How my brain ever chose to be a comp hang glider pilot I will never understand. But this is my genesis story. I started young, a scrawny 19-year-old girl wrapping up my freshman year of college in Indiana. Joe Bedinghaus- a friend from high school and fellow Dunie- texted me, “Do you want to fly hang gliders? You can do it all summer.” I snapped shut my flip phone and walked to class, oblivious that my entire life had changed in that instant.
I didn’t even know what a hang glider was. I looked up pictures and scrolled the Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School website. Apparently, the school snagged up youngsters that have never flown, hooked them into 70’s style Rogallo wings called Eaglets, and flew them off the side of a coastal North Carolina sand dune.
As they learned to fly hang gliders, these pilots also learned to teach. The work was supposed to be hard. From the website:
“Dear Hang Gliding Instructor Applicant, The work is physically demanding. The typical workday is about seven hours long, most of which will be spent teaching out on the dune. During the summer months, you will be expected to run down the training hill with students and carry the glider back up. Temperatures in the summer average in the nineties and the humidity is generally high. Remember that you are in a teaching situation. This requires that you always maintain your responsibilities as an instructor, despite sometimes exhausting conditions. You will leave here in probably the best shape of your life.”
Curiosity: piqued. I had just discovered rock climbing and could see the physical change reflected in the mirror. My skinny arms were sprouting tiny muscles and I felt strong. A summer job flying these crazy delta wings and getting in the best shape of my life sounded like a win-win situation.
Still, there was one problem: I’m a nerd. It was April, and I was busily searching for my first summer internship in the environmental field. I was planning to reverse climate change, solve the oil crisis and sustainably feed the entire planet. I didn’t have the time to go hang gliding at the beach.
But four days later, I was on the phone with the Kitty Hawk Hang Gliding School manager. I hadn’t been sleeping because I was too excited. Picking up another adventure sport suddenly seemed much more interesting than fixing the world’s problems, and I was all in.
Learning to Fly
Words can never properly describe that first summer on the Outer Banks. It changed everything I was as a person and it built my foundation as a comp pilot. It destroyed and restored my body and taught me the definition of endurance. I learned to talk to people; to somehow make them feel at ease while flying 20 feet above the ground.
I learned what it meant to be part of a community of people whose sole purpose was to fly. We chased the hype that everyone was after and only a few achieve. We spent night after night roaming the island and searching for the next kick… ocean kayaking, biking, skateboarding, kiteboarding, surfing. But only until we could fly again. We did what we needed to survive, picking up shifts at the school, living on Mountain Dew and psyche.
When we didn’t teach on the dunes, we carpooled to the Currituck Airport and took tandem hang gliding flights with the more experienced instructors. That’s where the bug really bit me – 2000 feet above the ground. If there was any question of my ever leaving the sport, it faded away like a stone thrown in the ocean.
I had earned my Hang 1 certification earlier in the summer, endured the grueling (but insanely fun) mornings of June training and finally secured the coveted instructor shirt. As the season’s halfway point passed, groups of us headed to Morningside Flight Park in New Hampshire to earn our Hang 2s. It was mountain time!
We had graduated from flying fluttery Eaglets to sleeked out wings called Falcons. Each morning, we flew while conditions were smooth and slowly worked our way up the training hill. 50 feet, 75 feet, 100 feet, 150 feet, 250 feet. Launch, launch, launch, land land, land. We hit our goals, messed up, got angry, got tired, got stoked, succeeded and finally received the all-clear to launch off the 400-foot mountain.
The feeling can only be shared in flight, but my heart was both calm and wild. I did my first 360 degree turns before landing a full 60 seconds after launch, knowing that flights could only get longer after this point. By the end of the week, my fellow dune instructors and I were Hang 2 pilots with eyes like fire and a renewed passion to go hard and fly often.
We returned to the dunes more knowledgeable and more aware of weather patterns and glider functionality, understanding that there was so much more to learn. As the summer came to an end, we returned to where we came from. I went back to school with 6-pack abs and a volcanic metabolism that would swallow anything in its path. My climber friends rolled their eyes whenever I started talking about hang gliding again. I was totally hooked.
