Monday, January 17, 2011

The Flight of the Hang Glider

The Flight of the Hang Glider

It was 1974. I was sitting around reading a copy of Scientific American when I saw an article on Hang Gliding.

Hang Gliding was pretty new at that point and was only being done in mountainous areas or the west coast.  The article and pictures fascinated me; I started to look for other articles about it.  This was before computers were popular and no-one used the internet.

I decided that I wanted to try hang gliding.

I worked in the high school in Port Washington, NY on the north shore of Long Island.  I asked around to see if any of the other teachers would go in on it with me.  Two of the young shop teachers, Rocco Nofi and Jim Barchi, said they would do it with me.

The first thing was to get a hang glider.  I looked in the Scientific American magazine and found an ad for someone selling a hang glider kit.  We called him up.

For $300 he would sell us a kit.  We sent the money.

A couple of weeks later, the kit was delivered to the school. 

It consisted of 3-16 foot aluminum poles, guy wires, small aluminum poles, double sided tape, assorted hardware for attaching the guy wires, and what only can be described as a very large black plastic garbage bag.  There were instructions for putting it together using pop rivets, screws and assorted other items.

We worked on it after school in one of the shops.  Students would hang around watching us put this thing together.  After about a week or so we had it built.

It resembled a bat wing with a swing seat and control bar attached to the center pole.

Our next problem is how to fly the hang glider.  There were no instructions for that.

We called the maker of the kit. 

He said you learn by doing it, there was no manual.  He suggested we find a 10 foot hill with an updraft and jump off it to start.  Once we were comfortable with that, we could start on higher hills.

Undaunted, we decided to try it that weekend.

We met in the school parking lot on that Saturday morning.  Rocco Nofi and I (Jim Barchi couldn’t make it) and to our surprise another teacher who was a good friend of ours with his wife, also a friend, and about 15 students who had heard about what we were doing.

At the end of the parking lot was about a 10 foot hill. 

Equipped with state of the art safety equipment (a motorcycle helmet), we tried to become airborne.  There was no updraft so we failed each time.

We realized we needed something with an updraft.

There was a hill facing Long Island Sound not far from there.  The only minor drawback was that it was 60 feet high.  The hill was part of an excavated sand pit and had fairly steep sides.  The nearest we could come to a cliff.

We went to the top of the hill/cliff.  Some of the spectators stayed on top and some down below to watch.  Our friend had a movie camera to film this historic record of man’s conquering flight, just like the Wright Brothers.

Rocco tried it first and couldn’t seem to get airborne.  Each time he tried he wound up slipping, sliding and running down the steep sides of the hill to the bottom.

I thought I knew what he was doing wrong and it was now my turn to try.

I picked up the hang glider and raced to the edge of the hill.

As I went over the edge, I had an epiphany: “this is crazy, I’m going to die”.

With that thought in mind, I attempted to stop myself from becoming airborne by pulling down on the hang glider.  This had the opposite effect; it inflated the sail (garbage bag).  I was airborne.

I was now up in the air looking down, quite amazed I was soaring.  I was so amazed, I didn’t pay any attention to what was actually happening and wound up crashing into the ground.

I was alive, relatively unhurt, and pumped up.  There were cheers (ok, only one or two) and our friend had gotten it on film.

We assessed the damage to the glider.  There was a bend in the control bar where my shoulder had been pushed into it during the crash.  There was some other minor damage that could easily be repaired but we adjourned for the day.

When I looked at the movie of my flight a couple of weeks later, it appears that I was around 3-4 feet off the slope of the hill, descending like a parachute with forward momentum.  I think the camera lies.  It seemed much higher than that, and for a much longer period of time being airborne.  That’s my story and I am sticking with it.  Fortunately the damning film has been lost during one of our moves so I am free to say anything I want about the flight.

A couple of weeks later, I decided to do it again.  This time I took my very pregnant wife with me.

I got the glider and we went to the same spot as before.  She settled herself under a tree while I got ready to jump.

The wind was swirling rather than coming straight at me, and as I took off, it swirled around from the side, tipping me over.  The edge of the batwing caught the edge of the hill, and acted as a fulcrum and rotated me upside down.  I was now suspended above the batwing, which was lying on the ground belly up.

I managed to get down with some damage to the wing and trudged up the hill.

Barbara was rolling with laughter!  Never mind that I could have been hurt or killed (unlikely) and our soon to be child, fatherless; she thought this was very funny and couldn’t stop laughing.  It was kind of funny but I wouldn’t admit it and always tell our children how heartless their mother was to laugh at my dangerous misfortune.

The outcome of all this was the glider was damaged and we never got around to fixing it.

However, mine and Rocco’s reputation among the students grew exponentially as being daredevils and cool guys.  What more could we expect.             


1 comment:

  1. I remember watching that film! It wasn't quite what I had seen on television, but I didn't know any of those people. I thought it was cool, but my parents thought you were insane. They were probably fearful of me trying to follow in your footsteps.