Take Flight

Photo by Josiah Stephens

Photo by Josiah Stephens

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Seasoned hang-gliding pilots and beginners alike soar over the valley at Lookout Mountain Flight Park.

by Steven Stiefel

Jumping off the side of a mountain might be considered a long-term solution to short-term problems for most of us, but for the men and women of the Lookout Mountain Flight Park, hurling their bodies off the side of a cliff is just another day at the office.

The company, based in Rising Fawn, Ga., trains more hang-gliding pilots than any other school in the United States, earning it the title of America’s No. 1 hang-gliding school.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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With courses ranging from a beginner hill to tandem flights with seasoned instructors, the school can get ordinary people off their feet and soaring through the air like the area’s red-tailed hawks in short order.

I took on the challenge of hang gliding for this assignment several months ago. Eventually I realized that I would actually strap in and fly thousands of feet above the ground, coming to grips with a lifelong fear of heights – or, as someone corrected me in saying, not a fear of heights, but a fear of falling.

Shortly before my flight, I took my daughter to the carnival and rode one of the attractions. I felt a tremendous sense of dread as I clutched the ride with white knuckles, a terrifying 30 feet in the air. “How on earth,” I wondered, “am I going to hang glide if a silly ride at the county fair has me desperately pleading with Jesus to survive the next 30 seconds of a mechanically controlled plunge?”

And yet, the surrender of control (to some extent) is what makes hang gliding so exhilarating.

“Your body is part of the aircraft,” says Clifton Bryan, the pilot with whom I was to ride tandem. “When you leverage your weight, it moves the center of mass and causes the hang glider to react. You don’t steer a hang glider as much as you guide it. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle, and you pick up on cause and effect.”

While hang gliding emerged around the 1890s, the modern age of the activity (when one could purchase a hang glider rather than having to build the aircraft oneself) started in the 1960s.

“It was the ’80s before they got the designs down really good,” says Bryan, who earned his instructor rating in 1997. “Since it first became popular, we’ve seen almost three decades of refinements. It is still not exactly mainstream, but this is one of the places around the country where you can learn to fly.”

The Lookout Mountain Flight Park combines training hills, a long runway for aero-towed tandem flights (the hang glider is attached to a small plane and cut loose once a certain altitude is achieved) and a ramp at the top of Lookout Mountain for the most experienced pilots to foot launch, literally running as fast as they can off a cliff.

“A guy was here this year from Boulder, Colo., and within a week, he advanced from training on the hills to jumping off the top of the mountain,” Bryan says.

The release forms I fill out in the office are a stark reminder that this is not a sport that’s completely without risk, but I feel at ease in Bryan’s hands once he tells me he’s taken flight more than 3,500 times at this site alone. A couple who take their turn just before me decided to hang glide to celebrate his 40th birthday and do something thrilling together. They give rave reviews after landing.

My turn has arrived. Sweaty-palmed but excited, I strap into the harness with my instructor and feel the ground slip away beneath us as we gain altitude behind a specially designed ultralight aircraft. A string towing us disconnects from the front of the glider, leaving us free to explore the skies. I expect something akin to a roller-coaster ride, but this feels more like sailing in a boat.

Soaring at 2,000 feet with the majesty of Lookout Mountain on one side and Sand Mountain on the other, I actually find myself hoping this ride will not end too soon.

Once you’re up there, you are truly THERE, with every sense in overdrive and keenly focused on the present moment. You don’t want the experience dulled. You just want to ride it out, drink it in completely, and then you grin in the euphoric afterglow that follows once your feet are returned safely to the planet.

Even for someone who does this up to 12 times a day, there’s often something new to the experience.

“Every day offers a different cloudscape, and you see some awe-inspiring sunsets,” Bryan says. “I recently had my first bald eagle experience. He rose up and stayed about 15 to 20 feet to my right wing. I looked at him, he looked at me.”

The hang-gliding pilots catch pockets of hot air called “thermals” for lift.

“I’ve stayed up for four hours, but that’s not by any stretch considered a long flight,” Bryan says. “Gravity is our engine. If heat is rising, it cancels our sink. Warm air is deflected up the side of a mountain, and as long as the prevailing winds are strong enough, you can stay up there. Hot air at the ground level breaks up and rises in columns. Birds and pilots alike notice that and take advantage.”

