Action/Adventure, Extreme Sports, Hang Gliding
Hang Gliding with 'Hangar Three' at Randall Airport (Middletown, New York)
By Caitlin Doherty — March 3, 2011
Extreme among even extreme sports, hang gliding is a fast-paced, thrilling experience. Hang gliding is about as close as you can get to silently soar in the sky like an eagle or an albatross. That's why the French name for this kind of sport is le vol libre, or “free flight.” Having already experienced hang gliding's cousin, parasailing, I thought I would give this a try, too.
interesting america's action/Adventure, extreme sports reporter (not to mention pizza-ologist) Caitlin doherty, tries tandem hang gliding at randall airport near middletown, New York, courtesy of hangar three. (Photo © richard grigonis)
Having never tried hang gliding before, I went on a tandem hang gliding flight with an experienced pilot in control. I selected HANGAR 3, which offers introductory instructional flights and hang gliding tandem flights for both gliding students and the general public. You can find them in Middletown, NewYork, less than an hour from Manhattan, where they use Randall Airport.
The First Birdmen
In the 1800’s, people like Otto Lilienthal, Percy Picher and Octave Chanute studied gliding birds such as the eagle and the albatross. Lilienthal in Germany essentially invented hang gliding in 1891, when he built a 40-pound glider with a 23-foot wingspan, ran down the slop of a hill and the wind picked him and the craft up into the air. He would each speeds of over 35 mile per hour and an altitude of about 100 feet. Lilienthal caused a public sensation whenever he made one of his 2,000 glides. However, like many pioneers in a dangerous field, he died in 1896 when he crashed from a height of 50 feet. (Britain’s Percy Picher was also killed in an 1899 glider crash.)
typical design of a hang glider, seen here flying in the sky.
(Photo: © Elena Koulik | Dreamstime.com)
Orville and Wilbur Wright experimented with gliders before they put an engine and propeller on one and flew it in 1903 as the first successful airplane.
In the 1960s Frank and Gertrude Rogallo’s wing became popular, partly because America’s NASA was thinking of putting them on Gemini space capsules for controlling reentry while in the earth’s atmosphere. Made of a triangular cloth stretched over a metal tube frame, the design soon dominated the hang glider world.
Modern hang gliding started in the 1960s. The general public began to take notice of it in 1971, when California glider enthusiasts held a meet on Otto Lilienthal’s birthday. It was here that the Rogallo wing demonstrated its superior gliding abilities. The next year, in 1972, an official flying site was started at Playa del Rey near Los Angeles. California is pretty crowded with hang gliders in various places.
Double paragliding over the ocean.
(Photo: © Nihues | Dreamstime.com)
Following on the heels of hang gliders were the paragliders that became popular in the 1980’s. Whereas hang gliders have wings and a stiff framework, paragliders are completely soft, resembling rectangular or crescent-shaped parachutes. Paragliders appeared in 1978 when a group of Frenchmen began experimenting with a then-new invention, the ram-air parachute. The ram-air chute or “canopy” as it is called, consists of separate cells. The entire canopy is open at the front and closed at the back, so it is indeed rammed full of air as it moves forward and takes on the shape of a flying wing.
The Frenchmen didn’t want to spend money to hire a plane from which to jump with their ram-air parachutes, so they tried jumping off of mountains in the French Alps. This turned out to be more entertaining (and less expensive) than skydiving. Parachute makers then retooled and came up with efficient paraglider designs based on the ram-air principle.
International hang gliding team makes the Victory sign in a unique way.
(Photo: © Lyn Baxter | Dreamstime.com)
As for hang gliding, today’s hang glider is a light, unmotorized aircraft, also known as Delta plane or Deltaplane. Most gliders weight about 35 pounds, though some two-wing “biplane” types with rudders and additional steering controls can weigh about 70 or 80 pounds. The wing fabric is heavy-grade nylon or Dacron, and it fits over the main frame of aluminum tubes (or bamboo, fiberglass or plywood). A cross tube keeps the leading edges of the wing at the correct angle. Ribs, called battens, stiffen the wing so it maintains its airfoil shape and can provide lift when moving forward.
The keel (like the keel of a ship) runs the length of the glider’s main frame. The control frame attaches to the keel and is joined by steel wires to the main frame. The pilot wears a jumpsuit over his or her clothes for warmth and protection. The harness and straps fit over the jumpsuit and the pilot hangs in this harness from the top of the control frame. (The harness also allows the pilot to stand up if necessary for takeoffs and lie flat during flights.) The harness is connected to the frame by webbing and cables, usually at a “hang point” on the keel at the control frame’s center. The harness connects to the hang point, in some cases with a metal loop called a carabiner, which carries the whole weight of the pilot. Some hang gliders have a sitting harness or swing seat, which makes very long flights more comfortable.
Hangar Three instructor/pilot, grasping the control bar, places hang glider into a turn above Middletown, New York as Caitlin Doherty holds on and takes in the view. (Photo © richard grigonis)
The pilot, hanging under the wing, holds onto the frame’s control bar—also known as a trapeze bar—for steering. (The control bar was probably invented by Australian John Dickenson.) To steer a hang glider, it’s not simply a matter of shifting your body or center of gravity—doing that just controls the rolling aspect of the turn. To turn successfully, especially big turns, you need some “up pitch” to the wing, which involves pushing the control bar out and therefore the wing’s leading edge up, otherwise you’ll find yourself in a spiral dive.