Learning to Solo
I spent my sophomore year of college focused on climbing and school. A couple months after returning, I noticed that I stopped talking about hang gliding to friends that couldn’t relate, and I wasn’t constantly staring up at the clouds. As the long winter progressed, I realized that I spent too much time away from the sport and began plotting my return. I saved up money by donating blood plasma and headed to a flight park in Florida to earn my aerotow solo during spring break.
The week was magical but challenging. I would wake up every morning to train in the tandem glider. Halfway through the week, I was itching to solo. However, my instructor, Kitty Hawk legend Jonny Thompson, held me back. My frustration from wrestling with the massive tandem glider was starting to show. Everyone made flying seem so relaxing and easy and I didn’t understand why I wasn’t feeling that way. My shoulders were sore and the early mornings were taking it out of me, but this was what I came for.
Finally, the day arrived. It was eight in the morning and the fog had just lifted. After a warm-up tandem flight, Jonny gave me the go-ahead and everything clicked into place as I left the ground totally alone. Hang gliding was easy. The glider I was flying fit me; it was much smaller than the bulky tandem. My friend and mentor Jim Prahl piloted the tow plane, and he sent me to the cloud base. My teeth felt cold from smiling and my lips became chapped from squealing in happiness mid-air. I was finally a hang glider pilot.
Although I returned to Kitty Hawk for two more summers, it was never quite like the first. A 5-week wildlife course I was taking in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan stunted my second summer. After that, I spent my days working groundcrew at Currituck and flying more often than working. Jonny, Andy, and Too-Tall: thank you for letting me do that. I know you could have used my help on the ground but instead, you let me collect flights like candy on Halloween. To finish out the summer, another dunie trip to Morningside, solidifying those months as a crucial building block in my foundation as a comp pilot. I only wish I had more time there.
I spent another school year in Indiana, although I was able to make it down south for a quick autumn flying trip in northern Georgia. They let me borrow a Falcon and an ill-fitting harness with a parachute and launched me off the mountain first to see if it was soarable. If I sunk out and landed, the pilots on launch would know to wait until the wind got stronger before they flew. But I stayed up!
I soared the ridge that day for almost 6 hours, surpassing my personal best by lightyears. I had launched first, and after I watched the red orb sun dip below the horizon, I landed last. I’d spent almost an entire day flying high above the mountain. That terrible harness gave me bruises the size of softballs on my hips, but I was so excited that I had no idea until I reached the ground again. That was my first real taste of endurance hang gliding, and then I didn’t fly again until the next summer.
I spent my third Kitty Hawk season mostly subbing in for instructors on the dunes, paddleboarding in the sound and lounging on the beach. I was just there absorbing every experience that came my way. Then, I went back to Morningside and flew the Wills Wing Sport2 for the first time and fell in love with flying all over again. That glider felt like a rocket ship compared to the Falcon. Again, my summer days were numbered because I was leaving early for a semester abroad. And then I was gone.
My senior year of college had arrived, and I left the flying world for a long time. I spent the fall in Malaysia studying and traveling. I took a couple trips to Thailand to climb and took my first paragliding tandem as a tourist in Bali. Classes and climbing absorbed my spring back in the US.
I wanted to do something with the degree that I had worked so hard to earn, so I began applying to sea turtle technician jobs around the world. Finally, I got one on Sapelo Island in coastal Georgia and spent my summer conducting sea turtle research alone beside the Atlantic. I saved every single penny I made.
During this time, a goal started forming in the corners of my consciousness. By the end of that summer in 2016, I knew that I needed to return to flying. And this time, I was going to get good at it.
Becoming a Comp Pilot
After leaving Sapelo with a few thousand dollars in my pocket, I embarked on one of the most epic trips I’ve ever taken. I spent the first week in October at a climbing festival in Kentucky. After that, I drove north to Morningside Flight Park in New Hampshire and dropped every dollar I’d saved on my first hang glider – the Sport2 I’d flown that last summer, a sparkly red, white and blue delta that I named Captain America.
