How Learning to Fly at Kitty Hawk Kites Has Made Me into a Better Competition Pilot

SUBMITTED BY: SARA WEAVER

In 2013, I began my first summer as a hang gliding instructor at Kitty Hawk Kites. My fellow instructors pushed me to become the best pilot and best instructor I could be, which can sometimes be tough during the hot days of an Outer Banks summer. The three seasons I spent on those sand dunes would forever shape me as a pilot, and I continue to bring the lessons I learned on Jockey’s Ridge with me as I navigate the world of competition hang gliding five years later.

Why Kitty Hawk Kites is Different

Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School is unique; there’s no other way to say it. With programs specifically designed to build better pilots, it’s easy to excel when you’re dedicated to the sport. The instructors at Kitty Hawk Kites have one goal: to get a person flying happily, confidently and safely at all costs. This was the mentality I took with me every day I was out on the dunes. I just wanted my students to experience the joy of flight without constraint.

Instructors

A breathtaking sunset flight during Big Spring Nationals 2018.
Pilot: Sara Weaver. Photo: Dave Aldrich.

Besides what I taught my students, I was trying to absorb everything I could from my fellow instructors. They took me from someone who had never even dreamed of flying (a rarity in this sport) to someone with the skills and desire to make it my lifestyle. Kitty Hawk Kites instructors have years of experience and I wanted to learn every tip and trick and tidbit of knowledge they had.

They taught me the easiest way to carry a glider (important when you’re carrying them long distances and trying to save energy), all the technical information I would need to pass my written certification tests, and how to fly safely and efficiently. Most importantly, they instilled in me the idea that being stoked is everything. Having positive energy and psyche to carry me through the hardest parts of both instructing and competition flying became the most valuable lesson I’d learn out on the dunes.

Variety

There are other technical benefits to learning to hang glide at Kitty Hawk Kites. First of all, because we fly from a sand dune I had the ability to learn in all different conditions: light to strong winds and wind direction from any which way. Such variety leads to a well-rounded pilot! Additionally, as a student at KHK I started on the easiest wing in the world, called an Eaglet. Eaglets are by far the most accessible introductory wing, but they’re not typically offered at other mountain sites. And once I was comfortable on an Eaglet, Kitty Hawk Kites provided other hang gliders perfect for new pilots – like the Wills Wing Alphas and Falcons. Every time I got to fly in a new set of conditions and on new hang gliders, I filed away a lesson that would resurface years later in my flying career.

Flying Sites

Kitty Hawk Kites is also incredibly unique in the astounding variety of flying sites I was able to experience early in my adventure as a hang gliding pilot. Not only did I get to learn strong foot launching skills at Jockey’s Ridge, I was able to fly tandem at altitude with more experienced instructors just down the road. At Kitty Hawk Kites’ tandem hang gliding site on the Outer Banks, I learned how to tow behind an ultralight aircraft and experience high altitude flight. And once my dune training was complete and I had earned my Hang 1, Kitty Hawk Kites sent me and other new instructors to Morningside Flight Park in New Hampshire to earn our Hang 2 and learn how to fly in the mountains! No other flight school in the world can offer such variety, from to sand dunes, to altitude, to mountains – and I got to experience all three at the very beginning of my journey as a pilot!

Ground Handling

Ground handling is a cornerstone skill in the sport of hang gliding. Hang gliders are easy to fly, but they’re harder to carry – every gust of wind threatens to steal the glider from your hands. It’s important to know how to control the glider, even when you’re not flying. There’s nothing worse than an expensive glider tumbling away in the wind. Thankfully with the training I received at Kitty Hawk Kites, I have the skills to prevent this from happening!

Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School puts more focus on ground handling than any other site I’ve experienced. Because of the consistent and sometimes strong sea breeze blowing in from the Atlantic, instructors and students are constantly forced to manage the hang glider while they’re on the ground before launch and after landing. Gliders can be cumbersome if you’re not used to it, but because of the specific ground handling training I received at KHK I never really worry about it.

Take this for example. In August 2018 while I was competing at the Big Spring Nationals in Texas, I had my hang glider set up inside a hangar near the runway. When it came time to launch, me and several other pilots needed to move our gliders from the hangar to the launch line. It was a mess! Several pilots struggled to ground handle their gliders confidently to the launch line, and their slow progression caused other pilots behind them to get caught in the wind rotor and disrupted everyone’s progress to the launch line. Later on during the comp, I landed in the same conditions – and because of the ground handling skills I learned at Kitty Hawk Kites, I was easily able to carry my glider back to a safe location. Ground handling was stressed from day 1 at Kitty Hawk Kites, and I’m happy to say I’m constantly using what I learned there to make me into a better competition pilot.

