August 14, 2001
Section: BAYLIFE (Cover story)
ELIZABETH POLLOCK: The Tampa Tribune
Not many know about it, but just an hour away from Tampa is a hang gliding paradise, where some of the world's top instructors are ready to take you up to the clouds.
GROVELAND - We flew over a cloud and peered down to see our shadow gliding along the white fluff. There it was, a birdlike shape encircled by a glimmering rainbow.
"That's called seeing your glory!" shouted Bob Lane, a hang gliding instructor better known as "Awesome Bob."
He was suspended below me in a double harness of padded nylon webbing, which attached to a triangular aircraft-aluminum frame and the 215-square-foot Dacron sail that kept us aloft.
We were 5,000 feet above Groveland, a small Central Florida town, soaring at 25 mph. Lakes and orange groves stretched below. The horizon dissolved into a misty blue, shimmering in the August heat, although the breeze on my face was refreshingly cool.
Central Florida has become a hang gliding mecca in recent years, both for its consistently good weather and a phenomenon called the Florida convergence. That's when winds from both coasts meet and create an unusual amount of upward loft.
An eagle hovered to our left, riding the same currents of rising warm air that hang glider pilots seek.
"Let's follow it!" called Lane. He gently pulled the left corner of the frame and we banked, catching the "thermal" and lofting upward. A digital FlyTec Variometer mounted on the frame beeped as we gained altitude, also displaying our airspeed and average climb rate.
Until a few moments before, we had been attached by a 250-foot tow line to an ultralight plane called a Dragonfly, which had towed us up from the ground at a smooth 30 mph. Now it disappeared under the clouds, heading back to the hangar at the Quest Air Soaring Center.
Specially designed to fly slowly, the Dragonfly was invented 10 years ago by one of Quest's owners, Bobby Bailey. It has revolutionized the sport. Now, hang gliders can soar in flat country like Florida instead of having to run off mountains or cliffs - which also means it's much less scary for beginners.
A Safer Sport
I was a bit nervous right before we took off, after strapping on my helmet and navigating my way into the harness, which involves tricky leg loops.
But being in the air felt exhilarating and peaceful at the same time. I looked for Curtis, my fellow adventurer in this weekend hang gliding excursion, and thought I saw him, a waving speck.
I was completely unafraid. Awesome Bob was in control.
Tandem instructors go through nine levels of rigorous training and certification, including a thorough grounding in meteorology, overseen by the U.S. Hang Gliding Association in Colorado Springs, Colo.
To check whether a business offering tandem flights is legitimate, ask whether it has USHGA instructors and whether you must fill out paperwork to become a temporary USHGA member, which should be required.
Hang gliding's accident rate has plummeted since the reckless 1970s, when hippies made gliders out of bamboo and sheet plastic, and the motto was "Don't fly higher than you're willing to fall."
Now, taking an introductory tandem flight is statistically safer than driving to the flight park.
Of about 13,000 tandem flights in the United States in 2000, two accidents were reported, neither of them fatal (or in Florida), says Bill Bryden of USHGA's Accident Review Committee.
Word of hang gliding's increased safety and availability hasn't reached the public, partly because flight parks such as Quest don't have much of a budget for advertising.
"We always say it's the best-kept secret in adventure sports," says manager Steve Kroop. "The typical comment we get is, "Wow, I didn't know you could hang glide in Florida.' "
You wouldn't guess it from the laid-back attitude at Quest, but these guys are international gurus in hang gliding circles.
"It's probably one of the best places in the world to try tandem instruction flight," says David Glover, past president of the USHGA. "The guys at Quest are tops. Their techniques have been adopted all over the world."
The Quest staff includes the U.S. national champion, two of the highest-ranked instructors in the nation and three instructors who do aerobatics, a claim less than 1 percent of hang glider pilots can make.
One of those three is Lane, who on request executed a swooping "wing-over" maneuver before cruising in for a cushy landing on the tandem glider's spring landing gear (also invented by Bailey).
After our flights, we hung around the flight park for hours, floating in the screened-atrium pool lined with purple crape myrtle, munching slow-smoked barbecue around the corner at Choctaw Willie's and eavesdropping on the veteran pilots who own gear and pay just $15 per flight for a 2,000-foot tow.
When we finally left - after reminding them to charge us for the room above the hangar where we had bunked the night before - Lane and Kroop waved us off.
"Come back sometime and hang out with us," they called.
Kroop hopes that the ease of aero-towing will start a hang gliding renaissance.
"Now anyone can do it - from grandmas to kids," he says.
Mainly, it draws two types of people: thrill seekers and flying dreamers.
"The adrenaline junkies will probably move on, because it's actually very peaceful once you get used to it. But the ones who dreamed of flying as kids and then realize they can actually do it, they stay in it forever," he says.
"For us, we're all convinced that it's the coolest thing in the world."
(CHART) Gliding Slang
Blue hole: Section of sky without clouds
Boomer: A particularly strong and abrupt current of warm air
Cloud street: A line of cumulus clouds, making it easy to travel from one to the other to catch thermal currents
Cumie: A cumulus cloud, which forms when a rising current of warm air condenses. Great thermal lift underneath makes these clouds the gas stations of the sky for hang gliders.
Glory: Your shadow surrounded by a rainbow, a phenomenon that can happen when you fly between a cloud and the sun.
Thermaling: Steering the glider into rising currents of warm air (thermals) to gain altitude and extend flying time
"Whack!": Term to shout when another pilot makes a less-than-graceful landing
(CHART) IF YOU GO
The Quest Air Soaring Center is open from 8 a.m. to sunset daily. It's located at 6548 Groveland Airport Road, Groveland, about an hour's drive from Tampa.
Prices for introductory tandem flights: $75 for a 1,200-foot flight, $98 for a 2,000-foot flight, $125 for a 2,500-foot flight, $225 for a 5,000-foot flight
Amenities: screened outdoor pool and hot tub, canoeing, fishing, volleyball, hammocks, rope swing, treehouse, trampoline, clubhouse (with kitchen, pool table, foosball table, TV/VCR and hang gliding videos)
When to go: early morning or late afternoon for smooth air, midafternoon for bumpier air. Call a few days ahead, at 1-800-HANG GLIDE (800-426-4454), to ask about weather conditions.
Where to eat: Choctaw Willie's, 214 W. Broad St., Groveland, (352) 429-4188, offers tasty slow-smoked barbecue and out-of-this-world blackberry cobbler topped by homemade vanilla ice cream; Happ's Redwing Restaurant, 12500 State Road 33, Groveland, (352) 429-2997, has game and Southern dishes such as grilled quail and crispy fried green tomatoes.
Where to stay: Check www.questairforce.com for a listing of nearby motels; three rooms in the clubhouse with shared baths are available for $30 a night; or camp on the grounds for $5.
More information: Visit www.questairforce.comor e-mail QuestAir@sundial.net.
Cutline: Tribune photos by VICTOR JUNCO
(C) Reporter Elizabeth Pollock says she felt exhilaration and peace while hang gliding with instructor Bob Lane. Their eagle-eye view of Groveland comes at 5,000 feet.
(C) Ultralight pilot Jim Richardson views the shadow of his Dragonfly plane on a cloud, a phenomenon hang gliders call "seeing your glory."
Tribune photo by VICTOR JUNCO
An ultralight plane flying 30 mph uses a towline to take a hang glider and instructor from the Quest Air Soaring Center up to a cruising altitude over Groveland in Central Florida.
Tribune map by ESSEX JAMES
(MAP) (C) Quest Air Soaring Center
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