My first taste of hang gliding was at Hill 60 to the Southern side of Port Kembla and about 90 minutes drive South of Sydney. The 15-knot Easterly airflow redirects upwards off the mild cliff face and provides the pilot with an unbelievable and virtually unlimited source of lift.
This flight was essentially the equivalent of a Trial Instructional Flight. It was an opportunity for Tony to assess my suitability, and a good chance for me to actually assess whether it was something I wanted to do. It was the first time we had met so it was also a good chance to get to know each other.
We unloaded the hang glider from the roof of his van and carried the equipment up a small sealed embankment. In an area that looked like it was set up as an observation platform for tourists, we slowly assembled the glider until it took shape. Tony was sure to talk me through everything he was doing. We strapped ourselves into our respective harnesses and Tony gave me a comprehensive brief on what it was we were trying to achieve. It was an introductory flight after all, so Tony was insistent that I simply try and enjoy the experience.
“Don’t think too much about what you’re doing, Marty. Just lie back, relax, look around, and enjoy”.
Before I had a chance to question the nature of what we were doing, Tony had me walking towards the cliff edge with firm, controlled strides.
Running off the hill took me by surprise and it felt overwhelmingly unnatural. What sort of sane and firm-footed human being runs off a cliff for fun? I’m sure I paddled my feet for a second or two after we became airborne because the rapid takeoff is completely unexpected to the uninitiated – and certainly to those of us use to driving tons of metal off the ground. I was blissfully unaware that we had actually left the ground until I looked down at my feet that were now dangling like limp pendulums with nothing but 300 feet of air between use and the ground. There was virtually no ‘take-off’ roll…. or run, and the feeling immediately after was, without question, the most exhilarating feeling I’ve felt in any aircraft in any condition of flight. The feeling of lift really has to be felt to be believed. Imagine being tied to the rear of a fast-moving elevator as it rockets upwards. Anybody use to running on motion lotion will unquestionably feel uneasy with it initially because to us powered types it just seems illogical that an aircraft will climb with such authority without an engine. It just doesn’t feel natural.
Unlike traditional aircraft where you sit at the front and steer the thing with a stick, with a weight-shift aircraft you essentially form part of the airframe and the pilots own body is intrinsically connected to the control. It is the closest that any person can get to actually sprouting wings themselves.
We flew repeated orbital figure-8 type patterns over and over with Tony talking me through various simple maneuvers. Think of it as the ultimate effects of controls lesson (that any powered person will undertake as their introduction to light aircraft). Pulling back didn’t just increase speed, but it increased noise levels considerably. Pushing forward had the opposite effect. In light aircraft, we generally introduce the concept of balance via purposefully unbalancing the aircraft and then relating it to our seating position and the offset position of the balance ball. In a glider, balance is easily demonstrated because of the nature of weight shift control. If we’re out of balance, it’ll affect the flight path of the aircraft; not to mention compromise its ability to stay aloft.
It’s one thing to glide but another to maintain height. Hang Glider pilots, though, regularly stay aloft for hours and only return Earthward for a reapplication of sunscreen or a cold drink. Tony and I could have stayed airborne for hours. Alas, despite my enthusiasm, Tony had better things to do. We picked a soccer park adjoining the nature area and slowly descended to our touchdown point.
Despite a certain somebody (I won’t mention names) failing to pull their feet out of the harness for a landing, it was otherwise very controlled and smooth.
If I could have stayed aloft forever, I would have. It was brilliant. Why don’t more people do this?
Next Time: The Basics
This blog was initially published in a flying magazine in 2004. It has been reformatted for this blog.
Blog series: Learning to Fly Hang Gliders