Sunday, June 16, 2013

Day 35 - Hang Gliding

I have never been hang gliding. This event is something I have always wanted to try, but never sought to do before my "I have never..." journey. In fact, in my younger years I was so occupied by the thought of such an experience that I used to have a recurring dream about taking to the air in free flight. I wanted to know that feeling so much, yet it seemed an impossible feat for someone that knew nothing about hang gliding and certainly didn't have a pair of wings. As I grew older I figured I might find a way to experience free flight at some point in my life, but I didn't know how or when it would occur. That was my reality and I figured it would stay that way in the foreseeable future; until this “I have never…” idea popped in my head, of course.

As it turns out, I happened upon a hang gliding outfit less than one hour away in Whitewater, Wisconsin during some "I have never..." research about a month ago.  Knowing I had to make such an event a part of my journey, I moved to book a flight as soon as possible. After a few phone calls, some weather delays, and a little creative planning, my flight was moved to late this afternoon. With Rachael and I spending more time in Green Lake this weekend, I knew it would be a challenge to squeeze the hang gliding flight into my schedule, but I wasn't about to miss an opportunity I had dreamed about my entire life.

To make it to the flight on time, Rachael and I headed back to Madison early this afternoon. We cleaned up a bit and did some long delayed housework before loading back into the car and making our way to Whitewater for the scheduled hang gliding flight. On the drive over anticipation gripped me as we wound our way down the highway accompanied by a blue sky speckled with puffs of white clouds. Given my hang gliding flight had been rescheduled due to poor weather twice already, the near perfect day was a welcomed and exciting occurrence. Preoccupied, I did my best to stay focused on the road, which was saturated with Sunday drivers in no hurry to get where they were going. Given the circumstances, I was not about to let poor drivers get in the way of the best chance I ever had at hang gliding, so I passed cars when I could and tried to make up lost time at every opportunity. 

Just hanging out
Eventually, we made it to the airfield with a few minutes to spare before my flight was supposed to begin. I hurried out of the car, finding the first group of people I could to help direct me to the appropriate location. After explaining why I was at the airfield, one of the men in the group advised me the man I had booked my flight with appeared to have left for the day. I felt my heart sink as I wondered if the hopes I had built on the drive over were in vain. Worried, I called the man with which I had booked the flight to question whether he was still planning on taking me up. Each ring on his phone seemed longer as I waited for him to pick up. After three long rings the other line finally connected. I quickly rattled off my name before reminding the man of our flight and explaining I was already at the airfield. Sensing my distress, he responded succinctly, explaining one of his instructors would be taking me up for my flight that afternoon. Relieved, I hung up the phone and turned my attention to finding the instructor that would help me through the rest of the experience.

A few minutes later I was face to face with my instructor, who explained to me wind conditions and a double booking meant we had to wait a little less than an hour to take our flight. As he went back about his business, Rachael and I found our way to some nearby picnic tables. We sat as we watched one hang glider after another take to the air via a tow line on an ultralight airplane. They soared high into the air until they became little black specs against the bright blue sky. With a little observation it became clear the plane and the hang glider in tow eventually separated high in the air, leaving the hang glider to slowly float toward the ground in wide, controlled sweeping motions. I sat in amazement of the sight before me, still struggling to grip the fact I would soon be in the air myself. To my surprise, I didn't feel fear or nervousness. I just felt ready to make a dream into reality.

Lift off!
The sights around us made the time move quickly as I waited for my flight. Still watching the remaining hang gliders making their way back to the Earth, my instructor eventually approached me and guided me to a nearby hanger. He walked me through some safety information before helping me get my gear for the flight. Strapped into my harness and ready to go, we walked the massive red and white hang glider out to a well-manicured field and prepared ourselves for flight. After clipping in our torsos and legs, we hovered parallel to the ground beneath the massive wing. I watched as the ultralight plane positioned some distance in front of us fired up its engine and slowly began tightening the tow line connected to the front of our hang glider. Moments after bringing the cable taut, we accelerated rapidly as the ultralight's engine roared to maximum speed. The wheels of our hang glider bumped along the ground for only a few seconds before I felt us slowly lift from the ground and start a rapid ascension into the sky. 

The ground beneath us rushed by as we climbed higher and higher into the air. Yelling over the sound of the engine in front of us, my instructor said we would climb to 2,000 feet before the ultralight pilot would separate the tow line with a remote release. I took in the sights around us as we moved higher and higher into the air. The moment sinking in, I smiled and looked across the vast horizon surrounding us. I was flying. I wasn't in a metal tube. I wasn't looking out a window. I was flying with nothing but the open air around me.

On the way...

Just as my realization was settling, the instructor let me know we were about to be released from the plane in front of us. Seconds later the tow cable separated very near the hang glider, and the plane, now disconnected, banked to the left. Silence filled the air around us as we gently coasted over the fields and forests far below us. At times, stable air made us feel stationary over the ground as if we were suspended on a massive mobile hung somewhere high above us. We turned left and right as we passed over homes and water. I was stunned in disbelief at what I was experiencing. It all seemed surreal as I looked on for miles over cities and hills, past forests to massive bodies of water in the surrounding area. The wind swept gently over us as we circled through the air moving back and forth over the landscape. I distinctly remember struggling to fully absorb what I was experiencing in that moment, and even now I find it hard to find the words to describe how it felt to be there, floating high above the ground in that all too brief period of time.

Coming down...
As we neared the ground I began thinking about how I would explain the experience. Now, I realize that I can't really do it justice. So, I'll do the next best thing I can and post a video segment from a portion of my flight. I know it is not the same as being there, but perhaps the sights from the wing-mounted camera will do more justice than my adjective-laden sentences. At this point, I can only say the experience was unbelievable, and I hope that the video evokes some kind of emotion similar to what I felt during my first hang gliding flight.

Today my "I have never..." journey helped me fulfill a lifelong dream. Without question, my first time hang gliding is one of those things that I will talk about for the rest of my life. Honestly, soaring through the air over the green landscape was one of the most tranquil and peaceful experiences I have ever had. I could do nothing else but let go and be there, just there, as each minute of the flight rolled by. This is something that will definitely be a recurring event in my life when I find the time. It is just too amazing and beautiful to say I only tried it once.

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