There's a common misconception that hang gliders are pathological wackos bent on cheating death while hanging from paper-thin kites thousands of feet in the air, says Fly America President Greg DeWolf.
But DeWolf is out to change that thinking by doing things such as flying a state-of-the-art glider across the country and taking a certifiable "fraidy-cat" Deseret News reporter for an air-borne tour."Most people think that we're all a bunch of crazies out to kill ourselves, but we're not," he said while rigging his craft at Cedar Valley Airport 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
DeWolf, from Los Angeles, joined by hang glider pilots Cindy Drozda and Ian Huss from Boulder, Colo., left from Los Angeles June 1 and landed at Point of the Mountain June 16, ending the first leg of their flight.
Their goal is to reach, appropriately, Kitty Hawk, N.C., the birthplace of flight, by flying roughly 25 miles per day, although the day DeWolf landed here, he logged 138 miles.
The flight, never attempted before, is designed to promote the sport of hang gliding, once considered an extremely dangerous undertaking and consequently enjoyed by only a few, strange people, DeWolf said.
But with advancements in technology, the development of sophisticated training programs and new and acute attention paid to safety, the sport has become far less dangerous, DeWolf said.
Now, instead of weirdos and risk-takers, "the people who are into hang gliding are people who love life," he said.
Like other sports, hang gliding's safety is measured in part by a pilot's limitations, and his or her acknowledging them, said support crew member Jerry Forburger of Lubbock, Texas.
"As long as you fly within a pilot's skills, limitations and judgments, it's a very safe sport. But if you don't do that, it can be just as dangerous as driving a car," he said, pointing out that, really, even driving a car isn't all that dangerous.
Forburger is the designer of a crucial piece of equipment that has made the cross-country attempt possible. The Texan designed and built the Airtime of Lubbock towing system, a device that permits pilots to take off from the back of a moving vehicle rather than having to leap from a steep hill or cliff.
A glider simply secures his kite to the system, located, say, in the back of a pickup truck. The truck hauls the pilot down a straight road until an adequate air speed, around 40 mph, is reached.
When the pilot trips a mechanism, the kite is released and the towing system pulls the glider up, possibly as high as 4,000 feet in the air and allowing the pilot to fly as high as a rising thermal may take him.
To demonstrate that hang gliding is a sport for anyone, DeWolf invited a reporter to hang beside him in a harness system designed to turn the kite into a tandem.
DeWolf assured this reporter, whose most recent thrill was staying up past 10 p.m., that the flight would be a piece of cake. After a few brief instructions, the two were speeding down a road hanging side-by-side from the glider.
The kite popped free from the truck and rocketed to 1,500 feet in less than a minute. DeWolf unhooked the towing line, circled on thermals for a few minutes and swooped down to the dirt runway to land gently on his feet with the reporter, heart-in-mouth, clinging to his back.
But for the initiated, the thrill of flying is meeting the challenges of flying in new areas, where weather patterns and landing sites are virtually unknown, Drozda said.
"The most exciting thing is seeing all the new areas and flying where I've never been before," she said.
Drozda, Huss and DeWolf hoped to take off Sunday afternoon to make the leap over the towering Wasatch Mountains, a surmountable challenge given that DeWolf has already climbed to 18,000 feet.
Fly America will then follow U.S. 40 to Steamboat Springs, Colo., the next stop on their tour across the country, spreading the hang gliding gospel that their sport isn't just for wackos anymore.