appreciate the compliment none-the-less.  Focusing on small achievements is, after all, how I ended up here one minuscule step at a time.

On the way back to the top, I experience a sense of disappointment.  I remind myself that my learning process has often been one step forward and two steps back.  I remind myself that I just launched from about 1500 feet higher than I ever imagined I would.  I remind myself that I stepped off that launch ramp, focused on the horizon, knowing that I could.  And I did.  I did something I didn’t think was possible until two weeks ago.  I launched, I flew, I landed, I survived.  Twice.  Maybe I’ll suggest a new T-shirt for the pro shop.

Being 45


Every year, without fail, no matter how much I try to skip it, I get a year older.  Some years this goes by with barely a blip on the “oh my god, I’m getting older!” radar.  Other years, an alarm goes off, warning me I’m passing some milestone I would rather not pass.  Well, actually, up until my 25th birthday, I looked forward to the milestones.  But, once I turned 25 and hit the final milestone that was important to me (being able to rent a car), I started wanting to put the brakes on aging.

At 25, I was suddenly, marvelously aware of how young I was.  I think the realization started to sink in when I walked in the print center at the office (back when there was such a thing) to pick up a printout and the guy working there had a big cake that said “Happy 25th!”  Upon learning it was his 25th service anniversary, I blurted out, “Wow!  You’ve been working here longer than I’ve been alive!”  He didn’t offer me a piece of cake.

That was in 1989.  I ended up working in that same office until 2006.  While it’s not 25 years, the speed at which those 17 years flew by was astounding.

As I write this, I realize I have had a “career” (if that’s what we call it) for 23 years.  That’s more years than I had been alive when I insulted that poor man on his service anniversary.

These are the kinds of thoughts that depress me.  Not that there’s anything wrong with being 23 years into my career.  I just hate to think that it’s really been 23 years.  I find myself wondering what’s next.

I want there to be at least 1 person who would say they learned something so meaningful from me it changed their lives in a powerful and positive way.  I haven’t found that person yet and I fear I’m running out of time.

The truth is I sometimes feel a sudden stab of irrational fear as the clock ticks.  I am only 3 years younger than my mother was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I am only 13 years younger than my mother was when she died.  I know it’s silly, but fear rumbles in my belly when I least expect it.  I try not to indulge this fear.  After all, does it matter how much longer I have left?  How often have we heard we should live every day like it’s our last?  Of course, that probably isn’t advice coming from a financial planner.

In spite of my anxieties about aging, I did two things today to celebrate being 45:  I flew off the big training hill for the first time at the hang gliding flight park and I ate chocolate truffle cake for dessert after my birthday dinner.  Hang gliding feels like seizing life and squeezing a little extra out of it.  Chocolate truffle cake feels like decadence.  Both seem appropriate for someone who’s made it through 45 years.

Book Smarts

There’s an expression about being book smart vs street smart.  The idea suggests people are either smart in theory or smart in practice.  In reality, of course, no one is really all one or the other.

For example, I can study how people move their bodies up stairs, determine an appropriate exercise regimen, and create a plan that will make me better at climbing stairs using book smarts.  But I can’t actually get better at climbing stairs except by, well, climbing stairs.

Since there is no room for trial and error when hang gliding, knowing what we’re doing and why helps.  And, since hang gliding truly is the application of physics, it makes sense that getting rated as a pilot would require some book smarts.

Here is where I run into a line that divides book smarts from street smarts.  I am able to read the material through once, review it quickly, and then score what would be an “A.”  However, when I return to the training hills, I am unable to translate what the material said into what my body does.  This disparity between concepts in a book and physical application frustrates me.

But today, we are in my element.  We are taking our final two tests.  I read through the materials and took notes the day before.  I think we will be done around noon given that it’s only 10AM.

As it turns out, I finish up my second test shortly after noon.  Pat, on the other hand, has not finished the reading material for the first test yet.  Mind you that Pat is someone who fully understand mechanics and physics in a way I never will.  However, his in depth understanding of how things work doesn’t seem to help him speed through test taking.

At 2PM we run out and grab a bite to eat at the closest place around. It’s a combination gas station, convenience store, hamburger joint–an honest to goodness family owned place.  After filling our stomachs, we return to the office and Pat takes his first test.  I, thankfully, have my iPad for amusement.

I’ve gotten through an episode and a half of Glee by the time Pat takes his completed test up to the desk.  After a while, I hear him talking.  He has met Matt Tabor, the owner of Lookout Mountain, and they are gabbing.  I finish the second half of the episode I’m watching and decide I need to intervene.

It’s an interesting conversation and I get sucked in.  I eventually remember that my goal was to get Pat on task and I remind him I am waiting on him to finish his second test.

