Hang Glider Training

Tiger Moths at Darley Moor I always wanted to fly.
Personally I blame my mother. As a mere slip of a girl, with a good job in post war austerity Britain, she and a friend had spare money in their purses but no ration cards to buy nice clothes so they decided to learn to fly. It wasn't like learning to fly today, just some ex-RAF hero with a Tiger Moth trainer that was probably as war-surplus as he was, but she did it. I don't think it was so much the actual flying that she passed on to me but the attitude that 'I can do that' was what came down in the blood. I've wanted to fly, or be involved in flying, since I was tiny (Not completely true. I wanted to be Dan Dare at first). However flying nearly didn't happen. I got involved in physics and electronics which made for a good few years of university then a good career that had lots of fun in it. Like most people in these fields I ended up working mostly as a computer programmer because computers are our key tools both to run the processes we want and to capture and rework the data we need. Hobby wise it was a long infatuation with racing motorcycles and then, when the total skeletal damage from that added up too far, it was scuba diving.

Now a friend has a PPL, a Private Pilot's License, and he took me up a couple of times but somehow holding a Piper steering wheel didn't do it for me. It was rather like driving a car but in three dimensions. Then somebody pointed me at hang gliding. Now there was something more visceral that appealed to the motor-cycle racer in me. This would be really flying. You were out there in it, doing it 'by hand' so to speak.

Now just stop for a moment and put me in context. I was by then 59. I was a widower and a practicing grand-father. I still am reasonably fit in that I can happily climb hills and ladders, I just hesitate at clambering up trees these days. OK the motorbike racing has left me with a few aches and pains (and a heart condition) but I am not your usual enthusiastic youngster.

Google is, as ever, your friend. For my first try at the art of hang gliding I found South Downs Hang Gliding. They were close enough to my home in Brighton to be easy to access so I just booked myself in for a week's worth of lessons. OK, a week has turned out to be just a bit over optimistic, I'm not so good at learning new motor skills any more and, sadly, it didn't work out. I couldn't get the time and the weather never seemed to cooperate. Regretfully, after a couple of years of trying on odd days, the instructor told me I wasn't progressing and I wasn't even consistent. I really ought to put it to one side. I was sad but he was right so I hung up my helmet and stored my gliders away.

Rio 15 post refurbishment However, during this first tentative foray into gliding, I became a member of the Southern Hang Gliding Club. These people organise the local sites where I live and do all the spade work that makes hang gliding and paragliding at club level possible. I kept the membership up because I rather approved of them and wanted to stay associated.

Also, because when I progressed from the Elementary Pilot part of the training to the Club Pilot part I would need to move from using the school's gliders to using my own, I bought an Avian Rio 15 through them. This worked out because they knew that they could get me a good deal as that model was about to be replaced by the Rio 2 so I bought at a discount before the price went up. This is the blue and white glider in the pictures. There was also an Aeros Target, a nice gentle student friendly wing because I had some problems with the Rio at first. I also built up quite a collection of gadgets because, I confess, I'm rather into gadgets.

The video on the right/above was taken from a GoPro mounted on the back boom of the Aeros from one of my last training flights at Swanbrough Down back in 2012 and it's actually quite a good example of how not to fly a hang glider. The manoeuvring is horribly done, I just twist some of the times rather than moving my weight to the side so nothing much happens, plus the landing is petty messed up because my hands are too low to flare. However I like to keep this recording as it was my very first flight that wasn't virtually a straight run from the take off to the landing with only, at most, a single simple turn to practice my simple turns. Yes, the shadow is me. Yes, I know I'm mad. Lots of people on seeing this have taken the time to point this out to me already. This was all I was left with for several years once I had stopped.

Tandem with Judy Leden with Darley Moor airfield behind us However, after a few more years, I retired. Now retirement is an excellent idea, lots of fun and I can certainly recommend it. I spent some time and money tidying up the house, going scuba diving and generally having a good time. Then I looked at my extensive Hang Glider and Gliding Equipment collection and decided it either had to go flying or go. This time I would give it a serious chance and if it worked it worked and if it didn't I would walk away from it forever.

