To Ride the Wind
by Garry Dean
For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to fly. Ironically, I’m also scared of heights. So the thought of plunging off the edge of a cliff in a hang glider, tandem or not, was causing me some trepidation. What stopped me from turning around and heading for the nearest pub, was an age old question. What is it like to soar like a bird? There was only one way to find out. So I continued towards the waiting hang glider, with a little help from a friend.
“Beautiful day for it,” Mick said, “not a cloud in the sky.”
“Great,” I replied, aware that my palms were sweating.
“You’ll love it mate,” he said. “Once you’re over the edge and airborne, it’s like nothing else.”
Mick had already done a few tandem hang glides, and was training to go solo soon. He had been the one to talk me into it.
“It’s like riding the wind,” he had said.
How could I say no to that?
When I was young, I would build model aircraft and hang them off the roof of my bedroom with a length of fishing line and some Blu Tack. There was a Tiger Moth and a Spitfire, as well as jets like the Shooting Star and the Phantom. The jets scored the added enhancement of cottonwool sticking out of the business end. I would lie in bed and watch them dancing in the afternoon breeze. They weren’t exactly flying, but to the imagination of a young boy, it was near enough. When I discovered I could never be a pilot, or an astronaut for that matter, it hit me pretty hard. Thankfully, kids are nothing if not resilient, and life moved on. But I never lost that interest in flight. Years later, thanks to a surprise birthday gift, I was given a ride in a Cessna trainer. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with the pilot, and with the benefit of dual controls, I got to taxi, take off and do a little flying. There was a fair bit of turbulence that day and the aircraft bucked and bounced around, a bit like those models on my bedroom ceiling. I didn’t mind, I was flying. Small though it was, at least the Cessna had a cockpit to stop you falling out, and the reassuring advantage of an engine. Hang gliders of course, have none of these luxuries.
“G’day,” said Dave, my hang glider pilot.
“Hi,” I replied, holding my hand out in the general direction of his voice. He took it in a firm grip.
“All set?” he asked.
“You bet,” I replied, trying to sound confident.
The wind coming off the ocean was cool and steady. From somewhere far off, I heard the cry of a seagull.
Mick clasped my shoulder, “I’ll leave you in good hands,” he said.
“Thanks mate,” I replied.
Mick had given me a few pre-flight briefings, so I had some idea of what to expect. It was all about weight and balance.
“Best if you don’t move around too much.” Mick had suggested. “Just pretend you’re a sack of potatoes, and let Dave do the flying.”
I had laughed, imagining a shower of spuds falling from the sky if things went wrong.
“Alright, let’s get you hooked up,” Dave said. He gave me a helmet shaped like a teardrop, and helped me into a harness which he attached to the underside of the hang glider. I felt for the control bar, my heart racing. Dave got into position next to me.
“Okay,” he said, “we’ll start at a walk, then a jog and launch with a run, alright?”
I nodded, “Okay”.
We started down the slope, and before I knew it we were jogging, then running and…my feet left the ground as the hang glider lifted into the air. There was a moment of stomach lurching disorientation, but it was soon drowned out by the sheer thrill of flying, and I whooped for joy. Dave pointed out the fact my legs were still dangling, and I tucked them into the foot rest behind me.
“I’ll head out from the cliff for a bit,” he said, “and do a left bank.”
“Okay,” I replied. It was exhilarating. The wind rushing past, nothing between you and the ground except open air. Despite the muffling effect of the helmet, I could hear Dave chuckling.
“I’ll have to take some pics,” he said, “Mick will want to see the grin on your face.”
My grin broadened. A moment later, I felt Dave shift his weight, and the hang glider made a gentle turn to the left. We were heading north now, following the coastline. Dave gave me a blow by blow of what he could see. The ocean stretching away on our right, on our left, a kestrel keeping pace – the more elegant of the two gliders.
“It’s just showing off,” Dave said.
Below, a line of surfers sat bobbing in the water, waiting for a wave. We flew over the tiny figures of people on the beach, soaking up the sun or playing in the surf. And beyond a maze of streets and buildings, he described a line of hills, a darker blue against the clear sky.
“You know,” Dave said, “people ask me if I ever get tired of it.”
“Hang gliding you mean?”
“Yeah. Thing is, it’s always new. Up here, above it all, you get a different perspective on life.”
I couldn’t argue with that. All too soon we reached the half way mark, the turnaround point for the flight. Dave brought us around in a slow bank, to leave us facing the way we had come.
“Hey, you want a go?” he asked.
“Hell yeah,” I replied with some enthusiasm.
We started with the basics. By pushing away on the control bar, I shifted the centre of gravity, causing the hang glider’s nose to tilt up. Although we gained height, we lost speed. The reverse was true.
“How fast do you want to go?” he asked.
My grin was back. We moved our weight forward, over the control bar, causing the nose to dip. In losing altitude, we gained speed. I felt the rush of air, along with a rush of adrenaline, as the hang glider’s guy wires sang in the wind. When at last we shifted our weight back, the glider rose up in a graceful arc, swooping like a bird. There it was, that sensation of flight, humans doing what they weren’t designed to do, and loving every moment of it.
Dave was chuckling again.
“Oh man,” was all I could say.
By the time we neared our landing area, a strip of grass below the headland, I could hear the rumble of the surf.
“I’ll give you a heads up in a tick,” he said, “and we’ll drop our landing gear.”
“No worries,” I replied.
I could feel the hang glider settle as it slowed. From somewhere, the smell of a barbecue, a scattering of voices, the barking of a dog.
“Now!” said Dave.
We dropped our legs, and…my feet touched the ground. A few quick steps, and it was all over. Dave eased the hang glider onto the grass, and helped me out of my harness.
“You look like a man who enjoyed himself,” he said.
I laughed. My feet were on solid ground, but my head was still up there. I pulled off my helmet, and we shook hands.
“Thanks mate,” I said.
I turned at the sound of Mick’s voice, and heard the familiar jingle of a dog collar fast approaching.
“You’ve got company,” Dave said.
I knelt down, and was nearly bowled over by Molly.
“It’s alright girl, it’s alright, ” I reassured her, as she tried desperately to lick my face. Guide dogs are incredibly affectionate, and very protective of their owners.
At that moment, I felt on top of the world. There was that indefinable buzz you get when you push your limits, and it gave me an insight into why some people do crazy things. Because when you go skydiving, or scale a sheer cliff with your fingertips, you really know you’re alive. Of course, that got me wondering. What would it be like to jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane?
@Winner of the 2020 Dickenson Literary comp