A First Flight Story

SUBMITTED BY: Sara Weaver

hang gliding launch

My name is Sara, and I’m a competitive hang glider pilot. I’ve been obsessed with free flight since my first lessons in 2013, and suspect that I’ll always feel more comfortable 5000 feet above the ground than with 2 feet planted firmly below.

It wasn’t always like this though. I am not like most other pilots. Sometimes their story of first flight was rooted in family history. They’ve known airplanes or gliders as long as they’ve been alive. For others, flying was the super power they dreamed of as a kid. I hear story after story of now-hang glider pilots jumping from picnic tables with an umbrella opened wide above their heads, wishing it would keep them aloft. I bet the Wright brothers felt that way when they were little.

I was nothing like that though. When I was a kid, I was a rug rat, a dirt explorer, a tree climber. I roamed the woods barefoot and scratched away at poison ivy. My family had never been on a plane. Once, we went to an airshow and I sat in the underbelly of an aircraft that transported cargo and troops. The wing-walkers were my favorite.

It wasn’t until a friend from high school called me in April 2013 during my freshman year of college that flight shoved its way into my life and changed everything about me. He told me about Kitty Hawk Kites, a hang gliding school on the coast of North Carolina. They would teach me how to fly and they would teach me how to teach others how to fly if I worked for them for the summer.

I was busy looking for my first internships in the environmental field at the time, and initially wasn’t interested. I wasn’t even certain what hang gliding was until I looked it up on the internet. But I kept thinking about it and I started losing sleep. Maybe it was the idea that I’d get to live within steps of the ocean, or that I’d feel really cool telling people that yeah, I flew hang gliders, and what did you do with your summer? I submitted my application, interviewed, and got the job. I was 19 years old.

Flashforward to my first flight in May 2013. I was standing atop a 40 foot sand dune in Jockey’s Ridge State Park, wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the Albemarle Sound, wearing a weighty canvas chest harness and clipped into a blue and white glider called an Eaglet. Needless to say, I was a bit overwhelmed.

Mike Pattishall was my instructor. Over the years I’d get to know him as Too Tall, because that’s what he was. Like me, he was a rock climber. Unlike me, he was not attached like a caterpillar to butterfly wings it wasn’t sure it was ready for.

For as overwhelming as this experience was, I felt mostly prepared for the next steps. I’d spent an hour in ground school that morning, learning a brief history of flight, the basic mechanisms of a hang glider and how to fly one safely. The team I would one day be a part of was knowledgeable, energetic and kind. They helped me into my harness and helmet and we walked out to the dunes together. None of us understood that because of this lesson, one day I’d be traveling the world as a competition pilot desperate for wings and airtime.

Mike held the glider and had me simulate a left turn, a right turn, and a flare for landing while squirming in the sand facing into the wind. We did our final checks together and I held onto the base tube of the glider as I stood up facing southeast toward the Atlantic. I knew vaguely what would happen next; I’d walk, jog, run and suddenly be flying before returning to the sand below the dune after all of 5 seconds. Mike would run alongside me the entire time and coach me through each part of the flight.

And then it actually happened. I yelled “CLEAR” and ran until my feet weren’t touching the ground anymore, and when Mike yelled, “FLARE!” I pushed the bar high above my head and softly plopped back onto planet earth. It was that fast.

We repeated this flight 4 more times and with each repetition, I gained more awareness for exactly what was happening. I didn’t land on my feet every time, but it didn’t hurt, it wasn’t scary, and Mike’s coaching and confidence meant I was excited every time I hooked back into the glider.

I’ve launched and landed hang gliders hundreds of times since this moment, but there are very few flights I remember as thoroughly as my first. I think hang gliding can be scary for some people. There’s this idea that everyone that flies hang gliders is an adrenaline junky, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hang gliding is safe with proper instruction, and being at altitude is easily the most peaceful experience of my life.

I think I was the last person on the planet who would try hang gliding. Why would I? I’d never been in a plane and I’d never dreamed of flight, so what was the point? But stepping out of my comfort zone and off the dune would be one of the best moments of my life, and I hope everyone reading this gets the chance to try. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be racing you in the sky…