Thursday, July 30, 2009

Return to Flight!

I started hang gliding in 1973 in Southern California. I was fortunate to hook up with a start-up company called Free Flight Systems, located in Sylmar, California. They along with many others such as Wills Wing, and Bill Bennett's Delta Wing Kites and gliders were building business on the newest craze of Hang Gliding. All the gliders looked pretty much alike at that time as they were based on the basic "Rogollo" wing design that came from NASA. For the first time, a fairly practical flying machine could be had by anyone with nerve enough to give a go at this new sport.

I mentioned I was fortunate to hook up with Free-Flight Systems. What was fortunate was I received excellent instructions from Rico Blair on the training hills on Kendall Drive in San Bernardino California. He was probably in his 50's at the time and I was 21. He not only taught me the rudiments of how to fly, but also served as a mentor through my first couple of years of flying. His constant reminders of how to go about making sure that we were making the fights as safe as possible, are lessons that I retain even to this day. Fortunate indeed, as in those early days, many pilots did not have the luxury of having formal instructions on professionally made equipment. Many self taught, and on craft that they built from plans that were passed about. Some were successful but often many were not and and suffered injuries or worse.

My first hang glider was a kit from Free Flight Systems. I spent $250.00 for a bunch of tubing and cable and sailcloth. I was able to construct it in a just few days, and I was the proud owner of a Hang Glider!

These were pretty interesting times in the history of foot-launched flight. We pilots were truly discovering what our gliders limits were as well as our own limits. Some were willing to seek the furthest boundaries of the gliders performance limits while most tried to stay in a comfort zone. I most definitely was a "comfort zone" pilot.

My first two years of flight I had hundreds of flights with none lasting more than 5 minutes. I flew mostly at what was then called "Little Mountain" in San Bernardino. I was afraid to venture up to the big mountains like Crestline where icons such as Bob and Chris Wills of Wills Wing would launch and wow us with their skills.

1974-75 saw gliders that started to look different. The manufacturers were seeking to design gliders that would glide better, and handle better. Some were successful and some were not. Over the next decade great advances were made in glider design, and by the late 70's they looked nothing like the original Rogollo design.
The gliders performance had increased more than two fold and now were true soaring machines, with flights that would last for hours, and fly for many miles. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention my loyal hang driver through those years, my lovely wife Sue. She dedicated many hours to driving us up mountains so that we could fly.

It was in 1982 that my flying came to an end due to financial concerns, and I will save that for another Blog, and an interesting story it is.

So I was out of flying for over 20 years. I only occasionally would peek into the world of hang gliding. During these non-hang gliding years, I had moved to Arkansas, built a home and started having babies. Our growing family enjoyed the many outdoor activities available in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Mountain Biking was our main family recreation. This was a great family activity and I do not at all regret my non-flying years.

So about 5 years ago, the boys are all out of high school. I have been driving over to Mt. Nebo and Mt. Magazine in Arkansas to see the gliders fly. On my way home from one of these trips, I see a flash of color on a small hillside. Well look at that! It looks like someone is giving hang glider lessons on a hillside near Belleville, Arkansas. I drive around and figure I will watch some of this action.

I was greeted by Tony Middleton, the instructor. I watched a few of the students making there first efforts at flight. Watching and listening to Tony reminded me of my instructor, Rico Blair, back in 1973. Tony seemed to have a keen eye and was very good at picking up what a pilot was doing wrong. So many things you have to pay attention too when launching. Kind of like a golf swing. Wings level, glider nose not to high, check wind, and so on.

I shared with Tony, my experiences from back in the 1970's and at the end of the session for the students, he says.... well I guess it's your turn. Boy did I jump at this opportunity. I had no idea, that this day would end with flying. He started me out at the very bottom of the hill, just like any other student. I slowly worked my way a bit further up the hill with each flight. Within a half dozen flights I was launching from the top. All the old muscle memory of flying kicked in and I new that I was again.... a pilot!

The very next day I met with Tony again and he brought out a used Ultralight Products TRX that was for sale. I made a few launches from the top of the training hill and boy.... was I surprised at how far it glided. I purchased that glider that day, and have been enjoying my return to flight since then.

Most of my flying takes place in the Ouachita Mountains or Arkansas and Oklahoma. We do not get as many "flyable" days as I can remember from Southern California and our mountains and weather presents something very different than what is found in Southern California. Challenging mountains and weather, but I have enjoyed some really great flying and enjoy the great community of fliers that fly the Ouachita Mountains.

If you are a pilot and have not heard of the Ouachita Mountains, take a look at what we have for flying in Arkansas and Oklahoma at

If you are not a pilot, but have and interest in Foot Launch Flight, Visit the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding web site at

And if you have read this far, it seems you have a lot of time to waste... so you might as well take a look at my YouTube Channel at Here you will find several videos that show flying in the Ouachita Mountains as well as some of the old vintage film I converted to digital from the 1970s.

No comments: