Landing on My Feet

We have returned to the hang gliding hills.  The instructor, Dan, tells me to run like I’m on Baywatch.  I try to channel David Hasselhoff as I take my next run down the hill, although I’m certain Dan had someone blonde and female in mind.

The rest of the morning, my flights seem to get better and better.  Dan asks me if I want to start trying to land on my feet.  I have seen many people land on their feet.  They swoop in low and then allow the nose to reach trim, move their hands up on the bars, and then push up, tipping the nose back so that the glider is like a super-hero cape behind them.  Then, they lower gently to the earth and land on their feet, just like any modern-day super hero should.

My first attempt, I get close, but when I try to flare, my arms go out fully extended and the glider is just barely tipped back.  I get enough lift to almost put my feet down, but then I crash to the ground with a thud.

I go through several more attempts, making mistakes each time.  My closest attempt culminates with me falling flat on my face.  I didn’t think it was possible to actually hit your face on the ground while strapped into a hang glider, but I manage it.  Pat pulls up on the Kubota and says, “Are you OK?  You landed flat on your face!”  I assure him I am aware I landed on my face.

After a final roll-in landing, I decide it’s time to call it quits for the day if I want to make sure I can get up tomorrow.

As I change into my dry clothes, I count the bruises.  I have a scraped ankle, bruises on both knees and both hips.  My shoulders are bruised, my arm is bruised, and my wrists and forearms ache.  For a moment I wonder why I continue beating myself up.  I smile to myself as I remember the feeling of having a really good flight.  The feeling of being lifted up into the air and then riding the ground effect for that brief moment before the wheels touch down.

I look at my bruises a second time and smile knowing I earned them because I took a major step forward today.  I think, “This is fun.  I’ll stop when it’s not fun anymore.”

I’ve always believed the saying, “it’s about the journey, not the destination,” but I’ve never really done anything that way.  Learning to hang glide is the first time I’ve taken on learning something with no goal in mind. I don’t know if I will ever do a mountain launch.  All I know is I really like the way it feels to glide off the training hill.  I’m having a ball right where I am and I’m having a ball learning one small skill at a time.  Why would I give that up?

Run Down

It’s Saturday morning and we are up even earlier than Friday. After rushing and arriving at the training hills late on Friday, last night I set the alarm for 5:30AM to give myself an extra half hour to get ready today. I also packed what I needed to bring the night before so that what I have to do this morning is less.

Now that the alarm is chiming in my ear, I am wishing I hadn’t set it so darn early. But, I get up and get moving. I am ready early. Really early. Like a half an hour early–the exact amount of time earlier that I set my alarm. This is called an over-correction in hang gliding lingo.

But, since I am ready to go, i find additional things to do with the extra time while Pat, who slept an hour longer than I did, finishes getting ready. I get the GPS set to the correct address today, for example, to ensure no repeat of yesterday’s fiasco. When Pat is ready, we gather up our bags of stuff and head down the hall.

We make it to the hills plenty early. The only instructor there is Mike. We’re pretty sure he lives there and that it’s impossible to arrive before him. He tells us to each get our own Falcon. This is a good start–we have realized that we get more flights in when we each have our own glider than when we share. On the other hand, I’m a bit nervous still about assembling my own glider, worried that I’ll miss some vital step. But, I get my glider together and perform the pre-flight check without any problems. As it turns out, Pat is going to share his glider with another student in his weight range. The two of them and I are ready to go at about the same time. We load up a glider and take turns driving to get both gliders up the hill.

I am excited about flying today. I feel like I’m finally getting this down and that I’m going to make big steps forward towards learning to land on my feet. When I take my first flight, I do take big steps forward, but only literally. I run down the hill with that glider on my back taking bigger and bigger steps as I go over the ridge and down the slope, but the glider doesn’t lift. I drag that sucker all the way down until it is going faster than I am and it flops me over onto my belly on the ground and drags me across the grass. This is exactly how my first several runs went when we were in ground school back in August. I am thrown.

Fortunately, the instructor, Lauren, is extremely observant and can tell me exactly what went wrong. Her first question to me is, “How was that?” I tell her I feel like I just went back to ground school. She asks me where was my target and I have the ah-ha moment that I had forgotten to pick one. She informs me that I was looking at the ground the entire time. A phrase from motorcycle safety school pops into my head, “if you look down, you go down.”

Feeling confident that I now know the root of the problem and that my next flight will take me back to where I was yesterday, I line up and pick a nice, high target and try again. I end up running even faster down that hill, but with the same net result. When Lauren and I have our next recap, I am pretty sure that this is not my fault. I ask if the glider is too small for me, if I’m hanging too high in the frame, I blame the hiking boots I’m wearing on the hill for the first time. Lauren breaks the news to me: she assures me that I was doing the exact same things wrong yesterday but that I could get away with it yesterday because I was in an over-sized glider and there was wind. Today, I am in the appropriately sized glider and the air is depressingly still. Nothing is going to get me into the air except me performing correctly.

I am determined. I run down that hill again and again. Ten times in a row I drag that glider down the hill and it drags me across the field. I am getting so frustrated I want to quit hang gliding for good. This is when Lauren suggests I change gliders. She says that while maybe it’s cheating a little to go to a bigger glider, there is something to be said for not being so frustrated we you learn. I decide to give it a try.

My next flight, I launch successfully. My joy in hang gliding is restored. The feeling of the glider picking me up off the hill and raising my feet off the ground instead of me racing it down the hill and losing makes me giddy.

Through out the morning, I am reflecting on my own learning. I realize that my brain went all the way back to no function during my first run–I had no recollection of what happened during the run. Then, I gradually started to become more aware of what happened in each flight, I started realizing, for example, after the fact that I’d taken my eyes off the target. However, I couldn’t prevent myself from making the same mistake over and over again. I’m a little depressed by this realization. I thought that I would start where I’d left off in terms of being more conscious during the launch and flight. I am reminded of when I used to do triathlons and how I expected my times to get better each race without accounting for differences in the wind, the course, the temperature. I suppose i have learned skills specific to a given set of conditions and not the more general skills that allow me to adjust.

While I recognize that I am a slow learner when it comes to physical activities, I really didn’t think I was this slow. In the ad for our lesson package, they claim that you will learn how to land on your feet and earn your beginner rating in the number of lessons included. Here we are, already into the next package and I’m still trying to learn how to launch. This does not make me happy, I question the wisdom of upgrading our lesson package again and of contemplating launching from the mountain.

But, now that I have launched, I want to make sure I leave with the feeling of being airborne in my head, so I fly two more times. I lift off without too much difficulty and end feeling like maybe I will eventually catch on after all. The one thing I know for sure is that I do not want to run down that hill ever again! I am already feeling how sore I am going to be–there is nothing that can make a person feel as run down as running a hang glider down a hill over and over again.

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.