After some glorious and much-needed aerotowing and mountain flights at Morningside, I hit the road with Captain America somewhat firmly attached to the top of my vehicle. I spent a few days hiking with a friend in the Adirondacks, then spent a week climbing in Las Vegas. After that, I migrated to Florida for the winter because it was time to become a better pilot.
Some friends of mine let me borrow their RV to live in while I was there, and I secured part-time jobs at a high-ropes course and a pizza joint as a delivery driver. After my road trip and hang glider purchase, I was sorely in need of cash and biting at the bit for some airtime.
Living at the flight park was the turning point for me as a hang glider pilot. I gained the confidence to sift through good and bad advice, I met people willing to help me improve at all costs, I finally achieved my Hang 3 rating after 3 failed attempts (oh yeah, that was rough) and I achieved my goal. I was better at hang gliding.
It was there that I met my cross-country flying mentor, US hang gliding team member John Simon. A loveable brat from Boston, John refused to admit that he could possibly mentor me. He told me over and over that I needed to find a better mentor, but then he’d coach me over the radio, some days guiding me in his topless wing but sometimes putzing around with me with a kingpost. He helped me leave the airport and land miles away in unfamiliar fields and informed me that I was great at finding lift but terrible at thermalling. The only payment he ever asked for is my guacamole recipe.
My First Competition
Following some epic winter cross-country flights, I registered for my first hang gliding competition: the 2017 Green Swamp Sport Klassic. I was slowly learning how to use my complicated flight navigation system, the FlyTec 6030, and becoming keenly familiar with the Florida landscape from the sky. I was nervous and ready.
The coolest thing about the Green Swamp is that each pilot is teamed up with other comp pilots that have similar performing hang gliders, and every day the team is paired with an experienced mentor. These mentors walk the team through every aspect of competition flying, then fly with the team during the comp, coaching them on the radio along the way. I learned something different from every mentor I had. Davis Straub taught us how to find lift, Mick Howard made me thermal like a beast and Tom Lanning taught me to plan ahead.
Tom also gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received as a comp pilot. On a challenging day, he told my team, “This is not a day to race, but just a day to stay in the sky.” I spent almost 5 hours on the last day of the competition getting pummeled by a hard crosswind, echoing Tom’s words in my head, The only thing I need to do is STAY UP! And it worked! I fought into the goal after refusing to let myself just go land, exhausted, exhilarated, elated. That was the moment that I was sold on competition; I had found my niche.
Later that year I registered for my first sanctioned competition, Midwest 2017 in Wisconsin. No mentors this time, just me and my competitors. Here I learned the hard way that mentality can change the game entirely. Suddenly my competitive nature got the best of me. I gave into competitive pressure and forgot to be happy, causing me to have an inconsistent performance. I still did well, but I wasn’t happy, so was it even worth it?
I headed into the first competition of the 2018 US hang gliding season, Quest Air Nationals, with this knowledge. I’d been practicing for months, visualizing and prioritizing happiness in flight. When I would land during competition days, I would assess how I was feeling. I was always feeling happy. Then I would tell myself that no score could ever take that happiness away from me. In-flight, when I realized I was tense, I would remember where I was – thousands of feet above the earth, soaring with no engine beside my friends. How could winning possibly matter?
The mental practice has paid off so far. I had my first consistent competition. I didn’t ride the emotional rollercoaster up and down and I’m happier than ever. Additionally, I achieved my goal of becoming a better comp pilot. I started at Kitty Hawk at sea level, the lowest place you can get before leaving the earth for the ocean, but now I’m here. Now I’m thousands of feet above the ground. When I think of this wild journey I’ve been on, I reflect on those early days at Kitty Hawk Kites and my happiness triples. I started on the dunes and I made it here and I can’t wait for every adventure to come.