Jamie Bowman had answered all the questions he was going to answer and made all the explanations he was going to make.

"I'm going to go to into solitude now for about 10 or 15 minutes," he said. "Then I'll bail off."

The 30-odd spectators backed away from the purple nylon wings that are Bowman's aircraft. He pulled his padded harness - a biblike affair that extends from throat to knees - up the final three inches.

Bowman didn't have anything else to say until seconds before he plunged off 1,200-foot High Rock in Western Maryland for the 74th time. By then he had all the struts and battens on his hang glider checked and re-checked, the flight pattern imbedded in his brain, the variables of wind sink, thermals and angle of attack computed and memorized.

He was standing on a creaky wooden platform overlooking a 200-foot sheer vertical drop to a rock slide. Beyond the shattered boulders was a ridge of trees that extended three or four miles, ending at the foot of the mountainside in fields of wheat and corn.

Bowman turned to the spectators and asked politely, "Would everybody please either stand back or keep your heads down?"

And then he jumped. The fresh west wind filled the 30-foot wings Bowman had hooked himself to. The only air speed he'd started out with was from a running start, so he dove straight down for 30 feet, building momentum.

With a swoop he lunged forward, bringing the nose of the kite up and setting his course for the fields in the hazy distance below.

In a minute's time Bowman was a speck among the emerald treetops: in three minutes his form was barely discernible as it bobbed across wheat fields. In seven minutes his trip was safety ended.

The solitary sport of hang gliding is booming at High Rock. Waiting on line to duplicate Bowman's leap on Saturday were glider pilots from Detroit and Akron, Ohio. They came for a week's vacation, living in their vans and leaping off the cliff as often as they could.

What they were hoping for, fruitlessly on Saturday, were "soarable conditions." The pilots wanted brisk west winds that would smack into the base of the hillside and become an updraft. Bowman once had ridden such a draft 1 1/2 hours; Skip Messer Smith of Hagerstown rode one so high once that he decided to see how far he could get. He stayed aloft more than four hours and fianlly landed in Waynesboro, Pa.

"On a good day," said Fred Klein, president of the Capital Hang Glider Association, "you'll see kites 2,000 and 3,000 feet above the launch site, riding the lifts."

This is dangerous business, no?

Most glider pilots will tell you it's not, that with proper training and reasonable caution it's no more dangerous than sailing or riding a bike.

But the third dimension of hang gliding - the vertical dimension - is what makes it thrilling and can make if fatal.

David Stephens, 30, of Forestville, Md., died when he lost control of his kite and plunged into South Mountain after jumping off High Rock on June 2.

In the last three months there were two other bone-breaking accidents at High Rock after 1 1/2 years of trouble-free jumping, Klein said.

All of that led to a complicated political scene with the Washington County Commissioners, who threatened briefly to shut the launch pad. That did not sit well with the glider pilots, who regard High Rock as one of the best sites in the East.

The Capital Glider Association responded with stiffer regulations to keep unqualified jumpers off High Rock and with a general public relations campaign to dispel the public notion that all glider pilots are irresponsible "wind gypsies," in Klein's words.

Two hang glider schools are operating in the area, Les King's Sport Flight and Greg Molenaar's Hang Glider International. For $20 either one will provide kite and instructor and a gentle hillside in a pasture. All you have to do is strap yourself in and make the run.

King and Molenaar said on one has ever been injured at either school.

School will give you a hint of the thrill of silent, unpowered flight, but to get the real thrust of the sport, wait for a weekend day when there's a sustained west wind.

Drive out to Ft. Ritchie, north of Thurmont on Rte. 550. Take a right at the fort and your first left after that. Five miles up the road you'll find pilots suspending themselves from flimsy wings to answer a question that has plagued man since the days of Greek mythology and undoubtedly before: What is it like to fly?