April 17, 1993After we'd been waiting most of the day, the moment of leaping into space came all at once. You see, when you're waiting to take a tandem hang glider and jump off a cliff for the first time, time tends to drag. Even when I was finally hooked into the big "Club Air" glider next to Clark, the pilot, there were still several hang gliders lined up to launch ahead of us. I figured we'd have a moment to relax, maybe go over a few last minute instructions. Then I looked up and Clark and I were alone on the launch ramp with no one and nothing in front of us but the wind.
Annie, Terry and I had come to the Lookout Mountain Flight Park with a 1:00 p.m. appointment and a gift certificate entitling me to a tandem flight. As we approached on the highway, I could see a dozen or more gliders circling high above the mountain. Inside, we got some discouraging news: there would be no tandem flights until late afternoon, and maybe not even then. Conditions were too gusty for tandems, although the solo pilots were eating it up, soaring as high as 4,000 feet.
We stuck around for a while, watching pilots launch. Under these conditions, with a steady incoming wind, the traditional run down the ramp to gain speed wasn't necessary. Instead, the pilots walked out to the edge for what is called a "wire launch." Three people--more if the winds were strong--steadied the glider by its guy wires, calling out whether the wing on their side was being pushed up, down, or was neutral. (If the forces aren't balanced, the glider can turn immediately after launch and slam into the mountain, which would be unpleasant.) When the moment was right, the pilot would yell "Clear!" (or, in one case, "Beer!") and take a quick step forward off the ramp. The glider would drop a foot, at most, and then begin climbing as it sailed gracefully toward the horizon.
After watching one unfortunate pilot and a group of helpers make several attempts at a wire launch, we decided that being a "wire man" could be quite dangerous. These men and women stood on the edge of the ramp, quite literally on the brink of a cliff, holding gliders that bucked in the gusting wind. Sure enough, we found out later that someone fell that afternoon. Although the sight of him going over the cliff was reportedly a bit traumatic for his fellow wire men, the victim wasn't hurt and in fact went off the ramp again this time in his glider soon after.
Terry, Annie and I were by now strolling through Reflection Riding, about ten miles north, waiting for another attempt at getting a tandem. When I called the Flight Park, I was told that conditions were now perfect, so we drove back out to the ramp. Clark, the tandem pilot, was setting up his glider when we arrived. Clark was a tall, easy-going fellow with wrap-around shades and 19 years of flying experience. To my consternation, while we had been gone, a girl named Mara had slipped in ahead of me. Mara was taking a hang glider flight in honor of her 30th birthday.
I watched, envious, as Clark talked Mara through the launch. The procedure was simple: (1) hold onto his harness, (2) tilt your head, and (3) run with him off the ramp. Clark hooked Mara and himself into the glider, then did a "hang check" to make sure everything was balanced and secure. A moment later they had launched and were soaring high overhead. I knew Mara was enjoying her flight. I tried my best to be happy for her.
All at once, someone had pushed the hyperspace button, and the wait was over. An hour after launching with Mara, Clark was back on top of the mountain. He assembled the glider while I strapped on the video camera and filled out paperwork. There were a lot of questions, the kind of stuff you'd expect. Do you understand that you could be injured or killed engaging in this sport? Are you aware that the FAA does not certify any hang gliders? Will you obey your pilot's commands? Do you understand the theory of weight shift? Yes, yes, sure, I told Clark. No problem. Whatever the theory of weight shift was, I figured Clark could explain it later. Then we were standing on the ramp, with just one question remaining. "Are you ready?" Clark asked. We'd been through all of this, even practiced running together down the highway.
"Yes," I said. We'd rehearsed my answer, too. We stood on the edge of the platform, facing the wind, as three wire men steadied our glider.
"Clear!" Clark yelled, and we were airborne.
It was as easy as that. One moment I was standing on the ramp, and then I was hanging horizontally in my harness as Clark banked to the right, the glider already climbing in the updraft of the ridge. Soon we were nearly a hundred feet above the mountain, which stretched endlessly below us. The glider seemed to hang suspended in air. We weren't moving, but the rest of the world was, in distant slow motion. Clark demonstrated how the glider would literally fly itself: when he let go of the control bar, we flew level and straight. "If you want," he said, "put your hands on the bar, and try a little flying."
With no idea what I was doing, I took the controls. We banked to turn, then kept turning; to straighten out, Clark explained, I needed to level the glider. "Just pull that wing in to you," he said. "Swing your legs around. It's all in the hips."
Pull the wing in? Use my hips? What was he talking about? We slewed drunkenly through the air as I turned, overcorrected, turned back, overcorrected again. We were on a collision course with at least three gliders ahead.
"Pretty crowded," Clark said casually. "Maybe I'd better fly for a while." He took back the control bar, and I shot video of the mountain unfolding below. Then my stomach detected a sudden drop. Just a little turbulence, Clark explained. Of course, that's what the Chinese government had said a couple weeks before when one person was killed and a hundred or so injured on a commercial flight. Just a little rough air, folks, nothing to worry about. We flew away from the mountain, over the valley nearly 2,000 feet below. "Push the bar forward," Clark said, "and we'll do a stall." Although this did not sound wise, I had agreed to obey my pilot, so I pushed away. Again, while my eyes detected nothing, I quite literally had a gut feeling we had just climbed and then dropped slightly. This high off the ground, with the visual points of reference so distant, the old stomach-sensor was working like a champ.
"Pull back on the bar," Clark said, "and let's get some speed. Feel that wind!" No doubt about it, were losing altitude. Soon we were circling over an the greeness of the landing field. Normally, pilots come in low and then stall the glider to land on their feet. Our tandem glider, however, was equipped with plastic "training wheels" on the control bar for convenient landings. We passed low over the field, and the illusion of hanging motionless evaporated. There was a rush of speed as green grass came up to meet us, a gentle thump as the wheels touched down. We raced along with our prone bodies just inches off the grass, toes dragging.
Clark packed his glider and went around looking for a ride up the mountain. I expected Annie and Terry to drive down and meet us, so I sat down to wait. Annie and Terry sat high above at the Flight Center, watching me through binoculars. We stayed in these positions for quite a while.
The next day, I did laundry and went hiking and read a book, but it all seemed trivial and even pointless. I kept thinking of how we had soared above the mountain, about theories of weight shift and using my hips and the incredible expanse of blue, blue sky.