The first person to see a bird soar skyward on an updraft undoubtedly cursed the fact that he was hopelessly affixed to the ground. Humans have tried to emulate birds for millennia, employing varied techniques, most of which resulted in mourning relatives. Yet theoretical flyers need not have been synaptically challenged; the highly cerebral Leonardo da Vinci, for example, drew up a prototype for a helicopter, yet he had the good sense not to attempt to test his design. Greek mythology regales us with the cautionary tale of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, thus melting the wax that held countless feathers to the wings crafted by his father, Daedalus. Icarus didn’t complete his journey safely; his father, who maintained a lower trajectory, arrived at his destination in one piece, though heartbroken. And then there are the Wright Brothers, whose fate-tempting at Kitty Hawk can only tangentially be blamed for peanuts masquerading as meals on today’s commercial flights.
I regale you with this CliffsNotes version of humanity’s attempts to shirk the immutable tether of gravity because I recently loosened that tether, at least momentarily. I had always believed hang gliding to be the province of the semi-suicidal, a dangerous sport engaged in by risk-takers who think that “What the heck” is a philosophical stance. Yet I
found that when a trained guide imparted the proper techniques to participants, and when participants were willing to step out of their comfort zones, hang gliding delivered a safe, invigorating adventure, while providing insight into what it feels like to be among the feathered and flighted.
During many rides on the bike path that shadows the surf south of Santa Monica, California, not far from where I live in Los Angeles, I had passed a hang-gliding school. Since Windsports Soaring Center sits on a bluff just south of Dockweiler State Beach, which features a rudimentary campground only a few steps from the sand, I had figured that someday I would muster the courage to try hang gliding, especially since the small bluff off of which the hang gliders soared did not look too frightening.
“Someday” manifested itself on a Saturday at 11 am. The forms the potential hang gliders filled out made the Magna Carta seem whimsical, but once we had determined that no one was to be blamed for anything ever again, the instructor, Lynden Vazquez, handed each of the four students a harness and a helmet. Wondering whether I had, in fact, just finished the last cup of Starbucks coffee I would ever drink, I calmed down, then adopted a “What the heck” philosophy.
Ducking under the wings of the hang-glider as the students huddled around him, Lynden conveyed the few techniques we were to employ to leave the ground – and return to it – safely. We would clip the carabiner affixed to our harness to a nylon runner attached to the hang glider, then we were basically supposed to dangle in a horizontal position. Our only physical points of contact with the aluminum triangle that hangs below the sail would be our hands on the downward-sloping bars. Lynden repeated that our motions were to be subtle: A gentle push of only an inch or two forward would raise the nose of the craft, thereby slowing our forward progress; a gentle pull of an inch or two would drop the nose, granting us greater speed. Lynden never once used the words “fracture” or “paramedics,” but I let my friend, Mary Ellen, go first anyway.
She hoisted the craft off the ground, struggled a bit to control its pitch in the wind, then walked briskly toward the top of the slope, with Lynden trotting next to her, shouting instructions. An orange windsock had been stuck in the sand about 100 yards away, and she had been told before she took the first doozey of a step to keep her eyes on the target, then to correct her course by gently pulling her body left or right. When her foot reached for terra firma but missed, she was officially flying, and she slowly glided toward the windsock, with Lynden in a sprint by her side. She was never more than eight feet off the ground on that first flight, but when she arrived back at the starting point, after having walked the hang glider up the slope from the beach about 30 feet below the launch point, her smile indicated that she may as well have been the first person in space.
I listened intently to Lynden’s instructions, walked quickly toward the bluff’s edge, then forgot everything I’d ever known, which of course included Lynden’s instructions. Despite my tabula rasa state, I managed to land in the not-so-distant sand without mishap. The other students took their turns, and we learned that hopping when stepping off the bluff does not provide more lift but can result in knee-scraping descents. I also learned, as we tried during flight after flight to increase our time aloft, that hang gliding is more than fun; the sport delivers on the promise of human flight and can become highly addictive.
As practiced by Windsports Soaring Center at the location where the sport is said to have been born, hang gliding is also incredibly accessible to just about everyone. The danger that may in fact exist when hang gliders are launching from high elevations or performing complicated maneuvers does not exist here, so as the four of us launched time and again from the forgiving bluff, our flights became more graceful. We learned to turn, we soared as high as 12 feet above the sand and we learned to land gently on our feet. For the most part, our flights became graceful, our confidence more pronounced. Mary Ellen floated delicately, Tony soared and Brian even appeared to hover momentarily. One of us even managed to perform a maneuver Lyndon did not instruct us how to perform, but I won’t say which of us that was.
Windsports Soaring Center, (818) 367-2430, www.caladventures.com.