Hang gliding is as serene and soothing as it looks from the ground.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Maybe a bobcat prowling the mountain forest, or a stingray hovering on the sandy ocean floor. But ultimately, if I could be any animal, I’d have to go with a bird – pelican, owl, hawk – for one simple reason: They can fly.
That must be why I’m standing on a scrubby, treeless hill near Hollister, encased in a bulky harness and helmet, struggling to steady a 45-pound hang glider with a wingspan five times my height.
Pat Denevan, the lanky owner of Mission Soaring Center, reminds me what to do: Point the glider into the wind, look straight ahead and run.
After a few steps the glider becomes weightless. I point its nose slightly upward and it lifts me off the ground. Denevan, running alongside, cheers: “You’re flying!”
I’m actually about 5 feet off the ground, but the effect is stupefying. I instinctively grip the sides of the triangle control frame – despite Denevan’s reminders to keep my touch light – and crash-land, skidding 20 feet on my kneepads.
Around me, other aspiring hang-glider pilots are practicing. The Hang 2 students – akin to orange belts in karate – sail off the 60-foot hill, their bodies dark pods suspended from translucent wings. They make swooping landings and then push their gliders back up the slopes, the sails sticking up like whale flukes.
Four hours into the lesson, I take my last run. As my feet lift off the ground I mentally chant light touch, light touch, forcing my palms to open. My legs pump 8 feet in the air as if I’m still running. This time the landing is smoother, and Denevan says I’ve shown the most important kind of mid-flight muscle control: a smile.
Mission Soaring Center is the hang gliding school closest to the Monterey Bay area, with an office and training site in Milpitas and a practice field near Hollister. (Another school that operated near Marina State Beach closed a few years ago.) Denevan, who founded Mission in 1973, is revered among pilots as a pioneer in hang-gliding instruction.
New students begin with an orientation that makes no bones about the time, money and passion it takes to fly. A $700 package – ground school, training books and five lessons – might be enough for a quick learner to earn a Hang 1 ranking. It could take another 10 lessons to achieve Hang 2. After proving their skills from 50-foot, 100-foot, 300-foot and finally 600-foot launches, Hang 3 pilots can fly the thermals of Big Sur, Marina State Beach and Mount Tamalpais. By Hang 4, the black belt of gliding, the sky is the pilot’s oyster.
Anyone who’s serious about the sport needs to buy a glider, harness and parachute – easily exceeding $5,000 new, or $2,500 used.
A bargain, compared with a crack habit.
About 20 local pilots, most of them in the 30-to-60 age range, sit around the carnage of empty pizza pans and beer pitchers at Mountain Mike’s pizza joint in Marina. They’re wrapping up a meeting of the local pilots’ club, the Coastal Condors.
Susie Gale, one of two women at the meeting, says she’s been hooked on hang gliding since 1979. “I work just enough to be able to fly and pay my bills,” she says with a laugh.
Former club president George Reeves, a compact man in his late 40s, says flying is quite simple if you remember the basics: “Relax and look ahead. Once you’ve got your brain under control, it’s muscle memory.”
Marina State Beach is the Condors’ territory. Club members hold the site’s flying permit, maintain the launch ramp, and own the sky when the conditions are right. The wind tends to flow offshore in the morning, standing the waves up for surfers, Gale explains; then it sweeps onshore in the afternoon, flowing up the dunes and giving hang gliders lift.
“It just grabs hold of you and there’s no way to describe it,” Reeves says. “It gets downright silly sometimes – the urge to fly.”
On a sunny Friday afternoon at Marina State Beach, a half-dozen pilots set up gliders made of collapsible aluminum poles, cables and nylon sails. The beach is fluttering in preparation for the Marina Wind Festival, when world-class pilots will race from the glider launch site to Sand City and back.
Kind enough to give me a lift is Ben Dunn, a dashing 34-year-old Brit triathlete who lives in Scotts Valley and has been flying since he was 18. Tandem is a bit awkward, but he says I only need to remember two rules: “Hold onto me, and don’t touch the glider.”
At the launch ramp, he clips me in so we’re shoulder-to-shoulder. “Now, run, run, run!” he instructs. He trots forward, I stumble behind, and the glider lifts.
“RELAX AND LOOK AHEAD. ONCE YOU’VE GOT YOUR BRAIN UNDER CONTROL, IT’S MUSCLE MEMORY.”
Dunn tacks right, then left in front of the launch ramp, gaining height with each pass. Once we’re high enough he attempts to navigate south – past a tricky stretch where the southwesterly wind doesn’t cooperate with the dunes – but the glider sinks to the sand.
We trundle down the beach, push the glider up a choice slope, clip in, run, run, run, and we’re back in the air. Dunn steers his glider along currents buffeting off the dunes, like a surfer carves a wave.
As we rise to several hundred feet, the landscape unfolds. Directly below, red and green ice plant stripes the dunes. To the east, the highway crawls with cars. (Suckers!) To the west, the C-shaped Monterey Bay shoreline hugs the rolling sea.
Our comrades up here are the birds. Scouting seagulls pay the nylon-winged, double-bodied mammoth no mind. Turkey vultures, on the other hand, are skittish and territorial, crapping on each other to show who’s boss, Dunn says. His favorites are the red-tailed hawks, which rocket along the thermal lifts. He cocks his head, imitating the hawks’ posture when they look at him in the air: “What kind of bird are you?”
We fly for a timeless hour. Then Dunn steers us back north, landing gracefully at our starting point. He asks how my first flight felt.
All I can come up with is a lame, “Great!”
He nods. “I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years and I still can’t describe it.”
Susie Gale, preparing for her own takeoff, smiles knowingly. “I walked around looking like that for two days after my first flight,” she says.
I realize I’m grinning like a fool. This is the closest I’ve come to being a bird: small-brained, hollow-boned and free.