By Victoria Stewart / For The Chronicle
The glider sat, unfurled and resting on the ground, poised for flight like a colorful butterfly at the top of Dog Mountain east of Morton.
Larry and Tina Jorgensen zipped around the craft carefully performing a pre-flight check. The weather was perfect for flying: warm summer sun and thermals. Riffe Lake stretching out glistening below, and hawks, ravens and vultures — the inspiration for flying — wheeled overhead. For Larry, a tandem instructor at Dog Mountain, learning to hang glide fulfilled a lifelong dream of wanting to fly like a bird.
“I always wanted to,” he said. “But when I looked into it back in the ’70s, it was pretty dangerous back then.”
The sport has come a long way since then, with major improvements in aircraft and safety equipment.
“If there’s an accident now, it’s usually pilot error,” he said.
The Jorgensens have been flying since the 1980s. Experts in the sport, the pair have flown at sites in the U.S., Canada, France and Australia. Near and dear to them is Dog Mountain, on land owned by Port Blakely Tree Farms. Here is where many members of the Pacific Northwest-based hang gliding club, Cloudbase Country Club, meet to fly and camp, swim and play at the popular hang gliding spot.
“Dog Mountain is what we call a training to an advanced site,” Jorgensen said. “It is a perfect place where you can learn from beginning to (still keep flying) even when you get older.”
However, Dog Mountain is a level 3 hang gliding mountain, which means a beginner cannot fly there alone and must practice flying in the company of an advanced pilot. While a beginner can make tandem flights at the mountain, dedicated students will be traveling east of the mountains to Chelan to practice their sport on a 50-foot “baby” hill and getting certified through the levels before earning full access to Dog Mountain.
“Experience saves your life, bottom line,” Jorgensen said.
Women Vs. Men
Both men and women can fly equally well in the sky. For hang gliding it is good not to be too heavy or too light. Heavier individuals have a harder time getting air and lighter individuals have a harder time controlling the craft. Another problem is what to do when you have to “go” mid-flight. Women must come down to use restroom facilities so they usually tend to drink less water — a problem during longer flying times.
“You really need to keep hydrated,” Jorgensen said. “You are up there in 30, 40 mile-per-hour winds.”
Catching the Wind: Thermals and Ridge Lifts
“The longer you fly the better sense you have (and) learn how to figure out all the markers, because air is invisible,” Jorgensen said.
Pilots are helped in takeoff from the mountain by ridge lift (created as wind strikes an obstacle), and gain altitude in thermals. Finding thermals by watching for clues is the busy work of a watchful pilot in flight.
“The interesting thing about thermals is how they work — bugs get sucked up by thermals along with straw and dirt — air is being pulled up from the ground and taken up into the sky and what happens is birds are up in the thermals eating bugs. So we look for that kind of stuff when we’re flying,” said Jorgensen. “It gives us an indication that there is a thermal out there. When you are gliding you are always looking for lift; getting low and getting back up and looking for another one. It’s a lot like sailing.”
The point of hang gliding is to catch the thermals to gain altitude, gliding in the air between lifts. Pilots attempt to hop and skip across land by catching and gliding in thermals, then eventually land in a designated landing zone.
Jorgensen carries the state record for distance flight for Washington, flying southeast from Chelan to Park, Idaho, a distance of 186 miles. Wife Tina followed along in the truck below and the pair maintained radio contact. Landwise, Tina drove 256 miles to follow Larry. The flight took eight hours.
Setting up and breaking down a glider is a careful yet fairly speedy process of about 20 minutes. Gliders, which typically weigh about 60 pounds, are wrapped and carried in long glider bags. Once the glider is unzipped from the bag, wings are unfurled and the poles that make up the webbing of the glider wing are slipped inside the wing.
