This story was sent to the rec.aviation.hang-gliding newsgroup on 4/19/2002 by a hang glider student pilot who wishes to remain anonymous. He describes his first tandem flight at Mt. Tamborine on the Gold Coast of Australia, as well as his first training-hill flights.
Well, I've finally done it.
It's a cliche, to be sure, but you see when I was a rock-climber I always watched in frustration as a bird, sitting on a cliff as I climbed nearby, would gently drop into the air and soar away. As an air traffic controller I marvelled at the comings and goings of those enormous metal birds. I have sat in family and friends' Cessna 182s and one 210, and a New Piper, a Moonie and some others, while others chatted, and I quietly wished I was outside the fuselage, free in the air. I have watched pelicans, and even seagulls soaring and gliding and I wanted to do that too.
For many reasons now seems the time, so I contacted a local club, and discovered that there was a club meeting the next day. I went along, not knowing what to expect, and met some interesting people from different backgrounds, who seemed to be excited about flying too.
Everyone I spoke to, when I said I wanted to fly, said "Ah! You'll need to talk to that man there! Best in the state!" and pointed towards the same man! We spoke, a day and time was set, and I went home, and that night I had a dream that I was talking to an eagle who smiled at me.
The day dawned, and I anxiously awaited the call that the wind was 'right'. I didn't know what that meant, but I guessed it was important for a beginner. Eventually I received a message that the weather was unclear, but that I come along anyway to have a look.....
40 minutes later I was standing at the launch site, watching my instructor and some others preparing for tandem with some tourists. A million things seemed to be involved, I tried to make myself useful, holding a wire that went from one of the wheels to the wing seemed not to upset the pilot, but I quickly found out which parts not to touch, when a chorous of voices yelled "Hey, don't hold it there!" when I held on to apparently untouchable parts. I knew about NO-STEP places on aeroplanes, so I guessed that hang gliders have NO-HOLD places as well.
The tandem customers seemed to think I was part of the group who were helping them get ready to fly, and I thought that was pretty cool, so I tried to fit in and not to do anything stupid. When they asked me questions I pointed to the nearest chap and loudly said "This fellow here will tell you about that!" and then I listened to the answer too.
When the flights were finished, the instructor told me that the wind hadn't 'come around', and that subsequently the 'training hill' couldn't be used. He pointed to a seemingly flat spot in the plains below and identified it as the training hill. I learned a little about clouds indicating collisions of air masses, and tried to concentrate and forget my disappointment about not being able to start that day, especially when I realised that we weren't even at the training hill!! But that was cool: as a surfer I'd learned that mother earth does not appreciate being hurried along by uptight humans, so I relaxed and thought nice thoughts about flying the next day.
The instructor asked me how much I weighed, and I didn't realise that he was thinking about taking me on a tandem flight. I thought he was getting information to be used on my first training day. Then he suddenly said "Okay, hop into that harness there." and the reason for the question crystallised. I was amazed and deeply happy within an instant.
The next 30 minutes are still a blur - I hung from the harness, and was told where to put my arms and hands. I concentrated not on my anxiety, and listened to him describing what to do at launch. Then we were running to the hillside, and as the mountain dropped away, my world shifted, and I knew that this was what I had dreamed of. A ripple moved outward in my reality, and I knew that 'something' had changed in me forever. I said "This is what I want to do."
My instructor said words like 'thermal' and 'stall' and 'climb' and 'turn' and 'weight shift' and 'trim', and I tried my best to listen and respond while the major part of my brain was simply cruising with sustained amazement. There was the ridge! There were the huge trees I'd once walked underneath. There was the launch site! There was a girl riding a horse far below! I felt like calling out to her "Hey!! Look at us!! We're flying!! Do you understand? We're flying like birds fly!!"
There were mountain ranges and farms and roads and water far below, and enormous Cumulous clouds stretched out in long lines across the sky. As all this passed by, I was strangely aware of every dream I'd ever had about flight, seeing the unrolling world slipping by underneath and clouds above, banking and diving and soaring, feeling both free and simultaneously integrated with the whole world. A stream of images and feelings rose to the surface of my consciousness, building into an inexorable, slow but unstoppable, flood of awe. I knew that my world view was now different, not in a physical sense, as I've flown in hundreds of powered craft, but instead from within a non-intellectual part of me that views the world from the places behind my conscious reactions, far behind my surface thoughts. And I felt a 'voice' from that deeper part of me resonating through my mind in an inner loud cry: "YEEEEEEEHHHAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!".
Then the instructor said more words: 'landing' 'line-up' 'parallel' 'slope' 'base leg'. I watched as the ground rose in controlled grandeur, and soon we slid to a stop, where I breathed out. I looked at my instructor, whose sunglass-covered eyes were staring at my eyes - "Well, what do you think of that?" he said with a shit-eating grin. My social, outer self struggled back to awareness, allowing me to speak using words..."Marvellous. Excellent" I managed to say, wondering why there were not words in my vocabulary to describe what I was feeling. As we packed up the glider I tried to make conversation to let him know how much I wanted to learn more and fly, but I was still too overwhelmed to make much sense.
The next afternoon I received the phone call "The wind will be right today!" Sixty miles down the freeway, and I was welcomed by the instructor. He tested my reading from "The Cheney Book", and explained things I wasn't clear about, until I fully understood what he was telling me. Then we went from the classroom to the training hill. It looked a lot steeper than it had from altitude the day before!
I helped assemble the glider, and the instructor flew down the hill. He returned with information about wind and instructions about the flight.
I had fantasised sweeping away from the training hill in an elegant arc.
Heh. Heh. Mmmmm.
Checks complete, trying to memorise the sequence of actions, I began my walk, run, faster, looking ahead, leaning forward, looking down *uh-oh*, gripping the bar, pulling it down...What!?! Falling to the ground.
I brushed the dirt from my knees.
Okay, try again. Walk, run, bigger steps, looking ahead, not gripping the bar, falling down. Damn, didn't lean forward.
I brushed the dirt from my shoulders and knees.
Alright, walk run big steps faster don't look down. oh-no-pulling in-one side-looking down-crash-slide-ouch-stop.
Instructor examines glider.
I brush dirt from my face, hair, legs, arms and clothing.
Okay, now, walk run big steps looking down looking UP looking UP - great - in trim - lifting - don't hold on! - let go ! - arrgh, you mean both hands?? nice sweeping turn (if I was 100 feet higher) - ground coming up - attempt weight shift towards lower wing - pushing out - floating for a moment - crash.
Instructor examines glider.
The other student's runs were between these, and they all seemed to be much better than I am. I notice the dirt scratched into my skin. I relax and feel what I've done - I have been gliding down a hill held aloft by a wing!!!!!! I was doing it alone!!! Without an engine!!! I was flying!!! Maybe for two whole seconds!!!!!!!!!!
As I write I feel cheerful and happy. I have actually begun learning this incredible skill, and although I have grazes on my legs and arms, I am deeply content. Now I have a huge grin, and I'm looking forward to a restful sleep and continuing lessons next week.