Jul 05

Halfway to Heaven

In Brief—The author’s experiences with hang gliders and sailplanes. Photos of those halcyon bygone days are included.


NOTE! As you may have noticed, I’ve added photos to occasional blog pieces, this being one. I hope you’ll enjoy some of the thrills I experienced. For depth, I’ve written comments below each photo.

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Soaring With the Eagles—

“Ooh-h-h God!” She sounded like she was getting off…er, coming…er, having an orgasm. Margot Kidder, Superman’s girlfriend, was experiencing her first high flight in a hang glider. I was transfixed as I watched “Wide World of Sports.” The program showed what it was like, from training on shallow slopes to a leap from a steep hillside in Colorado.

“I want to do that!” I exclaimed. I grabbed the phone book. Seagull Flight School was the first hang gliding ad I saw. A few days later, I stood atop a little sand dune on the beach as huge passenger planes loudly passed low over our heads to land at LAX. My teacher—now my close friend of many years—Dave had the duty of converting anxious ground-bound beginners into humans willing to risk life and limb.

After eating my fair share of sand at the bottom of the shallow dune, I got the idea. Exhilarated, I opined that if a flight of five seconds was great, imagine what five minutes would be like. Ah, what aerial joy the future held for me. Before long, I was invited to join Dave at the big dunes up the coast. And thus began a friendship that has lasted and grown.

Guadalupe Dunes, on the coast near San Luis Obispo, is where the big dunes whisper to the sea. A flight of maybe two minutes was my next step toward the really big stuff to come. I recall watching Dave’s wife flail her legs and scream in fear as her kite grew small in the distance. To my knowledge, she never flew again…but she stayed airborne a few feet above the dune all the way to the bottom. A successful flight. Frightening for her, but successful.

Dave hang gliding at Pine Flats

Dave hang gliding at Pine Flats

Pine Mountain in San Bernardino County. My first really high flight—maybe 2,000 feet above the valley floor—made my heart pound and my breathing accelerate…and that was even before I took off. Dave, ever cautious, felt I was up to it. Until I took off, I had my doubts, but they were soon dispelled as I was lifted into the air and marveled at the valley below where tiny spectators, like ants, watched the fliers circle in search of the next thermal, the rising column of warm air that formed on the flats below. Those few seconds of exhilaration months earlier were as nothing compared with this. I was now in the realm of the birds, where the mythical Icarus and Daedalus had once experienced the intoxication of flight.

Over the ensuing months, I loaded my kite on the car and headed for whatever mountain beckoned. One afternoon years later, I found myself overlooking the remains of what had once been a hospital in Sylmar before being destroyed by an earthquake.

I sat on the hillside contemplating the rubble below and waiting for the little flag to announce a suitable thermal. When it fluttered, I took off and shared the thermal with a hawk that scanned the valley below for its next meal. It was a long and exhilarating flight that finally ended when the fading afternoon warmth ended.

Above the rubble-strewn valley, I headed for the landing field with plenty of altitude to spare. Unfortunately, the late afternoon air turned around, pushing me toward the rubble below. Survival told me that I needed to dive to make it over the fence to the landing field and safety. I picked up speed and barely made the field. The flyer behind me was not as fortunate and was injured in the rubble. That frightening experience ended my hang glider days forever.

Sailplane Days—

Grob sailplane

One day, Dave suggested joining him in Tehachapi, two hours north of Los Angeles, where he had learned to fly a sailplane. A sample flight in a Schweitzer two-seater resulted in reigniting my love of flying, and I began taking lessons with veteran instructor, Jim Canard.

Weeks later, the ever-calm Jim announced that I was ready to solo. Gulp! Figuring Jim knew whereof he spoke, I buckled into the Schweitzer, calmed my racing heart, and stayed low behind the tow plane to keep it from nosing into the ground. Seconds later, we were climbing to the release altitude. At 3,000 feet, I pulled the release knob, the tow plane dove away and I headed for the landing pattern. I turned into the base leg, then the final approach and touch-down. I rolled to a stop and breathed deeply, probably for the first time since buckling up. I had succeeded in my first solo flight. The traditional bucket of cold water over the head told me that I was now a sailplane pilot.

Trips to the Sierra foothills of Tehachapi, past the tightly- packed wind farms, became an almost weekly ritual. When Dave finished building and test-flying his beautiful Woodstock, we would chase among the clouds and experience the joy of flight.

