- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

Bob Peterman of Fairfax Station lets it all hang out when he flies. A retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, he has been hang gliding for the past year.

“It’s one of the purest forms of flying,” says Mr. Peterman, 56. “Instead of being aided by a computer, it’s basic and pure flying.”

Learning to hang glide takes practice and patience. Although some people consider it a dangerous activity, most experts say it is simply a matter of managing the risk factors.

Beginner hang-gliding students attend a training class before they ever touch a glider, says John Middleton, owner of Silver Wings Inc. of Arlington. The initial class costs $10, while flight classes held on weekends are $70 per session, which usually lasts an entire day.

Although there are various methods to teach hang gliding, Mr. Middleton uses “foot launch,” in which people launch by foot from hills or mountains.

Before his students jump from cliffs, however, Mr. Middleton has them practice on flat ground. The first flights usually extend a few feet for a couple of seconds.

There are a variety of hang-glider models and sizes to accommodate people of different weights and abilities, Mr. Middleton says. The average glider has a wingspan of 32 feet. Most trainer hang gliders weigh between 40 and 55 pounds. Intermediate and high-performance hang gliders weigh between 55 and 90 pounds.

Although going aloft in a hot-air balloon is adventurous, it’s not the same as hang gliding, Mr. Middleton says.

“Hot air balloons go pretty slow and tend to be noisy,” he says. “In a hang glider, you feel the sound of the wind going past you. You’re not falling; you’re gliding through the air.”

Once the hang-gliding students have made it into the air, the hardest part becomes the landing, he says. The pilot’s goal is to direct the glider to a desired location by shifting his or her weight.

Most people who have been in the sport for any length of time end up landing in the wrong place, he says.

“I’ve landed in the tops of trees,” Mr. Middleton says. “I don’t do it as gracefully as a bird.”

When students are starting, they should go flying in the morning and evening air, says Sunny Venesky, co-owner of Highland Aerosports in Ridgely, Md.

There is less turbulence during the early and late hours of the day, he says. Generally, Mr. Venesky tells students to have a light touch, relax and trust the glider.

His company teaches students through tandem flights, in which the instructor and student fly in the same glider. The price varies with altitude; the higher the ride, the more it costs. It is $130 to fly at an altitude of 2,500 feet with an instructor for 12 to 15 minutes. Students usually have 20 tandem lessons before flying on their own. Most hang gliders invest in their own equipment, which ranges from $3,000 to $10,000.

“Right from the word ‘go,’ the person is getting a lot of time in the air to see what hang gliding is about,” Mr. Venesky says. “We get them to an altitude and let them fly it down. We land it at the very end.”

Because there is more thermal activity in the afternoon, students work toward flying during midday, he says. If hang gliders catch a good thermal wind, they can ride for hours.

Towing is another method that can introduce people to the sport, says Steve Wendt, owner of Blue Sky in Manquin, Va. The glider is pulled — about 5 feet from the ground — by a rope that is powered by a machine with an engine. Basic lessons at Blue Sky are $89 for four hours.

“We don’t let the students get into situations they can’t handle,” Mr. Wendt says. “You learn a little at a time. You keep practicing it until you master it. As long as you do it in small steps, you’ll be safe. You learn to manage the risk.”

When students advance to flying by themselves, weather conditions are a large part of flying safely. The wind makes each flight different, Mr. Wendt says.

Most emergency situations are weather-related, says Richard Hays, president of the Maryland School of Hang Gliding Inc. in Phoenix, Md. A lesson there costs $80 for four to six hours.

“If the weather were to change suddenly, you’d need to know how to get the glider to the ground as quickly as possible,” Mr. Hays says. “If storm clouds brew on the horizon, you would need to put the glider away before the storm hits.”

Hang gliders fly by the same rules as most aircraft, such as not flying in conditions that exceed the capabilities of the plane and obeying airspace regulations, Mr. Hays says. As pilots progress in skills, they might take cross-country trips, much like a regular airplane.

“They take off in one location and land in another to see how far they can go,” Mr. Hays says. “You never get too good at it. It’s always a challenge, and it’s always a thrill.”

Finding a good place to land on long trips is the trickiest part, says Hugh McElrath, 54, of Hyattsville. He is treasurer of Capital Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association in the metro area and has been hang gliding for about five years.

The organization has a group of launch sites and corresponding landing zones for its members. For safety purposes, it’s important to avoid high crops, such as corn, he says.

In case a hang glider hits something like a person, tree or cow while landing, the Capital Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association provides insurance for members through the United States Hang Gliding Association, based in Colorado Spring.

The national organization also runs a pilot proficiency program that self-regulates its pilots and rates them depending upon their level of flying skills. Most hang-gliding schools across the country adhere to this system of review.

The longest flight Mr. McElrath has flown is 39 miles, from Woodstock, Va. to Harrisonburg, Va.

“You can get so high that you can see the curvature of the Earth,” Mr. McElrath says. “You can soar with hawks and eagles off your wing tips. You can dive and swoop in the sky on a good day. You can drive like a race car in the sky.”

The world is especially beautiful from the vantage point of a hang glider, says Dave Rice, a member of the Capital Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. Mr. Rice, 40, lives in Annapolis. He took his first lesson in the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

“You feel like you’re flying along like Superman,” Mr. Rice says. “Anybody that has the slightest inkling that they might like it, they should take a tandem flight.”

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