Features & Columns


andre pham A Theory of Flight

I HAVE ALWAYS wanted to fly since I was a boy, but acrophobia, circumstances, my own tawdry efforts, and plain cowardice have conspired to keep me from making any headway. Like so many valued things, the promises we made to our future selves, they slipped away without a struggle, snagged along the steep banks of the years.

Some things cannot be controlled, say, death or the collapse of love, while others, I would like to believe, even the far-fetched fancies are within reach. If I cannot simply step into a new life, one that is wildly different and more satisfying than the one I inhabit, then, at least, I want a year or two, unchained from all the others, unfettered by accumulated inhibitions, a time to ask irrelevant questions, to give into impulses, to attempt the ridiculous.

Last summer, I took tandem lessons on a hang glider towed aloft by an ultralight—one of those tourist setups where you take off and land on wheels, with an instructor riding your back the whole time. I ran out of money before he deemed me competent to solo. Then life interceded: Stephanie and I broke up. She was the girl I thought I would marry, the girl I thought was my soulmate. She had slept with four guys, two of them our mutual friends. I tried forgiveness, I tried forgetfulness. I tried to be the better man, but my heart had turned black.

Nothing seemed important anymore. I never got into the harness as I had intended. I wandered around the country for a few months, made some money, squandered it all away, and, finally, having forgotten even the rudimentary of flight, I began to think about flying again. A week ago, I bought a tattered old glider and an even more ancient harness. I could have done the smart thing and taken classes, but that would have marred the romance. So for days, I ran the glider down a gentle, fifty-foot hill to practice the launching and landing techniques I had read in the training manual.

The seed was planted a long time ago with a John Heiney poster I bought in college. It was a wing-shot, the camera mounted on the leading edge, pointing at the pilot. Several thousand feet above some barren mountain range, stark brown escarpments strewn with creamy patches of snow and a black lake. Behind, nothing but blue sky. He was fully suited, helmeted. The goggles and the oxygen mask covered his face. He could have been anyone, he could have been heading to the moon. All these years, I have imagined freedom like that, on gossamer wings.

DAWN ON its way, night sinks into the landscape. A new sun rises over the mountains. The prospective landing zone is roughly six hundred feet below, a triangular meadow almost the size of a football field, below and slightly to the right of launch. Two sets of barbed wire fences worry me, one if I fall short on approach, the other if I overshoot the field.

[My friend] Charlie waves to me from the far end where he is planting a precautionary wind indicator—strips of orange plastic on a stick. The air is calm, sky clear. In the middle of the field is Charlie's red blanket, my target.

I keep reassuring myself that this intermediate glider shouldn't be much harder to fly than the big tandem floaters I trained on last year. The big difference, they say, will be the landing. It will be faster with a smaller flare window—the one or two seconds a pilot has to push his wing into the vertical, transforming it into one big air brake. Also in a poorly coordinated turn, the intermediate double surface glider, unlike the novice wing, will slip—a sort of sideways fall through the air, somewhat like a slow bobsled sliding down a steeply banked curve.

By the time Charlie hikes back up, I have rigged and checked the wing, making sure every locknut is secure and every safety pin is in place. I zip up my motorcycle crash vest, strap on the kneepads and the helmet, and buckle into the harness. It is a cocoon style, worn like a bib, or a floor-length apron, the back exposed, with a spaghetti tangle of lines leading up to the carabiner.

I close my eyes and visualize my first solo—this is highly recommended in the text. Arms extended, I walk out my glide path, talking myself step by step through the flight plan. I go through it twice.

Patiently, Charlie sits at a distance, not uttering a word. I call him over to help me with the hang check to make sure I won't fall out of my ship in midair. He asks me if I have health insurance. I don't. He giggles. Neither does Charlie—not anymore. He asks me if I have a cell phone. Nope. Okay, says Charlie, backing away, thumbs up, Let's get this over with before someone calls the cops.

The red blanket looks awfully small from here, about the size of a confetti fleck at arm's length. This is about the same height as the Arch of St. Louis. I've suffered enough injuries to be properly afraid.

I wrap my arms around the downtubes, and grunt the seventy-five-pound glider onto my shoulders. The wing wobbles over my head. It's a cool dawn, but I'm sweating, my hands slippery. Checking both wing tips to see that they are leveled, I feel a little woozy, then realize I have been holding my breath. A drum starts pounding in my chest.

I begin the launch procedure. Keep her nose down a bit for the takeoff; too high and she'll stall on takeoff. It would be like jumping off the roof with an umbrella. The left wing lifts a little high. Now the right. Steady, steady. Glider, harness, reserve chute, and gear add up to nearly a hundred pounds, two-thirds of my body weight. Too nervous, I set the glider down and take ten deep breaths.

I look up. An oceanic sky so vast I am seized by an unreasonable fear of falling upward into the empty blue—no way to swim through that.

I square my wings. A breeze sighs in the grass. Could you separate a moment, define the heartbeat that took the self from indecision to action? I lean into the downtubes. The forward motion has begun, as irreversible as a bungee jumper leaving his perch. I run toward the edge, stomach churning. Strange, the choices we make. Six short steps into the abyss. My stride lengthens into the drop. Vertigo. Blood thumping in my ears. The weight of the glider vanishes as if it has just decided to fly. My legs pumping blindly through the grass. Air. I glance down and the shrubs are ten feet below me. Twenty. Fifty.

Oh, Sweetness. I am free.

A KEEN, preternatural calm settles over me. On the ground, the sail that has been as limp as laundry, is now taut, alive, trembling like skin. I'm flying, kissed by the wind. Although I know I am descending toward the earth, the sensation is that of rising, ascending from a depth, from the bottom of the sky. Wind washes my face, in my ears. The valley sinks below, weighted with the barnacles of civilization. Far off, the ulcerous salt flats. The distant bay shimmers like a mirage in the gold-dusted morning.

I try to get my feet into the harness. After two failed attempts, I tentatively take one hand off the control bar and yank the harness around my left knee. A hard push with my legs and I am horizontal, fully in. I know of a pilot who fatally crashed into a cliff while he was preoccupied with adjusting his harness.

My glider has drifted into the right, beginning a turn. While I struggle to get prone, I've moved too far out. I nudge the control bar down just in time to increase the speed so the wing won't slip. She noses through ten, thirty, forty-five, sixty degrees, ninety, one-fifty degrees. The landscape spins gently around me, the air hissing. I tug the bar the other way and the wing levels out of its bank, now heading back towards the right of the launch area, along the steep side of the hill.

Air somehow smells purer up here. To compensate for my late turn, I make another one-eighty. A bit more unsteady this time. Too early! Still too high to enter the final descent. My flight plan is scrapped. Alternatives begin ticking rapidly through my head. One quick S wiggle should shed enough altitude for me to level out on the final approach to the landing site. I pull in the bar and turn. Not enough speed. The glider slips, like plunging down a roller-coaster sideways. It feels like a kick in the bladder.

I am falling, one wing pointed at the ground. I pull the other way—no effect. I'm skiing out of control down an invisible hill. The other wing swings to the ground. She oscillates like a pendulum. P.I.O.—pilot-induced oscillation. I can't lock my eyes on the horizon. The world is flipping all funny. Trust the equations; equilibrium is built into the wings. Even though I can't breathe, I force myself to relax and hold the bar with only my thumbs and index fingers. Tree tops streak across my peripheral vision. The oscillations seem to iron themselves out. Seconds to impact. Amazing how quickly one could lose so much altitude. Fear does not diminish, it recedes into background noise. No time. I bring the bar in. Must not slow down at this point. I cling onto that one counter-intuitive rule in landing: Speed will save your neck. A stall now means falling from the roof a three-story building.

I step out of my harness and arch into a standing position for the inevitable crash. Yellow weeds blur beneath me, then the first barbed wire fence. Ten feet above ground. I'm going so fast there isn't much room for thoughts, just flashes of emotions, flicking like road signs past the corners of my eyes. Exhilaration. Terror. Joy. To put her into ground effect and extend the glide, I gently let out the bar. I've overshot the blanket by thirty yards. Doesn't matter. Gently, push out. My feet hit earth. I'm sprinting with everything I've got, trying to keep up with the glider. Break! Break! Flaring the wing, pushing the nose of the wing up. Too late. It's no good. I'm going too fast, tripping already. I hurl forward, head first. The ground pounds the breath out of me. The ship rolls on the fat training wheels, dragging me through the weed. It's over in a matter of seconds.

Flat on my belly, face buried in the grass, I laugh, every part of me tingling, charged. Crazy. The whole flight lasted less than two minutes. Charlie sprints down the trail, whooping the whole way. I unhook and dance around my ship. Can't stop the laughter from barreling out. If he asks, I'll swear the air is laced with wine.