Taking Wing: To Fly like an Eagle

Takeoff here involves running straight off Pedra Bonita’s inclined ramp. Courtesy Sam Weigel

Once every year or two, I have a peculiar and memorable dream while I sleep. I am quite sure I’m not alone among pilots—and likely among mere mortals as well—in occasionally dreaming that I’m flying. I don’t mean flying in an aircraft or manipulating the controls—although I have those dreams too. I mean bird dreams, minus the molting and the worm diet—just pure, joyful, unadulterated flight, wheeling over the earth with absolute freedom, borne on unseen wings.

I’ve had these dreams since early childhood, well before I knew what flying actually felt and looked like, which leads me to believe that man has dreamed of flight as long as man has dreamed, and these dreams likely helped to inspire the eventual realization of their subject. So far as I can recall, however, none of my bird dreams actually included the taking off part, only majestic soaring. Well, it’s majestic soaring that I’m after today, but to get there I have to take off in decidedly nonbirdlike fashion: run pell-mell down a short-sloped ramp and take a leap of faith into a 1,500-foot chasm with the beachside suburb of São Conrado, Brazil, far below.

“Samuel, are you ready?” Manny asks enthusiastically. Manuel Navarro is a tall, thin Brazilian whose job it is to conduct me back to terra firma safely. “Yes, I am ready,” I respond with much more confidence than I actually feel. Up until a second ago, I was still sussing out how we both fit inside and around the triangular framework and bracing of the tandem hang glider without tripping over each other as we run and jump. That would be bad.

Manny was very clear about one thing during our three practice runs, sans glider, in the assembly area: Once you start running, do not stop. Manny has had two students develop second thoughts on the last few feet of the launch ramp, and both times, the result was a nasty crash into the steep hillside below. So when Manny gives me a little sideways nod and says, “Let’s run,” I run like hell, pumping my legs with abandon to keep up with his long strides, until we’ve literally run right off the edge of the ramp, our legs flailing at air like Wile E. Coyote. For one heart-dropping moment, we fall.

I have Kelly Gravesen to thank for giving me the idea to go hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro. Kelly’s a kindred spirit, a taildragger-wrangling North Dakota farm boy and fellow UND alum who is also a Boeing 757/767 first officer for my airline. Like me, Kelly likes to get out and about on his layovers. The way I see it, an airline pilot spends a good third of his or her life away from home. There are those who hate the fact, complain about it in the cockpit, and go lock themselves away on layovers. I can’t help but think how much of their life they are wasting, and wonder what exactly they were thinking when they got into this career.

Alternatively, you can treat layovers as opportunities to do neat things in places you might have not gone on your own, or to scout out a place to which you might want to return on vacation. I spend most layovers hiking, exploring, socializing with other crew, visiting far-flung friends, finding neat little bars and restaurants, perusing museums, driving or motorcycling scenic roads, and scratching my flying itch in something smaller and more fun than the 767. Knowing this, Kelly gave me the recommendation and contact information for Rio Hang Gliding. It helps that Kelly is slightly senior to me in our base, or I might have taken his suggestion as a naked attempt to move up a number.

Which is to say that hang gliding does not quite appear to be the safest form of aviation there is, at least to an outsider. There’s not much to the aircraft, with virtually no external protection in case of a crash. The hang-gliding community exists largely outside of general aviation; it’s more on the adrenaline sports-junkie spectrum. You won’t find these guys on any airport, and in the US, they are completely unregulated. Rio de Janeiro, then, isn’t the first place you’d think to try it. Mind you, I absolutely love Rio; it’s become my bidding destination of choice for two northern winters now. The weather is great, the scenery is gorgeous, the people are lovely, the food is good, there’s a ton of cool stuff to do, and on lazier days the caipirinhas go down easily after a day spent basking in the January sun on Copacabana Beach.

The author and instructor Manny Navarro circle over the coastal suburb of São Conrado. Courtesy Sam Weigel

But there’s no question that Brazil is a country undergoing economic challenges, and Rio is a city where a large portion of the population lives in virtually unregulated, effectively lawless favelas. It’s a place where visitors have to pay attention to personal safety. Rio Hang Gliding, however, appeared to be a first-class outfit started by a veteran competitive hang glider, and Manny reassured me that the sport is quite regulated in Brazil—to a much greater extent than in the States.

Not that this is much consolation as we take our running leap into empty air. My stomach drops out from under me for just a moment, and then the wing fills and catches with a swoosh of air, and we swoop exhilaratingly skyward. It takes a few seconds to get situated, my harness next to and slightly behind Manny’s, both of us tilting down into the aerodynamic prone position. Then I look around and start grinning like a damned fool. It’s exactly like a bird dream: pure unadulterated flight, pure joy, just the sun and the wind and a wisp of a wing in my peripheral vision.

Manny lets me “take the controls” to make a turn towards the granite monolith of Pedra da Gávea, and two things immediately surprise me. The first is just how stable the hang glider is. I somehow had envisioned having to make constant inputs to keep the tiny craft on the desired flight path (a la hovering helicopter), but steady flight is basically a hands-off affair. This stability makes sense when you look at a hang glider close up because the occupant’s harness is suspended from a single point immediately forward of the wing’s center of lift.

The second surprise is just how natural weight-shift control feels. Coming from a lifetime of manipulating traditional three-axis controls, I expected to think of the A-frame as a stick and get flummoxed by the reverse control. As an antidote I repeatedly reminded myself before the flight to think of myself as the stick. As it turns out, once airborne, such mental gymnastics are entirely unnecessary. You just look where you want to go, ease yourself that way, and the craft responds. Bird flight. Magical.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

Hang gliders aren’t nearly as efficient as their rigid-wing brethren, but they can still stay aloft for lengthy periods under the right conditions. Manny told me that experienced hang gliders—of whom Rio has many—regularly soar to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue several miles away and back. Alas, the morning of my flight is dead calm, and it’s a one-way sled ride to the designated landing beach at São Conrado. After a much-too-quick seven minutes, Manny makes a circling approach over the high-rise-lined coast, sequencing himself for landing with several other hang gliders and paragliders.

The landing itself is considerably easier than I expected despite an absolute lack of wind on the beach. Like the launch, the cardinal rule is to “just keep running” because any premature stoppage results in a faceplant or the entire glider going tail-over-teakettle. Manny compliments me on being an excellent passenger (“Yes, I certainly know when to shut up and don’t do nothin’ dumb”), we watch several more gliders landing, and I review the GoPro footage from our flight. It’s beautiful, but it fails to fully capture the firsthand bird-flight experience or adrenaline rush of launching off the ramp.

I’m glad I got to experience hang gliding once, particularly in such a scenic location, but I’m not sure whether I’ll do it again. It did remind me of the things I like so much about traditional soaring—the rigid-wing variety—and I realized that the open-air aspect of hang gliding isn’t even the essential part of the bird-flight experience. It’s the quiet rush of wind, the jostle of lift, the upward spiral in a thermal.

I’ve been intending to get my glider rating for a while, and had planned to do it this past summer until those months turned into the busiest of my life. I realized if I wanted to make a glider rating happen in 2020, I’d better set aside the time now. So as soon as I got back to Copacabana Beach, I emailed Sarah Arnold, the glider CFI and Chilhowee Gliderport operator who my good friend (and Sarah’s US Soaring Team teammate) Sylvia Grandstaff recommended. Sarah was enthusiastic and accommodating with my schedule, and it’s all set up. I just have to make it through glider training with aircraft and ego intact, and I’ll tell you all about it in a couple months.

This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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