3,000 Feet High in a Hang Glider

This episode is the first to use a new format I’m calling “day trips.” These episodes are more specific to one location or one type of excursion, and they don’t require as much time as a full episode. I hope you enjoy these smaller, bite-size “day trips” as part of the podcast.

During a recent trip to Florida to spend time with my family over Christmas vacation, I got the chance to take a flight in a hang glider. Just like my experience riding in a hot air balloon, it came about in the most unexpected way, and I didn’t even have to pay for it!

In the middle of December, I flew from Colorado to Florida to spend an “early Christmas” with my parents and siblings. (Since my parents moved to Florida several years ago, their house has been the “home base” for family get-togethers). Some years, my siblings and I who live across the USA go to their house to spend some time celebrating Christmas a week or two before the actual holiday.

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On this particular trip, one of my brothers decided to give a gift to a family member that turned out to be a bit more complicated than he expected. Here’s some background: about five miles from my parent’s house, there’s a small airfield where people fly ultralight planes, or take flying lessons and rides in various types of aircraft like helicopters, hang gliders, and more. My brother had decided that, for this Christmas, he would give, as a Christmas present, a ride on a hang glider to one of my siblings.

Of course, this was a thoughtful and generous gift… but it is also the kind of gift where you might want to ask the recipient, “Does that sound interesting to you? Would you actually want to go on a hang glider?” before you do it. In this case, it turned out that the “giftee” was completely surprised and totally unprepared to take this kind of flight, which has no seat belt around your waist and no tray table in front of you.

And so, being the generous brother that I am, I volunteered to accept the gift instead (you know, in order not to waste it). Both the giver and the receiver of the present were generous in letting me take the ride instead, so it was a win-win.

After carpooling to the airfield, we got out and looked around at the flat, green stretch of land surrounded by the thick, Florida forest, and watched as an ultralight plane in the sky made some loop-de-loop moves, and eventually landed on the grassy landing strip. We followed the pilot of the plane into the office building, where we talked with the staff for a while about what to expect on the flight, we discussed the basic safety rules, how hang gliders work, and more.

Then I filled out the paperwork in order to take the ride. Funny enough, in order to actually ride the thing, I couldn’t just sign a liability waiver like I did for the hot air balloon: I had to technically “enroll in flying lessons.” Even though that lesson only lasted for the time I’d actually be in the air on that one ride; this is the only way they could legally offer flights to people without a pilot’s license. So I signed the waiver, and applied to became a “tandem student” at a flight school, and even had to pay dues (a whopping $5!) to join the “United States Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association” for 30 days as a “student/affiliate” member.

Since I didn’t have to pay for the trip itself, one thing I did actually pay for was the additional fee for having them videotape the whole trip on two GoPro cameras mounted on the hang glider. I gave them something like $25 or $30, and they put new SD cards inside each one and recorded the flight. I’m glad they did: it gave me a way to remember that trip forever, and it was great way to show the people on the ground “what it looked like from above.”

When it was time to go, I went outside and got strapped into the glider. It’s a bit awkward riding in a glider as a passenger. You have to squeeze into what looks like a sleeping bag suspended from one of the top bars, and you’re right above the pilot, so you’re essentially laying on top of him. It feels and looks a bit weird, but it’s not too bad.

The glider was attached by a cable to a small plane, and it slowly took off, towing us behind it. We lifted up, and circled around and around, gaining altitude until we reached our maximum loft. The pilot told me we were about 3,000 feet up in the air.

When we were towed by the plane, it was really windy and pretty loud, because we could hear the airplane’s propeller. But then, when we reached the 3,000-foot mark, about six and a half minutes into the ride, we popped the tow line from the plane, and we were on our own power for the rest of the ride.

This was the coolest part: we floated around, very quietly, smoothly, and gracefully. The pilot has a little handlebar that he can steer the craft with, both left and right, and up and down. I had to lean my body along with his as we tilted the glider in order to steer it the direction we wanted.

It was fun to see just how long we could make the ride last. If we pointed down, we could gain some momentum, and then, by pulling up at the last second, we’d float weightlessly for just a second. This was a lot like riding on a roller coaster, where the car speeds down the track, down, down, down, down, and then crests a hill, and just for a second, your body lifts out of your seat, and your stomach feels like it’s flying up and away.

