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Patience: Lessons in Flight

Saturday, February 12, 1994

I arrive at Lookout Mountain Flight Park at 8:45 and climb the stairs to office to be greeted by Tim, a fellow student, and Laura, who it turns out is the wife of my old caving pal Larry Johnson. Two more students, John and Lissi ("Lease-see") arrive soon after, along with our instructor, Jim Hooks.

We watch a short video which demonstrates the effortless, soaring flight of experienced pilots. The gliders are designed for safety, the film says. If stalled, they will recover almost automatically. If put into a dive, they will pull out on their own. Launched with a sack of potatoes hanging there instead of a pilot, their nature is to fly straight and true.

After the video we follow Jim down the mountain toward the Flight Park's training hills. Our destination, once Jim shows us how to set up two gliders (Wills Wing Raven 179's), is a small hill in the distance about 75 feet high, the dreaded "Little Hill." Nearby is the "Big Hill," steeper and far higher, a place which every beginner pilot wants to fly from day one. Right now, however, we're about as close to flying the big hill as we are to the moon.

John and Lissi are from Washington, D.C., down for a long weekend to begin their lessons. It was Lissi's idea to learn to hang glide; she's already done a tandem flight up north. Tim is a slightly built truck driver who is driving down from the Knoxville area. He's had a tandem flight as well. "All my friends and family think I'm crazy for doing this," he says.

Before we move out into the field, Jim demonstrates how to hook in with the harnesses on a simulated glider. "Don't let me catch you flying without doing a hang check," he says. "I've lost one friend because he forgot to hook in, and I'm not going to lose another."

Jim's friend had about ten flights off Lookout Mountain under his belt at the time of the accident, but he had never soared. In hang gliding, soaring--actually being lifted by a steady updraft above the launch point so that one can fly for hours--is the objective of every pilot. On the day of accident, Jim's friend had been in a hurry to launch, intending to follow him up into the lift zone, and had run off the ramp without being hooked into the glider. In theory, Jim says, it should be possible to grab the control bar, climb up into it, and fly the glider to the ground.

His friend wasn't so fortunate.

"He managed to grab the bar with one hand," Jim says. "But that threw the glider into a dive. When it pulled out, the g's were just too much, and he couldn't hold on."

The last thing you want to do in hang gliding, Jim reminds us, is to get in a hurry. It could well be the last thing you do.

Our first task, before we can move even to the small hill, is to "fly" flat ground. One by one, we lift the glider into position, jamming the leg tubes between our shoulders, and prepare to run across a stretch of almost flat ground into the wind. We walk-jog-run with Jim right by us, giving instructions. The glider lifts off our shoulders and flys above as we go. To stop, we push out on the control bar and are lifted, if only for a moment, off the ground.

Jim has been flying hang gliders for about four years. He claims to be tired of the sport, saying he may move south and give it up. "I've got every rating you can get," he says. "I've flown every glider, every site. There's just no chAlange." But a minute later he's staring at the sky and saying, "Man, I'd love to do some flying today! Anything!"

As we move to the hillside, Alan Bloodworth, another instructor regular, comes over to join us. Alan, originally from the flatlands of Macon, Georgia, has been flying for about two years.

We run down the hill and achieve flights of sixty feet or so, just a few feet off the ground, landing on the wheels with our bellys just off the soggy ground. The wind is coming from the south, a poor direction for this hill. There is a large pool of water to the left, not far from the hill. "Somebody's going to get soaked," Jim predicts. Indeed, Tim seems to be headed in that direction. "Eyes ahead!" Jim shouts, then turns to us. "If you keep looking at something you don't want to hit, like that water, you'll fly right into it. Target fixation."

Keeping your eyes on your destination, not on the ground, is an important point. "It's like you're driving in your car," Jim says. "You look down and start fishing around for a beer, and by the time you look up, you're in the ditch."

The beer metaphor seems to work well for Jim.

"Hold that control bar like you would a long neck Bud," he advises. "Just your fingers, not your entire palm. You've got to have a light touch!"

Jim has a wife and four month old son, but he's still got a little bit of a kid inside him. Driving in, we had encountered a couple of small lakes of water on the gravel road. Most of us had slowed down to drive through, but not Jim. Flooring the accelerator, he had made crashed through with the biggest splash possible.

At times we have to halt while the wind picks up and changes direction. "We don't train in this kind of wind," Jim says. "Maybe they do at other places, but not here." He pauses, then continues. "We just won't put you out in dangerous winds--and for you guys, that's just about any wind at all."

We finish at 12:00 noon with seven flights apiece, some good, some not so good. But everyone is getting better. "Tomorrow," Jim says, "I'll teach you how to land."

Sunday, February 13

Despite a promising forecast, the skies are cloudy and windy. After meeting at the field at 7:45 a.m., we assemble several gliders and roll them out to the bunny hill. The wind on top is probably 10-15 MPH, shifting frequently. We move the gliders to the back of the hill and wait to see if conditions will improve. After 30 minutes, things have calmed down.

I stand with the glider up on my shoulders, feeling the wind trying to lift it, waiting for a calm cycle. "Okay," Jim says. I yell "Clear!" and step off, accelerating into a run until I'm in the air. But I've stopped running too soon and pulled in on the bar too much. I glide down the hill just a couple of feet off the ground. "Relax that grip!" Jim tells me for the 400th time. "Let the glider fly!"

