Hang-Gliding in the Land of the First Flight: From Fear of Flying to Outdoor Adventure Goddess-Hood (Sort of) in One Easy Lesson
Outer Banks, North Carolina, USA
I’d almost think that it’s a mean prank perpetrated by the state of North Carolina and U.S. Airways.
I’m on my way to the Outer Banks, the barrier island where the Wright Brothers first took their flimsy Flyer twelve feet over the dunes at Kitty Hawk and started this whole ill-advised (in my mind, at least) business of sending thousands of pounds worth of people, luggage, pretzels, beverages, and combustible fuel five miles into the air by way of a winged aluminum can. Through the window of the gate at La Guardia, just below my line of sight, is a little Saab 340B turboprop deal. As I board, I mention to the flight attendant in a shaky voice that this is the first time I’ve ever flown in such a tiny plane (it is, to be honest, my second time; I once spend a hellish half-hour in a 2-seater with a brand-new boyfriend with a brand-new pilot’s license who, after a 4-bounce landing on the runway meant for takeoffs, was not my boyfriend for much longer).
One of the other passengers points out that “at least these things can land,” which affords me some solace until the flight attendant asks the passengers (all six of us) to move to seats at the back of the plane “for balance.” I am, at least, not worried about terrorists. Even the Idiot Shoe Bomber would be more ambitious than to target this dinky little thing.
Twenty minutes later, in the air and still wiping the sweat off of my palms, I’m silently damning Wilbur and Orville to hell for not being content to hang out on the beach and admire the soaring of the seabirds, when there were perfectly good trains, ships, and horses available to take people where they needed to go. I’m thinking Buddy Holly and Patsy Cline, I’m thinking Lynard Skynard, and I check out the other five passengers to see if any of them look like musicians, who seem to have particularly bad luck with small planes. At this point, the plane tilts to the right just as the biggest man on board, wearing a cap bearing the name of a funeral home, gets up and crosses the “aisle” to that side. Balance, balance.
It’s not that I don’t understand about dreams of flight. I dream all the time that I can flap my arms and lean forward a bit and rise up – albeit not too far – off of the ground and away. My body’s memory of the feeling remains so vivid even after I’m fully awake that, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I’m absolutely certain that I was once a bird. (Contrary to the opinions of Freud, et. al., my flying dreams are not sex dreams; I do know the difference.)
In North Carolina (provided that I reach the ground in Norfolk and arrive at the Outer Banks alive and unharmed), I will be getting a sense of what it feels like to be lifted up by the wind without the help of propellers, or engines, or dreams. I’ll be learning to hang-glide just a couple of miles from where the Wright Flyer made its first flight. That idea doesn’t really scare me; if anyone is going to screw up while I’m in the air, I’d be much more comfortable if it’s me.
To my surprise and relief, I do make it all the way to Nag’s Head, where I’ll be staying at one of the very pretty, misleadingly-named “cottages” (the place I’m staying in has 12 bedrooms, and can easily accommodate 32 people) along the beachfront. Over sweet potato rolls and a cocktail or two at Kelly’s Tavern that night, my host counsels me to do exactly what the hang-gliding instructors tell me to do; if we I do that, she assures me, I will fly. She talks about the need to “flare”, but I have no idea what she means, and she speaks of it as such a commonplace that I’m embarrassed to ask (I’m guessing that it means that I’ll need to take some kind of spread-eagle position against the sky).
She also mentions something about landing upside-down and hanging helplessly from the harness, but I try to put that out of my mind.
The next day is hang-gliding day. In the morning, presumably for inspiration, we visit the Wright Brothers Museum at Kitty Hawk. The “First Flight” proclaimed on North Carolina license plates took place here, on a freezing-cold day in December, 1903. It lasted for 12 seconds, the Flyer reaching a comfortable altitude of about 15 feet and a distance of 120 feet. The whole thing was witnessed by a handful of locals; Wilbur and Orville hadn’t had much luck in the P.R. department, apparently.
Each of the Flyer’s four flights that day went a little farther, the last one making it 850 feet down the “runway”. Our guide at the Museum stresses that the Wright Brothers had not only to design their airplane properly in order to realize their flight fantasies, but to learn how to fly it by sheer trial-and-error as well.
There were 30-mile-per-hour winds on the day of the Wright Brothers flight. I’ll be making my own first flight on a fairly warm October day in winds of only about 10 mph, at a place called Jockey’s Ridge State Park, just down the road from Kitty Hawk.
We get to Jockey’s Ridge at about 2:00, and get started on filling out release forms at Kitty Hawk Kites right away. The forms seem to mention injury, paralysis, and death a lot, but I’m undeterred. This is my destiny.
Just to pass some time before the rest of the students arrive, our good-looking, relentlessly upbeat instructor, Steve Bernier, starts us out with a video about speed-gliding competitions over Telluride. For my part, speed-gliding and mountaintop takeoffs will have to wait. The next video is the training video, which begins with a black screen and a voice intoning more about injury, paralysis, and death. Having covered that topic thoroughly enough, the video goes on to tell us that we’ll be learning to hang-glide on the tallest natural dune on the Atlantic Coast, and that hang-gliding is the “purest form of manmade flight”. We will be flying “just like a bird.” That’s what I want to hear, and it definitely sounds better than “just like a Saab 340B.” (One scene does show an unfortunate first-time “pilot” hanging upside-down from her upside-down glider, but, once again, I allow my thoughts to move right along to a more optimistic place.)
When the video’s over, Steve recites the Rules: relax, breathe, look straight ahead (looking down at the ground will only take you there faster than you’d like), run until the wind lifts you up without jumping, and HAVE FUN. If we want to look especially cool in the air, Steve says, we should try to bend our knees and cross our ankles behind us. I’m pretty certain that I won’t have the presence of mind to look that cool, but I vow to myself that, at least, my legs will not keep “running” after I’ve left the ground.
By the time we head out for the dunes, I’m psyched. Any apprehension I had about hang-gliding has left me; I will be the one in control when I’m in the air, and the lesson has convinced me that the act itself is simple, graceful, and as close to the flight of birds as I’m going to get in my present incarnation.
We walk along a valley of sand that runs between two mountains of sand. There is, in fact, nothing out there but sand, soft and forgiving. The place looks like a set out of “Lawrence of Arabia”. In the distance to the east and west, we can see the Atlantic and the Intracoastal Waterway, but they might as well be mirages.
I volunteer to go first. Steve guides me under the glider and helps me strap myself onto it. I bonk my helmeted head on the bars a few times, and do a hang check (to make sure that I’m attached properly to the glider and not too close to the bar that I will use, God willing, to control it). Finally I stand, pull the bar in toward my stomach as directed, and run.
My bare feet leave the sand, and for a moment I feel myself sinking. Somehow, though, through the blur around me, I hear and respond to Steve’s commands, and I fly. I even cross my ankles behind me; I’m in the air, AND I look cool. Presently I flare, which turns out to mean pushing the bar straight out, and I land. On my feet. I feel as if I’ve summited Everest.
Over the course of the afternoon I get to try three more times. Each time, it seems that I go a little higher, a little longer (probably not even the Wright Brothers’ twelve seconds, but I’m not counting). Only once do I fall as I land. It’s painless.
My reincarnation theory still stands.
The plane that takes me home is even smaller than the one I arrived in; I’m now one of four passengers. On the way to the airport, I hear a report over the radio about a twin-engine turboprop that has crashed out in the Midwest. It’s a long, nerve-wracking ride back to New York. I’m well aware that I’m acting like a coward, but at least I now know one way to be in the air, in control, and unafraid.
Check out Nancy Bevilaqua’s website for more musings.