soaring the ridge at woodstock, virginia

Sailing in the Sky

Hang gliding has come a long way. This is what it really is.

I pick up my 60-pound wing and carry it to the top of a clearing on a mountain ridge above Woodstock, Virginia. As I look to the northwest, the Shenandoah Valley lies 2,000 feet below. The sky is clear. Another pilot holds the nose wires of my glider while I lay in my harness to be certain I’m securely connected to the wing and all harness straps are straight. Then I stand and pick up the glider by its triangular aluminum control frame, and brace it against my shoulders.

Two people—my wire crew—stand on either side of me under the wing, lightly holding the flying wires to guard against sudden gusts. We all take a few steps forward, and I rotate slightly to face the wind. It comes in cycles. Streamers of orange tape on my nose wires and along the sides of the slope telegraph the invisible current.

The streamers flit randomly for a minute. Then I see the treetops below roll into the slope toward me, and a few seconds later all the streamers stand up to signal a strong cycle. Almost before the wind reaches me, I shout “Clear!” My wire crew releases the glider, and I sprint hard down the slope into the wind.

I get only three or four steps downhill before I feel the wing lift. I settle into my harness and I’m off the ground. The treetops flow by as I tuck my feet into the zippered nylon cocoon, then gently shift my weight to the left. The glider follows my lead like a ballroom dancer and banks gracefully to the left. I’m now flying along the ridge, and lift is everywhere.

As the wind blows into the side of the mountain, it deflects upward, carrying me with it. My vario—an altimeter that signals lift with high-pitched beeps—chirps like R2D2. Soon, I’m above the top of the ridge and still climbing. I keep flying along the ridge, which stretches to the southwest for thirty miles, broken by occasional gaps threaded by roads and streams.

At 2,000 feet above the ridge (and almost a mile above the valley floor), the steady lift ends. But I don’t descend. For more than an hour, I relax and fly along the ridge in either direction. The experience is serene. The glider doesn’t buck and sway, the wind doesn’t whoosh. The only sounds are a quiet breeze, a soft clink from the rigging now and then, and once in a while, a gentle luff of the dacron sail.

I take my hands off the control bar to adjust my helmet and sunglasses. Even with no input from me, the glider continues to sail level and true.

I ponder how incredibly lucky I am to experience free flight that is more like a bird than any other form of aviation. (Sometimes I’ve circled in rising thermals next to vultures and hawks, each of us eyeing the other while maintaining a safe distance.) I watch the sun sink toward the Allegheny Mountains to the west, as the shadows in the valley grow longer.

A Navy fighter pilot, who flew as the enemy in Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force Base, once said he loved hang gliding because it brought him so much closer to the essence of flight than the fighter jets he flew for a living. (He would often say if you hurl anything through the air fast enough it’ll fly.)

As the sun dips below the mountains and the steady wind that has kept me aloft begins to slacken, a magical moment occurs. The air masses that hug the mountain slopes on either side of the valley cool…then slide downward into the valley, beneath the warmer air near the valley floor. When this happens, the entire atmosphere throughout the valley rises gently. Free flight pilots call this a wonder wind, or a glass-off—for the glass-smooth quality of the lift.

For well over an hour I’ve been limited to flying along the ridge, in the narrow band of lift generated by steady winds blowing into the mountain. When the glass-off happens, an invisible gate opens…as if the valley says “Come on over, the air is fine.”

I pull the control bar toward me, dropping the nose of the glider a few degrees to increase my speed, and strike out over the valley. As the ridge falls away below, I remain at altitude, the buoyant air holding me up. For the next thirty minutes I can fly anywhere I want to go, and do just that.

Sometimes I feel one wingtip rise when it sails through an area of greater lift. My vario confirms the lift with a chirp, and I turn toward the rising wingtip, seeking the core of the lift. I glance frequently at a particular pasture, being careful not to fly beyond the point where I can glide safely back to what is our regular landing zone.

Finally, the glass-off fades in the twilight, and I begin to descend. I’ve been aloft for over two hours, and now it’s time to rejoin the earth. As they say in aviation, launching is optional—landing is mandatory. I turn toward the pasture, gradually sinking from 4,000 to just over a thousand feet above ground level. I also unzip my cocoon and ready my bipedal landing gear.

Once over the pasture, I fly in great circles, a slow downward spiral. I sense my rate of descent, and balance it with my course, burning off altitude until my downwind, base, and just a hundred feet above ground, final approach.

I pull the control bar in and accelerate to around 25mph. Then I lower my legs and rotate from a horizontal to a vertical position in my harness, using my legs to create drag and slow the glider as needed. Finally, I move my hands from the control bar up to both sides of the control frame for greater leverage.

As the earth rushes up to meet me, I fly into the cushion of air known as ground effect. I push out slightly on the control frame, checking my airspeed, my feet just above the grass. Then, as birds have done for millions of years, at the very moment lift drops off, I push out hard on the control frame, flaring the glider upward in a last braking manuever.

The flare scrubs off all my remaining speed, and I drop gently to the ground on my feet, the glider’s weight settling onto my shoulders. I walk the glider to the edge of the pasture, unhook, and gaze back up at the mountains and the sky.