I wiggled my feet, trying to drive myself deeper into the harness of the tandem hang glider.
“You’re sure you’ve never had someone tumble out of this thing?” I asked, glancing at the Dacron and aluminum contraption with doubt.
Chad laughed. “Only a few times.” Then he saw the expression on my face and quit fooling around. “Of course not. We have a perfect safety record. I’ll take good care of you.”
The skeletal plane – called a Moyes-Bailey Dragonfly, designed to tow hang gliders up to altitude – announced its arrival with a roar, swooping down to the grass runway like a dive bomber. The noise did nothing to quiet the thudding of my heart. Chad’s brother, Adam, fastened us to the plane with a long tow line, checking our helmets and harnesses one last time.
“I’ll do the take off,” Chad said. “Just hold onto these handles. When we’re off tow, I’ll show you how to fly. It’s easy.”
The plane throttled up, and our glider bumped down the runway on its wheels for a few seconds before it slid into the air. I strangled the handles, clutching them like I was a drowning woman as we climbed above the airport.
At altitude, Chad hit a lever that released us from the tow line and the plane. The growl of its motor faded, replaced by the whisper of the wind, a cool balm that soothed my face. I had a sensation of not moving at all, of simply resting in the still arms of the sky. A puffy white cloud drifted in the distance, a piece of cotton suspended next to heaven. An osprey soared below, his wingtips stretched like fingers. It was as if I’d wandered into one of my childhood dreams, where I could spread my wings and become part bird.
I nodded, a tear trickling down my face.
In that first tandem flight, Chad taught me how to turn, how to slow down and how to speed up. By the time we rolled in, only 15 minutes later, my life was forever changed. I was addicted.
Malcolm Jones, the owner and manager of Wallaby Ranch in Orlando, remembers his first flight, too. His words were that “he felt like he’d arrived at the end of the rainbow.” He said that he’s been trying to re-create that feeling ever since, and that the closest he comes to it is when he takes others on their first flights.
Malcolm’s desire to share his favorite sport makes flying a pleasure for his passengers as well. It’s much more than a job for him; it’s a passion.
With a Discovery Flight, you can go tandem hang gliding and fly like a bird, too. Wallaby’s the perfect place to try it.
Wallaby Ranch is the first full-time aerotow hang gliding park in the world. It’s been open seven days a week since 1991, and uses the latest tandem aerotowing techniques to provide you with the most enjoyable, safest experience possible, whether you are dipping your toes in the water with a discovery flight, or you are a world-class pilot looking to improve.
Many people, even if they’re convinced that flying a glider will be the most brilliant experience in the world, are concerned about safety. That’s smart. Hang gliding isn’t bowling, and if you don’t fly with a reputable outfit, the risk increases. Most tandem hang gliders fly with backup parachutes; Wallaby goes one better with rocket powered ballistic ones. Their equipment is well maintained and inspected regularly.
The most important factor concerning safety is the judgment of the pilot in command. Malcolm has piloted over 30,000 tandem flights without incident. In 10 years of full time operation, tens of thousands of tandem flights have gone off without a hitch. Besides experience, Malcolm has judgment in spades. If it’s too windy, or you’re pushing the weight limit, or anything else is a little dicey, you won’t fly. The bottom line? You can relax and enjoy this adventure with absolute confidence.
Requirements for Discovery Flights
There are few physical limitations for tandem hang gliding. It requires no fitness level or strength. Your take off and landing will be on wheels, so there is no running involved. You cannot weigh more than 240 pounds. If you’re under 18 years old, you’ll have to get signed permission from your parents. Malcolm has taken people from three to 94 years old flying. He’s even taken Al Roker from the “Today Show”—who loved the experience!
If you want to fly solo, learning to fly a hang glider using the tandem method is similar to the one used to learn to fly an airplane. You’re partnered with an experienced instructor, and will begin by flying the glider at higher altitudes, where it’s safe. As flying becomes more instinctual for you, you’ll tackle the take-offs and landings, which are the most critical parts of the flight.
If you’re an experienced pilot already, you can free fly at Wallaby, or you can brush up your skills with Mike Barber. This living-legend flew a hang glider further than any one else in the world – an astonishing 438 miles.
Mike compares himself to a resident tennis pro. He shares his secrets with students, helping them with everything from basic thermaling skills to flying cross-country. This insures they’ll develop good habits from the get-go. I can say from personal experience that Mike’s teaching is clear and systematic. He’s nice, too!
Wallaby is family friendly. Here are a few of the on-site amenities besides flying you can enjoy:
- Splash in the swimming pool, or just soak up some rays.
- Play on the swing set or trampoline.
- Climb the rock wall.
- Sip a cool drink on the screened lanai with your new friends.
- Stroll around the beautiful grounds.
Where will you stay? Wallaby can provide you with the names of several nearby hotels. It also offers camping and some limited accommodations for students.
- Call before you come. Wallaby doesn’t accept reservations, but hang gliding is weather dependent. If the wind is howling, or rain is threatening, you may not be able to fly. Large groups should give them a heads-up.
- If you want to fly in the smoothest air you’ll want a morning or late afternoon flight.
- Air sickness while hang gliding is rare. If you’re still worried about your sensitive stomach, ask your doctor about taking Bonine beforehand (an-over-the-counter motion sickness drug). It causes less drowsiness than Dramamine.