The 12-Step-off-a-Cliff Program

Thanks to improved safety standards and tandem flights, scores of acrophobes are giving hang gliding a second wind. And now, they're soaring in style—over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Feb 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

OK, SO IT wasn't that funny at first. The pontoon flights over the bay were, at that point, still snarled in red tape, so I signed on for one of the more traditional run-off-a-cliff jobbers. From the town of Stinson Beach, ten miles up the coast from San Francisco, it's only a five-minute switchbacked drive up the western flank of 2,572-foot Mount Tamalpais, the highest point in Marin County, to the launch point. And five minutes is not a great deal of time to get to know a man you're about to entrust with your life. Raised in Berkeley, Kroll's first and middle names are Bodhi Dharma—after a Buddhist who achievedenlightenment but forsook nirvana to be reincarnated as a teacher. Good juju, I decide. A pilot for 17 years, the 35-year-old Kroll apprenticed as an instructor at the Sydney Hang Gliding Centre, in Australia. When he smiles, I'm convinced I'm in good hands. He still has all his front teeth.

We pull into a trailhead parking lot on Mount Tam's Bolinas Ridge. Our launchpad is a rounded outcropping about 50 feet down the slope, with a drop sufficient for us to run off, gain lift, and clear the tall pines below. I walk across the road to get a glimpse of where I'm going, and take in a sweeping view of Stinson Beach. We watch a quick instructional video on a portable television. It's no great shakes, but it lets me know what to expect. I am to run alongside Kroll, straight off the ridge. I'm not to grab the tubes of the glider's frame at any time; that could throw the craft out of balance. After signing a few waivers, I stuff myself into my harness—a vest for my torso and stirrups for my knees, to winch my legs up parallel with the wing once we're airborne. On account of my height, Kroll tells me, I'll have to keep running after his feet have left the ground. He jokes that given my size—together we'll be more than 12 and a half feet and more than 400 pounds of human cargo—our flight should be "interesting." He stops laughing when he sees my face fall. "No, it's going to be great," he says. "You want it to be interesting!"

It's true. Thank Buddha, there are more instructions to distract me. They reel through my brain on an infinite loop of nervous energy, which keeps me from focusing too hard on the fact that in a few moments I'll be soaring thousands of feet above the earth with a grinning bald man I barely know. I will ride next to Kroll, not behind him. I will be clipped into the hang glider with my right hand on his left shoulder. I will keep my body inside the metal triangle that extends down from the wing; should I stray beyond it, my weight could throw us horribly off-kilter. I flash on Darth Vader spinning into space—no, I will be fine.

We take one practice sprint. Then we run for real. My pulse pounds in my chest, throat, and ears. It feels like I have several hearts, each beating at a pressure point.

The moment we lift off and clear the trees is, as I expected, terrifying. The scramble to get situated in the rig feels like tacking a sailboat—albeit two thousand feet above terra firma—but there's barely time to register the terror before we're soaring up and out and I feel... wonderful. Incredibly secure.

A minute out, Kroll asks me how I'm doing. When I tell him great, he lowers the steering bar a notch and we scream straight for a stand of tall trees, pulling up—wuuuuuuh—with plenty of time to spare.

A few more minutes and our Batman shadow slips high over California 1 and the Pacific Ocean just beyond. It is from this very vantage point, three weeks after my flight, that Kroll will spot an eight-foot great white pushing through the sea just beyond the breakers. But there are no sharks today, only bewildered beachcombers, who start to scatter as we approach our beach landing strip. Kroll yells at them not to move. Though he's never hit anyone on landing, people, like startled deer, could run directly into the flight path.

We touch down without braining anyone and come to a painless stop in a spray of sand. I'm completely giddy. No doubt about it: I'll be back for the Apache Trike. I was meant to fly.

FACT  The first successful manned flight of the Rogallo wing, the prototype for today's hang gliders, took place just south of Sydney, Australia, in 1963, when John Dickenson flew one off the back of a boat. The cost him $33 to build.

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