Free as a Bird Now 

East Bay gliding enthusiasts call their sport the closest you can get to actual flying.

In this desert landscape, a scraggly group of spectators gathers around wooden picnic tables and plastic lawn furniture. A lone kid runs in circles around the group, desperately dragging a kite behind him. A few feet away, a ragged pink windsock dangles limply in the breeze. For miles around, the dry, scrubby hills of Horseshoe Bend Recreation Park, near the edge of Yosemite, seem abandoned — a vast wilderness of sagebrush and rattlesnakes, baking in the summer sun.

But it's a whole different scene in the sky above. Several dozen brightly colored hang gliders loop and soar in lazy circles. Others cluster at the top of a nearby peak, as the pilots eagerly await takeoff. People buzz around, busily assembling the huge batlike gliders, unfolding the massive wings like origami in reverse.

This is Coyote Howl, the first major hang-gliding meet of the summer season, and pilots have come from all over Northern California — the East Bay, Sacramento, Eureka, Redding — to experience a few hours of flight. "Watch for when those bushes down there start to shake," says Clint Strode, a veteran glider from Turlock, pointing to the thick dry brambles covering the hillside. "That shake will march up the hill. You want to turn and circle inside that rising column of air. Sometimes you wait for hours for the wind to be just right, but when it is ... aha!"

Below, the bushes have started to rustle in the wind, the rustle moving in a wave up the hillside as the wind rises. Just as it hits the bushes closest to the peak, another glider launches, its pilot kicking his legs briefly in the air. He dips sharply downward as he slips his legs into his cocoon pod — a strange harness pilots wear, like a cross between a sleeping bag and a corn husk, to streamline themselves — before hitting his stride and soaring up to join his comrades.

On the ground, the gliders and pilots look like big, ungainly birds. Strapped to a pair of giant wings, they can barely keep from toppling over when the wind blows. One starts to wobble in the breeze, so Strode and fellow pilot Aaron Harvick rush forward to help steady it.

Once in the air, though, everything changes. "You don't feel like you're high up when you're in the air," Strode says. "I get scared if I'm at the top of a ladder, but up there you don't feel the height. You feel totally in control. I've done everything — rafting, skiing, motorcycle riding — but nothing compares to this."

Occasionally, one of the gliders above dives toward the mountaintop, skimming over the crowd with a shout of "Wooooo!"

"I like the freedom," says Aaron Harvick, a novice pilot from Modesto. "Being up there without an engine. ... Everything else just melts away."

You don't have to travel to Yosemite for a good flight. With warm weather setting in, hang gliding enthusiasts are heading to local peaks. Mount Diablo in Walnut Creek, Mission Ridge in Fremont, Ed Levin Park in Milpitas, Mount Tamalpais in Marin, and Fort Funston on the San Francisco coast are popular "official" sites, administered by hang-gliding clubs with the landowners' permission. Some gliders also fly "bandito" sites, remote stretches of land where permission has neither been granted nor denied.

Hang gliding has matured since the '70s, when homemade gliders were unpredictable and meets often turned wild. "In the 1970s, it was free air, open land, and one continuous party," writes Larry Fleming, a Fresno pilot since 1974, in Downwind: A True Hang Gliding Story. "Pilots rode their gliders across the sky just like the American Indians had once roamed the Great Plains. Nobody owns the air; it's free."

Today, the slickest new birds are fitted with GPS and the latest flight technology, and few of the pilots resemble the danger-loving fanatics who populate energy drink commercials. In reality, most are nine-to-fivers who soar on weekends. "Contrary to popular perception, we're not a bunch of free-spirited adrenaline junkies living out of vans," says Robert Moore, a Benicia construction administrator and member of the Mount Diablo team. "Most of us are working folks with families who encourage us to pursue our passion for free flight. Few of us fit the athletic, mountain-climbing, bungee-diving image."

Hang gliding requires keen awareness of the surroundings. There's a certain art to takeoff, to discerning just the right moment. Pilots watch for two primary forms of lift: thermals, rising currents of warm air that can buoy them up, and ridge lift, in which a strong breeze blowing across the flats is suddenly forced up by a cliff or mountain.

Once airborne, a glider is falling continuously, so pilots are on a constant quest for lift. They watch for "thermal generators" below — asphalt parking lots or rocky outcroppings likely to release heat — and for predatory birds in flight. Turkey vultures, especially, like to drift around in thermals.

If they catch the right currents, gliders can soar for hours and travel long distances. In June 2002, world record holder William Gadd of Canada flew 263 miles across Texas. Berkeley pilot David McCutcheon says he hopes to break Gadd's record by using a pair of remote-controlled robotic gliders to fly out ahead of him and find thermals.

