Give Me the Sky

Sunday, November 9, 1998, Runway Two-One, Hobbs, New Mexico - This just is not physically possible. This is not gonna happen. I don't care what you say - the math just isn't right. Curt Graham, a veteran hang gliding instructor and 150 pounds if he is a stone and I, Mark Gilchrist, a deadweight 190 pounds, are going flying - on one glider.

On a single glider that weighs - I promise - only 60 pounds. Yes, the two of us and our gear weigh over 400 pounds, yet Graham thinks we're just going to fly around like birds, hanging onto this featherweight kite. I mean, they have removed tumors from people that weigh more than this thing.

It wasn't the agonizingly long (3 minute) drive to the notary to sign the liability waiver that got me nervous, and it wasn't even the recollection of accidents in these "paper airplanes." What got my butterflies kicking was watching Graham pick up our glider, practically with one hand. We're about to sail 2,000 feet in the air on something lighter than John Glenn's first space suit.

Riding into Hobbs, an oil town in southeast New Mexico, I saw the billboard declaring that I was entering the "Soaring Capital of the World." I decided to write an article on a soaring pilot, but I was thrilled when I found Graham, because, heck, I'd flown in a glider before, but not on a hang-glider.

"This part of New Mexico is a barrier between the humid west Texas and the dry part of New Mexico," Graham says. "The differences in thermal conditions gives us some incredible updrafts." That is what any hang glider, soaring pilot and balloonist treasures and seeks - the almighty updraft. It is the vertical movement of air caused by differences in temperature or geography.

Curt Graham first "flew" a hang glider in 1968. The thirteen year old aviator and his brothers built a glider from a kit. Technology at that time only allowed for "ground skimming" Graham says. Running down the side of a hill, he was lucky to get a few feet off the ground for a few seconds.

After high school, Graham taught downhill skiing in Ruidoso, New Mexico for several years. The resort is popular for beginner skiers, he says, giving him valuable experience in introducing people to a technical sport. He picked up hang gliding again in the mid seventies, when the sport was still very experimental and dangerous.

"In the eighties, hang gliding got safe," says Graham. "In the nineties, hang gliding got fun!" One of the inventions which has helped make the sport fun is one we will use today, called "payout towing."

There are several ways you can launch a hang glider. You can jump off a cliff, you can put a 2,000 foot rope between you and a car and shout "hit it!" (reeeeally loud) or you can use this clever device which makes the launch just like flying a kite.

To launch your kite, you would hold it and run upwind. As the kite catches the wind, you would let out string. Using payout towing, you mount a huge spool of rope on the front bumper of your car, climb on the back bumper and take off. Sound crazy? Let me tell you, this works. "The take-off will be the most exhillerating part of the flight," Graham's wife, Carol, tells me. She will be the one hauling us up, in a 1981 Honda station wagon.

"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth..."

Curt has loaded the hang glider on the back of the tow vehicle and we suit up for take-off. He gives me a flight suit that is actually just a big, soft harness which will suspend me from the glider. His suit is a "full cuccoon" model with a tail for his legs and a two-man parachute. It makes him look, well, duck-like. I stifle my immature giggling - most of it, anyway - simply because he is the man who in a few minutes, will have my very life in his hands. And he has the parachute.

We climb on the back of the Honda and head out to runway two-one, facing 210 degrees on the compass. Curt goes through his preflight checklist, testing the radio, clearing the tow cable and bridle, and briefing me on the basics. "Hold onto me during take-off and landing," he says. "I'll let you fly for a while once we're up."

We will stay locked onto the Honda until we reach an airspeed of 30 mph. There is a 10 mph wind, so the car will only be moving about 20 mph. Graham points to a wind guage on the front of the car. "Keep an eye on that, when the red disc hits thirty, we'll be flying," he says.

Our glider is on the end of a 6,000 foot long line, which is completely wound up on a spool on the front of the Honda. The reason the spool doesn't just pay out line like a fishing reel with a hot tuna strike, is that Graham mounted a disk brake on the spool. Pressure will be put on the brake according to our weight. Carol sets the system to maintain between 90 and 120 pounds of pressure.

After carefully going through the safety check, Graham looks at me and says "Ready?" I nod and he tells Carol over the radio; "Take us up!" and Carol floors it.

In only a few seconds, we're up to speed. The red disk has climbed to the thirty mark and Graham pulls the release. We are up! We gain altitude at an amazing rate and before I can stop my whooping and yelping and I catch my breath, we're 500 feet above the cactus.

