There’s a peal of thunder, way off in nowhere. I’m standing on top of a hill, looking down at a group of hang-gliding students sprinting hard down a steep slope lifting, if only for three heavy seconds, off of the ground. They’re students of Greg Black, captain of Mountain Wings hang gliding school in Ellenville. Ellenville, in the west ofUlsterCounty, was once the hang-gliding capital of the world, and despite it’s demotion to hang-gliding capital of the Northeast, hang-gliding is still a popular pastime and attracts scores of new potential pilots every year.
They’ve been moving for hours now, going up and down the practice hill over and over in the beaming sun. Another student watches along with me and tromps me around the premises. He’s a middle-aged guy fromConnecticut, and he’s only been around for four lessons. But he’s as enthusiastic as anyone, dropping gliding jargon like it’s the vernacular and singing the praises of his new hobby.
After a few smooth-ish landings and a whole lot of positive reinforcement, we all head back to the Mountain Wings headquarters. Mountain Wings has one of the coolest HQ’s ever, in an arched warehouse nestled comfortably on a back road and flanked by waves of earth, sitting in front of a deep green mountain front. Inside is the hang-glider’s Batcave; a vast expanse of air-conditioned space with gliding equipment tucked into the corners, a behemoth of a blue-and-black glider dangling from the ceiling. There’s an old Super Nintendo hanging out on the counter with PilotWings in the cartridge slot. Of course.
It’s nice to be out of the heat; after the lesson, Greg has the students and myself sit on a couch and shows of video of hang gliding in action and it’s astonishing. People, humans — which evolved as a flightless species — hovering a jillion feet above a forest-and-brown topography and giggling. Technicians inAustralialanding on two-foot wooden posts and taking off again. Pilots just outside ofProvo,Utah, carving the air two feet above the ground. Hell, guys doing flips, catching updrafts and finishing in nosedives.
I’m astonished. The rest, comprising of a group of buddies and a friendly couple fromJersey, are a little too burned to be floored by aerial acrobatics. They’ve been moving for hours now, going up and down the practice hill over and over in the heat and the sun.
Black must be showing these videos as a promise — with the hard work you put in at Mountain Wings, the cumulative weeks of training, you too can be a pilot, free of teachers and hand holding, floating around on invisible currents.
Some of the students are unenthused. This is a lot of work, and they’re just taking in the cavern-cool air of the Mountain Wings headquarters. Not everyone is lolling, though. Despite the training, perpetually smiley student Starr Ackermann is excited. She had always been interested hang-gliding, and after getting a discount coupon for training from Groupon, she bit the bullet and traveled from the middle ofNew Jerseyto Ellenville to learn to fly. “I’d always wanted to do it, but no one ever says ‘Hey, do you want to go hang gliding?’”
Training is rigorous and thorough. Students go through a training period of no less than 14 days, ranging from safety training, to learning to take off, to flying. Just don’t take the whole course in too little time — “You can’t do it in two weeks,” says Greg Black. “Two days’ll kill you.” However, it’s not all work. “When you’re off the ground, even in the beginning for a few seconds, it’s like a high.” That high, says Black, is what keeps students coming back. It’s not just the concept of flight that is exciting — anyone can get that jetting fromNewarkto LAX. It’s controlling flight, and being part of the air that holds the appeal.
Black is quick to shoot down my speculation that gliders seem kind of unsafe, at least to the untrained eye. Gliders, Black assures me, are “way safer than small planes.” Hang gliders, he explains, have to be inspected several times before they’re cleared for actual flight, and even then pilots operate with the utmost care.
The employees of Mountain Wings are proponents of the freedom of hang-gliding. “There’s nothing else like it,” says Black, “Ninety percent of our clients are fromManhattanand don’t pay their shrink anymore.” An overstatement, of course, but his point is valid. Dave Hopkins, an instructor and genuine airhead, with 33 years of hang-gliding experience under his belt is a proponent of the activity’s freeing aspect. “Your attention is at 110 percent. Your eyes are open, and you’re living life at its fullest.”
Hang-gliding also fosters a sense of community among pilots. There is no competition thousands of feet up. Says Black, “I used to do motocross, but that was very individual. Everyone was out for themselves. Hang gliding is, well, everyone’s your friend. There’s a community.” Hopkinsagrees. “If you do something stupid on the West Coast in the morning, pilots in the middle of the country will know about it bynoon.” Apparently, word travels fast in the sky.
Later, while waxing poetic about his sport,Hopkinstakes a breath and smiles with his mouth and his eyes. He leans back on a table and searches for the right words to sum up what hang-gliding is to him. “Absolute freedom of anything that might restrict you in any way, shape or form. A complete escape from daily life.” The whole time he’s speaking, I know that in his head, he’s envisioning what it’s like to be up there. Caught in an updraft, sitting pretty thousands of feet above our little valley, loving every second of mindful floating. Living on a wing, straddling heaven for hours at a time.
For more information on Mountain Wings, visit mtnwings.com or call (845) 647-3377.