A decade of dangling

And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”…

I don’t know when I first became aware of hang gliding, but I know it was a long time ago, back in the 1970s. The reason I remember this is that I designed a hang glider at some point, maybe when I was in junior high (I wish I still had those drawings). I’m pretty sure it was after 1971, because it incorporated some ideas from a made-for-TV movie called “The Birdmen”. Had I built it, I’m certain that it would not have been dangerous, as it would have had a 64 square foot cotton flat sail, and was going to be made out of 2x4s, and really had no means of control. There’s no way I would have been able to lift it, and no way it would have been able to lift me.

Meanwhile, the Kremer Prize for human-powered airplanes had been on offer for many years. A friend of my father named Jim Dailey was building such a plane, which I’m pretty sure was never completed and never made it out of his barn. As a lightweight guy from a family that did a lot of bicycling, my father always told me that I’d be an ideal pilot for such a thing. But I didn’t get into bicycle racing like Dad did, although my younger brother did follow in his footsteps.

I missed out on one HPA opportunity by being a year too young. I started at MIT in the fall of 1979, and that summer, a group of students had built an HPA called Chrysalis. It was completed in about thirteen weeks, and was flown by a huge number of people, more than any other such plane. Basically, anybody who wanted to give it a try was welcome to take a short hop down the runway, but I didn’t even know about it until after it had been taken apart. I did end up with one of the wingtips, an 8-foot long collation of aluminum, Styrofoam, wooden strips, and mylar, which adorned the ceiling of my dorm room in college and which still hangs in tatters in my mother’s cellar. Then several years later, another HPA project started up at MIT, after I had graduated, and I signed on as a volunteer with the Daedalus Project. The guys doing the primary design work were largely the same ones who had built Chrysalis (and the intervening Monarch), and some of them had some hang gliding experience, notably Harold “Guppy” Youngren, who had famously broken his back flying a homebuilt standard on Cape Cod in the early 1970s. I worked on Daedalus for a couple of years, eventually getting hired by the project so that I could work on it full-time instead of going to my software job during the day.

The culmination of Daedalus was in April of 1988, when we succeeded in having one of our planes, piloted by Kanellos Kanellopoulos, fly 74 miles from Iraklion on the Greek island of Crete to the island of Santorini, thus recreating the critical leg of the mythical flight of its namesake, the guy with the wax and feathers who warned his son Icarus against flying too near to the sun. The flight broke a number of records which still stand, and which may never be broken in my lifetime. During those couple of years, I was spending most of my time at an airport (Hanscom Field) with a bunch of very talented aeronautical engineers, and I learned a lot about aviation.

An unexpected twist happened on the day of the record flight. The plane reached its destination, came around for a landing, was hit with strong winds, had a structural failure, and fell into the water a few meters from the beach. The pilot swam to shore and was greeted with champagne and cameras, he was swept off to press conferences, we dragged the wreckage ashore and threw it in the trailer, and then there we were, with the afternoon to spend on the beach on a Greek island, with our inflatable motorboats as toys. So we pulled out the waterskis, and… wait, I thought you brought the waterskis… Dammit, nobody had brought the waterskis or the tow rope, all that gear was 75 miles away at the hotel on Crete. So we were all sitting there on the beach feeling either stupid or sorry for ourselves, when a woman pulled up in a Land Rover with waterskis in the back and was looking up toward the sky in the direction of the mountain. We turned to see what she was looking at…

And a hang glider landed right next to us.

It was the first time I had ever seen one, close up, anyway. We all went over to talk to the guy, and for some reason we didn’t pay much attention to the hang glider. His being there was a complete coincidence, he was from Scotland, was on vacation with his girlfriend, and had no idea that there was a human-powered airplane thing going on. Somebody asked about the waterskis, and he said that he really liked waterskiing, but it was so expensive to rent a boat there. Man, did we have a deal for that guy. We all spent the whole afternoon waterskiing with our boats and his skis and tow ropes (the only time in my life I’ve ever waterskied).

Skip forward a few years. My main sport is orienteering, and in 1993, the USA hosted the World Orienteering Championships in Harriman State Park in New York. I spent a couple of months in the fall of 1991 working on the mapping, and then was recruited to be one of the course setters. It was a four-hour drive from my house, it was a lot of work, and there was a morass of politics to wade through in terms of dealing with the international organization. Many times I would get frustrated and fed up, and I’d say, “You know, I think I’m just going to walk away from all of this, move to Colorado, and take up hang gliding!”. This eventually got abbreviated into an inside joke – some complication would arise, and I’d throw up my hands and say “Hang gliding!”, and my friends would laugh.

The Colorado part really happened. Some other annoying things had been going on in my life at the same time, and although I wasn’t in a position to pack up immediately after the WOC in October of 1993, I did move out to Boulder the following summer. I spent the next four years basically loafing, and I never got around to following through on my assertion that I was going to learn to fly. A couple of times I’d be out for a bike ride north of town and I’d see a glider up on the hill, waiting for the wind to be right for a training flight, but I never went up to meet the people. I did continue to talk about it, though.

After four years I moved back to Massachusetts, and then in 2001, I turned 40. I guess my brother and his wife were sick of hearing my idle talk about hang gliding, because they gave me a birthday present of a gift certificate for an introductory hang gliding lesson at Morningside Flight Park in New Hampshire. (I had never even gotten around to figuring out where I would have gone if I wanted lessons.) That was the kick in the pants that I needed, and I took that gift certificate and… put it in a drawer for a couple of years. I had a lot of stuff going on, and didn’t have an opportunity to schedule the lesson. Then in the summer of 2004, I finally got around to calling Morningside. I remember what Jeff Nicolay said to me on the phone: “Sure, come on up, we’ll tell you some lies about hang gliding”.

When I arrived at Morningside, it honestly wasn’t all that encouraging. The place was pretty sketchy-looking in those days, a poorly-lit, dilapidated barn with a pile of decaying firewood in the parking lot and some scruffy dogs wandering around, and some tired-looking gliders to learn on. I decided I wanted more than just the smallest taste, so I signed up for a two-day weekend introductory package. The first day, we had about a half-dozen students, and the wind was pretty cross from the north. Chris Larsen was the instructor, and he did what he could given the conditions, showing us how to set up the gliders, going over safety, ground handling, and launch procedures, and having us basically run on level ground to get some practice controlling the wing.

The next day, June 13 2004, I went back for the second lesson. This time the wind was from the west, and the students were myself and two young women. We were able to run down the hill starting from maybe 30 feet up, then gradually a little bit higher. At some point that afternoon, starting from about 40 feet up, my moonwalking steps got longer and longer and then I couldn’t reach the ground. A few seconds later, I landed.

My first hang gliding flight. Ten years ago today.


About cleversky

Hang glider pilot in New England since 2004. Also an avid orienteer, and an embedded systems firmware engineer. And some other outdoor stuff.
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