How to jump off a cliff and live

A few weekends ago, on a damp afternoon in the late summer, I jumped off a tall cliff over the sea north of Wollongong.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

I guess it was probably more like running off the cliff but jumping off a cliff sounds better - judge for yourself whether it was a run or a jump.

Anyways, either way, this was one of the great moments of my life and the fulfillment of a childhood dream. As I was growing up, Dad worked for TAA/Qantas and one of the perks of this was a fair amount of air travel and trips to the airport as a kid. He also had a fair interest in planes as a hobby so we'd regularly trundle around to various airshows (most commonly the Easter airshow at Mangalore, near Seymour) to take photos and watch the spectacle.

Undoubtably this left its mark on me but my own love of watching birds soaring led me to an interest in what seemed a purer form of flight and a more absolute form of freedom - non-powered flight.

I don't know when I first saw hang gliders but I remember being blown away that this was something that people could do as well.

The first book I read about this sport was the tale of an Aussie guy called Wayne Blackmore who got into Hang gliding in the 70s - he had actually paralysed himself in an accident while flying rudimentary man-sized kite that he had built himself a about a week after I was born (not that the two events were connected) and then pursued his interest in the sport a few years later when friends introduced him to proper gliders in the U.S. (He went on to become a leading figure in the sport in Australia)

The fact that I wasn't the least bit put off by the fact that my role model in this was a paraplegic gives some indication of the interest I had in soaring with the birds.

Of course, life gets in the way of these dreams sometimes and it took a while longer to get up in the air than I had expected.

Fast forward to late Feb, 2009.

It had taken several months to organise a good flying day - hang gliding is heavily dependent upon getting good winds and the people I flew with (HangglideOz) are based around Stanwell Park, north of Wollongong - a 2 to 3 hour drive from Canberra. The routine involved booking a flight on a weekend (the tandem flight was a gift from the PC so I wanted her to be there for it - and potentially to collect my shattered bones) and then calling first thing in the morning to see if the weather was right. (And was likely to still be right when I got up there in a few hours time)

Even on the clifftop (Bald Hill), there was a waiting game to be played. It was a slightly drizzly sort of a day (though with good winds) and evidently flying through rain isn't particularly fun, so a few brief squalls had to pass before getting up in the sky.

You fly wearing a sleeping bag type contraption, tightly strapped in to the frame of the glider, that allows you to tuck your feet into the bottom in the air. It was snug but reassuringly so.

The experience of standing near the edge of the cliff, strapped into the glider and pushed up close to Jim, the nuggety American pilot, wasn't a frightening one at all. The wind was whooshing up the cliff face and I could feel it trying to pull the glider off the ground already and after a lifetime of waiting, I just wanted to get out there amongst it.

The closer we got to the edge, the more it pushed up until we were just out in the beautiful empty space. There are handles on either side of the pilot's flight suit to hold on to - not so much holding onto the a-frame controls as I'd expected but given that these are the controls, that makes a certain amount of sense.

Jim kept up a stream of informative chat about flying, what we were doing at any point and the area in general - I don't think I've ever asked so many questions

The experience was interesting in that for most of the time, I didn't really have a sensation of being high in the air - the glider felt so solid in the air that it was only when we suddenly dived for a little extra speed or ran into the wake of another glider in the sky that there was even that much of a sensation of movement. (Yeah, gliders leave wakes just like boats - something I'd never thought of before). It was much more like everything was just moving beneath us.

Turning was a little like this as well - you swing yourself a little to one side of the glider to dip the wing enough to start the turn then quickly swing the other way to stop the wing dipping any further. When the turn is done, swing the other way to even out the wings.

After a little while in the air, I got to have a go at this and think I did pretty well, if I do say so myself.

The view was what I had only been able to imagine - truly the birds-eye experience. Flying around the densely wooded bushland cliffs (it really is a beautiful area up around there), I was surprised at the number of car bodies littered the area - dumped over the side for the most part and never visible but from this perspective. It wasn't really that different from the view you get a few minutes before landing in a standard plane, just much more interesting scenery and at a much more leisurely pace. (Also with that same kind of 360 perspective that you get on a bicycle as opposed to the boxy window based view in a car/plane)

The landing was equally smooth - just a few gentle swooping turns taking you lower and lower to the beach/park and then pushing the nose right up at the last second to slow you down to a stall, plopping you gently down. (Seriously just like the way birds land). Being a little taller than the pilot and possibly slightly out of position, I took a small whack in the face from the control a-frame thing but this couldn't get past the joy of the whole experience.

Next stop is presumably to go through the whole process of getting a student license, which is a few weeks of daily flying and lessons - and around $2000+. From there, a basic glider is probably another $5000, so this probably won't happen super soon but a lot sooner than the first flight.