What are your dreams of flying ? Perhaps, like Aladdin, you float cross-legged on a magic carpet, smoking a hookah, hovering in and out of clouds, gazing lazily down on a white sandy beach full of naked sunbathers. Or possibly you prefer airborne propulsion like Mary Poppins, with her high-performance magic umbrella. You lift vertically off the ground, soaring at amazing speeds past the neighbors, always in style, your clothing never ruffled, your hair unaffected by the winds. You land softly on your feet and close your turbo-charged sun shade, your commute to work completed. Maybe you prefer to fly at night, past the glow of the moon, cackling on a witch’s broom. Or like Superman, in a waving cape over tight aerodynamic clothing. Arms outstretched, fingers slicing the air, you fly through the stratosphere as you race to save the earth, landing in time to rescue a damsel in distress. You lift her into your arms and transport her high up to a mountain condo for a little romantic interlude. Yeah, I like that one.
For my money, the most exciting way to soar in the sky like the birds is by hang gliding, which entails circling up in the warm currents of air called thermals. If you could see these thermals that the eagles, hawks and hang gliders use to rise up into the sky, they would look like miniature tornados, like the tornados you see on TV, except friendlier. A tornado compared to a thermal is like a car wreck compared to a sail boat ride. A tornado is just an extra strong thermal that just happens to lift cars and houses, spitting out trees and lives.
Birds, bugs, plastic bags, straw, and hang gliders ride into the sky on these invisible, elusive, multi-dimensional columns of lifting air. Riding these thermals takes practice. Gaining a feel for how they work is essential if you wish to survive. To navigate thermals, hang glider pilots use a special singing instrument called a Vario, its computer voice trilling a slow ballad when the thermal’s rate of climb is mellow; when the rate of climb is forceful, the Vario belts out “Rock Around the Thermal,” in its beeping, bopping Vario way, and when the Vario gets a-rockin’, hang on, because this is where life gets exciting. Imagine riding an aggressive rollercoaster while lying on a spinning merry-go-round.
Thermal power changes as the day’s heating progresses. The morning starts off calmly, the sun starts to rise, its rays deflect off the ground, the earth’s crust slowly heats, and thermals are put into motion. You can sense them in the wind, a pressure against the skin, a spinning, swirling feel indicates their presence. The first thermals of the day are like a waltz: slow, smooth and flowing evenly, their power increases as the sun follows it arc, the ground gets hotter, increasing the wind. The thermal waltz becomes a salsa, with quicker energy and more feisty passion; the sun advances and the winds blast out rock and roll, then hang on, baby, hang on as Mother Nature pushes the dance vertically and you and your hang glider are thrown into the mosh pit at the sun’s zenith of power. Then, as the sun sinks towards the west, the ecstatic dance slowly returns to the lilting waltz and darkness. Mother Nature damn near does the same old thing every day, all over the world, dancing from the flatlands of Kansas to the rice patties of Thailand.
Thermals are shape-shifters in the flying game and it’s always a challenge to fly inside one of them as they take the form of a tornado funnel, a column, a mushroom, a snake twisting around you. Pushed and stirred by the wind, thermals often have elusive personalities; you could say they’re like people: some you like, and some… well, some have an attitude. Like a bull trying to remove the human on its back, a swirling, bucking thermal is always trying to spit you out, always testing the pilot’s aptitude, experience and luck.
How you fly a hang glider in these thermals is like this: picture yourself riding a bicycle, breathlessly, as it lifts off the ground – just like ET in the basket of Elliot’s bike. The sensation of the thermal lifting you up is extremely exciting. Time to concentrate now: if you keep going straight, you will ride out the other side of the thermal. Quickly regain your composure and circle back into the lift. Quality coordinated thermal flying means staying inside the lift, making the right sized turns, controlling your speed; to go faster, pull the control bar in, to go slower, push it out. Swing your weight to the left move left, and now sway it to the right. Dance with Mother Nature inside that column of air, letting her lift you into the developing cloud above. When the thermals are big and fat, she is easier to follow, and you can go slower with lots of room to play. When the thermals are small and strong, they require more skill, faster speed, higher bank angles, and tighter circles. Don’t get cocky or push her too hard, or she can kill you without mercy. But once you have circled the skies with Mother Nature as your dance partner, you will look at clouds with the eyes of a bird, you will taste cotton candy skies that are finer than wine, finer even than Acapulco gold, the taste of fleeting clouds.
Once you grow wings, and your feet detached from the earth, and gravity has been erased, you will find a freedom that was previously only found in sleep.