If you think hang gliding is just for adrenaline junkies, think again. At Thermal Valley Hang Gliding, the mission is to share the joy of free flight with as many people as possible.
Soaring like a bird is the purest form of flight…especially with the stunning aerial views of Burke County and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon.
About Thermal Valley Hang Gliding
Craig and Laura Pearson opened Thermal Valley Hang Gliding in Lenoir, NC, in 2011. Craig has 28 years of experience as a USHPA (United States Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association) certified aero-tow tandem hang glider instructor and tug pilot and has flown over 2200 tandem flights.
Not only are his credentials exemplary, but you could not find a person better suited to taking people into the stratosphere – especially first-timers who are apprehensive. His fun-loving, outgoing personality would put even the worst jitters at ease. I was not fearful because (1) I’m a thrill-seeker, and (2) I’d hang glided at Kitty Hawk a few years ago. However, half of our small group of eight were self-proclaimed acrophobic but became enthusiastic fans of hang gliding after their experience.
“One lady, in particular, was so nervous when we launched and made our first turn from the runway, she looked back and saw the runway and yelled to me that there was an airport behind us!” Craig told us.
Craig – the Gregarious Pilot of Thermal Valley
In 1977, as a youngster, Craig looked up from his backyard and saw his first hang glider. He found the launching ramp by hiking Hibriten Mountain and eventually, flying off that ramp became his dream.
“The hang glider I saw that day was so high it looked like a little dot,” said Craig. “Later I learned this is called “specking out” and is a common goal for soaring pilots.”
Craig took lessons with Kitty Hawk Kites out of Nags Head, NC and Rick Jacobs from Tennessee. Since then he’s flown about 2600 solo flights in ten different states, with people from the ages of 8 through 87.
Eventually, Craig gave up a 30-year career with Duke Energy to run Thermal Valley full time.
What is Tandem Hang Gliding?
Tandem hang gliding is an airborne recreational activity using a non-motorized apparatus consisting of an aluminum alloy or composite frame covered with a type of sailcloth to form a triangular wing.
The pilot (instructor) is suspended from a harness from the frame, and the rider (student pilot) is secured into a harness that hovers just above the pilot.
The glider is tied to a small, ultralight airplane, towed into the air, then released.
History of Hang Gliding
Although there’s some disagreement, hang gliding is generally credited to have started with a 19th-century German engineer/inventor named Otto Lilienthal. Lilienthal’s rudimentary craft flew over 2000 times, but only short distances, and was the inspiration for the famous Wright Brothers. Because he had very little control over his glider, he crashed and died in 1896.
At the Otto Lilienthal Anniversary Meet in May 1971, Tom Dickinson managed to stay aloft in free flight for 15 seconds, covering 300 feet. It captured the public’s attention and is credited with igniting interest for recreational hang gliding as we know it today.
Early hang gliders had a low lift-to-drag ratio, so pilots were restricted to launching from small hills and slowly floating down. By the 1980s the lift-to-drag ratio began to improve, and now pilots are able to stay airborne for hours by utilizing the thermal updrafts and even performing aerobatics.
Hang Gliding Safety Measures
At Thermal Valley Hang Gliding, the safety of their customers is paramount. The tandem flights start out with on-the-ground training in which the staff explains the process and what to expect in the air.
Aside from the standard helmets and eye protection, pilots have an emergency parachute enclosed in the harness. In the unlikely event of a serious problem, the parachute can be manually deployed, safely carrying the pilot(s) and the glider down to earth.
Nothing was more evident of the precautions than when after half of our group had their turn in the air, then the rest of the flights had to be canceled because the temperature had become too warm, creating an unsafe thermal effect. Kary and I were among those who had to reschedule for the following morning, disappointed, but better safe than sorry.
Logistics of Hang Gliding
Lucky for us, the conditions the next morning were even more perfect….which can mean longer time in the air! Once we were both secured into our harnesses (I chose to go barefoot, just because I could), Craig signaled to Larry Falls, the former Navy, now stunt pilot of “Dragonfly,” the towing ultralight airplane, and the wheels started to spin. At that moment, Craig insisted that I sing the Rocky theme song, “Flying High,” so of course, I obliged.
Immediately, we were ascending and the ground receded before my eyes. Off we went, into the wild blue yonder!
When we reached a height of 1,500 feet, the tow rope was released and we were on our own, floating and circling in the thermal currents soaking up the incredible views! Up, down, and across were sky, mountains, pastures, and woods, with the wind bellowing in our ears as the only sound.
Steering the Aircraft
“Want to try to steer?” Craig asked me.
Control of the hang glider is accomplished by shifting the body weight of the pilot. Depending on conditions, a mere turning of the head will begin to turn the craft. Pulling the horizontal part of the triangle frame will increase the speed.
With some verbal cues from Craig on how to shifting my body weight in opposition to the control frame, I was able to “crank and bank” the craft! Yee-Haw!
If you just want to relax and take in the beautiful scenery, no worries – it’s not mandatory to take the controls.
“Are you sure you weigh 100 pounds?” Craig shouted up to me when my airborne time was coming to an end. “Because I’m having trouble getting the craft to go down!” I giggled, of course, but seriously, what’s not to love about that?
The ground seemed to be coming at us really fast, but it was a very smooth landing.
“Really? He told me I sank faster than most,” Kary said when I told him what Craig had said to me. “I didn’t get much time to take the controls since we were back on the ground so quickly.” Well, he is a rather large (handsome) man, so occasionally that has its downside.
Hang gliding is truly an experience like no other, and I believe most people would truly enjoy it.
My favorite part? Pretending I was Superman Woman!
Craig and Laura are currently constructing training hills and a first mountain flight site. Students will be able to camp and attend week-long training sessions.
“Free-flying is so exciting and there is a need for professional, thorough, and consistent training,” said Craig. They also hope to include foot-launched paragliding in the future. (Read about my paraglide in Lima, Peru)
“Most people leave us with a new appreciation for the sky and a few walk back to the cars with the arms out like they are flying,” said Craig with a grin. “We strive to make our patrons feel like family and close friends, and provide the best free flight experience ever.”
Click on the image below to PIN so you can find thermal hang gliding again!
Disclosure: Patti and Kary were honored to be the guest of Visit Burke County for their hang gliding flights but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are their own.
About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. Patti has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.