How Hang Gliding Works

A Basic Flight
A pilot runs to launch his hang glider.
A pilot runs to launch his hang glider.

Several years ago, I took a basic hang-gliding lesson from Kitty Hawk Kites at Jockey's Ridge, NC, which is a large sand dune (80 to 100 ft / 24 to 30 m high). The goal of our lesson was to take off, fly in a straight line down the ridge and land upright. Before the flight, the instructor conducted a pre-flight inspection of the glider, checking to make sure that all of the hardware was in good condition, including the sail, battens, cables, tubes, bolts and harness connections. Next, because Jockey's Ridge is a public park, he checked to make sure that our intended flight path was clear of obstacles and people.

To take off, I lifted the hang glider (about 65 pounds / 29 kilograms) by the sides of the control bar and ran down the ridge (the instructor ran along side and shouted directions). The sail filled with air as I ran. When the airspeed reached about 17 mph (27 kph), I could feel the hang glider lift me off the ground. As I was lifted, I moved my hands from the sides of the control bar to either side of its base.

To fly, I had to do two things: maintain a constant speed and keep my direction in a straight line.

  1. I had to sense my airspeed (no instruments to help me out). If I was moving too fast, I pushed the control bar away from me to slow down. If I was moving too slow, I pulled the control bar toward me to speed up.
  2. I had to fly in a straight line. If I veered to the right, I had to shift my weight to the left to get back on course. If I veered to the left, I had to shift my weight to the right.

During the the entire flight, I was constantly adjusting my speed and position (beginners tend to over-adjust their speeds compared to advanced fliers). I flew about 600 ft (183 m) down the sand dune at an altitude of about 5 to 10 ft (1.5 to 3 m).

Hang glider over Jockey's Ridge, NC
Photo courtesy Kitty Hawk Kites

To land the hang glider, you have to stall it. As I approached the ground, I pushed the control bar as far out as I could. This tips the glider nose up, slows the glider down and eventually stalls it so you can land upright on your feet.

A pilot stalls her glider to land upright.
Photo courtesy Kitty Hawk Kites

Of course, not all beginners accomplish all of these tasks on the first try. It took me three flights to manage to take off, fly straight and land on my feet (On my first flight, I veered off to the right, landed on my abdomen and buried my wrist in the sand.).

Micrometeorological changes that pilots look for

Experienced hang-glider pilots can take off from a slight slope or a steep mountain top and fly for hours. They look for micrometeorological changes to gain lift so that they can stay aloft. These changes include rising columns of hot air (thermals) found over places that take in plenty of sunlight, like sand or pavement. Often times, you can locate these currents by watching the birds, particularly seagulls or hawks. Pilots also look for updrafts of air deflected by ridges (ridge lifts) to provide additional lift. Upward currents of air between two mountain ridges, called wave currents, can provide additional lift as well. An experienced pilot tries to avoid turbulent air, which can slow the glider and cause it to tumble, and such obstacles as power lines and tall structures.

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