Right. Time to think carefully and try to minimise some of the problems I had had before. These rather summarised as the weather and the chore of climbing back up hills to do the next drill in those initial lessons that I felt I would probably need, after several years of lay off, to do again. At first I looked for a 'winch' school, one where they towed you with a rope to launch you. I reasoned that that would make training friendly flyable days more common than just driving to a local hill, picked to match the predicted wind direction and strength, and hoping it delivered the desired conditions. What I finally settled on was Airways Airsports at Darley Moor Airfield in Derbyshire where the training was to be done on tandem aerotow.

Tandem was the big change. Now, rather than launching myself down a slope carefully picked to be about as steep as the glide path of the glider so you never went too high above the ground, I was now going to be towed by a microlite aircraft up to three thousand feet and I was going to take the instructor with me. This is significantly more expensive than hill training but I probably did more actual hands on 'air time' in my first couple of flights there than in my whole previous experience before that added together. I have already admitted that I take more time to learn new motor skills than I once did so having Judy Leden next to me saying, "No, do it again like this" really worked for me. Over two trips to Derbyshire I did more than four hours in the air and went from wondering if hang gliding was ever going to work for me to thinking "I am going to have to work on my circuit approach technique because it sucks."

Judy progressively increased the amount of the flight I controlled. Introducing the bulk of the relatively high intensity tow section and the set up and approach for landing part. However with 3000 feet to play with there was time for doing turns, seeing how you were moving over the ground and getting a feel for what a glider can and cannot do. The picture is from August 2015 with a nice view of Darley Moor airfield below us.

One other thing that I did at this point was to take the Rio, which had now been bagged up for several years, back into Avian for a full manufacturer overhaul. I also had them work on the old Aeros Target which might have been a mistake because it will probably never be worth the money I spent rebuilding it but it was a matter of fix it or junk it and I didn't want to scrap the poor thing. Judy also looked through my collection of toys and threw some out. This included the yellow 'pod' harness I am using in the 2012 video.

Judy does not actually teach complete courses so to move things along she sent me to Quest Air Hang Gliding in Florida to do the American H2 qualification and then, hopefully, to get in some flying time. H2 is Novice and pretty much translates to the UK Club Pilot level - a person who is trained to fly under the oversight of somebody else who will look at the site, the conditions and their skill level then tell them when to consider flying and when to give up and go home if there is a problem.

I was quite surprised to be thinking about going to Florida to learn but the accommodation, the instruction and the flying were all at a quite reasonable cost. Plus, although nowhere can promise the right weather all the time, Florida has a better chance than much of the world. I booked a three week trip as three weeks seemed like a reasonable compromise between weather problems, slow learning and, hopefully, getting some après course flying time. Also it maximised use of the airfare and the insurance which are the two major expenses.

So, in the middle of January 2016, I arrived and the guys at Quest looked at my log book with Judy's notes in it and, after a couple of flights, seemed pretty happy to take me on and get things moving. Now I confess I'm not the most confident person but taking over the full flight from stationary, towing to 2500ft then flying the full approach and landing on just my third flight with them was, I admit, a thrill even if Spinner, the instructor, was calling the flight path step by step for me.

Well the weather wasn't too kind so I needed my whole three weeks to get the H2 rating but I did it. The training was again based on the tandem glider hence, when I transferred to the solo glider, I was told to land on the wheels of the A-frame and my tummy. I would need to add the 'go upright and land on my feet' details later. However I was flying the launch from the cart, the tow up to altitude (I had done the failure drills for that on the tandem), setting up my approach and getting tolerably close to my designated landing point solo. Compare the video of my first aerotow solo flight at Quest with the Swanbrough one and see how the control is now... well, control. The glider is doing what I want. It looks smooth but I am correcting moment by moment to stay in the 'sweet spot' behind the tug and then setting up my target, running in fast on the approach and bleeding off the speed just before landing. I confess it looks way better than it felt but it was a circuit approach at last that didn't suck. Also, although I say it myself, not bad for a guy flying a new glider and in a harness that he had never used before.

