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.

Happy Birthday, Francis Rogallo!

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Francis Rogallo, the NASA aeronautical engineer widely known as the father of modern hang gliding, was born on January 27th, 1912. He eventually celebrated 97 birthdays, but one in particular stands out, in 1974. Just a few years after his retirement from NASA, hang gliding as a sport was truly taking off, and Rog, as he was known to nearly everyone, was invited for his birthday to what was supposed to be the “First Annual Rogallo Meet” at Escape Country, a premier hang gliding site near Trabuco Canyon, Ca.

Despite careful planning by organizer Kas de Lisse, the meet was a bit of a wash. Fog descended onto the mountain, and the ‘Fogallo’ meet was punctuated only by a few intrepid airmen making occasional flights into the mist, (“onward through the fog!”), guided to the landing area by shouts and amplified music. And the tales of the mud that weekend were reminiscent of Woodstock.

What was truly noteworthy was simply Rog’s presence. Most of the pilots knew his name, but his face was anonymous enough that he could wander through the assembled gliders unrecognized, many of which were varieties of what were known simply as “Rogallo Wings.”

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Maralys Wills, matriarch of the famous hang gliding Wills Wing family, described him beautifully in a piece she wrote for Groundskimmer Magazine:

 

“He was the tall man wearing the Russian Cossack hat; at close range, with his head cocked slightly in an attitude of listening, his eyes sparkling and an almost impish smile on his lips, he gave the impression of a tall leprechaun. One could see him throughout the day, observing with wonder the fruits of his earlier imagination. Francis Rogallo, whose birthday the meet was honoring, seemed almost removed from the arena of kiting. It was as if he had turned the switch, and then the machine had gone off and done its own thing.”

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Rog saw an incredible variety of designs at that meet, most of which were based on the flexible wing he and his wife Gertrude invented in 1948. After all the years of trying to get recognition for the possibilities of their invention, the tall, leprechaun-like man must have felt an almost disconnected sense of wonder at what had become of his idea. The machine had gone off and done its own thing, and people all over the world were learning to fly with simple, inexpensive wings–what he had always hoped would happen. He knew what was possible as early as 1949, when he wrote in an article for The Ford Times, “Imagine the thrill of carrying such a glider in your knapsack to the top of a hill or mountain, and then unfurling it and gliding down into the valley below.”

 

Happy Birthday Rog, and thanks for letting us all “imagine the thrill.”

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Written By Billy Vaughn, Francis Rogallo Historian

If you are interested in making a donation to The Rogallo Foundation, which supports educational opportunities involving aerodonetics and low-speed aerodynamics, you can click here!

2017 Outer Banks Watermelon Festival!

The stage was set, a long table donning a bright red vinyl cover, the contestants patiently waiting for the start. Fans circled around the table, each supporting their contestant or just watching for the show. As the watermelon eating contest took off, so did the chunky spray of watermelon as participants shoved their faces into the fruit as quickly and ferociously as they could. The eating contest was just one of many opportunities people had to gorge themselves as the food came in many forms: watermelon, ice cream, Mulligan’s fish tacos. But, the fun came in even more forms. There were events running seamlessly throughout the day including the ice cream eating contest, the seed spitting contest, and everyone’s favorite…. the watermelon eating contest. Thanks to the planning of our very own events crew, and a day-of help from many volunteers, there were activities for all to enjoy regardless of their interests. Many ki

 

ds tried their hands at a plethora of lawn games and toys, some even took the opportunity to turn their own hands to wax with the ever popular “Wax Hands” station. However, the favorite of the day seemed to be the Pirate inflatable that offered not only a large bounce house, but a waterslide to cool off afterwards. “Food and Fun” was the motto of the day, but the 11th Annual Outer Banks Watermelon Festival had a lot more to it than that. The entire festival was run to support the Outer Banks Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Coalition, a group with a positive mission, “To help facilitate the education and awareness of practical bicycle and pedestrian safety to drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and all those who live or visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina in a positive and proactive manner.” Unfortunately, too many people are injured or killed every year on the Outer Banks trying to cross the highways on bicycles or on foot. For Kitty Hawk Kites, this was an issue that everyone could get behind. Following the Watermelon Festival, when all the money was tallied up, there was $4723 raised! But, the awareness raised can’t be

 

measured. Getting people to recognize the issue at hand and respect the rules of the road can have a lasting effect on the community. If everyone does their part to pay attention and respect the safety of others, hopefully the issue can be eaten away as if it were just a piece of watermelon.

Holiday Update from the KHK Crew

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Celebrate the start of the holiday season with Kitty Hawk Kites at the annual Hangin’ with Santa and Kites with Lights holiday weekend events on Friday, November 25 and Saturday, November 26.

Share your Christmas wishes and get your FREE picture taken with Santa at the Kitty Hawk Kites store at Jockey’s Ridge Crossing in Nags Head on November 25 (10am–2pm) and November 26 (1pm–4pm).

Plus, be sure to make it out to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on November 26 (4pm–6pm) for a light display like none other! Kites with Lights will feature large kites decked out in the spirit of the holidays atop the dunes. In addition, witness the annual Jockey’s Ridge State Park Tree Lighting with The Friends of Jockey’s Ridge that evening at 5pm. Keep warm with cookies and cider for sale at Jockey’s Ridge Crossing, with all proceeds from the bake sale benefitting Beach Food Pantry.

Kitty Hawk Kites in Nags Head and Kitty Hawk Kites in Hatteras will also serve as a local Toys for Tots collection center! Please consider picking up a toy for a child in need while you shop this holiday season. This collection will run from November 20 through December 20. Speaking of shopping, don’t miss out on the annual Thanksgiving Week Super Sale, featuring 20 to 40 percent savings* at all Outer Banks Kitty Hawk Kites, Kitty Hawk Surf Co., and Life is Good locations.