Drifting through the sky, free as a bird or as free as a bird would be if it wasn’t strapped to another, novice bird wrapped up in a sleeping bag-type cocoon. Jo Gunston tries hang gliding.
For my first foray into hang gliding, characterful Australian Peter Aitken, once 20th in the world at speed hang gliding, was my instructor. Pistol Pete at once put me at ease… a feeling which slowly wore off the more I got to know him.
A man bonkers enough to have been hang-gliding at 22,000ft, something that required an oxygen tank, it was obvious he knew his stuff. Nevertheless, putting your trust in a complete stranger to do something which features in the Daily Finance’s insurers’ top seven deadly hobbies seems a little off kilter in itself.
Interested in the micro-light side of his business, as advertised on his flyer, I am startled by Aitken’s blunt response to my inquiry. “Don’t do that anymore. The guy died. Had a brain haemorrhage while flying and crashed. He’d been complaining of feeling dizzy for a while.”
On the way to the hang-gliding take-off point, Aitken points out a man on a golf course. “See him in the check shirt? My mate pulled him out of his Cessna plane that crashed into the motorway, then hit a tree and burst into flames. Burnt 95 per cent of his body. See the groove in his head? You could fit a pencil in that.”
On arrival at the hang-gliding launch pad at Lennox Head, an Australian coastal town a two-hour drive south of Brisbane, Aitken becomes rattled, revealing that one of the other gliders tried to have his licence taken away. I don’t ask why and Aitken mumbles, “I’ll have a word with him later”, before hopping out of the truck to unload the equipment.
Standing around like a spare part as Aitken skitters about preparing for the inaugural flight, I’m intrigued by the pterodactyl-like contraption that emerges. Before long I’m wriggling into what can only be described as a sleeping bag, positioned alongside the flighty instructor. Holding on tightly to the bar in front, off the cliff he strolls – I’m hanging uselessly by his side – and we’re away.
Gliding silently in a straight line, a sudden whoosh of wind when we turn, a stomach-drop when we dip, an intake of breath when we rise, Aitken’s sudden calm reveals that once airborne, he’s in his element.
“Can you see the whales?” says Aitken. “Yes, yes I can,” I respond, although I don’t. In the van on the way over I’d expressed my dream scenario to see whales from the glider. In this dreamy-like existence I was unwilling to puncture Aitken’s utopia – whales or no whales.
Soon to move to a new house, the proximity to Lennox Head will enable him to hang glide home from work. An odd commute for some, but perfectly normal for the man who’s happiest with his head in the clouds.