On one occasion, approaching dark clouds told me it was time to land. Unfortunately, the threatening clouds were like a gigantic vacuum cleaner and the spoilers on the wings were ineffective. At risk of being sucked up into the clouds. I remembered that a plane always loses altitude in a tight turn. Sure enough, it worked. I landed and tied the plane down. Dave and another friend were close behind. Sadly, a lovely single-seated sailplane got caught in a strong gust and did a damaging wing loop. Then came the heavy rain promised by the dark clouds.

In the following months, I made frequent trips to Tehachapi only to experience a quick and disappointing sled ride down. The usual lift had disappeared. Because sailplane rental and a tow to 3,000 feet were expensive, that and my disappointment resulted in my sailplane days ending. Though the friendship has continued, my flying days became part of the past.

I still dream of flying. I know Dave does.

I hope you enjoyed my experiences and the photos. If you have any questions or comments, let me know.



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  1. Those were the days! That’s for sure.
    I sometimes think about the fun, excitement, and the fear, and wish I was still soaring above the realm of the Earthbound.
    Family duties and making a living got in the way, it seems. But the memories of those days with good friends who shared the same interest will always be there.
    I remember when you, Don, came for your first hang-gliding lesson. Our connection seemed to be instant, and the fact that we have remained friends for all these years is as important to me as the memories of the fun we had. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane!

      • Don Bay on July 5, 2015 at 18:26

      Yeah, there was some fear, but the thrill of soaring with the hawks pushed all that away. And I am eternally grateful for your friendship and for the trust you placed in me from the first. You are one of my heroes.

    • Brenda on July 5, 2015 at 17:48

    I can just imagine the exhiliration of free flight, but I can also imagine the fear of something going wrong. That image in my mind would be the one that would keep me from doing such daring things. But Don, you have always been daring in one way or another. Lovely article, and so verbally well written.

      • Don Bay on July 5, 2015 at 18:34

      As I told Dave, there was a moment of fear—some even turned me aside (Yosemite?)—but the exhilaration more than made up for the momentary anxiety. I wouldn’t give up a second of that experience…in fact, I wish there had been more. I still dream of those moments and awaken with the wish it would continue. As noted in the piece, I know Dave shares the same dreams and feeling.

    • Art Ulene on July 5, 2015 at 18:14

    Wow! That’s not the Don Bay I knew. Thanks for sharing. Art

      • Don Bay on July 5, 2015 at 18:38

      Yep, you never can tell from the surface what’s underneath. The experiences are worth more than words can express. Thanks for your support.

  2. Wow!

      • Don Bay on July 6, 2015 at 17:09

      Thanks, Alyson, for the enthusiasm…or at least what I’m interpreting as enthusiasm. Not for a split-second have I ever regretted my hang gliding/sailplaning days. The only regrets I have are that they didn’t last longer. I still have wonderful dreams about soaring with the eagles.

  3. Thanks, Don. I visited you in California during those days and hearing your stories helped change my world. Long story, but that’s a big part of how and why we reconnected many years later. I know I was moved to try out hang gliding but somehow our lives move in mysterious ways and it never happened. But other stories I heard from you then did fundamentally change my world.

      • Don Bay on July 6, 2015 at 17:18

      I have a suspicion that you were already on the path you have chosen when we reconnected. Whether you tried hang gliding or not is unimportant. What you have been doing to lighten the load others carry is what’s really important. We all learn along the way, and what you have learned outshines anything I have done in my varied life. The important thing is that we have paid attention along the way. I hope we pay attention until our last breath.

    • Linda on July 7, 2015 at 06:32

    Good read! Thanks! I will say that my butt tingled when I rode chair lifts in Mammoth so you can believe I would only enjoy hang gliding stories or someone else’s adventures in the sky!

      • Don Bay on July 7, 2015 at 13:08

      To say it was an adventure is understating it. It was downright exhilarating! I have often said that hang gliding was a cross between great sex and religion. Too bad your butt tingled on the chair lift. Skiing is great, but hang gliding was much, much better. As I’ve said many times before, the only regret I have about hang gliding is that it should have lasted longer. Thanks for the kind words.

  4. WOW what an adventurer you have been.
    Brave indeed. Thanks for sharing

      • Don Bay on July 9, 2015 at 07:19

      I didn’t consider myself an adventurer, and bravery never crossed my mind, but the attraction to something exciting and new drove me to the biggest exhilaration of my life. Skiing is great, but hang gliding particularly and even flying a sailplane are at least several levels above skiing. I have often said that hang gliding was like a cross between outstanding sex and religion. I just wish that part of my life had lasted longer. Oh, well, life moves on. I appreciate your comment. Thanks.

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