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Learning to Hang Glide

Hang gliding has come a long way since the early days. Today's hang gliders are carefully designed, safe aircraft, and the pilots understand the air better than ever before. But what about the thrills? Well, some pilots do work up adrenalin in aerobatics or speed gliding, and in August, 2000 a hang glider pilot flew 555km for a new World Record. Others simply enjoy the serenity of floating in a silent sky, or flying with friends.

The basic hang glider was pretty much invented by an Australian engineer, John Dickenson, in 1963. He first built a kite based on a NASA Gemini space capsule recovery wing, with all the basic features of today's wings, including the triangular control bar. Australian kite fliers soon introduced Dickenson's design to the rest of the world, and suddenly recreational hang gliding began its boom.

What's a hang glider?
The days of the old delta-wing kite-style hang gliders are long gone. Although most modern hang gliders share the same basics as older designs, they don't look a lot like them. There are three basic types.

FLEX WING hang gliders are the most closely related to the original early 1970's hang gliders. They have a basic tubing frame and a flexible wing made of sailcloth, stiffened into an aerofoil shape by aluminium battens. They are usually wire-braced, and controlled by shifting the pilot weight. "Floaters" are designed for new pilots or for those who want an easy to fly, light, and simple machine. They're great for just getting out and having a great time, no matter what your experience level. "Intermediate" gliders provide better performance for the advancing pilot, but are a little heavier and require more skill. "Advanced" wings tend to be heavier still, with excellent performance, but require extra pilot skill and judgement to fly safely. Many of the most recent advanced wings use cantilever composite structure, and use advanced aerodynamics.

RIGID WING hang gliders resemble aeroplanes without tails. Although they fold up into a transportable package, they are built from carbon fibre and epoxy for strength and light weight. They generally have better performance than flex wings, and though designed to be launched and landed on foot they have a very good glide. Although expensive, this sort of hang glider is gaining popularity very quickly.

ULTRALIGHT SAILPLANES can't be foot-launched or landed, as they usually have a cockpit and normal wing layout like full size gliders, plus wheels for takeoff and landing. They also have the best performance. However, they are expensive and more difficult to transport.

Getting Into the Air
When hang gliders fly from cliffs, they don't "jump", despite what most people think. The pilot runs with the glider and flies off - most launches allow the pilot to be in full flying control by the time they reach the edge. Many launch sites have been modified to help safe launches, and help minimise impact on the local environment. Hang gliders can also be towed behind a car using a tow rope and tension meter, and ultralight aircraft have also been used to tow gliders to a height where they can "pin off" and fly free. Lightweight engine and propeller units are also available for self-launching soaring.

Staying Up
Hang gliders depend on rising air, called "lift" to stay aloft. Sea cliffs provide lift when there is an onshore breeze, and inland thermals provide abundant lift for high flying. Although pilots say: "lift is where you find it", experienced pilots learn to read terrain and weather clues to predict where the next thermal is. The landscape, cumulus clouds, and soaring birds all offer clues to lift.

How a hang glider is controlled
Most hang gliders are controlled by shifting the pilot body weight either to the side, front or back. This gives very good control, and because a hang glider is very pitch stable (it returns to normal speed by itself) and neutrally roll stable (if you turn, it will tend to stay turning until you straighten things out) they are easy to both fly and land. In fact with practice, you can land and stop without even having to take a step. Basically, you shift your body in the direction you want to go. To go faster, you move forward; to slow down, backward. Also, the design of modern hang gliders includes features that automatically recover normal flight if you hit turbulence. In general, hang glider pilots can be assured that as long as they fly in sensible weather conditions, their wing will handle anything the air may throw at it.

Safety
Although when hang gliding first became popular there were plenty of accidents, things have changed dramatically. Early equipment was basic and training often non-existent. Since the early 1980's the accident rate has dropped markedly, mostly because pilots are required to be trained. Also, today's equipment must be certified for both strength and stability in a wide range of conditions. Plus all hang gliders carry emergency parachutes. These are designed to bring both glider and pilot down together in the event of a structural failure or mid-air collision.

Learning
All hang glider pilots are required qualify through an accredited flying school. Over the course - usually a week - you will be taught the basics of ground-handling, launching, flying and landing. There is also an exam on basic hang gliding theory. Many different approaches are used for teaching. Some schools offer tandem tow flights, others use mainly hill-based training. It's always a good idea to ask what sort of reputation your proposed school has. Later, as you progress in skill level, you can obtain endorsements for alpine flying, towing or auxiliary powered flight.

Equipment
As well as a hang glider ($1000 second hand to $4000 new) you'll need a harness (up to $1000 new), a parachute (about $600) and instruments (from about $400). Beware of old and/or obsolete bargains in Trading Post-type publications.

Who can Fly?
Anyone. You can legally fly a hang glider when you are 14 years old, and some pilots are still flying well into their 70's, so age is no barrier either.


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