I want to fly away...
January 21, 2010 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Tell me all you know about getting started hang gliding.

I live in Chapel Hill, NC. Hang gliding has always held an appeal to me, and I've decided as my 30th birthday present to myself I am going to start taking lessons with the intent of buying a rig. I'm not sure how I should go about getting started, however, and how to find a good school.

Aside from the thrill of flying like a bird, I am particularly interested in learning the physics and mechanics of wind and flight. A school that focuses a lot on the theoretical along with the practical would be the most enjoyable to me. Do you have any recommendations for a school/instructor in my area? I'd also like to find groups in my area to fly with, particularly with some experienced members that are willing to critique my technique.

I also want recommendations for books/message boards/periodicals/etc.

Additionally, talk to me about buying a rig: new? used? cost? dealer? classifieds? With proper maintenance, how long should a rig last? What does proper maintenance consist of?

Finally, share your personal experiences with me. What do you wish you had and had not done as you were learning how to hang glide?
posted by sickinthehead to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For whatever it's worth, I took hang-gliding lessons when I was 13. There was exactly zero theory: we went to the dunes, the instructor walked and talked us through what we'd be doing, and then we did it.

It scared the hell out of me. It felt like falling up, one of the most unnatural feelings I've ever experienced. I wish I had been calmer, and wish I had been able to pay attention to the instructor when he was hollering "PUSH OUT! PUSH OUT!"
posted by adamrice at 1:51 PM on January 21, 2010

Hi future hang glider!

I started flying about 2 years ago. In my area (upstate NY) there is a really good hang gliding school run by a local club. The training course cost me $600 for an entire summer of lessons (over 40 days, lessons were held every night at 6pm - dusk if it was fly-able, meaning the wind was coming from the right direction, at the right speed, etc.) and included use of a club-owned hang glider for training.

Before we were allowed to start training, we had to complete a ground school course that taught the theory of flight.

Additionally, as we trained, we had to take tests to become "hang" rated. The ratings consist of a practical section where you have to perform specific in-air maneuvers for your instructors (i.e, stall your wing and then break out of it) as well as a written section that focused on the theory of flight. The tests get progressively harder and really force you to learn everything about flying, weather, wind, etc.

After your Hang-II rating, you become certified by USHPA to take your first high-site flight. Your first couple of flights are usually sled-rides and last 5-10 minutes while you take off @ 2000 feet, sink and land. After that, you can start learning how to soar and pick up thermals which can keep you in the air for hours at a time.

As far as buying a glider, don't worry about it yet. Your training program will include one for you train with, as gliders are typically very expensive. Once you are ready to buy, you will need a glider, harness, and helmet. It is highly recommended to buy them used from other pilots. Plan to spend 1-2k on your first setup if you buy it used or 4-6k if you buy it new. Gliders will last for many many years and can be fixed if you bust them up. For example, our training gliders were from the 1980s and had no original parts- everything had been replaced over the years.

Lastly, I'd recommend trying to find a club-run training program. The instructors seem to be more passionate about flying and the price is significantly cheaper (1k+ for a couple of days worth of lessons from a business-run training program).

Welcome to the sport! It's ridiculously fun and expensive, but there is nothing else in this world quite like it.
posted by adirondack at 2:39 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should clarify that your first hundred flights or so are extremely short. You typically learn to launch on a very shallow hill and spend about 2 seconds with your feet off the ground. Over the training course, you progress further and further up the hill until you reach the top, where your total flight time is roughly 20-25 seconds. Only once you are certified can you ride with the big boys and launch off at 2000 feet :-)

Look into taking a tandem flight- for $100 you can get towed to about 2000 feet with a certified instructor and experience real hang gliding. You can expect to spend about 20 minutes flying around to get a feel for what it's like. No training or experience necessary. Your tandem flight instructor will usually let you take the controls in the air, so it's truly an awesome experience if you are itching to get in the air :-)
posted by adirondack at 2:47 PM on January 21, 2010

I haven't hang glided in years, but about twelve years ago I decided to learn. I started by taking a towed tandem flight. This is where you get towed up attached to an ultralight with an instructor. You're basically baggage, but you'll probably be allowed to feel the control bar. This gives a pretty good feel for hang gliding and is incredibly exhilarating.