At 6PM, we have to leave because they are closing for the night.  Pat has 15 questions to go on the test, but he calls it a night and we head on home.  Since completing the test now requires backtracking, I am more irritated than he is.  I remind myself that this is fun.

One Man’s Trash

We are up before the crack of dawn, on our way to the hang gliding training hills.  We arrive early–the gates are still locked.  As soon as we settle in to wait, two dogs come running down to greet us.  They are collarless, thin, very young, and very adorable.  There aren’t any homes near enough to explain why these dogs would be hanging out here before dawn.

When the instructor arrives, we drive on, deciding to worry about the dogs on the way home, but the dogs chase us down the dirt road for as long as they can keep up.  We lose them when they tire, but they arrive at the parking lot about the time we get out my glider.  They jump all over me, wanting to be petted some more.  I turn my back on them when they jump and pet them when they have all four paws on the ground.  It takes three times and they figure out they can get what they want by standing still.  They are smart dogs.

As I go through my flying lessons, the dogs chase me when I fly off the hill and run up and start licking my face if I land on my belly.  I’m not sure if they’re worried about me or just having fun, but it’s cute.

After a few flights, they run off to explore something else.  I am relieved–these dogs are breaking my heart.  But, I don’t want to jump into a 12-14 year commitment because they’re cute and hungry.

When we call it quits for the day, the dogs reappear to “help” disassemble my glider.  They remember not to jump on me and I am impressed with how quickly they have learned that lesson.  When I am done, I sit on the ground and let them share my lap.  They are so sweet.  I remind myself they’ve been running around and are exhausted.  Tired dogs usually are sweet.

But my husband looks at me sitting on the ground with these hungry, adorable dogs and says, “All right, get them in the van.”  They ride comfortably with us to Wendy’s where they wolf down burgers.

We discuss the choices we’ve made since the death of our sweet Mastiffs to make it easy for us to travel.  We decide to take the dogs to a shelter and volunteer to foster them.

The shelter is large and clean and the man at the desk is reassuring.  I meet the volunteer coordinator and she is equally friendly.  I fill out paperwork and we bring in the dogs.  It will take 5-7 days for the dogs to get vet care (including spaying and neutering), have their behavior assessed, and be ready for foster care. I am sad as we walk out.  I cannot shake a feeling of unease, like I have shirked a responsibility.  I imagine their disappointment at being left behind.  I feel my own disappointment.  I resist the urge to run back inside and ask for them back.

Graduation Day

Today, I went to the hang gliding training hills.  It was one of those days that combined ridiculous mistakes with unexpected successes.  Although I had my share of spills and chills today (see video), in the end, I passed the required test of successfully executing 4 Hang I flights in a row.  This means I move to the big hill.  Not the mountain yet (thank goodness!) but from the bunny hill to the big hill.  It’s a momentous occasion.  As my instructor said, I’ve worked hard for this moment.

I pause and think about this for a moment.  I don’t believe I’ve ever worked so hard for so long on achieving a novice skill level in my life.  This is a point of pride–to have stuck it out for so long just because it was fun.  I let go of my expectations, goals, and frustrations and just had fun.  Had I done anything else, I would have quit after the 3rd day out on the training hills.

As it is, I’ve flown down that baby hill so many times, I’ve gotten attached to it.  I can tell stories about the community on that hill.  The women who inspired me to keep trying–especially one who told me she’d been coming out for over a year and was still learning to land on her feet (she’s been coming out infrequently).  The student who was 60 years old and learning to hang glide for the first time. The dogs who have accompanied me through my journey from ground school.  The instructors who insisted it was OK to be on the slow plan.  Even the view from the hill of the mountain ridge, the big hill, the trains, the deer that would occasionally wander by.

All of it together kept me coming back.  And now, I find myself attached to that small hill.  As I ride the Kubota over to the big hill, I find myself actually tearing up a little.  This catches me by surprise.  I’m confused as to whether I am sad or overjoyed.  Having never given much thought to this day, not really believing it would ever happen, I find myself unprepared for the sudden emotion.

I perch on the edge of the big hill looking down and am amazed at how much bigger it really is.  I look across the training grounds and realize that while I have been enjoying the journey instead of focusing on the destination, I managed to arrive at the destination full of wonder and excitement.  This is a new lesson for me after a lifetime of holding so tightly to goals that I squeeze the life out of them.

The wind doesn’t cooperate today.  There is only one direction to fly off the big hill and we decide today is not the day for my first flight.  As I head back down, I am neither disappointed nor relieved.  After all, it’s taken me 5 months to get here, I’m in no hurry.

Pain in the Neck

The alarm goes off at 5:30AM even though it’s Sunday morning–I have to remind myself we’re going hang gliding.  I get out of bed feeling stiff and sore.  My right shoulder and the right side of my neck are especially sore.  I move my head gently trying to loosen things up.  Then, I get the coffee brewing and start on my morning routine.

