Thursday, August 9, 2007

Learning to Fly

During our Wood Family Southern Routes BBQ Tour, we visited North Carolina's Outer Banks and took hang gliding lessons from Kitty Hawk Kites. This was our second try -- the first attempt back in 1997 was scuttled due to a lack of wind. During our training and while receiving feedback and encouragement from our instructors, I decided that the lessons necessary to ensure a safe and exhilarating glide over the sandy dunes might be useful in other aspects of life. Now, this isn't to say that I flew a hang glider. My experience was that of a student taking micro-leaps that lasted mere seconds. But above the ground, contemplating every moment with a rare exactness, I picked up a few pointers whose utility may stretch beyond this singular experience. Never being afraid of a little pretension, here are six lessons I learned while learning to hang glide.

Get Help

Leaping off a dune with only the wind to help you avoid a gritty dirt sandwich ought not be attempted lightly. We sought instruction from experienced and patient hang gliding aficionados who understood the theory and practice of human powered flight. While we knew what we wanted to do, we wanted to leap off a sand dune and end our day without a hospital visit, we didn't know what we didn't know. As a professor, I find that aspect to be most critical to the learning experience. Students are sure they know what college is about, getting the required credentials to do what they've always planned to do. Any kind of instruction that doesn't seem to correlate directly with those goals appears superfluous to a large number of students ("Will this be on the test?"). And yet, even though I had no interest in learning about the proper technique for gripping the cross-bar, I had no idea of how important that skill would be until I found myself over-compensating when the lift carried me up and I crashed quickly thereafter. A spirit of inquiry and a search for patient and knowledgeable help augmented my enthusiasm with experience and helped me improve quickly.

Run Fast

A necessary component of human powered flight is a hard working human, at least at first. Our glider required about 25 miles per hour of wind to take flight. With a light breeze, we needed to add the extra energy to gain any altitude. That required a fast run, even though we came to fly and not to jog. I watched some people make a few half-hearted plods before hoping that the wind would take over and lift them up. Those folks generally ate dirt. Since we were students, we had the help of experienced instructors who ran alongside us, contributing their energy to ours. But I frequently heard an instructor explain to a frustrated student who crashed after only a few steps, "You stopped running on me!" I've seen the same thing in the classroom and elsewhere in life. Many people hope that hot air will lift them up, or that kind people will help them along. But all of us eventually must run alone, and it's best to begin that run early. Looking back, I remember wasting my high school years and having to sprint during my twenties to catch up. But getting up to speed eventually results in a strange circumstance: the harder you run at first, the less you must pump those muscles later. Eventually the wind of good luck, good friends, and good circumstances will keep you aloft for a long, long time. And the whole flight will seem effortless. You'll look down on the dune and see folks sorrowfully running from place to place, even though their paths lead only in circles. That's why it's best to exert the effort to run early and run fast in order to get anywhere.

Look Ahead

Our trainers repeated one mantra over and over: keep your eyes on the direction you seek to go. It's a simple enough principle. When you're driving a car, if you turn your eyes to the left, you'll tend to turn the wheel in the same direction. If you turn your eyes to the right, the car will follow. With concentration, you can look one direction and turn another, but doing so takes particular attention. Hang gliding calls for attention to multiple details, so many in fact that you'll find it almost impossible to counteract your instincts; you can therefore pretty much count on your direction following your eyes. Like I said, it's pretty simple. Yet there's a meaningful lesson to be learned when trying to leap off a sand dune. If you keep your eyes on the ground, you can count on landing soon, sooner than you may like. Oddly enough, lifting your eyes perpetually skyward leads to similarly troublesome results: you'll pull the glider at too sharp a pitch and stall. But if you concentrate upon a goal ahead of you, and if you keep your eyes on that point, your body will tend to follow your vision. Your ability to get anywhere requires that you know where you want to go. It's not blind optimism that keeps your eyes facing forward. Far from it, this kind of focus trains your body to submit to your desires.