While some pilots seek the record books, others are more driven by what you might call wing envy. Since childhood, Robert Reiter of Berkeley says he's been fascinated by flight, watching as birds flew overhead. "Hang gliding's the closest thing to actually flying," notes Reiter, whose top spot is Mount Tam. "I've flown power planes, but those were always noisy and had a motor that could conk out, so I was never completely comfortable in them. Power gliders sounded fun, but that was like flying with a chainsaw strapped to your back. When I first took a hang-gliding lesson, I got maybe two feet off the ground at the most and flew just a few feet before I crashed into the sand. In the beginning, a two-minute ride seems to last forever. That's when you realize: You're really flying."

To wit, hang gliders report close encounters with turkey vultures, golden eagles, California condors, and other birds of prey. The birds seem to regard them as kindred spirits. "One of the most amazing things is that you get to fly wingtip to wingtip with these birds," Moore says. "They come over to check you out. Often they're curious; I wondered if the red-tailed hawk wondered how I'd taste. It's an opportunity that other kinds of pilots don't have."

Over Mount Diablo, Moore also sees sights trail hikers miss — the grassy knolls far from the beaten paths, tangled woods too wild for foot travel, and the jagged rocky peaks. He's seen the creeks and waterfalls in the mountain's nooks and crannies, and the springs where the creeks that give Walnut Creek its name begin. He's seen mountain lions in the brush, and once playfully chased one with his glider's shadow. "You're intimate with the terrain in a way that no one else is," he says. "You feel the temperature difference; you smell the sage and plants below; you hear hawks screaming. You're totally exposed, not sitting in a flying box. ... The best way to describe it is that one of the professed dreams of mankind is to fly like the birds. And we have the opportunity to reach out and do just that."

Free as a Bird Now

Some tips to get you started.
Get an instructor Hang gliding isn't regulated, so you could buy a glider and leap off a cliff without a single lesson — and quite possibly die. Don't do it. Instruction is limited in the East Bay, but teachers do exist. Fremont's Mission Soaring Center (408-262-1055) is nationally acclaimed as one of the best schools. Web site WingsofRogallo.com also is a good place to track down instructors. Hang-gliding clubs (see below) often have agreements with landowners that let them run workshops and give lessons. All can help you get in touch with certified instructors. Ask around — pilots are eager to help beginners.

Get a glider Not cheap: An entry-level package will run $3,000 to $4,000 new. But once you try it you'll be yearning for a glider of your own. Talk to your instructor about what to look for. There are multiple designs — rigid wing, flexible wing, paraglider — each with pros and cons. In general, newer means better, but don't discount older or used gliders. Just be smart: Don't buy a high-performance rig, which is too fast and unstable for beginners. Don't buy anything with rusted hardware or a dented frame. And don't buy one before you fly it. Some distributors include Icaro (Icaro2000.com), North Wing Design (NorthWing.com), and Pleasanton's Aeros USA (FlyAeros.com).

Know your ratings Hang gliders are ranked according to their skills. The more challenging spots are open only to the higher ranks. Always know a site's difficulty level before launching.

Hang I — Beginner. New fliers should stick with sand dunes, low hills, and level ground using "tow launches," in which you're towed into the air with a line.

Hang II — Intermediate. Ed Levin Park (Milpitas).

Hang III — Advanced. Fort Funston (San Francisco), Mount Tamalpais (Marin).

Hang IV — Expert. Mission Ridge (Fremont), Mount Diablo (Walnut Creek).

Hang V — This special honorary title is reserved for pilots whose skills and experience rank them among the best in the sport.

Fly smart Any midair sport is never without danger, but gliders insist theirs is only as dangerous as you make it. If you're in tune with your surroundings and aware of your limits, you'll have little to worry about.

Practice Start simple and low to the ground and gradually build to higher, longer flights and more complicated maneuvers. "Learning to hang glide is like learning to ski," Robert Moore explains. "You don't start on a high peak, just like a skier wouldn't go to a triple black diamond slope. You go to the equivalent of a bunny slope."

Make friends Joining a gliding club will put you in contact with all the right people and keep you informed about meets and top gliding spots. Some regional clubs include Berkeley Hang Gliding Club (Guest.xinet.com/ucbhgc/fly.html), Mother Lode Sky Riders (MLSR.net), Bay Area Paragliding Association (SFBAPA.org), Sonoma Wings (SonomaWings.com), Humboldt Wings (HumboldtWings.org), and Marin County Hang Gliding Association (MCHGA.org). — Michael Rosen-Molina

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