When I lean over the sink to wash my face, the entire right side of my neck goes into muscle spasms.  I can barely hold my head up long enough to rinse the soap off my face.  My shoulder is likewise screaming–stabbing pain shoots down my right arm.  I reach up with my hands and hold the weight of my head in them.  Carrying my head, I walk into the living room and, as carefully as possible, lay down on the floor.  With the weight of my head supported, the pain lessens.  Instead of feeling like someone is stabbing me in the neck with a slightly dull knife, I feel like the stabbing has stopped and now I’m just in pain.  I lay there and think, “Oh. I am not going hang gliding today.”  Apparently I paddled my kayak unevenly yesterday.

I manage to get up off the floor after about 10 minutes, get a cup of coffee and move to my office chair where I can prop my head on the headrest.  This feels good, although I’m still very ouchy–I try not to move my head in any direction that offsets the weight of my head from directly over my neck.  I drink my coffee with my left hand so as to prevent using my right shoulder by accident.

Turns out my eye-hand coordination is even worse with my left hand and I dump hot coffee down my chin, onto my shirt and into my lap.  I’m in too much pain to worry about it.  Since I’m wearing dark fleece, I figure the stains won’t show much.  I wipe my chin off with the back of my hand and keep sipping coffee.

Pat gets up and I explain to him what’s going on.  I decide I will get ready to go just in case by some miracle my neck rights itself by the time we get there.  If it doesn’t, I will drive the Kubota and tow hang gliders.  If it does, I will fly.

The hardest part is putting on shirts over my head.  But, I need multiple layers to stay warm driving the Kubota, so I suffer through.  I pull on my down jacket before pulling on my rain jacket.  My rain jacket is still stained from the mud I drug myself through last Sunday.  I make a mental note to wash it when we get back.

The drive to the training hills is so uncomfortable I worry that I won’t even be able to drive the Kubota.  But, given that there won’t be any traffic passing me, I won’t have to worry about looking over my shoulder before changing lanes, so I think I might be OK.

It’s still in the 20’s when we get there.  The sun is rising, but the almost full moon hasn’t set yet.  I attempt to take a picture of the moon hanging just above the horizon over the small hill.  I have only my iPhone and I use a camera app with zoom.  Unfortunately, I guess I don’t know how to save the picture from this app because it disappears on me.

I help Pat assemble his glider by reading the directions to him so he doesn’t have to put his reading glasses on.  I don’t even attempt to bend over to do any actual assembling.  So far, as long as I turn my whole body when  I want to look at something, I’m doing OK.

When the first pilot is ready, which turns out to be Pat, I pull up the Kubota and let him load his glider.  When we get to the top of the hill, I hold the nose while he gets down and picks the glider up instead of taking the glider off the trailer myself.  I won’t be carrying any gliders today; that much is for sure.

I make several more runs back and forth picking up 5 more gliders and students.  By the time I’m done, there are already 3 students at the bottom of the hill waiting for a ride back up to the top.  One has given up and is walking his glider up.  I circle around and start picking up students and gliders and driving them back up top.  With 6 flying and a 7th on his way, I can’t seem to keep up.

By the time the 7th student looks ready, I need to use the facilities.  I hand the Kubota over to Pat to drive while I walk down to check on the last student and use the outhouse.  With everyone off on the hills, I opt for the woods over the outhouse–much more pleasant.  Then, I get on the four wheeler to tow the last student out to the hill.

I’ve never driven a four wheeler before.  The angle is bad for my neck, but not so bad that I’m not going to drive it.  The shifter is like a motorcycle–down at my left foot.  The other student keeps telling me to raise it up to put it in gear.  I keep telling him I can’t find the clutch, but he can’t hear me.  What should be the clutch doesn’t squeeze like one.  I finally turn around so he can hear me and he informs me that there is no clutch.  I’m a little confused as to why it has a shifter like that with no clutch, but sure enough it works.  The accelerator, however, is like a waverunner–a tiny little lever that you push with your thumb.  When I push it, I have trouble accelerating gently and I jerk the trailer hard.  I’m sure that student number 7 is wishing he had just driven himself up by now.

As the wind starts to pick up, there is a pause in the flights.  I actually get ahead on picking up students.  I make it to the bottom of the hill and sit well out of range so I can watch Pat’s next flight.  Pat is now learning to land on his feet.  I’ve only gotten to see one of his flights so far today, I’ve been so busy driving.  I watch him soar off the hill, speed up, slow down, and then flare.  He still has too much airspeed when he flares and he balloons up a bit too much, then drops the nose (which you’re never supposed to do) and, remembering, quickly brings it up again.  In the end, he lands on his knees instead of his feet, but not hard enough that he gets hurt.