Sara Weaver Kitty Hawk Kites Big Spring

Sara Weaver and Dave Aldrich after landing at goal for task 1 of the 2018 Big Spring Nationals.
Photo: Kendrick Stallard.

Strength

If there’s one thing learning and instructing at Kitty Hawk will make you, it’s strong. Repeatedly walking up sand dunes with a hang glider on your shoulders in 90 degree heat is no joke. During those three summers I was teaching at Kitty Hawk Kites, I learned just how strong I can be. I’ve got a smaller frame, so sometimes I’d need to use every tip, trick and plain brute strength I had to get through a day of teaching.

Learning my strength at KHK has translated to every single day of competition flying. From loading and unloading the glider from the top of my car’s roof rack, to ground handling my glider in rough conditions, from setting up, breaking down and carrying my glider in 100 degree weather two weeks ago in Big Spring, strength was KEY. Without those challenging summers on Jockey’s Ridge, I may never have learned what exactly my limitations are… and just how strong I can be.

Keeping a Level Head

This one goes hand in hand with strength. In hang gliding competition, mentality is everything. You’re putting a lot of stress on your body by flying in a prone position for hours, ground handling and carrying the glider and basically just working plain hard for an entire week. As your body gets more and more tired, it’s so easy for your brain to follow suit. And once you lose your focus, it’s hard to compete well.

At Kitty Hawk Kites, I learned day after day that mentality drives a successful lesson. When I was stoked, my students were stoked. When I wasn’t performing at my best, my students noticed. That’s why with every lesson, I brought my A-game – and sometimes, that meant pulling every string in my brain to convince myself that I wasn’t sore and tired.

That practice makes an appearance every day in a competition. When I wake up early and my shoulders are on fire, or when I’ve wrestled my glider from the hangar to the launch line, or when I land in the middle of the field and have to haul my 54 pound hang glider and 25 pound harness an eighth of a mile to get out, I go back to the brain game at Kitty Hawk Kites. Every time something is hard, I smile and push past it, because as long as I can be happy and just enjoy the simple pleasure of flight, all the hard work it so worth it.

Tenacity

It’s funny how each of these skills build on each other. I feel like my foundation in the sport of hang gliding was built on these principles at Kitty Hawk Kites. As an instructor, we were encouraged to get at it, day in and day out. I was taught to try hard… not just in my training as a pilot but as someone responsible for making student’s lifelong dreams of flight become reality. Cheesy? Yes. But indelibly true.

Out on the dunes, there was a strong mentality of “No Instructor Left Behind.” We began an ended every lesson together. If someone was having a slower day, you could count on another instructor stepping in and helping. Likewise, if conditions were strong as they often were, we’d knock out those tough lessons in pairs – all to ensure our students were flying safely and having the best day of their life.

That insatiable drive to do well, not just by ourselves, but by our students and fellow instructors follows me every single day on the competition circuit. Flying with tenacity and tenaciously supporting other pilots is something I strive for constantly – and it’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken with me from the dunes.

Support System / Resources

Even today, years after I’ve left the dunes to follow other pursuits, Kitty Hawk Kites continues to support my passion of flying. Unsurprisingly, Kitty Hawk Kites’s dedication to their students and instructors is apparent from day one. Our sport is small, and it is Kitty Hawk Kites’s mission to “Teach the World to Fly”. It follows that each student receives VIP treatment out on the dunes, and as they continue to progress, KHK offers instruction at every level.

Kitty Hawk Kites provided all my foundational training, from ground handling on the dunes, to my Hang 1 and 2 certifications, to my initial aerotow training and my foot launch sign off. At every turn, the instructors that make Kitty Hawk Kites the best place on earth to fly built me into the pilot I am today. Even now I turn to the people I’ve met at Kitty Hawk Kites when I’m developing a new skill or preparing for the next competition.

Today, as I navigate the complex and challenging world of competitive hang gliding, I am consistently reminded of what Kitty Hawk Kites has provided in the way of guidance, instruction and support to help me succeed. It’s foolish to say this limited list of the ways KHK has molded me is definitive, but it’s a start. No matter where I wander in this eccentric hang gliding world, the lessons I’ve learned as a pilot and instructor at Kitty Hawk Kites will follow me, lift me up and help me succeed.

