Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Finally Tried Hang Gliding!

Yep, that's me, on one of my first hang gliding flights!

Apologies to my faithful readers for the long gap in posting... life's been busy and I haven't been very inspired to write lately. But hopefully I'll get back in the swing here.

Anyway, this past Sunday I got a chance to try something I've wanted to do since I was an adolescent... hang gliding! Thanks to Annie, who bought me a couple of gift certificates to BlueSky Hang Gliding near Richmond, one of which was for a half day of beginner's lessons.

The day started early, with Annie and me getting on the road to Richmond at about 5 am, to make sure we got there in time for the 8 am class. As it turned out, we got there about an hour early, and the other folks signed up for the class got there late. Argh. Ah well, it was an easy drive and a pretty location once we got there.

The class consisted of three of us...me and two younger folks from Richmond, Justin and Jo. Nice people, and fun to have a class with.

We started out by getting "suited up" in a flight harness and helmet. I never knew something could make a bike helmet seem elegant and a pleasure to wear, but the generic rental hang gliding helmets did just that... really, really basic and not very comfortable at all. I have to imagine when you invest in one for yourself, there are better options. The harness was interesting... first because you put it on exactly the opposite of how you would think! The basic idea is that it's what hold you to the glider, so it has to encase you pretty darned well, and be pretty strong. Again, I'm guessing a rental harness is different from what you'd buy yourself if you're getting outfitted to fly.

Once we were all in our gear, it was time for "ground school." This was kept pretty brief. The owner/instructor of BlueSky, Steve, explained that while some folks really liked a lot of classroom time discussing the physics of flight, he believes it's more important to get you into a glider and experiencing things in real life. I'm inclined to agree, although it might have been nice if we had each taken a turn in the "simulator" you see in the photo to the right.

Then it was time to go out to the field and actually try flying the thing! BlueSky has an ingenious towing system that allows them to launch a glider from flat ground with no wind, using a modified motor scooter of all things. The scooter is stationary, and just acts as a motorized winch essentially. The rope is brought down the field and around a pulley, and back to a spot adjacent to the scooter, where it's hooked to the glider. This allows Steve to give you tips as you begin your run, and it also makes for a really efficient launch system. You can check it out here: http://www.blueskyhg.com/ Anyway, there I am, with Steve giving me some final tips, getting ready for my first flight! I was surprised at how calm I was, this being my first time. I guess having always wanted to try it, and having a good teacher, really helped. It doesn't hurt that I have a fair understanding of aerodynamics and flight, and at one time built kites and flew them a lot. (More on that in another post)

One thing became apparent as we each took our turns at flying... every one of us had a unique challenge to overcome. The first one for me was recognizing the difference between the glider having enough lift to lift itself off my shoulders and having enough lift to actually lift me! I got past that pretty easily though, with Steve's simple tip "keep running!" What do you know... it worked! And by the end of the day, I had several good flights I'm really proud and happy to have done. I never did really get the "graceful landing" thing worked out though. In fact, two of us made the majority of our landings like the picture to the right... "landing gear up" so to speak. It's not as unpleasant as it might look, aside from the grass being really, really wet.

One of my other challenges was figuring out the whole steering thing. Funny thing is, Steve warned us about this... he explained that many folks instinctively try to steer by turning their head in the direction they want to go, when what you really want to so is swing your hips that way. Sure enough, on one of my first flights, that's exactly what I did... you can see on the left here my glider starting to bank to the right. Just as Steve had warned, I turned my head and upper body to the left, which pushed my hips... and center of gravity... to the right... which made the bank steeper... which made the turn tighter... which...

... got me better acquainted with soybeans than I ever expected to be! You can see in this last picture that the flying field is flanked by soybean plants... BlueSky rents from a farmer, you see, and has carved out two perpendicular landing strips out of his fields, to allow for different wind directions. Well, let me tell you, soybeans are pretty solid plants when you run into a bunch of them. And they do retain the morning dew quite nicely, thank you. Oh, and by the way, they apparently have a purple blossom... I know because I stopped with my nose about 6 inches from one! The other folks couldn't tell, because the glider blocked the view and I was pretty far away, but my first reaction was to laugh about it. It must have looked pretty funny from the ground to see me inexorably drawn to the beanfield! The great thing was, no matter how a flight ended, I finished up with a big grin on my face. It was just so darned fun! And what a feeling, to lift off the ground and fly! Wow! As wonderful as I'd always imagined.

We each got in about 7 or 8 flights, and we all improved tremendously as the day went on. Jo was clearly the closest to a "natural" in the group... she just seemed to "get it" faster than Justin and I did. But we all made great progress, learned a ton, and smiled and laughed a lot. And Annie enjoyed watching us and taking all these pictures. Most of all, I think she wanted to watch me enjoy the gift she'd given me... and boy did I! Truly one of the best Christmas prestents I've ever gotten. And Christmas 2007 isn't over yet... I still have another BlueSky certificate for a tandem glider ride, towed up to 2000 feet! Woo hoo!

For more pictures and commentary, check out my flickr album:

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