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Being Superman

Hang gliding is the closest you will come to feeling like a bird soaring freely in the sky

travel Updated: May 30, 2010 22:12 IST

Imagine shooting off a ridge clinging
to a pair of rudimentary wings.
Scary, isn't it? You would be hoping
your machine doesn't give way
and praying that nature stays calm
till you land. The sport is called hang
gliding, and it's an embodiment of the
human desire to soar like an eagle. But
it is an airy proposition; one tiny mishap
and your trusted crony could go for a
toss, and you'd be spiralling downwards.


In countries that have gliding schools, the activity is a full-fledged adventure sport. But most Indians got initiated into it in unconventional ways. Take Samarth Sharma (31) for example. Now a pilot based in Jodhpur, Sharma was a child when he first saw someone hang glide on television. After some research, he learnt that the materials of a glider weren't hard to procure and could be easily assembled. So he got hold of some Dacron cloth and aluminium rods to design a scant chassis.

But members of a hang gliders' forum online advised him against flying the machine. That's when Sharma imported a glider from the UK, and took lessons on YouTube from a US army officer. Now, after four years, he's ready for his first cross-country expedition in Rajasthan this June.

Flying time is usually from 7 am to 5 pm. An ideal day has cumulus clouds hanging in the sky, and a gentle breeze of 15-20 kph, that indicates warm air is rising from the earth's surface. The glider runs against the wind to launch, using the warm updrafts to rise in flight -- during which he has to circle upwards -- and yaws away once he has gained altitude. For the craft to go straight, he must maintain his centre of gravity.

Taking flight
Flights last for an hour or so depending on wind direction. On cross-country expeditions, a glider might fly 15-20 km straight. Even before taking off, he has to plan where he's going to land. And before touching base, he has to estimate the glide ratio (for every one foot decrease in altitude, the glider travels 10 feet ahead) and decide when he's going to flare out. "If you enter a cloud, tug at the yaw bar; the turbulence sometimes is massive," says Sharma.

An ideal landing ground is the size of a football field, and shouldn't be compromised on. "I tried landing on a small field once, and wound up in a patch of thick bushes," Sharma adds.

Gliding technology
Over the years, technology has made the sport easier and safer. N Javad Hassan, a Bangalore resident, who has hang glided across the Nilgiris, is one of those who welcomed this change.

The 42-year-old moved to powered hang gliding and set up a company that sells motored gliders. "The motor is to help you take off without a ridge, and keep you adrift in the absence of an updraft," says Hassan.

Even if you're flying a manual glider and the updrafts stop, you won't plummet down. "You'll keep gliding in the air unless there's a problem with the structure of the glider, which you can prevent with good quality equipment," says 27-year-old Rajeev Barve, a Pune resident, who has glided in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra.

Using a motor, however, means doing away with the thrill of being completely unassisted by any kind of device. "The motor means you can take off from anywhere and you aren't at the mercy of the winds. It's incomparable to flying a manual glider though," says Barve.

The dangers aren't too many if you use safety gear like a helmet and reserve parachute. "Most mishaps occur due to carelessness or inexperience. The worst that's happened to me is a twisted ankle," he says.

Start out on an expedition only if you're confident that you've received good training and have quality gear. You don't need to have very high fitness levels. Gliders say that if you can climb up to a ridge with the glider and run 15-20 feet to launch, you're ready. Says Hassan, "I've had gliding students up to 65 years of age. You only shouldn't have heart disease or a fear of heights."

It's never advisable to fly solo as you need a group to report any misadventure. "Flying together is more fun too. That's when you experience what we call the Superman syndrome -- the feeling of soaring in the skies just like Superman," says Sharma.

Start hang gliding
For powered hang gliders, contact N Javed Hassan of Albatross Flying Systems at +91-9945651775 or log on to www.albatrossflyingsystems.com. For manual hang gliding lessons, contact Samarth Sharma on +91-9460481356. Companies like RnR Adventures, Pankaj Tyagi Importers, Willswing Manufacturers, Moves, and Airborne Australia can help import gliders.