The first thing you ask about is the danger. Jumping off a sand dune 13 stories high while strapped to a kite requires some convincing. Eventually you get to the $39 it will cost to launch your body into the abyss. But once you've seen hang gliders sailing the sky, you don't have to ask why.
"Everybody has the urge to fly," says Jim Hale, 35, a hang glider who rides air currents on a Dacron wing. "This is as close as you get to it."
Hale is an instructor at Kitty Hawk Kites, the largest hang gliding school in the country. Since 1974, the school has persuaded more than 30,000 people to leap from sand dunes just a few miles south of the hill where the Wright brothers launched the space industry.
This day Hale has another 21 earth-bound students more and less eager to soar. We have watched a movie, heard a lecture on aerodynamics and been outfitted with body harnesses and helmets. We are now ready for the actual flying, which one student describes as "learning by trial and terror."
"It looks a lot rougher up close," says 25-year-old Becki Senft, who has just watched another student fly through the air like a drunk duck and crash to the sand like a stone.
"I think I left something in the car," adds Jeffrey Thompson, who drove here from Baltimore for the opportunity to soar from a hill overlooking the sea, with the wind in his face and fear in his heart.
If trusting your body to 40 pounds of aluminum tubing and Dacron sail doesn't seem a bit risky, all your cir- cuits aren't working. With the proper equipment, instruction and caution, the sport is safer than it seems. But too many mistakes too high up can kill you. The story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun on homemade wings of wax, didn't make Top 10 on the old Greek myth parade without reason.
Since the 1960s, when the sport became popular in Southern California, more than 400 people have died while gliding--or failing to glide--in this country. But in the last six years, improved kite design and better training have reduced annual fatalities at the same time that participation in the sport has boomed. Last year, among an estimated 30,000 active hang gliders in this country, there were 15 fatalities.
"There was so much daredevil stuff in the beginning days it gave the sport a bad image," says Ralph Buxton, one of two owners of the Kitty Hawk school, which was founded in 1974. "The equipment has gotten much better and the sport has matured. We've weeded out a lot of the crazies."
At Kitty Hawk, the learning is easy and the fear manageable. Because the dunes are soft and sloping, they are very forgiving of beginner mistakes. On an absolute wipeout, the worst you are likely to suffer is a loss of wind and a mouthful of sand.
"We have never lost a student," says Carlos Lopez, a lean, funny, 60-year-old instructor at Kitty Hawk. "We have lost some instructors. The students land on them."
Lopez is one of the sport's apostles. Get him talking about the joys of riding the wind and he waxes eloquent. Close your eyes and you can see him soaring into the sunset with eagles under his wing.
"When I'm up there so high and the people below are so small, it just feels so damn good," says Lopez. "I'm Superman."
Our class is still in its Clark Kent stage. Some seem eager to stop the lessons and start flying. Others, like Harry Schnipper, ask questions until the other students start to groan.
"I have come down here religiously for about 10 years watching from the dunes," says Schnipper, 25, a civil engineer. "I've been waiting until the wind was right."
Becki Senft and her husband are here from York, Pa., on their honeymoon. They figured learning to fly together would be a good way to start the marriage. Michelle Zakrevsky is taking the first lesson with her husband. But this is more a test flight for their first parachute jump later this summer.
"If you're afraid of heights, parachuting is not the place to find out," says Zakrevsky.
Dick Fogleman is the oldest in our class. He is a 55-year-old private pilot who works on submarine sensor systems for RCA in Connecticut. His name in German, he tells us, means "bird man." He explains his presence as compulsion. "Flying is a disease."
There are four teachers assigned to get us airborne and bring us down alive. The lead instructor is Hale. He caught the hang gliding bug on July 4, 1976, and has been making like a bird ever since. Flying, he has found, is much easier than teaching how to fly.
"There is a proverb from the old Chinese hang gliding club," says Hale. " 'When man's feet leave ground, man goes deaf and mind goes blank.' "
With empty heads and deaf ears we are off. Fogleman's first two flights are gruesome. It looks as though he is trying to burrow all 190 square feet of kite into the sand. My first flights are nothing to make an eagle envious, but there is some soar and I land on my feet both times. Confidence turns to cockiness. Then quickly it is dashed.
On the third flight, Fogleman goes up and out with the grace of a hawk looking for a rabbit to menace. I get 10 feet from the side of the dune, make an awkward U-turn and crash headlong into the sand.
After five flights each, the lesson is over. Everyone is alive. All our bones are still connected. And the fear has been replaced by an electric buzz.
"How did I like it?" says Fogleman. "Any time you get airborne, it's got to be great."