When I pick him up, he’s disappointed that I saw his crappy landing instead of one of his good ones.  I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get my iPhone out in time to get a video. He’s happy I didn’t.

At the end of the morning, I’m actually tired from driving the Kubota.  But, what I notice is that my neck and shoulder feel considerably better.  Instead of laying around feeling sorry for myself, the activity not only kept me distracted from the pain, but it seems to have loosened up some of the tight muscles.  I still can’t turn my head far enough that it would be safe for me to drive on the highway, but I’m glad that I came out.

Letting Go: Not Just an Expression

It’s Saturday again.  We decided to return to the training hills this Saturday in the hope of making more progress by going back at the earliest possible time that we can.  However, we also decided to only plan on one day of hang gliding this weekend and to only try to add on Sunday once we see how we feel after Saturday.  We don’t want to be as sore as we were the last few times we went hang gliding.

We get up early–I get up at 5:30AM, to be exact.  Pat sleeps for another hour.  I take some time to write this morning since I am not taking as much stuff today.  I have decided to leave my camera behind since, well, let’s face it, grab shots of hang gliding start really looking pretty much the same after a few times.  Also, since we’ve not scheduled an afternoon tandem flight, there is no need to take a bunch of stuff to do during the time between the training hills and the tandem.

Once I’ve done my writing, had my coffee, and gotten dressed, I begin repeating my new mantra:  “Eyes on Target.  Light Hands.”  I try to visualize this in my mind.  I stand in the kitchen with my hands lightly placed on my imaginary control frame, my eyes locked on the top of the cabinets.  “Eyes on Target.  Light Hands.”  I even practice correcting the glider by pushing myself in my imagination left and right.  I realize that as my body shifts with the image in my mind, I am cross-controlling even in my kitchen.  This surprises me and I try again, this time shifting like I’m swinging on a pendulum as much as possible while standing in the kitchen.  I notice my eyes are on the kitchen floor.  Raising them back to the top of the cabinets, I abandon steering practice and say, “Eyes on Target.  Light Hands.”  Then, Pat is ready to go and I give up on my visualization.

We get to the training hills plenty early.  Mike still beats us there.  He advises us on which hang gliders to assemble and I am back in the smaller Falcon that gave me so many fits the last time.  I talk to Mike about whether it’s a good idea for me to go with that one or not and he assures me that it will pick me up just like a too-big one would.  I flash back to my 10 trips down the hill without feeling any lift, but decide that there is some wind today and that I might as well give it a try since I’m not going to make it off the bunny hill until I can fly in the correct sized glider.

8 people have signed up for the bunny hill.  A crowd like that can make it tough to get a lot of flights in, especially if the wind starts kicking up early and we have to call it a day.  But, we get out to the hills as quickly as possible and start getting flights in.  I am relieved that I manage to launch on the first try, although I went into a dive immediately and realized I’d taken my eyes off target.  When my glider lands, my legs are smacked on the ground and my right quadricep hyper-extends slightly, just enough to give me a slight pull.  When I get to the top of the hill, I stretch before taking my next turn in the hope of preventing injury.  I launch successfully again and am happy with the launch, although I still go into a state of mental confusion and have difficulty correcting in the air.  When I launch the third time, Lauren tells me that my launch is 95% of the way there, but I need to focus on keeping my posture upright so that I leave the hill in an upright position.  As soon as I start thinking about my posture, my eyes drop and my hands tighten and I fail to launch and end up running down the damn hill again.

Now I am starting to limp.  At the top of the hill, I stretch thoroughly again before attempting to launch.  I suspect it will be my last time.  Lauren stands behind me this time and tells me when to let go completely.  She has me just release my hands on the control frame and do jazz-hands so that they’re there, but not grabbing at the frame.  I launch perfectly even though a cross-wind has me going crooked while I’m still running down the hill.  Lauren yells, “Run to your target!” at just the right time and I get my eyes back to where they should be, drag the glider back to straight, and launch into the air.  I even manage to correct in the air and do it correctly, although I don’t do it consciously, I just remember the feeling of swinging like a pendulum after I land.

We do a repeat the next time around, although now I am barely walking and I’m thinking this should be my last flight.  Now I’m having fun again and I’m willing to suffer through the pain of pulled muscles a couple more times.  I launch again even better this time by having Lauren yell at me and doing jazz-hands again.  Lauren tells me that she’s not really yelling at me, she’s yelling at my neurons.  She is right–I don’t have the right neuro-pathways yet.

I manage to get in one final flight, ending strong on 3 really great flights, but now my neck is going into spasms, I’ve pulled my quads, my inner thighs, and my groin.  I am walking like a cowboy once again.  But I hobble away happy, noting that letting go is ultimately what allows me to fly.  Who knew that when people say things like that they’re really referring to hang gliding?

Hang Gliding Take 2

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.

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.