What Makes a Hang Gliding Competition Click- A Q&A with the Legend, Jonny Thompson

As many of you know, hang gliding is near and dear to our hearts around here, after all our slogan is “teaching the world to fly since 1974”. And for a lot of our crew, teaching the world to fly makes the journey home from work with them and becomes a part of their lives. When the instruction on the dunes end, and all the tandem flights at the Cotton Gin land, a lot of our pilots begin preparing for their own, flying at the competitions around the country. These competitions are an opportunity for pilots from around the world to get together, compete, and grow their skills as well as the sport. These competitions aren’t like many other around the world, with pilots from around the globe coming together for a week of fierce, friendly flying.

For one of these pilots, Jonny Thompson (pictured flying below with the awesome mustache), teaching the world to fly is everything.

He manages our flight park at the Cotton Gin, and anyone who has seen his smile when he’s flying knows that he’s found his correct line of work. But Jonny isn’t just a star pilot on the beach, his skills have taken him all over, helping to grow the sport he loves. We recently had the opportunity to speak with him about his role at the competitions as a tug pilot, the pilot who pulls the hang gliders up into the air for their competition. Being that the tug pilots are part of the small group responsible for safely getting the pilots launched, we were excited to hear Jonny’s take on how what makes these competitions click.

 

So, how long have you been going to hang gliding competitions for? What keeps drawing you back?

“1999 or 2000 was the first year I was hired as a tug pilot for a National Competition. I worked at the Quest Air Open in Groveland Florida. I didn’t start to tow and fly as a hang glider pilot at the same time until 2012.  We usually have three to four aerotow competitions a year and each is seven days with an eighth day as a practice day before actual meet starts. Each week is the most challenging and exciting time of my year. Most of all it is the people that keep me going to every event I can.”

As an experienced pilot you often help as a tug pilot as well, what is your favorite part about helping out in this role?

               “It’s always been about the flying for me. As a tug pilot it is my job to give every pilot who hooks up to my rope the very best tow possible. From the moment we first start the take-off roll I try to fly the perfect speed and direction. As we get higher I am searching for the best part of the sky for lifting air; thermals are never in the same place for very long, so it is the tug pilots’ job to put as many pilots together in lifting air as possible. Then we do our best to find the next area of lift to start a new gaggle. Once a pilot releases from our tow line, usually at 2,000 feet above the ground. The tug pilot’s job is to get down safely as fast as possible, going down over 3,000 feet per minute, land, and maneuver in front of the next competitor to start the next tow as soon as the hang glider pilot is ready.”

Between the launch, ascent, pilot release, and rapid descent for the next pilot, there must be a lot of factors to constantly monitor as the tug pilot like wind speed and direction, surrounding structures, pilots, but what would you say would be the most surprising thing you take into account that most people would not think of?

               “Meet Directors hire the most experienced Tug pilots they can find because we are flying at places that are best known for strong lift. We wait till the day starts to get turbulent before flying. Once we start we are often putting 10 to 15 pilots in the same area of the sky, and often very close to the same altitude. This group of pilots in the same thermal is called a gaggle. We then race down to tow the next pilot. So, it is the tug pilot who samples the air to learn where the pilots are most likely to find thermals.”

 

 

So, you guys sort of have a sampling of the factors for what the pilot can expect when they get to altitude, that makes their job a lot easier! What are some other responsibilities of the tug pilots during the competition?

               “Tug pilots are really just responsible for having the planes ready for each day, for starting the competition on time (and I do mean within seconds). Towing each competitor to the right altitude and in the best air possible, then getting back on the ground as fast as possible (safely) and repeat. We have a Meet Director, Safety Director, Launch Director, and lots of volunteers who set up the launch, check that pilots are ready when they get to the front of the launch line, help retrieve launch carts and then put it all away after the last pilot leaves. We also have drivers who go out and find all the pilots and bring them back to launch for the next day.”

 With the Green Swamp Klassic in Florida, and of course Hang Gliding Spectacular right on the Outer Banks, what are some of your favorite locations you’ve been able to be a tow pilot?

“For four year Jamie Sheldon and Steve Kroop put on a competition called the Flytec Race and Rally.  We would start at Quest Air in Groveland Florida the first day. The task for the day would have the Hang Glider pilots race around one to four waypoints to a goal, usually 60 to 160 Kilometers downwind, as close to another airport as possible. After we launch all the competitors, the tug pilots would have lunch, then fly to the next airport and spend the night. The next day we would set everything up, launch from the new airport and repeat. By day seven we usually had competed in three or four different states and at seven different airports, depending on the wind and weather. My Favorite single site Competition is The Big Spring National, held in August at Big Spring Texas. It is the “biggest air” I have ever flown in. Fastest climb rate, largest thermal size, and highest altitude gains and until this year in Australian the longest distance to goal called and flown.”