We did some dips, dives, swirls, and more. It was neat to see the amazing number of lakes surrounding the airfield. In Lake County, Florida, where we were, there are over 1,000 lakes, and we could probably see most of them from our vantage point.

Since there’s no motor or propeller on a glider, it’s an amazingly quiet ride, and you really get a sense of what it feels like to be a bird. In particular, birds that soar without flapping their wings, like condors or hawks. We were flying just like they do, holding out our giant sailcloth and aluminum wings, occasionally catching thermals that took us up higher, and eventually,  slowly making our way to the ground.

The ride itself took about 13 minutes and 15 seconds. As I mentioned, the first six and a half minutes were spent being towed up into the air, and the remainder was spent just calmly soaring back to where we took off from.

The glider had wheels, so when we made it to the ground, we just softly landed like an airplane does. The only difference is that we had no brakes, so it just came to a stop naturally.

After we landed, I pulled out my phone that I had zipped into my jacket pocket and looked at the screen. Before we took off, I wanted to be able to track the route we would take, but since I didn’t have any hang gliding or aviation-specific apps on my phone, I was bummed that I wouldn’t be able to track it. But I had a last-second thought: “My running app has a GPS tracker in it… I wonder if that would work?” I quickly pressed “record” on it, to track my “run,” and then got into the glider.

So, after landing, I was giggling, looking at my phone, because it actually worked! My running app showed that I had run almost eight and a half miles, at an average pace of just 2:10 per mile! Not only that, but my route showed that I had run a bizarre, squiggly, pretzel-shaped route all over streets, forests, and on top of lakes. It was hilarious… but it actually worked!

The only thing it didn’t quite track accurately was the change in elevation: it claimed I had only climbed 166 feet, so it was off by about 2,800. Oh well. Running apps can’t do everything.

Final Conclusion

Similar to a hot air balloon, flying in a hang glider is a surprisingly smooth ride. And even though I was thousands of feet above trees, lakes, and my friends and family members, I really wasn’t scared. Honestly, the scariest part was when the plane first took off, and we started lifting off the ground. Once we actually got up in the air, everything was fine. (And, if you recall from a previous episode, I’m very afraid of heights).

The flight was less than $100 (well, it was actually free, in my case), it took no training at all, and the whole thing just took an hour or so, so it was a great excursion to try during a holiday vacation with my family.

My recommendation? Do it! Even if you’re afraid of heights: just tell yourself it’s going to be fine once you get up in the air. I think you’ll have a blast and you won’t regret it.

Lessons Learned

Usually, I’d make a big long list of lessons learned here, but in this case, there isn’t a whole lot to share. There are a few quick things I’d suggest if you want to ride in a hang glider:

#1: Put on a long-sleeve shirt or thin coat if you can.

In my case, I wore a long sleeve shirt and a scarf, and I’m glad I did, because it’s cold up there, especially when you’re moving fast.

#2: Don’t bring or wear anything that isn’t strapped down.

I wore a helmet, which was strapped to my head, and emptied my pockets ahead of time, so that was fine. The one thing I forgot, though, was my sunglasses. I was wearing sunglasses, and seven minutes into the flight they flew right off my face. And there’s no way to recover those: they’re gone forever. Probably in someone’s backyard, or in a pond.

Lesson learned: if you’re wearing sunglasses, make sure you have sunglass straps like croakies or some other way to tie them to you, so you don’t lose them. In my case, my sunglasses cost about $5. If, however, I was wearing nice $100+ Oakleys or Ray-Bans, I’d have been pretty upset. Wearing sunglasses that aren’t strapped on to your face is a way to very quickly turn a fun $100 flight into an anger-inducing $200 flight.

#3: If you can, get the flight filmed.

It’s so cool to watch yourself take the trip, and it’s even cooler to show your friends and family. Even if they were there with you. standing on the ground watching you take off and land, once you’re in the air, you turn into a little white triangle in the sky, and it’s painful for them to try to look up into the sun and watch your flight. If you have the opportunity to have your flight filmed, pay the extra money and do it. It’s worth it. (Check out my video below to see why!)

So that’s it! Flying in a hang glider is a fun, simple way to spend a morning or afternoon, and I recommend you try it if you can.

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