The Ground from Above
“Wind me up,” calls out my hang gliding instructor, Mike Patishall. It’s one of his signature signals that we’re ready to fly. Did I mention that I’m strapped above him — somewhat precariously it seems — in a vertical tandem cocoon harness? And that the plane idling loudly in front of us is getting ready to tow us up 2,000 feet in the air?
Maybe I should start at the beginning.
When I arrive at the Currituck County Airport around 9 a.m., I feel strangely calm. I know I’m here for my first tandem aerotow hang gliding lesson with Kitty Hawk Kites, but I’ve been assured that no prior experience is necessary. For me, that’s a really good thing. Andy Thompson, another instructor, walks me through a small mountain of paperwork and before I know it he hands me a card that certifies me as a student member of the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association for the next 30 days. “You’re all set,” he says cheerfully. “Let’s get started!”
Fast forward to the part where I try not to laugh too nervously when Andy jokingly describes our tow plane, an ultralight aircraft known as a Dragonfly, as a “go-kart with wings” while we’re gearing up. Though it’s pretty temperate on the ground, they warn me that it will be considerably cooler the higher we get so I bundle up a little more. I’m definitely out of delaying tactics by the time they’ve helped me strap snugly into the harness and our GoPro is set to record (my) historic first flight.
Did I also mention that I’m not a big fan of heights?
Too late. Andy gives the signal and we’re off — and fast. In a split second or two we’re in the air and climbing…and climbing, and climbing. Surely we’re at 2,000 feet by now, right? “More like 500,” Mike says with a laugh. “Don’t worry, there’s still so much more to see.”
He’s right, of course, and I can’t argue with the fact that — against all other instincts — my nerves are actually falling away the higher we get. The ride is surprisingly smooth, and even though things below are quickly getting smaller, it’s undeniably the view of a lifetime. The sun is still rising and there’s a low haze over the horizon, but from our bird’s-eye position we can see a landscape that includes everything from nearby Knotts Island south to the Wright Memorial Bridge leading into Kitty Hawk. Beneath us, the North River zigzags spectacularly through the surrounding fields and marshland. At this altitude, I can see the Outer Banks for exactly what it is: an extremely thin strip of land poised between the churning Atlantic Ocean and the relatively calmer soundside waters.
“This is the best part about hang gliding,” Mike says as he prepares to release us from the plane. “You get to see the ground from a different perspective.”
And, for me, that’s the moment when everything shifts once again. The towline drops, the plane swoops back down past us, and everything becomes quieter and startlingly real. Real in the sense that it’s just Mike, me, and the glider way up here. Real, as in we are really and truly flying on our own.
It’s a sensation that’s hard to describe, but I suddenly feel giddy. Remember your last flight on an airplane? This is nothing like that. The horizon is everywhere all at once and the wind rushes around us without any interference. We’re suspended and exposed in a way I never could have imagined, but I’ve also never felt more calm and exhilarated at the exact same time. As we slowly ride the wind back down to the landing site, I’m already preparing my speech.
“I want to go again!” I say once my helmet is off and I’ve begun to warm back up. Mike laughs. “That’s pretty much the first thing everyone says.”
Other students arrive so I have to wait my turn, but even watching their flights from the ground is an experience as they take off in the distance, and every single one of them — including two 11-year-old girls and a large family of all ages — comes back beaming. Virtually the first thing out of their mouths every time? You got it. They’re all ready to go again.
In between flights, Jonny Thompson, our tow plane pilot who’s also been an accomplished hang gliding pilot since 1975 and an instructor since 1977, chats with me about the appeal of the sport — and the ability for everyone from beginner to advanced students to do a tandem aerotow in particular. “It’s not really about adrenaline, even though it can be,” he says. “Most of us are actually control freaks. We simply love being in the air.”
Andy agrees. “It’s a great sport because there’s a lot of room for creativity,” he explains. “It can be a thrill ride if you want that, but it can also be an easy way to get up there and just enjoy the scenery.”
Though I still get some butterflies when Andy takes me up a second time, I can’t help but wish it wasn’t so late in the day. I could keep doing this on repeat, and I suddenly understand their only half-joking references to people who get hooked on hang gliding right away. As Jonny said, “One time is all it takes.” Some of the early morning haze has burned off, and Andy suggests going a little higher this time.
While we don’t quite make it a full mile (in case you were wondering, the air temperature at this altitude is hovering around 37 degrees today), Andy pulls the release just above 4,000 feet. As we begin to soar even farther over Coinjock Bay toward the Currituck Sound, we can see a number of duck blinds in the water directly below us, and the view includes everything from the Virginia coast and the Carova-area beaches south to Jockey’s Ridge and the white water at Oregon Inlet. Two fighter jets pass remarkably close by on our right, and neither of us can contain our excitement.
Now that I’ve loosened up a bit, I also agree to let Andy give me a taste of those optional thrill rides on our way down with some more advanced tricks such as stalls and hard turning dives. To see the ground rush up at you like you’re coming off the apex of a rollercoaster with nothing to break your headfirst fall? Now that definitely provides a different, um, perspective.
But will I do it again? Absolutely. In fact, I’ll plan to see you up there.
Article by Amelia Boldaji
All photos courtesy of Kitty Hawk Kites.