What Do you mean when you say “biggest air”?

                “Well, big Air is a two word description of hundreds of soaring conditions. All of them “big” in someway or many  ways. Such as thermals that are large in size so you can make big turns without falling off the edge of the lift, or the thermal is rising really fast so the hang gliders climb hundreds of feet per minute away from the earth. The atmosphere may cool enough that the pilots can climb up to 17,999 feet above sea level, above that hang gliders are not allowed. It can also mean the air is very turbulent for the  amount of lift that is available. Or that everything has come together in the same place and flights of hundreds of miles. measured in a straight line are possible. Or, as my wife says, really good flying conditions.”

The “big air” sounds pretty incredible, must be quite the sight to see all those gliders climbing away out of the atmosphere! So, for anyone who hasn’t been to a hang gliding competition, what are some other great reasons they should come out and check it out?

              “Finally, an easy question. At most hang gliding sites a pilot launches and within a few minutes is out of sight or at least very small. It’s the nature of what we are doing. The same thing goes at an aerotow competition except we have 30 to 130 hang glider pilots taking off one after another from the same spot. This means that there is one open cockpit airplane taking off and landing for every hang glider that takes off. We use at least one tow plane for every 10 competitors so that we can launch one hang glider ever three minutes or so. We try and put as many pilots in the same area in the sky as we can, to give everyone (remove “has”) the same chance to start the race. This makes for the busiest airport in the world for the short time we launch each day. Watching pilots come into goal is also great fun for everyone. Often pilots who have worked together to find lift out on the course will be close together when they get high enough to fly the last leg straight to the landing field. So, the last glide into goal is where the race gets really fast. Watching this “race to goal” can be even more fun that the launch.”

 

We’d like to take the chance to thank Jonny for letting us pick his brain a little bit to find out a bit more about the sport that he not only love, but gets to pass along to so many new pilots. If you read that and can’t wait until May on the Outer Banks for Hang Gliding Spectacular, you can come by the hang gliding school in Nags Head any day of the week and talk to our guys about flying, and hopefully even take a lesson for yourself! We also will be opening up our flight park at the Cotton Gin in April and hope you’ll all come up there to fly with our awesome crew and get to meet Jonny in person.

Our Lesson with Jockey’s Ridge State Park Super Intendant, Joy Greenwood

Since she began as the Jockey’s Ridge State Park Superintendent in 2017, Joy Greenwood has seen our hang gliders flying nearly every day, but with her position comes a sizable workload, which has stifled previous attempts to join our instructors for a lesson. But, after many conversations, we knew it would only be a matter of time until she took flight. This February we got a beautiful, sunny day, and Joy leaped at the opportunity; she came out for a lesson, and now we are happy to report we have a new pilot in training!

There had been some time leading up to this point for Joy to see other people flying. But, when asked what it was like to finally get out there and fly after seeing so many park visitors take their flights, Joy ecstatically replied, “It was truly exciting.  Having watched so many people come off the dunes with such happy looks on their faces, I really wanted to know what it felt like to  hang glide.” And although excited for herself, we’ve come to find she’s often thinking of the park’s visitors first, which is why for Greenwood, she feels it’s important to be able to explain to our visitors what to expect.  “As the park superintendent, I feel it’s important to understand all aspects of what our visitors experience here.  There are many people who come from all over the world to hang glide here and I wanted to have some incite into what draws them to Jockey’s Ridge.”

When we said ‘excited’ earlier, that perhaps was an understatement; so, we were not at all surprised to see Joy jump right into things, and although she claimed some nerves, we did not see any!

“Once the initial nervousness was over, I was able to take things in a little more.  The beauty of seeing the ocean off in the distance and feel the air blow over my whole body was exhilarating.  I can’t wait to get more practice and go on longer trips.”

When we saw her smile, we knew she finally had felt THAT feeling. The wind, the sand, the views, and we finally had gotten to share the feeling we knew so well, and with someone who’s become such a great friend of ours. There is no better feeling in the world than when you feel your feet leave the sand as the winds picks you up, except for the feeling of seeing that moment being passed along to a friend and student. The moment, is indescribable.

The new perspective was an exciting new take for her as well. She reflected how “the view of flying over the dunes is absolutely beautiful.” What our crew really appreciated was that even the park superintendent, who has seen every inch of the park, appreciated the different angle of things. “It is a wonderful experience to enjoy the beauty of the park from a different point of view.”

Stories like Superintendent Greenwood’s are plentiful from the thousands of students who have graced the threshold of the oldest hang gliding school in the world. Hearing each experience continues to reinforce the staff and the sport of hang gliding to continue to truly live and Teach the World to Fly.

Want to fly with us like Joy? Follow this link and save your spots today! 

 

Picking out a kite? Let us help!

There are so many different kinds of kites in the world that we couldn’t possibly list them all. There are certain constants among all them, though, that might help folks who are looking at 200-300 kites in a well-stocked kite store–Kitty Hawk Kites, as an example–and are wondering what to buy.

There are four basic kinds of kites—single line, single line fighter kites, dual line stunt kites and quad line stunt kites. Within each type there is an infinite selection, but those are the basics.

Single line

This is the most basic kite and what almost everyone thinks of when they imagine flying a kite with a child. A single line attaches to the kite, run into the wind and the kite goes into the air.

Three basic frames—diamond, delta and parafoil. The classic diamond is actually the hardest to get into the air; either the parafoil with no frame, or the delta are the easiest to fly.

Rachel's Kite

Two line Stunt Kites

A fun, fun kind of kite to fly. The flight of the kite is controlled by two lines that allows the flyer to maneuver the kite up, down, across the horizon, figure 8s, just about anything imaginable.

Most two line stunt kites are delta shaped—actually look a bit like a miniature hang glider—but there are also dual line parafoils that generate tremendous lift and power.

It generally takes about an hour or so to get comfortable controlling a stunt kite. The time is very well spent.

 

Quad Line Stunt Kites

The Revolution quad line kite.

The Revolution quad line kite.

When Revolution Kites brought out their line of quad line kites back in the 1990s, it was, well . . . revolutionary. But here’s a historic footnote: look at a photograph of the Wright Brothers flying their 1901 kite and they are controlling it with four attachment points.

Nonetheless, quad line kites really got people thinking about new stunts and new ways of doing things. Remarkable in their maneuverability, and surprisingly easy to master.

Revolution is still making their frame kites. Ram air quad lines are great power kites; kiteboarding kites use quad line controls.

Wacky Weather? Welcome to the Outer Banks!

Beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

The Outer Banks was once considered simply a summer destination for weary vacationers looking to get away from the hustle and bustle that is everyday life and unwind at the highly regarded beaches of the OBX.

During the last half decade or so, travelers have been flocking to the area not only during the sizzling summer months, but also during what is considered the offseason, which is otherwise known as the fall, spring and winter seasons.

With mild winters and a rather pleasant fall and spring, the Outer Banks has been transforming into more of a year-round vacation destination. These barrier islands enjoy around 200 sunny days each year, with a year-round average temperature hovering around 70°.

Wind is an everyday constant on the Outer Banks (the Wright Brothers came here for a reason), and can range from gentle southwest breezes to strong northeast storm winds.

Outer Banks Seasons

Summer

Ah, summer! If you’re staying on the Outer Banks during the summer months, expect average lows from the mid 70°’s to highs near 90°, depending on the time of the summer. During this time of year, average temperatures can climb to 85°, but even on the hottest summer days, you can expect a slight to moderate ocean breeze to help keep you cool even though the temperature is scorching. In the summer, the wind typically blows out of the southwest and picks up speed in the late afternoon.

Fall

Considered by many year-round area locals to be the best time of year on the Outer Banks, vacationers should consider a trip to the area if they’re at all interested in spending the day outdoors enjoying cool ocean breezes and temperatures in the lower 80°’s in September and mid-70°’s in October. Easily the busiest time of year for events on the Outer Banks, consider planning your trip around the Outer Banks Seafood Festival, OBX Brewtag, Mustang Music Festival, Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival, or the Duck Jazz Festival.

Winter

During the winter, temperatures are usually cool, though the wind can make it feel colder. Temperatures during the day usually hover around the lower 50°’s, with nights averaging in the upper 30°’s.

Spring

Typically a very mild season, temperatures during the spring months can be very unpredictable. Average daytime temperatures are normally in the upper 60°’s and lower 70°’s

Jennette's Pier in Nags Head, North Carolina

Outer Banks Average Temperature, Precipitation & Wind Chart

The weather readings below reflect the average temperatures (degrees Fahrenheit), wind velocity (MPH), and precipitation (inches) from Cape Hatteras, NC. These temperatures have been provided by The National Weather Service Newport Office.

outer-banks-weather-chart