It's not a paralyzing fear. I'm able to keep the panic in check so long as I have an immediate goal. Yet going up, time and again, only reinforces what I already know: I'm afraid of coming down. And when I stare into an abyss—lying on my belly, peering over the brink of Yosemite's Half Dome, say—a different sort of swoon seizes me. I feel drawn over the edge, as if the void were calling me. It's not a death wish; I am petrified by the impulse. But it won't be blinked away, this seductive urge to let go and fly.
To deal with my fear, I have, over the years, devised my own acrophobia-recovery scheme. I've let friends take me up the odd Bay Area bridge tower. Twice, I tried bungee jumping, and while both jumps gave me an inkling of what it was like to let gravity have its way with me, only at the very top of a bungee bounce—weightless for an instant—did I get a sense of what it might be like to fly.
Then a friend turned me on to tandem hang gliding. Often marketed as "discovery flights"—designed to give youa taste of flight, and help you determine whether or not you want to sign up for the dozen-odd courses you'll need tobecome a certified novice, and oh, yes, buy a new $1,500–$3,000 entry-level rig—these introductory lessons are bringing hang gliding and paragliding to the masses as never before. Some 40 percent of the United States Hang Gliding Association's 10,000 members joined in the past two years. Fueled by Web marketing, tandem flights and solo aerotowing (in which an ultralight plane tows a hang glider heavenward) have given rise to what association president David Glover describes as a nationwide renaissance.
Improved safety hasn't hurt either. "In the early years, it was like war," says Chris Wills, 49, who with his brother Bobby flew the nation's first foot-launched tandem wing off Palmdale, California's Delta Hill in 1973. Chris, now an orthopedic surgeon in the nearby town of Orange, eventually lost not one but two brothers (including Bobby) to crashes. "There were about 40 pilots in the first U.S. Hang Gliding Championship," Wills says. "A few years later, about half of them were gone. But the technology today is vastly improved. It's a much, much safer sport now." Indeed, in 1976 alone, 38 American pilots "augered in" (that is, bought the farm); in 2000 there were just two hang-gliding fatalities.
You don't have to tell Bodhi Kroll that the sport is booming. The founder of the San Francisco Hang Gliding Center (www.sfhanggliding.com; 510-528-2300) watched his revenues quadruple in his second year and double in each of the two years since. He now has five pilots working year-round. And after finally securing permits from the Coast Guard and the FAA, as well as various municipal bodies, Kroll's firm began offering the first tandem flights over San Francisco Bay last September, in a $23,000 "Apache Trike"—an engine-equipped glider designed to take off and land on water—built by Kamron Blevins of North Wing Design in Wenatchee, Washington. Unlike conventional wings, the Apache Trike does not require constant dismantling and assembly; between flights Kroll and his team dock it at a nearby marina, allowing them to complete as many as 20 flights on a good day. February offers fewer flying days than most months, Kroll says, but when the rain does retreat it often leaves behind afternoons of cotton-candy cumulus and blustery winds that can keep the wing airborne for 30 minutes at a stretch.
Hearing last summer that this was in the works and that I might buzz the red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, I resolved to take my vertigo shock therapy in a new direction: straight up, over the waters of northern California.