Carol is still pulling us along. That little, four cylinder Honda has us up over 1,000 feet and I can't believe the incredible view. There is no other aircraft like this, where you are so well positioned to watch the planet below you. I pull out my camera and grab some shots.

Carol takes a dogleg to the left onto runway one-seven and pulls us up higher - 1,400 feet, 1,500 feet - we're climbing 600 feet per minute. From here my Harley looks like a tiny moped. Soon, it's time to set ourselves free and, at 2,045 feet over Hobbs, New Mexico, Graham releases the towline, the rope falls for a third of a mile and we are on our own.

This is the part of hang gliding that really is hang gliding. This is where we pilot our craft wherever we want, and the sport begins. "See those birds over there?" Graham says. "They're in an updraft - that's where we want to be." Air, as many of you know, is invisible, so glider pilots rely on signs, such as birds and clouds - and on instinct - to give them the lift they need.

Graham shows me a few maneuvers, turning the glider 180, then 360 degrees. We practice changing our pitch by moving our weight forward and backward. Then he takes his hands off the bar and lets me take control. I am still overwelmed by the exhileration and I act slowly. "Let's turn left," he says. "Move your weight to the left." He repeats himself a few times before I react, but he has been teaching for so long, he expects this and patiently leads me. He taps me on the left shoulder and I move - we bank toward Texas.

I am as close to sprouting wings as I have ever been. If you have ever wished you could soar like a bird, this is the sport for you. I am nervous that I will bank too much to one side, put this kite on its edge and send us both spiraling down to the desert clay, but Graham assures me this can't happen.

At 700 feet, Graham takes over and guides us to the runway. These last few hundred feet of descent are the most dramatic, as the ground rushes toward us. Several quick maneuvers and we are ready to land. "Pull your feet out of your harness," Graham tells me and I get ready to run. We are moving at 15 mph, heading into a 10 mph wind, so our landing will require only a 5 mph trot. At the last second, Graham pulls the kite into a stall and we touch down - a perfect landing.

The Almighty Updraft - Just as construction workers watching office girls walk by in their dresses, Curt Graham lives for the updraft. It is what has enabled him to soar 136 miles once without a drop of gasoline. The world distance record was set in 1996, when Larry Tutor took off from Hobbs and flew 303 miles. Nine hours later, they picked him up in Kansas. Tiki Mashy set the woman's distance record this summer, taking off in Hobbs and flying 220 miles.

You don't fly a hang glider to travel, but sometimes you end up far from where you took off, so you need a chase car. Carol follows Graham, using a two-way radio, GPS, a cell phone and a sunroof. They never really know when the flight will end, as a hang glider is constantly working to stay aloft, playing the game of Updrafts, following birds, chasing thermals and dancing among the clouds.

Curt Graham measures his progress by his altitude. Every foot he climbs is like adding gas to his tank, letting him soar farther. He roams the sky collecting scraps of updraft, trading speed for altitude, bargaining with nature and negotiating with gravity. He is constantly making decisions. "Someone calls you on the radio and distracts you - Boom, you're on the ground!" he says.

Sometimes Graham will fly so high, he will need to take an oxygen tank with him, and he has flown his glider as fast as 100 mph. He has had very few accidents and only one really crazy moment, when he and his kite flipped over, and it took him a few tries - and a few hundred feet of altitude - to right himself.

"The guys that are really good at this sport are the guys that really understand the weather," Graham says, indicating that this is more of a scientific excersize than the daredevil sport it was known as in the seventies.

Graham has made a hang gliding simulator to teach his novice students. Some instructors teach beginners by practicing take-offs and then working from there, which is a lot like giving someone a pair of skis and pushing him down the slope. "I have reversed the progression of teaching," says Graham. Using the simulator, he teaches students how to steer and control a glider before they even leave the ground.

If Curt Graham had his way, he would live in the clouds, hanging beneath his glider, chasing birds and dreams and watching his planet spin beneath him. He would trade his arms for a pair of wings, I bet, and this mortal earth for the deep, blue sky.

Postscript: Hobbs, New Mexico is host to Crossroads Windsports (Graham's hang gliding company) a local soaring club for fixed-wing gliders, the National Soaring Foundation, where glider pilots from around the country can fly, and the Soaring Society of America.

Hang gliding is not very expensive. You can buy a good glider for between three and five thousand dollars (much cheaper than a Harley) and get tows at many small airparks. Gliders disassemble easily and fit on a car's roof rack easier than a canoe, (and far easier than a Harley.)

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