Tom Pigheny wishes the public would forget everything we think we know about hang-gliding.
"It's all three years out of date," Pigheny said during a promotion trip through Washington last week. "The gliders are very different now, the safety factor is way up, and most of the crazies have been weeded out. We have good organization, strict rules, tough standards and many safeguards. Hang-gliding has grown up as a sport."
Pigheny ought to know, having grown up with hang-gliding. He was 13 when he first flew a bamboo-and-plastic glider he made in a junior highschool shop class, and he is the current Masters champion. At 21 he probably has more hours in the air (4,000 flights) than any of the other 200,000-odd people in this world who find joy in strapping on a kite and jumping off a cliff.
It is to spread word of the hang-gliding reformation (and the E-Z Wider Gliding Team, of which he is lead pilot) that Pigheny has been touring the East for several dreary winter weeks. He sits reading science fiction in the outer offices of radio and TV stations until someone finds time to take him into a studio and record a few minutes of the same old dumb question-and-answer routine.
"Basically it's the same 10 questions," he said. "Sometimes I feel like a tape recorder on playback."
Q-Why do you do such a crazy thing?
A-Well, in the first place it isn't crazy.
The risk factor is reasonable if a pilot knows the limits and stays within them. And the experience of flying almost as freely as a bird-well, I just can't describe it.
Q-What's it like to fly like a bird?
Being an articulate young man, Pigheny probably could describe very well what it's like, but it's a private pleasure, a passion that's central to his personality. It's not something to be told to strangers for broadcast to other strangers, the current let-it-all-hang-out fashion be damned.
What he wants to do is to encourage others to experience it for themselves, and to that end he uses every opportunity to promote the U.S. Hang Gliding Association.
"If you take instruction from someone who is USHGA-certified, using a rig that meets our standards, and use common sense, you are going to have a great experience and are very unlikely to get hurt," he said.
"There will always be some risk. There is risk in skiing or biking or anything else. But in the worst year, 1975, the last season when the old arrowhead type gliders were popular, there were 38 fatalities among perhaps 25,000 pilots. In 1977, with 50,000 hang gliders in the U.S., there were 17 fatalities.
"I expect it to get better every year, because now the sport is being responsibly governed, and the equipment is getting fantastic. We have gliders with training wheels now, so that if you screw up on the practice slope you just roll to a stop. And most of us are wearing parachutes, 41/2 pound bellypacks that will operate safely as low as 300 feet. I also work as a test pilot, and the last wing I tried out had 1,400 pounds of lift. For me that's a 1,200-pound safety margin.
"To get certification for a new glider the manufacturer has to prove to a panel of his competitors that it is stable in crosswinds and downdrafts and will do everything he says it will do. I can tell you that those panels are tough."
All that technology costs money, of course, but a modern wing in good condition can be bought used for about $300. The best gliders going, the ones that are used in championship competition, range up to about $1,500. "Most beginners rent their wings," he said. "It makes sense not to buy one until you are experienced enough to know what you want."
Hang-gliding is far more popular in the West than in the East - Pigheny was the only competitor from east of the Mississipi in the first two national contests - but "There are good gliding places and good schools in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia," he said. "Probably best of all is Jockey Ridge (Nags Head, N.C.), where the wind is perfect and the landings are on sand."Pigheny himself is the best testimony to the safety of sensible hang-gliding, since he's still looking for his first broken bone. He must be the exception to the rule about there being no old, bold pilots, having won 28 meets in six countries.
"I love competition because it makes me fly better than I can make myself do it," he said. "I would like to be national champion and world champion, but I may be getting too old. This younger generation of pilots is really good, and they don't have as much to unlearn as I do, because they're starting out with first-class equipment."
When he loses the edge, he said, he would like to become a TV commentator. But for now, besides the championships, his goals include endurance and distance records. While touring he's been keeping his eye on the Southeastern region weather maps, looking for the pattern he needs for an attempt to fly nonstop from Birmingham to Chattanooga, which is 120 miles and would pass the old record by 17.
And, if he can ever put it together, he'd like to fly around the world, "hitting all the high spots, you know, the best slopes, the way the surfers went looking for the Perfect Wave in "The Endless Summer.'"