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first time hang gliding
by Cheri Sicard

GEORGIA/TENNESSEE BORDER, USA -- The words to the song from Disney's Peter Pan kept running through my head. And truly, I was flying. Breezing along just like I did during countless flying dreams I've experienced ever since childhood. I glided, I swooped, I took in the breathtaking scenery 2000 feet below -- lush golf-course green rolling meadows butted against a sheer Smokey mountain cliff that rose to the peak of Lookout Mountain.

But this time it wasn't a dream. No alarm clock waited at the end of this flight to jangle me back to the reality that people can't fly. I was really flying. I pinched myself to be sure. Granted, I had some help. A certified instructor from Lookout Mountain Flight Park was right beside me the whole time, both of us suspended, prone, from our hang glider -- a contraption resembling a huge kite. And while I don't recall ever having a handsome, buff guy beside me in my childhood dreams of flying -- who I am to complain?

Just Jump On In!

When we arrived that morning at the Flight Park office, we encountered what looked like a large cement launching pad that gave way to the sheer rock cliff of Lookout Mountain. Our guide explained that "in the old days" the method for a hang gliding launch was to literally run and jump off the cliff. The pros had no problem with the leap, but the average first time hang glider's inclination was to plant both feet on the ground and stop. Needless to say, this made for some hairy take-offs.

Today, those looking for a first time hang gliding experience don't have to jump off a cliff to get it. They have the luxury of being gracefully towed aloft by an ultra-light plane. This method makes the launch easy and stress-free. It also allows you go higher than the Lookout Mountain peak that formerly served as a takeoff point.

After some brief general instructions, we were fitted into our harnesses, then manoeuvred into place on the hang glider. By the way, it's called that for a reason -- participants literally hang prone from the overheard frame. Attached to the front of the frame was a rope -- not a huge cable but an ordinary looking rope. As I contemplated the rope's lack of girth, it suddenly sprung to life right before my eyes and began to move. The slack quickly disappeared and the little rope proved its strength by smoothly pulling us forward across the meadow and aloft into the pristine blue Tennessee sky.

We climber higher and higher, until the gauge on my left read 2000 feet! Then the plane let us loose and took off back towards the field below, the gentle chugging of its engine fading away, replaced by the sound of wind rushing around our ears as we soared through the open sky.

My trusty guide explained how to steer -- a slight shift of the weight is all that's needed to change direction. To speed up simply pull the bar towards your body, to slow down push it away. I nervously took the reins and tried it myself. It wasn't difficult, but I was still happy to turn the control back over -- after all, I was only here for a single ride and wanted to enjoy the scenery.

We flew for about 15 minutes, slowly circling the valley below us. The people we had left behind just tiny specks from this vantage point. As we descended and got ever closer to the ground, the ride got less hypnotic and a bit more exhilarating. That green grass was coming at us pretty darn quickly. I didn't need to worry though. The landing was as smooth as the takeoff-- the hanglider's wheels taking us for a high speed ride across the meadow floor before gently coasting to a stop. All that was left was to stand up and detach the harness.

A Hang Gliding Plan for Everyone

When I tell friends about the experience, they seem most surprised that it was so easy. An introductory hang gliding flight is an adrenaline rush that one needn't be athletic to accomplish. In fact, the gentleman who went up after me was 74 years old. Age is no object, as the Flight Park has introduced those from 6 - 86 to hang gliding.

Of course, you might be after more than just an introductory flight. You might even want to conquer the infamous "jumping off the cliff" takeoff. You've still come to the right place. Lookout Mountain Flight Park is the nation's largest and most successful full-time hang gliding school and resort, offering a comprehensive training facility on a 44-acre mountain resort. Camping and lodging are conveniently located near the landing zone.

The Flight Park has a training program that's right for you, regardless of your level of experience -- or complete lack thereof. In fact, the school has certified one in every six novice rated hang gliding pilots in the United States. Students achieve the skills necessary for their pilot rating and have the opportunity to train exclusively on thee grassy slopes training hills or combine training hill lessons with state-of-the-art tandem flight training for the best integrated approach to learning how to fly hang gliders.

So, whether you want to try it once just for the experience and to impress your friends and family, or if you truly want to delve into the sport of hang gliding, Lookout Mountain Flight Park is an excellent place to start.