USHPA Card Quest was an interesting community and I made several friends amongst those sheltering there from the northern winter. The instruction was sequential and clear and the attitude was always encouraging. I don't think I am an easy student to teach but I was very pleased by the standard of flying they put into me. On the last flight there, on the evening before I left, I was pushing against a lot of wind from a bad direction and yet I was able to bring out what I had learnt and deliberately manage a complex situation. They qualified me to Hang-2 (Novice) on aerotow.

So. What happened next? Well I came back home and, sadly, it was still February in England hence it was back to being cold again. Therefore, although I was seeing web posts from people who were out there flying, I decided that the first things I needed to sort out were all those bits of kit I had been taught to use but that had belonged to the school. I had already bought one of the nice 'bicycle brake lever' style tow releases with a complete towing bridle from Quest so that matched those I had used there. I still needed the secondary sleeve release because they didn't have that in stock but this part conveniently came from Avian's web shop. I definitely wanted to replace the old yellow harness after Judy had disapproved of its construction but I didn't particularly feel happy with the cocoon 'lie in' style I had used at Quest as I had never seen them used in England. I took some advice and finally decided to put my money into the custom made CG1000 pod harness from Fly Center of Gravity in New Hampshire as being a reasonable compromise between being novice friendly, suiting hill launching and fitting my longer term flying. This, naturally, came with an empty parachute pocket so, on advice from an instructor wintering at Quest as a tug pilot, I ordered the Quantum 440 parachute from High Energy Sports in California. Since waiting for all this stuff to be shipped gave me a break I took the opportunity to send off Quest's course paper work to the USHPA. I felt that being a member and having a real qualification card made much more sense than just carrying about a 'rating application' form for H2. Naturally buying gear direct from the USA got me into delays, import duty and VAT but, in time, it all happened and by late March my shopping list was finally complete. I was all ready to roll on to the next stage.

What I needed next was a BHPA qualification so I could fly in the UK. Judy's original master plan was to take my H2 aerotow ticket to Flylight Airsports at Sywell Aerodrome, not far from Northampton, as they taught aerotow and could reassess my skills for Club Pilot and bring my training up to the standard if it was lacking anywhere. They would also, I anticipated, have the skills to identify the correct tow point for my Rio so I laid in the fittings hopefully. Unfortunately, however, they have decided to drop out of that part the hang glider business for the moment so that plan is on hold as of now.

To keep the skills up I went back to Quest for all of February 2017 to get some air time in. This added a lot of flying including thermalling, riding a bumpy tow and getting up close and personal with clouds in the nice relaxed Quest environment. Significantly it added 7 hours of solo flying on a hired Falcon 195 to my log book. Watch this space as they say...

So, finally, how is the hang glider? After all this time and angst is it what I had expected? What I had hoped for? I would say yes.
So what is it like to fly? Well it might not be for everybody. Remember you are hanging from a strap below the wing and it is straight down from you to the ground, maybe several thousand feet. Yes, I have felt nervous occasionally but it doesn't feel like that most of the time. You are involved and you are in control even when fighting through the lumpy-bumpy bits of air to find the lift at its core. All the gliders I have flown have all been reasonably obedient even if the air is rough and, while you are high up, there isn't much to worry about provided there is somewhere within reach to land. You really have to be there to appreciate it fully. So yes, it was worth all the effort to get here.

I have been asked about the instrumentation on the videos on my youtube site "Nigel Hewitt". Well I saw other people doing it, I liked it, it's not complicated and it passes an evening. It is produced by a product called Dashware, they have the aircraft instruments in their library, and I use a piece of software I wrote to extract stuff from the IGC files the Bräuniger Compeo+ (Flytec 6030) writes into a CSV file. I think you can pick up similar on the web. I am working on further tricks with a Flytec Sensbox on Simon Murphy's Zoot Easymount. The only snag is that that does not have TAS so I'm going to have to merge the two files but that's just more code.

My gliding related links
Weather because most of the stuff they tell you confused me.

Other stuff
The Aeros Phantom
Wind Forecast
RASP Herstmonceax 1100 tomorrow
UK Forecast Chart