My next flight goes better. I run the full distance, towing the glider above me, until I am lifted into the air. Then I let the control bar float. The glider rises into the wind, ten feet up now, glides, and begins to descend. I should be setting up to flare, to push the bar out and land on my feet as John has just done, but I don't think about it in time. Before I know it, I'm landing on the wheels again.

On my third flight, I repeat a mistake from the previous day. First the wind catches one wing and brings me into a wide turn. I turn my head to look toward my target, thinking this will be enough to turn the glider, but it doesn't work. Without knowing what I am doing, I correct the turn, but now it's time to land, and I've forgotten to move my hands up on the bars. As I push the bar forward, my legs go instinctly forward with it to catch me, very bad form. I land on my feet, but I'm not happy. "You'll jam your leg like that," Jim tells me.

The wind picks up again. I stand with the glider awkwardly on my shoulders, trying to keep it neutral against the rushing air. I've read about the phenonmenon of "ground loop," where the glider is flipped over backwards by the wind, sometimes with the pilot still in it. This to me seems like sometihng to be avoided, if possible. Finally, the air seems to be calmer. "Okay," Jim says. I run down the hill, start to turn again, fail to correct properly, and again have a poor landing. At least my feet don't go forward this time.

The winds pick up again, to the point that even Jim is excited about flying the little hill. He rushes over to get a glider. "Out of the way!" he cries, skipping the hang check, dragging the glider around and running off the hill. A moment later he is on the ground. "Wasn't as good as I thought," he says.

The more advanced students have abandoned the larger hill. "They're trying to learn precision flying over there," Jim says, "and it's just too difficult in this wind." As stand around waiting for the wind to cooperate, one of the unattended gliders is flipped. It's time to give up.

John and Lissi will be back the following day. Tim is off work for the week, and plans to commute down daily. I feel like I'm already getting behind in my training.

Thursday, February 16

I meet Alan at 7:45 a.m. on a cold but beautiful Thursday morning, having taken the day off work. We are joined by a fellow from England named Chris, along with his father and sister Emma, who are already pilots. Chris is also following in the footsteps of a brother, came last year to learn hang gliding. "Next time," Chris says, "I suppose we'll have the family dog out here flying."

Before we begin, Alan puts one of the Wills Wing Raven 209 gliders up on "the rack" so that we can practice proper form for turns. The air is absolutely still. To achieve a good launch in these still conditions, we are told, takes almost perfect form. Chris makes the first attempt, launching and flying well. Now it's my turn. I announce to Alan that I will be attempting to land on my feet.

I never get the chance. Running full tilt down the hill, I pull a muscle in my right leg just before my feet leave the ground. My flight is low, short, and disappointing, ending near the bottom of the hill as I land on the wheels. "Stopped running," Alan writes on his checksheet--but I maintain that a pulled hamstring is a good reason to stop.

As I limp back up the hill with the glider, it occurs to me that my leg might be a problem. It takes a while for it to sink in that I'm through for the day. I can barely trot, much less run at the speed needed to get off with no wind. Chris, Alan, and a third fledging instructor named Gary take turns flying. Gary's first two attempts end with him rolling down the hill on the wheels, very humbling, he says.

On his fourth flight, Chris attempts to flare and land on his feet, but starts too early. The glider gains altitude to about six feet off the ground, then stalls and falls almost straight down on the wheels. There is a great thud as it hits the ground. Chris is okay, but the downtubes are a little bent. Alan secretly straightens them. On his fifth and last flight, the same thing happens. But Chris has got until the 28th to fly off the mountain, so there is still plenty of time to perfect his landing.

We see Jim coming across the field with a new student. "Oh no," Gary says. "Look at me." His legs are streaked with grass and dirt from his first two attempts at flight. Sure enough, Jim takes about a second to notice. "Having a little trouble on your landings?" he asks, grinning.

My leg is stiff and I can barely hobble down the hill and over to the truck. It's clear I won't be running down the bunny hill for a while. Well, they had warned me. Hang gliding is a weather-dependent sport, one in which patience is not just a virtue but also a necessity.

Saturday, April 9, 1994

The leg was long since healed. It was time to resume my lessons. With the warmer weather had come an increase in patrons. When I had put together a glider and wheeled it to the top of the bunny hill, I joined eleven other gliders and twice that number of potential pilots. If we moved efficiently, we would be lucky to get in three or four flights each.

One student took a run down the hill and got hammered into the ground by a gust of wind. The winds gusted and shifted. Time to pack up, go home and get up early some other day. As we rolled the gliders back towards the cars, at least four of them were flipped by the wind.

Thursday, May 19, 1994

I make another early morning drive down to the training hills, watching for any signs of wind. Jim is our lead instructor today, but he is not optimistic. We stand around in the field, watching trees move slightly in the distance. Every once in a while Jim looks out and shakes his head. Around 10:00 I go home.

Months go by. I get caught up in other things. Seasons change, and I do not return to the training hills. Yet sometimes I lie awake at night, and feel my pulse coming quicker as think about it again: that first jump off the mountain, when all of this waiting will come to an end.

Epilogue: After resuming my lessons in May of 1996, I learned that the indominable Jim Hooks had died the year before when the Swift rigid wing he was flying disintegrated as he performed aerobatics over the LZ. He remains a legend among the many distinguished pilots at Lookout Mountain Flight Park.

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