Hanging High

By: Thomas Becnel

Hangliding at Wallaby Ranch

It should have been scary now that I think about it, riding in a sling beneath the wing of a tandem hang-glider.

It could have been scary if Wallaby Ranch, west of Orlando on Interstate 4, didn't have a perfect safety record.

And it would have been scary if my trip hadn't been so free, wide open and breezily beautiful.

Instead, with hardly a care on a crisp January morning, I savored the cold wind in my face, the warm sun on my back and a bird's-eye view of forest, orange groves and Walt Disney World in the distance.

I will admit that my hands were clenched pretty tight around the control bar at first. And the end of my 15-minute flight was more relaxed than the beginning. But the experience turned out to be more serene than extreme.

The most spine-tingling moment came when our tow plane, an ultra-light aircraft, turned us loose at 2,500 feet. The line dropped off, we rose up and the ultralight dove back down toward the landing zone. For a second, I thought the plane was falling from the sky.

We soared along, meanwhile, circling the 500-acre ranch. Malcolm Jones, my instructor and the owner of Wallaby Ranch, showed me the fundamentals of steering the glider. After a smooth landing, rolling bumpity-bump across the grassy field, a photographer asked if we could make another flight.

I told him it would not be a problem.

Wallaby Ranch is billed as the world's largest full-time hang-gliding club. After flying in Australia, where the hang-glider was invented, Jones decided to name his place for the cuddly Australian animal.

For Jones, Wallaby Ranch is his Shangri-La. "It's mostly word of mouth," he says. "You don't see blinking lights out here. It's sort of a commune: we live here; this is our home. It doesn't hurt that we're near Disney, of course."

More than 10 years ago, Wallaby Ranch got a great deal of exposure with a "Dateline NBC" story about Jones teaching a paraplegic woman to fly. He still gets calls about that inspiring story.

The Wallaby Ranch landing zone surrounds a house and hangar. There's also a pool, hot tub, kids' playground and climbing wall, for when students and pilots aren't flying. Hiking and biking trails wander off into the surrounding woods.

My flight came on a weekday when the ranch is less busy, but Jones made it sound like I missed the weekend scene. Regular pilots come out, along with much bigger groups of tourists, and they often have bonfires and live music in the evening. "It's like our little oasis of hang-gliding hippiedom," says Jones, a Tampa native.

With student pilots and first-timers, the emphasis is on safety. Unlike mountain hang-gliding where take-offs and landings can be thrilling and dangerous, aero-towing offers a gentle rolling start and stop. At Wallaby Ranch, too, everyone wears a helmet. No students fly in rough winds. Every glider and ultra-light has a ballistic parachute system in case of emergencies.

"No student has ever been injured here, not even a scratch," Jones says.

Students fly early in the morning when it's calm. Experienced pilots fly at midday, when updrafts and turbulence are stronger, and flights can last for hours at a time.

The tandem glider for my flight was huge by the standards of the sport, but still weighed just 100 pounds. Like most gliders, it's made of an aluminum frame and Dacron fabric.

After a brief introduction to the equipment, I stepped into a harness sling beneath the glider. Guests wear a helmet but fly in their street clothes. Here's a tip: if you're going in winter, wear gloves.

Even chilled, it was easy to enjoy the flight and scan the scenery. We banked and turned, with me controlling the glider above the blue pool, brown fields and green groves.

Jones was right about one thing. From the air, soaring in breezy circles, Wallaby Ranch does look like Shangri-La.

For more information, call the ranch at 800-WALLABY or visit www.wallaby.com.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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