Soar Above the Valley Near Chattanooga, Tennesee
By Hope S. Philbrick
In multi-story open atriums you’d never see me leaning up against the railing to look at sights below. Doing so requires trusting that (A) the railing will not give way and (B) no one will push me up and over, neither of which is absolutely guaranteed. So what convinced me to go hang gliding? Several folks who grinned through stories of breathtaking vistas. Enticed by their stories, I negotiated with my fears: Falling from heights is what scares me, not being up in them. Since a hang glider is open from the start of the flight, it can’t fail like a parachute. I’d be with an instructor, not alone. I signed up for a tandem flight and as preparation spent the next 24 hours visualizing myself strapped to a hang glider and calmly stepping off a mountain.
On the drive up Lookout Mountain the next day, I learned that my main assumption was wrong. I would not step into the air; an airplane would tow me up. I grew nervous, unable to visualize details. When told that winds were too strong for flight, I wasn’t disappointed. But the idea of hang gliding took root and a few months later I returned to Lookout Mountain to try again.
The morning of my scheduled flight was warm with calm winds, ideal conditions for hang gliding. I reported first to the launch/pro shop at the top of Lookout Mountain for check-in then navigated a twisted gravel road down to the Landing Zone from which tandem flights launch. After locating my contact, I watched a safety orientation video in which the students appeared calm, happy and engaged throughout their flights. It eased my concerns.
Next my instructor, Steve Bernier—who seemed like a guy who enjoyed life enough to land safely—fit me with a harness and helmet. He positioned the hang glider and said, “Step into my office,” gesturing for me to step over a metal bar into the small triangular space behind it and between other bars. He hooked the towrope to each of us: It resembled three strands of macramé jute stitched together with black fishing line. That connected us to the airplane?
I watched other take offs, trying to see how people were positioned. This had been my primary concern since learning of aerotow: How could I possibly run fast enough to keep up with an airplane? I soon got my answer: Wheels are mounted to the hang glider for takeoff and landing. “Now this is going to feel awkward,” said Bernier, instructing me to grab the bar at my feet and step back while leaning forward until I could lift my feet off the ground. I hung suspended several inches off the ground, Bernier underneath me and to my right.
“Now we get acquainted,” he said, asking me to grasp handles on each side of his harness. “Ready?” He waved his arm to signal the airplane pilot. It sped forward; we bumped along on the earth behind. Within seconds we were airborne; the ride smoothed. The wind offered welcome cool on the hot summer day yet wasn’t too loud to prevent conversation. Bernier explained that we’d get towed to 2,000 feet, pointing to the instrument on my left that measured altitude. As soon as we reached position, he dropped the towline. The jolt felt at that moment was slighter than I’d anticipated. “When you feel bumps up here it’s nothing to worry about,” he said, explaining it was the air equivalent of riding ocean waves in a boat.
As we sailed the sky above Lookout Valley, Bernier taught me some basic moves: to turn left or right simply press the front bar with that hand, to slow down press the bar away, to speed up pull it in. Tight turns made me nervous, so we drifted down in big loops taking in the gorgeous view.
I wondered how many people who try hang gliding get hooked on it. “Lookout Mountain Flight Park teaches five times more pilots than any other hang gliding school in the world,” said Bernier, who has worked as a hang gliding instructor for more than a dozen years at several locations. “The last place I worked there were a lot of first timers; here a high percentage of people come back for certification—it’s cool.”
After about 15 minutes Bernier brought us in for landing, which was fast yet smooth. We rode back to the launch site on a golf cart, hang glider in tow. Bernier would take up dozens more people that day. I smiled at those already waiting in line, knowing what fun awaited them.
If You Go …
A Discovery Tandem Flight costs $149. Onboard pictures are an additional $20. Flights last 12 to 20 minutes and are scheduled from 9 a.m. until dusk. Flights are available to persons age 5 to 92 who weigh less than 250 pounds.
Where To Stay
Lookout Mountain Flight Park offers a full-service campground with tent camping, cabin rentals and an RV park with full hook-ups in its 44-acre Landing Zone. Call The Landing Zone at 800-803-7788 for details.
What Else To Do
Visit a Chattanooga attraction such as Rock City, Ruby Falls, the Bluff View Art District, Creative Discovery Museum, Lookout Mountain Incline Railway or Tennessee Aquarium. For more information about what to see and do in Chattanooga, read our feature or visit chattanoogafun.com.
Lookout Mountain Flight Park
7201 Scenic Highway
Rising Fawn, GA 30738
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.