How Learning to Fly at Kitty Hawk Kites Made Me into a Better Competition Pilot
In 2013, I began my first summer as a hang gliding instructor at Kitty Hawk Kites. It was here that I first learned to fly. My fellow instructors pushed me to become the best pilot and best instructor I could be. This 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.
Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School is unique; there’s no other way to say it. With programs specifically designed to build better pilots, you can easily excel when you dedicate yourself 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 took this mentality with me every day I was out on the dunes. I just wanted my students to experience the joy of flight without constraint.
Besides what I taught my students, I was trying to absorb everything I could learn from my fellow instructors. They took me from someone who had never even dreamed of learning to fly (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.
There are other technical benefits to learning to fly hang gliders 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.
Kitty Hawk Kites is also incredibly unique in the astounding variety of flying sites they offer. I was able to experience all of them early in my adventure as a hang gliding pilot. Not only did I get to learn strong foot launching skills at Jockey’s Ridge, but I was also 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 I completed my dune training 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 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 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 must constantly 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, several other pilots and I 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. This 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. Kitty Hawk Kites stressed ground handling from day 1. And I’m happy to say I’m constantly using what I learned there to make me into a better competition pilot.
If there’s one thing learning to fly a hang glider 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 spent teaching at Kitty Hawk Kites, I learned just how strong I can be. I have a smaller frame, so sometimes I need to use every tip, trick and plain brute strength I have 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, your mentality is everything. You put 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. Sometimes, that meant pulling every string in my brain to convince myself that I didn’t feel 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 enjoy the simple pleasure of flight, all the hard work is so worth it.
It’s funny how each of these skills builds on each other. I feel like these principles at Kitty Hawk Kites built my foundation in the sport of hang gliding. As an instructor, our leads encouraged us to get at it, day in and day out. They taught me 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 started and 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 for flying. Unsurprisingly, Kitty Hawk Kites’ dedication to their students and instructors is apparent from day one. Our sport is small, and it is Kitty Hawk Kites’ 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 learn 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 learned as a pilot and instructor at Kitty Hawk Kites will follow me, lift me up, and help me succeed.