Thursday, October 29, 2009

My First Hang Glider

I cannot remember which magazine it was that I saw the photo. It was probably Popular Science or Popular Mechanics. But the image had an immediate effect on me. I can remember the large triangular shaped craft hanging in the air with a guy hanging from the bottom. Well.... this certainly looks interesting. The article spoke about the new sport of Hang Gliding. You could buy these plans, and be flying in just a few days. Well that sounded pretty good, but I figured it may be best to find out as much info as I could before "jumping" in.

I was living in San Bernardino California, and after some research I located a company in Sylmar California called Free Flight Systems. They were not offering plans, but would sell instead, a kit with all the parts needed to build your own for $250.00, or they would sell a complete glider for $500.00. They also offered lessons!

They told me that if I could round up a half dozen people for lessons, that they would come up to San Bernardino and provide the equipment and lessons at $25.00 per person. A week later I and almost a dozen others were seeing our first hang glider. Our instructor, Rico Blair gave a demo flight off of the 500 ft. Little Mountain, located right in the middle of San Bernardino. We were all quite amazed at his 2 minute flight. Then it was off to find a training hill.

We gathered on a small hill on Kendal Drive. There was a 20 foot high slope and another hill at about 30 ft. Rico spent a good amount of time showing us how to assemble the gliders, gave a short explanation as to how these aircraft flew, and then taught us all that we would need to know to make our first efforts at trying to fly. One by one, a student would pick up the glider and with a million things running through their minds, they would run down the slope with hopes of flight. Some never got air born, and would run all the way down the hill like a giant Gooney Bird. Others would become air born for only a moment and then would stall, and thump to the ground skinning knees and elbows. Then it was my turn.

I pull on the harness and helmet, hook into the glider, pick it up and wait for instructions from Rico. I am watching some wind streamers on the hill and at the bottom that indicates from what direction the breeze is coming. Rico wants me to wait until the wind is straight in when I make my effort to launch.

After a few minutes of waiting, the light wind starts blowing in straight. Wings level... Rico tells me to lower the nose a bit... nose pointing into the wind... Rico says I am clear to launch and tells me to run hard.

I start running down the hill, and I feel the wind filling the billowing sailcloth, and then my feet leave the ground. Not wanting to experience the stall as I had observed others perform, I pulled in a little bit on the control bar, and I could immediately feel the speed of the glider pick up. And just a couple seconds later, it is time to land. Rico had told us that as our feet approach the ground we would need to flair the wing by pushing out on the control bar.

I pushed out and pulled off what was the first really successful flight of the day with a two step landing. I had several other flights that day, all with great success. The smile on my face could not be any larger. A few others caught on and I could tell that they too were hooked. The bulk of the students left that day probably electing NOT to become hang glider pilots.

That evening after helping to disassemble the training gliders, I and a couple others talked with Rico about purchasing gliders from Free Flight Systems. I chose to go with the kit, while the others could afford the fully assembled. We got to select our custom sail designs and colors and would be waiting a couple of weeks for our sails to be sewn and then the gliders would be ready for pickup.

The kit consisted of a number of large diameter aluminum tubes. These would have to be cut to length according to the plans. There was also a large collection of aircraft quality bolts and nuts, and a large spool of aircraft cable that would have to be cut to various lengths. There was also some copper tubing that would be used to make bushings. Also supplied were a couple of special tools. One tool was used to compress the nicos for securing the cables through thimbles and onto tangs. The tangs would be attached to the various points of the frame. Where the bolts passed through tubes, an over-sleeve of tubing would be secured in place with the copper bushing for extra strength. The bushing flange was made with the special flairing tool provided. Fortunately the sail was complete and would only need to have the tubes inserted and secured to the frame. It took me two days to build my first hang glider. It looked great!

The very next weekend my brother and I were out at the training hills. Within a week I was flying of the 500 ft. Little Mountain.

This was a very exciting decade in which to fly hang gliders. Manufactures sprung up everywhere, and every year there would be the need to buy the "Next Generation" of glider. These were also some very challenging days as well. Not all the designs were entirely sound, and the casualty rate was very high. Some pilots took unnecessary risks and would pay dearly for their lack of caution with injuries or death. Some just made mistakes and did not understand weather conditions and would find themselves in terrible predicaments. I am glad to have participated in the first decade, but am also simply glad that I survived. I credit Rico Blair for being an excellent instructor, and also a great mentor through the first few years.

Now close to 4 decades later, the hang gliders that we fly are amazing and provide soaring craft that are aerodynamically sound, with excellent performance. There are excellent training programs throughout the world. And now with the recent advent of the Paraglider, we now have another option for foot launching from the mountains.

Related Links

Ouachita Hang Gliding- Where I currently do most of my flying


Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,
I'm down in Mexico but I stumbled on your link. Great memories about learning to fly. I did much the same but my first glider was a Super Seahawk.
Hey, I'm gonna post your link to my own blog SkyWriter

Doug said...

I stumbled across your blog via google. I see it's grown quiet but thought I'd say "hi." I worked for Free-Flight Systems from 1972 - 1976 and flew Little Mountain many times when we'd venture out from Sylmar.