The Well-Dressed Hang Glider
First of all, you must dress to be warm for high altitude flight. If you fly at around 90 mph (145 kph), you will experience windchill. If you get caught in an updraft by a big cumulus cloud and fly up to around 15,000 feet (4,500 meters), you’ll discover that the termperature at that altitude is about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit or -16.7 Celsius.
Caitlin Doherty and Hangar Three instructor/pilot soar about 2,500 feet above randall airport (seen below) and middletown, new York (seen in the distance). hang gliding can be more exciting than a megacoaster at an amusement park. (Photo © richard grigonis)
Wearing a helmet is also extremely important, since head injuries can kill you. (Competition hang gliders even wear aerodynamically streamlined helmets.)
When flying more than 300 feet (91 meters) in the air, you must wear a reserve parachute in case something drastically goes wrong and you suddenly find yourself to be a skydiver rather than a hang glider.
Goggles or close-fitting sunglasses are necessary—have you ever run into a bug at 60 miles per hour?
hangar three at randall airport employs a small ultralight aircraft to tow their hang gliders up to around 2,500 feet in altitude, after which they must rely on thermals or other forms of lift. (Photo courtesy © hangar three)
Take off and Flight
Since most hang gliders will take off in a 10 or 12 mile per hour wind, you can just run and glide down small hills. Modern, high efficiency gliders, however, can be towed by small “ultralight” planes (essentially gliders with a little engine and propeller) and they can soar for hours.
By descending through the air at the proper “angle of attack” the glider keeps air passing over the leading edge of its wings, which both breaks the descent and generates some lift. If the air you are in moves upward faster than you are descending, then you will be carried up to higher altitudes.
A British paraglider takes advantage of some ridge lift while soaring above the Westbury White Horse, a hill figure on the escarpment of Salisbury Plain just east of Westbury in England.
(Photo: © Matthew Collingwood | Dreamstime.com)
There are three types of natural lift:
Ridge lift: Also called “orographic lift” or “slope-effect” lift, this occurs when wind meets a ridge or hill and is deflected upward. Pilots who take off on foot attempt to take advantage of ridge lift to climb quickly before hitting the side of the hill. Ridge lift can extend up to two times the height of the ridge or hill. If the windward side of the ridge or hill faces the sun, then ridge lift can be enhanced by thermals (see below). By following the ridge, you can remain in the “lift band” for quite a while.
Thermal lift: Air is cool under big cumulus clouds but at the edges sunlight gets through and heats up the ground and air above, causing it to rise. This creates “thermals” that can take you up as high as the clouds themselves—over 15,000 feet in some cases. Thermal lift is used by birds such as raptors, storks, frigate birds, vultures and the albatross. When encountering a thermal, the pilot flies in circles to stay inside the rising air, gaining altitude before flying off to the next thermal. This is known as “thermalling.” Sometimes thermals happen to form in a line usually because of the terrain or cloud formations, creating what are called “cloud streets.” These enable the hang gliding pilot to fly straight while continuously climbing.
Caitlin Doherty and her Hangar Three pilot take off from randall airport, towed by an ultralight aircraft (which is basically a large hang glider with an engine and a propeller). (Photo © richard grigonis)
Wave lift: This is similar to ridge lift, but extends much higher into the atmosphere. So called “Lee waves” occur when a wind of about 30 mile per hour moves over a mountain. If there is a steady increase in wind strength with altitude without a significant change in direction, these standing waves may be created. They were discovered in 1933 by Wolf Hirth, a glider pilot. These waves of air can take large gliders equipped with oxygen tanks up into the stratosphere. (Not recommended for little hang gliders!)
A Quick Jaunt
I thoroughly enjoyed myself on my little hang gliding excursion, thanks to the folks at HANGAR 3 in Middletown, New York. I found them through 1-800-SKY-RIDE, a kind of travel agency organization for those smaller operators that offer hang gliding services to the public.
now freed from the tug plane, Caitlin Doherty and her Hangar Three pilot circle randall airport. (Photo © richard grigonis)
I was aerotowed in a tandem hang glider up to about 2,500 feet above ground, with a certified USPHA (United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association) rated tandem instructor as the pilot. Our tug plane was an ultralight craft.
We were towed up into the bottom of a cloud, then broke out into views of upstate New York, farms, housing developments, highways, and of course the big sky stretching beyond. It’s exciting almost beyond belief, on a par with skydiving. Hangar Three video records each flight on an onboard camera. (The photos accompanying this article are freeze frames from the video.)
Tandem hang gliding is not just thrilling, but fun too. See, no hands! (Photo © richard grigonis)
So, try tandem gliding with a professional operator or a hang gliding club. Don’t let the birds have all the fun.
Caitlin Doherty, when not functioning as Interesting America's pizza-ologist and fun eatery afficionado, is our action-adventure/extreme sports reporter. She also likes fun places to visit when she can find the time. A New Jersey native, she is a pharmacy technician for a hospital.