After this experience, I decided I wanted to learn how to hang glide for real. So my gf and I went down to the outer banks for a week schooling at Kitty Hawk. If there was good weather (light to moderate steady winds), we'd go out on the dunes and practice handling the gliders and going for very short "flights" where we might be off the ground for a few seconds.

If the weather was not good we did theory. We also had stuff to study in the evenings-- there is a lot of technical information you can learn in your down time.

We weren't very lucky with weather, and after a week I could sometimes glide for a few meters. Pretty cool feeling, but I wanted to fly.

So back home in New England I continued to take lessons up in New Hampshire on weekends. Mostly the same drill, but on a hill instead of dunes. I continued to progress, taking slightly longer and higher flights. It wasn't a smooth progression. Because of the dependence on weather, I might go several weeks without flying and discover the next time I went out I'd lost a lot of the motor skills.

Eventually, we took a vacation to Puero Rico where two instructors we knew and liked ran a school in the winter. We tooks some more lessons with them. By the end of the trip I took my first mountain solo, where I launched off a 1500' mountain by myself for a several minute flight.

It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It rocked my world. to have the true feeling of flight with nothing below me for thousands of feet, nothing around me, and my life completely in hands.

Don't even think about buying a rig. Take lessons until you can fly, preferably at least an H2 level. If a school tries to pressure you buy before you're ready, ignore them. They make a lot of their money from sales, but save your money for good instruction.
posted by justkevin at 2:51 PM on January 21, 2010

I've never been up on my own (other than about 4-6 learning runs), but have been tandem many times. (My dad used to take me up - we set a long-distance record back in '81 or so - broken shortly after, but hey...)

There definately is theory - but it won't truly apply until you are off the learning hill. (I can't tell you the number of hours I listened to my dad talk about; airframe design, thermals, lift theory, soaring, etc...)

Definately wait on the rig until you know you are going to stick with it.
posted by jkaczor at 4:55 PM on January 21, 2010

Hey, you're in luck! The oldest hang gliding school in the country is just a couple of hours away at Nag's Head Beach, NC. Classes take place on the big soft dunes in Jockey's Ridge State Park.

They also have tandem flights at a small airport about an additional hour away in northern NC.

My dude and I have been a few times; we may go for certification sometime (that would allow us to jump off cliffs instead of low-lying dunes), but we haven't been able to commit a week to the pursuit yet.

Here are the people you need to talk to (after reading the site): Kitty Hawk Kites (yes, the also operate beachy stuff retail stores, but the hang gliding school is very professional).

They could also probably sell/send you the instruction book for getting certification. This covers the basic cool aero concepts like pitch, yaw, roll, and a bunch of other semi-technical stuff.

They're very helpful on the phone, and are probably not too busy in January!

They'll probably recommend you stay at Booth House in Manteo - the price is right and you can use the full kitchen.
posted by amtho at 5:13 PM on January 21, 2010

Response by poster: Just to clarify: I'm not planning on buying a rig until I'm certified and fairly seriously into the sport. But I'm a graduate student. If I want a rig sometime in the next couple of years I have to start saving in small increments now.
posted by sickinthehead at 6:16 PM on January 21, 2010

Most folks will get to their Hang I rating (the first step) using the school's equipment and then sometime after that buy their own glider on their way to Hang II. There is often a thriving 2nd hand business as Hang II's sell their first glider to move up to a more 'sporty' model when they get their Hang III.

You should checkout the USHPA web page if you haven't already, it's the national association and has a ton of information. This page lists 4 schools in NC and this pdf file explains the ratings system. If the schools are on the USHPA site then they're all likely to be good - but you should find out some NC flying sites, go hang-out in the landing area and talk with pilots as they breakdown their gliders. Hang gliding is very much a minority sport, so most pilots are primed to offer advice and opinions to a newbie.

Frankly if flying small airplanes is like captaining a boat, then hang-gliding is like surfing. One is half-way practical, you need some government certification and to pass some tests, the other is just pure fun without a lot of theory. You might get some basics of flight theory but its pretty minimal (at least in comparison to what a private pilot would learn). Most schools will run a 'ground school' in parallel to flying lessons and there are some fairly easy written tests for each rating based on that ground school.
posted by Long Way To Go at 9:09 PM on January 21, 2010

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