Adjust Gently

Hang gliding forces you to abandon the human-made desire to find drama in every decision. Think about the summer blockbusters or romantic dramas you may have seen at the movie theater. Every decision seems to drip with meaning. Every move, every turn, every action must be big, big enough to make an impression within the blink of an eye. Soaked in this media bath, many of us seek similar drama in our daily lives, almost as if we imagine ourselves to be living some sort of movie to be viewed by others. Serving as our own narrators, we tell stories that seek to compete with the ones we see on the screens of our lives. Walking through a city, we can be forgiven for such hubris. Jumping off a dune, we learn quickly to be more delicate, eventually. For me, the process involved many mistakes. During my training, when I was given an instruction to pull the bar in, I'd pull in, sharply, dramatically. When given an instruction to let the bar out slightly, I'd let it out a lot, movie-style. Result? Dirt sandwiches, lots of 'em. Eventually I saw more successful flyers practicing what I continue to learn. With their joyous leaps, they demonstrated that most complicated procedures require a delicate touch. With hang gliding, a tap of one inch or less is sufficient to adjust the pitch. A delicate pull to the left or right can alter the course. You want to do more; you think you should manage this gangly device. But if you've selected the proper equipment and received the appropriate training, it's best to trust what brought you to this place. Adjustments must be made, of course. Winds change, forming tiny bursts of energy that demand small modifications. But overreacting to these natural phenomena creates vicious feedback loops that end badly. With most things, whether in hang gliding or in life, the lesson is the same: Make your initial choices with precision until you have a good feel for the wind -- and lots of space between your position and the ground. Then, you can be as dramatic as you like.

Loosen Grip

I was surprised by how big and awkward a hang glider can be -- and I was particularly surprised by how little force was needed to guide it. Our training gliders were about 80 pounds each, full of wires and poles and straps. Yet our trainers reminded us, "A hang glider wants to fly. It's built and designed to catch the wind. Its natural inclination is to take flight, so don't get in the way." Again and again we were told this simple truth. Yet my inclination seemed constantly at odds with that of the glider. Running my hardest, pumping my body full of adrenalin, my fingers gained a death grip on the bar almost every time. Every jar, every bump, every jostle would then transfer itself to the wings, resulting in turbulence and, ultimately, rough landings. Here I am reminded of the planners in the 1997 film Contact who, ignoring the instructions they were given, insisted on bolting a heavy seat in a spacecraft designed to travel without one. The chamber shook with fury, almost tearing itself apart, until finally the seat dislodged and smashed against the ceiling. At once, the ride became smooth, frictionless. In both cases, the lesson is to unlearn social principles, to let go of our desire to direct things that remain only loosely subject to our control. This does not require abandonment of influence, only recognition of our limits. Any accomplishment takes initial effort, a running start, but once we become airborne, the real trick is to allow the forces around us to come to our aid, not to disregard them, or worse, to fight them. My young soul sees a single person flying a hang glider. The lesson from that limited vision is control. The more experienced flyer sees an intersection of forces that result in a hang gliding person. The lesson from that expanded vision is humility.

Try Again

Five tries. Five. And I only experienced one flight in which I landed on my feet. As any successful person will tell you, failure is a powerful incentive that leads to improvement, at least it is for those who have ambition. The taste of dirt after a ditched landing, the recognition that you screwed up and almost got hurt, the possibility that you might get hurt for real next time: these things lead us to avoid the dune cliffs of life. It's so much easier to watch other people take their leaps, whether sports heroes or cinematic action stars. They try and succeed and, vicariously, so do we. But eventually the game concludes or the movie ends and we are stuck once more with the undeniable reality that life will continue pretty much as it did yesterday. One more day gone, one more chance lost. And while we are genetically wired to ignore this reality as long as possible, one day we will run out of chances to fail or succeed or even try. I'll leave discussions of the afterlife to those inclined to such musings. As for myself, I am drawn to the heavyset woman I saw that day of training, the poor soul who leaped spastically like an electrocuted fish from the water, with no grace and no control. Time and time again she would crash to the ground. And I'll admit that I chuckled to myself, despite how foolish I myself must of looked. But she kept at it, pumping those legs as fast as she could. By her fifth try she caught some air and returned with the swagger of a fighter pilot. She looked silly, and so did I. Neither one of us was built for fight, and both of us needed plenty of help. But she persisted, and so did I. This is the final and most important lesson of hang gliding (or anything worth doing): falling comes before flying.

These are six lessons I learned while learning to hang glide. They're not profound, and they're hardly original. But I believe they provide useful insights that expand beyond one day on the dunes. It took Jenny and I ten years to return to Kitty Hawk and cash in our "wind checks," and it took gallons of sweat and hours of work to accomplish our goal. But we flew, even if just for a moment or two, and we saw the value of lessons taught by twenty-something college students working their summer jobs and trying to help clueless tourists get airborne. We saw the values of inquiry, effort, focus, precision, humility, and persistence. Leaving the North Carolina Outer Banks, satisfied that we hang glided at last, I looked back on this experience fondly and with a sense of completion. But not Jenny. She wants to skydive. I can only imagine what I'll learn then.

(Photos by Jenny and Vienna Wood -- and a friendly stranger)

No comments: