KHK Across the Generations
Last month, we celebrated the 51st annual Hang Gliding Spectacular. This month, we’re celebrating Father’s Day! In the spirit of both, we’re here to share amazing stories about Hang Gliding as a family tradition. Recently, we got to sit down and chat with 2 Hang Gliding Dads, and their kids who have followed in their footsteps at Kitty Hawk Kites.
The Comer Family
First up, pilot and former Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding Instructor, Sean Comer. When asked about how he got his start in Hang Gliding, Sean’s response is serendipitous:
“I came to the Outer Banks on a surfing trip in spring 1992. KHK was looking for Hang Gliding instructors. So I started training on a cold windy day, and loved it. I lived with other instructors and worked and played in wind and water every day that summer. Turns out I was a ‘Natural Dune Goon’.”
Through the years, Sean made many memories within the KHK family that he still looks back on as some of his best. In recalling a few favorites, he says that:
“The People I worked and played with are my favorite memories. Truly characters and so fun to be around. Because they loved to fly and lived every moment for adventure. I think it was the 1994 Spectacular and there were many pilots from out of town. We got blown out on the dune. So we went to the southwest side of Colington Island and used a motorcycle winch to tow us up on the tree line. That definitely doesn’t coincide with today’s safety measures. But it is safe to say that the after party that was epic.”
In the late 1990’s, Sean traded the dunes of the Outer Banks for the mountains of Virginia in order to raise a family with his wife, Michele. While he credits fatherhood as his greatest thrill, it was his daughters who drew him back to Hang Gliding after a long hiatus. Roughly 30 years after his days as a dunie, Sean’s daughters moved to Outer Banks to start their own Kitty Hawk Kites careers. His oldest daughter, Hannah, is a graphic designer in Kitty Hawk Kites’ marketing department. While his youngest, Emma, is a pilot just like her dad. Through their encouragement, Sean says that he is “realizing that I can enjoy hang gliding again after a break of many years. I thought it was just something ‘I used to do.’ But everything we experience and learn will be useful sometime in the future. I am grateful to my kids for encouraging me to fly fly fly.”
Passing On the Legacy
Emma Comer shares similar sentiments about her love for Hang Gliding. And her father who acted as her role model in both the sport and in life. When asked how she got into Hang Gliding, her response centers on both the magic of flight and the connection of father and daughter:
“How I started flying is such a great story of the community of flying. My dad had come to fly in the 50th spectacular. And it was my second summer living down here on the beach. The spectacular is so much fun! There is always something to do, someone to talk to, and someone to meet. At the street dance my dad came to me and told me that there was someone he wanted me to meet, [Kitty Hawk Kites Aerotow Instructor] Jonny Thompson. Jonny and I started talking and to say we hit it off would be an understatement. Jonny gave me his phone number and told me I could call him and come fly anytime. I was excited but I definitely didn’t know what to expect. About a week later I called Jonny and told him I wanted to come fly. He told me to come in the morning, so I came really just expecting to have a fun ride-along flight and go home. But that’s definitely not what happened. I got there and my first time in a glider I was put in the bottom harness. And I attempted to fly the glider with A LOT of help from the Tandem Instructor I was flying with. I flew two other times that day, and I’ve flown a lot since then. I remember calling my dad on the drive back from the Cotton Gin Aerotow Flight Park that day. We talked the whole drive home. My dad hates talking on the phone but he lasted a whole 30 minutes talking about flying. I told him I had flown. And I hadn’t just been along for the ride, I was the pilot! He was so excited for me. And I think he could tell I’d been bit by the flying bug.
In regard to following in Sean’s footsteps, Emma credits her father’s sage advice and teaching style as instrumental to her hang gliding career, and in the trajectory of her life:
“Following in my dad’s footsteps has been amazing. I feel so lucky to have him in my corner. He is absolutely the first person I call after I have an amazing flight or a flight I didn’t feel as good about. I call and tell him everything amazing that happened. And if I didn’t feel great about a flight, we talk it through together. I always feel so proud when people ask me how I got into flying and I can tell them my dad is a pilot. I absolutely feel like we are a team in this. And I feel so much better when I know he is under my wing. And he knows that I’m under his when he needs me to be.”
The Vaughn Family
Another Dunie Dad we got to catch up with is our resident Hang Gliding Boss-Man, Billy Vaughn! Billy started Hang Gliding with Kitty Hawk Kites when he was just 19 years old. And he has made a long and revered career for himself as a pilot, instructor, and free flight aviation extraordinaire. Currently, Billy co-manages the Kitty Hawk Kites Hang-Gliding school, the largest Hang-Gliding school in the world. With such a tenured career under his belt, Billy has many memories. Here he cites some of his favorites from his days with KHK:
“From my early days, getting my first soaring flight on Jockey’s Ridge, flying Duck, about 6 blocks from where I grew up, my first mountain flight… And kicking hacky sac with my hang gliding tribe: an ever-widening community of the best people I’ve ever known. Recently, I really enjoy watching the next generations come up and helping them learn. The faces may change, but the people seem to stay the same.”
While his air-related achievements are many, Billy cites his kids as his greatest accomplishment. A proud father of three children, the veteran pilot calls the experience of seeing his kids fall in love with the sport “humbling”. His daughter, Elizabeth, while not a serious pilot herself, has always been supportive of her family’s love for hang gliding. And his two sons, Willie and Michael, have both gone on to become instructors through KHK and beyond:
“My kids grew up steeped in hang gliding. Their mom, Mary, and I were both pilots. But the kids were generally uninterested when they were younger. That all three of them have grown to appreciate the experience that’s informed my entire adult life is tremendously humbling. And the fact that Willie and Michael are both great pilots and instructors just amazes me.”
When asked about the life lessons learned in his illustrious hang gliding career that he has passed on to his children, his words are nuanced and full of uplifting sentiment:
“I’m not sure how much you can pass on anything to your kids. I guess all any parent can do is model behaviors, for better or worse. And Mary and I modeled an ongoing relationship with our hang-gliding community in a way that our kids couldn’t miss. From that, I think our kids have a strong appreciation for community–whatever shape that community might take. From family to team sports, to performing with an orchestra or a college marching band. For me, flying hang gliders promotes a presence-in-the-moment, or a clarity of focus that I’ve seen in all my kids at some level–from soccer to baseball to musical performance, and hang gliding. Finally, I think Mary and I showed our kids that an unconventional lifestyle doesn’t mean you’re irrational. And that you CAN have a life that includes a variety of unconventional paths. And that doesn’t make you crazy, wrong, or even poor. It’s really a lot of fun!”
Leading the Next Generation
In regard to their family tradition of hang gliding, Willie and Michael Vaughn both recognize their special circumstances. And they have a lot to say about it. Michael says that hang gliding has been a part of his life ‘so much so’ that he believes he “thinks [he] learned how to tie a glider before learning to tie [his] shoes.” Still, both never claimed to have been pushed into the sport by either of their parents. Willie, for example, says that the hang gliding practiced by his Mom and Dad brought him direction when he needed it most:
“When I was 18 years old and looking for some direction in life my mom and dad recommended I go give teaching on the dunes a shot. I soon found out why hang gliding and the community has been such a big part of my family’s life for as long as I can remember. At the end of the day, my parents never pushed me into flying, which I appreciate. My parents did, however, let me know that flying and teaching was something that I could choose to do. Teaching hang gliding has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
Michael, similarly, doesn’t necessarily consider his parents as trailblazers for his hang gliding career. Instead, he recognizes the unique position that he is in as a pilot who can turn to his parents for both sport and life advice. Speaking of working with his dad as instructors in the same flight school, he says that:
“I wouldn’t say I’m following in my dad’s footsteps. But rather making my own path with him right by my side. People often ask ‘oh man, how is it working with your dad?’ My response is always the same. I tell them ‘I work with Billy. And then after work I can go hangout with my dad.’ What my mom and dad have done for me is show me that hang gliding is possible and it is an option. And for that I’m forever grateful.”
Both sons additionally are thankful for and recognize the lessons that Billy has taught them. Michael’s reflections showcase Billy’s gentle and pragmatic teaching style:
“I think the most important thing I’ve learned from my dad is to always keep as many doors open as possible. Meaning that there are so many things you can do with your life at any point. So don’t burn bridges. And most importantly don’t limit yourself to any opportunity that arises. The same goes for hang gliding.”
While Willie’s refreshingly point to the reality of being a parent and pilot:
“I, like many others have learned a ton from Billy over the years. But three things have stuck with me above most others. My Dad’s three rules of life:
Get your s**t together
Attempt to be cool’
If you can accomplish all three of the above, you’re usually gonna be alright.”
Celebrate Your Dad
Today and every day, we want to thank Dads like these for teaching us to teach the world to fly. Stories like this show how the family of KHK runs generations deep. And how you never know what you’ll learn from a new adventure.
In the spirit of new adventures, fly with dad this Father’s Day! Book 1 or more hang gliding lessons at regular price, and dad flies free! Dune or Tandem lessons, must call to book, must book at least 1 at full price, must fly between June 17-19.
Happy Father’s Day! And as always, FLY FLY FLY!