You would think such flights would be exhausting, but hill instructor Julie Julian tells her students to make subtle adjustments while in flight rather than trying to manipulate gliders the way most of us struggle to control everything in our lives. The beginner hill training is an exercise in thinking of what needs to be done while simultaneously letting go. With experience comes a sense of muscle memory and the ability to anticipate the wind.

“Your glider wants to fly,” she says. “You don’t make it fly. You simply allow it to.”

She and other instructors emphasize safety checks such as making certain helmets are secure and harnesses are properly fastened to the glider on three different lines. Superman may be able to fly as stiff as a board, but the rest of us need some help to stay horizontal as we whoosh through the air. As an added precaution, the pilots wear parachutes just in case their gliders fail.

The hill training, which involves surfing the slopes of small hills about 5 to 10 feet off the ground, involves riding a glider all by yourself with a certified instructor guiding you step by step. That moment when your feet cease to touch the earth, if only for a few seconds, leaves you exhilarated and feeling a sense of  accomplishment.

In my tandem flight, I hold onto handles sewn into the side of Bryan’s harness, although he does allow me to momentarily let go and experience the sensation of free-floating on the wind. His matter-of-fact handling of the whole thing makes me feel as if piloting a hang glider is a piece of cake, even though I know it’s not.

The pilots are colorful characters, like surfers eager to catch a radical wave, yet each with a serious side and a sober respect for the conditions Mother Nature provides. They might love being in the sky more than anything, but they don’t kid around when lives are at stake.

“Hang gliding is an extension of my interest in aviation,” Bryan says. “Most pilots do not think of it as an  extreme sport. We just think of it as flying. But some people do think of it as sky surfing.”

Pilots carefully monitor the wind speed and direction. They observe the way birds react in the skies they’ll be sharing. In the same way the conditions of the ocean may be too gnarly for a surfer, the pilots occasionally have to reschedule their hang-gliding sessions if the weather shifts.

“You talk to other pilots, see what the birds are doing and make decisions based on the conditions and your skill level,” Bryan says.

Because a flight is never a sure thing at an appointed time on a given day, some people drive hundreds of miles and spend their vacations in the cottages beside the park’s landing strip.

For these guests, the experience is worth the time and effort. At night, they enjoy each other’s company around a campfire.

“In addition to hang gliding, we have a 44-acre park with a creek, trails, primitive campgrounds, a clubhouse, a swimming pool and volleyball court,” Bryan says. “There’s usually some event every weekend during the summer, sometimes live music for a party or fundraiser.”

Lookout Mountain Flight Park makes for a great adventure for a day or a week.

Accommodations range from the luxurious Raven’s Roost cabin to a primitive campground, with numerous  options in between, including additional cabins, RV spaces and a bunkhouse for as little as $20 a night.

You can even calm your pre-flight nerves with a massage from a licensed massage therapist who lives right in the landing zone.

I skipped the massage, but luckily, I didn’t chicken out. I survived my hill training and tandem flight without a scratch, and I never felt like the human lawn dart I imagined in those 3 a.m. moments of apprehension.

Taking to the sky to overcome a fear of heights, it turns out, is not all that atypical.

“We see that sometimes on the discovery flights,” Bryan says. “We meet people who want to check something off their bucket list or want to experience something new. They are electricians, accountants, business  executives, men and women alike. We even see high school and college students.”

Tandem flights include the capability of capturing your experience with still and video cameras because, let’s face it, half the fun is posting pictures on Facebook to impress your friends.

If You Go

Getting there: Lookout Mountain Flight Park is a 30-minute drive from Chattanooga, Tenn., and a 2-hour drive from Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta.
The address is 7201 Scenic Hwy., Rising Fawn, GA 30738
Prices: Tandem flight to 1,500 feet, $199; Tandem flight to 3,000 feet, $249; Two 1,500-foot flights (same person), $299; Introductory Experience including Beginning Ground School, five training-hill flights and one tandem flight to 1,500 feet, $249; Introductory Experience with tandem flight to 3,000 feet, $299
More information: hangglide.com
Call for reservations: 1-800-688-5637

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