On Assignment: Fly Like an Eagle, or the Time I Almost Flew, Sort Of

(Photo of the author “flying” by Ken Kochey)

We all have them: dreams of flying untethered to the earth, spreading our miraculous suddenly-sprouted wings to soar as gracefully as a bird, rising weightlessly on a puff of wind to escape our earthbound selves. And then, there is reality. Once, on an assignment for National Geographic Traveler magazine in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I got a little taste of both.

The human desire to fly likely dates back to the first time our eyes tracked the path of a soaring bird. For centuries we have given wings to our myths – Daedalus, Icarus, Pegasus. Even today, psychologists say flying remains one of the most common subjects of dreams.

It’s hang gliding that comes closest to my own personal flying dreams. Hooked into a large, wedge-shaped wing, leaping from a cliff, searching out a rising thermal like the hawks – no propeller, no noise. Just the wing, the wind, and you. So, it seemed like a good idea at the time – convincing my editor to send me to the same dunes where Orville and Wilbur first took flight to take a course in hang gliding, to take my own flying leap. That is how I found myself clipped into an overgrown kite, standing at the edge of what suddenly seems a much-too-big sand dune in North Carolina’s Jockey Ridge State Park with an instructor from Kitty Hawk Kites shouting some sort of instructions into my ear.

“Watch your angle of attack,” instructor Andy Torrington is screaming, the wind tangling knots in his sum-blonde hair. “Focus on your target.” A few hours ago in the classroom portion of our lessons, Torrington told us all about the time as a kid he had swiped his father’s oversized golf umbrella, shinnied to the rooftop of their house and jumped – experiencing what he called “the briefest of flights” before crashing akimbo into the front yard shrubbery. I am trying not to think about that as we begin our take-off trot towards the dune face.

“Long strides,” Torrington yells as he begins to run alongside me. A ray of sun breaks through the clouds, shimmering for an instant in the pink and blue Wills Wing Falcon 195 hang glider on my back. I feel the wing rising off my shoulders as if I am indeed sprouting wings.

“Pull with your hips all the way through your take-off,” he yells. My feet strain to stay on the sand.

“Let it go to trim!” his voice rising and growing more distant as my speed increases.

“Eyes straight ahead!”

My feet begin to churn through the air like a cartoon character and suddenly … suddenly …”

Just a few hours before, I had joined four others each with their own dreams of flying for the classroom portion of our lessons. We gathered, strangely it seemed to me, in a room without windows as if in someone had covered the cage to keep us from restlessly dreaming rather than paying attention. We’re all signed up for the Hang 1 package, a series of lessons that lead to the first level of certification by the U.S. Hang Gliding Association. Some of the others are training to be instructors or have hopes to be competitive fliers. Me, I have less lofty goals. All I want is, for one fleeting moment, to feel what I feel in my dreams, to feel like I am flying.

It won’t come easy. We’re given several hours of classroom instruction first. “A hang glider is like a huge paper airplane,” our instructor says (an image that for me is not all that reassuring). “Once you launch it, it basically flies itself. You provide the forward momentum by running down a sand dune – you need 17 miles an hour of combined speed to get airborne. That means with a 10-mile-an-hour headwind, you need to run 7 miles an hour to take off.” I am wondering if I should be taking notes, checking his math in my head and hoping I can truly run 7 miles an hour with a wing on my back in the sand. “In flight, you’ll hang securely from a strap like a pendulum, shifting your weight to control the direction and the angle of the wing.” Asking us to use our hands, the instructor explains “pitch,” “roll,” and “yaw” (a bit too quickly it seems to me as I “yaw” when I should have “pitched”). We are issued helmets (do birds wear helmets?), a flak-jacket-type harness with a stupefying maze of straps and buckles (do birds need buckles?) and then asked to sign a waiver (“I understand that I may suffer a broken limb, paralysis, or a fatal injury … initial here”).  “Ok,” the instructor asks a bit too cheerfully it seems to me, “Who’s first?”

Back on the dunes, I feel the tips of my toes brush against the sweet solidity of earthly bounds for one final time, the wind increasing in my ears, and then I am airborne. It takes me a moment to realize it but the clumsiness of running vanishes leaving only the smooth gracefulness of flight. Torrington is still yelling instructions but now I am listening only to the sweet whisper of wind in my ears. That whisper turns to a growl as a gust of wind off the ocean rises suddenly. I feel a flash of panic. Below, I can see Torrington’s mouth moving but cannot hear his words. The instructions flash through my mind – pull in slightly to stabilize the wing angle, grip loose, eyes focused slightly ahead. The wing sits for just one sweet, terrifying moment poised between flight and cartwheeling across the dunes like a child’s lost kite.

It chooses flight. The nose drops a bit giving me a bit of air speed. For one sweet moment, it is just like in my dreams. I am flying. I catch a glimpse of the ocean far off, the swells like curls of turquoise, the dune grass distant fingers waving, waving. Just … like …in my dreams.

The nose dips again, this time at a sharper angle, too sharp. The ground suddenly coming into a sharp focus, coming faster than it probably should be. I slide my hands high on the down tubes and push out to feel for lift. Just like in the video, the lift is there. The nose of the wing rises, the ground settles easily beneath me, and I flare smoothly until my feet touch the ground again and the dream ends in a soft landing in the sand. Only then do I notice my heart is beating like a bird thumping against its cage.

“Wow,” the instructor shouts a bit too loudly in my ear as he unbuckles me from my wings. I notice his hands are shaking. “That was a big one.” He is talking too fast, too loud after the brief silence I had just experienced, as if surprised to find me still alive. “I saw that gust hit you and all I could think was, man, I hope he does the right thing. And you did!” I just smile, my mind still somewhere up there with the birds.

Walking back up the dune, my plodding steps seem exceedingly earthbound, trudging in deep sand. Stopping to rest I notice the birds still overhead circling on the thermals rising off the sun-warmed dunes. “Hey, Jeff,” the instructor shouts from the top, “you want another flight?” My eyes still on the birds, I don’t even bother to answer. I just pick up the wing and trudge back up the dune to where I see the footprints from my first sprint down the runway suddenly disappear from the sand.