Earning Your Hang 1 at Kitty Hawk Kites

SUBMITTED BY: SARA WEAVER

If you’re ready to take adventure to a whole new level, then it’s time to earn your first hang gliding certification at Kitty Hawk Kites. If you’re looking to achieve your childhood dream of flight with a healthy dose of challenge and confidence-building, you’re guaranteed to find it on the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. If you want to learn a new sport while situated in one of the United States’ most beautiful beach locales, this is your place.

Earning your Hang 1 certification

Earning your Hang 1 certification at Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School is the best way to add a sense of adventure to your OBX vacation. You’ll still have plenty of time to lounge on the beach and hang out with friends and family, but in your free time you’ll be walking to the dunes… and then running right off of them, tasting flight for the first time!

On paper earning a Hang 1 seems straightforward. Safely launch and land into the wind, fly in a straight line and pass a written test. Know how to assemble and break down your glider. Demonstrate safe decision-making. Understand how different conditions like wind direction and velocity can impact your flights. Easy enough, right?

Not quite. Earning your Hang 1 takes work. It can be tiring and frustrating at times, but exhilarating and joyful at most others. If you’re willing to show up and work hard, you’ll be a pilot in no time. Along the way you’ll get to learn from fantastic instructors and meet other students who want the same thing you do – to fly without constraints. You just have to take the leap!

Hang Gliding Certification with Kitty Hawk Kites

Completing your Hang 1 depends on a variety of conditions. How is the weather? If the wind is blowing too hard or if it’s storming during the week, it’ll take a little more time to get certified. Earning your Hang 1 is also heavily dependent on your personal skill and how well you pick it up. Some people are naturals and they’re certified in just a few days. Others (and I’m one of them) take a week or more. On average, a student at Kitty Hawk can expect to earn a Hang 1 in 7-10 days in average conditions. Having a time constraint isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re short on time, it’ll help motivate you to get the material down and execute confident flights. Your instructors will work with you to create a training plan that balances your schedule with weather conditions.

Out on the dunes, your focus will be on launching and landing the glider. You’ll start with hands-on assistance from your instructor, but will progress to launching, flying and landing the glider all by yourself by the end of the week. This part of training is by far the most satisfying. Not only will you be having the time of your life, but the happiness you’ll feel watching yourself improve throughout the week is icing on the cake!

Carry the hang glider

One of the more difficult challenges of the week will be learning how to carry the glider. After flying down the dune, you’ll need to walk it back up. Kitty Hawk trains students on gliders called Eaglets which weigh about 55 pounds. You’ll learn how to angle the nose of the glider into the wind in a way that inflates the wing and helps to assist your walk up the dune. It takes a few tries to get used to it, but your instructor will be there every step of the way… and they’ll be right there if you need a little extra help.

Set up and break down the hang glider

Being able to correctly set up, preflight and break down your glider is another crucial component of earning your Hang 1. The key for this one is simply to practice. The more you repeat the process, the easier and faster it’ll go. Understanding how and why a glider comes together and double-checking every step of the way isn’t just part of the test – knowing the functionality of every glider part will help you feel safer and more knowledgeable in the sky. It’s useful to show up a little early for your lessons so you can really get the hang of it without time constraints.

Hang 1 written test

After you’ve mastered assembling your wing, assessing conditions, and safely launching, flying and landing into the wind, then it’s time for your Hang 1 finale: the written test. This is sometimes the most stressful part of the entire experience for students, but there’s nothing to worry about. At the start of your lessons, you’ll be given a training manual that details exactly what you need to know for the multiple-choice test. If you keep up with your reading and ask lots of questions, you’ll have no trouble passing the test. Kitty Hawk Kites instructor Wolf is adamant about this element; he says students who ask more questions and are deeply engaged with the material tend to have a higher success rate.

Once all these requirements are met, you will receive your Hang 1 certification through the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association and will be well on your way on the grandest adventure of your life. With your certification, you’ll be able to rent an Eaglet at will and fly on the dunes whenever conditions are appropriate.

 

Becoming a certified hang glider pilot will be an incredibly memorable experience and hopefully a significant stepping stone on your path in free flight. Training plans are extremely flexible and can be altered to fit every student’s personal needs. At Kitty Hawk Kites, the instructors want to see you succeed with a huge smile on your face, so that’s what they’re aiming for every single time.

Good luck and see you in the skies. We can’t wait to join you on this adventure!

Hang Gliding with Kitty Hawk Kites

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!