An 8,000 pound strength strap (actually double straps for safety) holds the pilot. Pilots are most comfortable when encased in a “mummy” type sleeping bag harness. Then comes one of the most critical pre-flight checks of the entire process: having a friend double check you are actually hooked to the glider by having the pilot literally hang from the glider while still on the ground. Forgetting this step could sort of ruin a good flying day.
It is surprisingly inexpensive to get into the sport of hang gliding. Check out what it feels like first by taking a tandem flight. Cost is about $150.
Equipment, purchased used, including all safety equipment, harness, parachute and a used glider costs $2,000 to $5,000.
“We recommend you buy used equipment,” Jorgensen said. “We are a very small world of pilots and a tight knit community and we try to take care of each other and help new pilots get into equipment. You can spend up to $20,000. It’s like anything you do. You can do it cheap or once you really get into the sport it’s an addiction and you end up buying more and more.”
Up in the Air
So what does it feel like to run off the side of a mountain and soar through the air in a non-motorized craft? This reporter took a flight, strapped in tandem with instructor Larry Jorgensen, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, off Dog Mountain.
Despite the heat of the day, I donned a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt for my flight after being warned by Tina Jorgensen that it can get fairly cold the higher up you fly in the sky. I also drank quite a bit of water, despite being warned there are no bathroom facilities for women at 10,000 feet.
Helmet on: Check! Sunglasses: Check! Complete reckless abandonment of all sanity: Check! Actually, that last check item isn’t true: I had absolutely no fear with the experienced Jorgensen strapped beside me.
After stepping into the harness and being velcroed into it (yes, velcro is very strong) I hung, suspended, from the glider during the very important pre-flight test of making sure (doubly sure) I had been adequately clipped to the glider itself. Velcro was wrapped around my knee caps to keep my legs from hanging during flight.
Then, together (myself on tippy-toe, stiff-legged and awkward with velcro-bound knee caps) Jorgensen and I walked the glider to the beginning of the ramp off Dog Mountain. There we paused while he told me what the signals would be for our run off the mountain and what the rules were for the flight. The rules included: Don’t grab onto the frame of the glider (you throw the feeling of the flight for the pilot off completely, he can’t “feel” the true play of the wind currents and that is not good) and don’t jump off the mountain … you simply run straight off.
The signals to get ready to run off the mountain were simple and clear: “Are you ready to fly?” My reply: “Yes!” and then Jorgensen would say, when the wind currents were exactly correct for us: “Run!” and then we were to run.
Apparently easily confused and easily excited, I took off at a dead run after “Are you ready to fly?” dragging Jorgensen with me and throwing the entire glider off balance. Lesson learned the hard way: Don’t do that.
Once Jorgensen had regained control of the glider from the crazy reporter, we were set again to run off the mountain. This time, I did it the right way. We ran, the glider a huge kite over us, straight off the side of the mountain and with a small dip, straight up on a “ridge lift” into the sky.
The feeling was immensely thrilling and also soft and easy, much like simply lying on a couch and floating into the sky. There were no engine sounds. The waters below shimmered and glistened. Birds wheeled by, including several bald eagles below us. Jorgensen talked about wind currents and hang gliding trips and lots of interesting trivia about the birds he observes while flying and how hawks and eagles will sometimes come wing-tip to wing-tip with him, looking at him.
“I think they are waiting for me to make a big kill,” he laughed. “They probably figure something as big as I will kill something really big and there will be plenty for all of us to eat.”
Jorgensen played with the glider, dipping and curling and twirling us, the rush of wind and the thrilling pull in my stomach reminiscent of a fair ride.
Time passed quickly. My legs went numb in the velcro harness. I ignored them. I pulled my hands off the handles that gripped the harness on Jorgensen’s back.
And I flew.
Everyone should have a chance to fly high in the sky, arms outstretched, a child’s dream. Believing again that if you only try hard enough, you can really and truly soar with the eagles and dance above the feathery tops of the trees.
Victoria Stewart is a freelance writer and photographer living in Chehalis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.