While Scotland’s chances in the World Cup may be slim, we are, as a nation, surprisingly good at hang-gliding. Simon Gage, a man with his head

in the clouds, finds out what it’s all about.

The history ofsuccessful unmanned flight is an indecently briefone. (The history ofunsuccessful manned flight is unfortunately but inevitably somewhat longer.) It is just 87 years since the Wright brothers piloted their single engined plane Flyerl along the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. What was for Orville a small, but triumphant, hop was for the rest of us the inception of a giant leap. Two World Wars and a lot ofavionic tinkering later, the 10 miles ofgas we call ‘sky‘. once haven of the Gods and a place to hide Heaven in. is thronging with angelic hosts caring not for lost souls but dispensing hot perfumed towels to weary air travellers as they thunder over the world‘s continents and oceans.

The inevitable scramble that followed the Wright brothers‘ historic flight rapidly took aviators toward larger and faster aircraft. Today the sky is home to a menagerie of beasts ranging from cavernous bellied transports that can swallow a couple of double-decker buses. to the sprinters that could get you to Genoa for the 8pm start of the Scotland v Brazil game provided you left Scotland at 7.15pm.

Largely abandoned by aviators until about twenty years ago was the art and science of building small. slow aircraft to carry a single person. similar to the earliest planes that had waited along the sands at Kitty Hawk. The type ofcraft that. faithful to the aspirations of Icarus. would let you soar silently and effortlessly with the birds. the wind rushing through your hair. This was surely what had inspired the earliest pioneers of flight.

In the late 605. in the last throws of a decade that had seen so many conventions and traditions overthrown. interest in taking to the air with a set of wings on your back infused southern Californian beach culture. By dragging canopies of

plastic and bamboo lashed together with sticky tape to the tops ofsand dunes, surfers initiated an evolutionary process that had soon established a whole new species of aircraft the ‘hang-glider‘.

With the incorporation of modern strong materials such as nylon and aluminium alloys the hang-glider went through a process of rapid and sometimes costly (in terms of lives lost) development.

By the early 703 the sport had

blown in across the Atlantic and was colonising the skies of Europe. Following it in on a tail wind was the notion that. as a sport. it was marginally less safe than rollerball. Early fatalities. often caused by design faults. did little to deflect the criticism of the sceptics. But the arrival ofthe British Hang Gliding Association who tested hang-gliders for their air worthiness (which they do by strapping them to a test rig towed behind a lZ-cylinder Jaguar that hurtles down a 1 mile runway at 60mph) helped keep unsafe gliders out ofthe sky and the sport rapidly became bearany safe.

As a nation the British took to the new sport like any other but it soon became clear that the Creator‘s work in our corner ofthe globe had not been done with the hang-glider foremost in mind. Topographically there were no mountains or even big hills from which fledgling pilots could launch themselves. To compound this, when the weather isn‘t being bad it‘s being unpredictable. Undeterred. like only the British know how. the 70s

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saw hang-glider pilots earning their wings by the hundred.

Starved ofthe luxury ofhigh launch sites British pilots have become peculiarly adept at using local air conditions such as thermals, which are regions of hot rising air, or updraughts, which are caused when a breeze runs into a hill side and is forced up and over the hill. to give themselves extra lift and so gain height.

Practised at eking out the very last inch oflift in this way British flyers. when pitched against the flying skills ofothers who were more used to gaining their altitude behind the wheel of a BMW or a Dodge convertible. found themselves doing rather well. In fact. in the words of Rick Wilson the British Hang-Gliding Association‘s keeper and verifier ofworld and national hang-gliding records. ‘Britain is without doubt the most expert hang-gliding nation in the world and has been in that position fora number ofyears.‘ A flick through the record books is testament to the British achievements and ifyou like numbers try these: the world record for the furthest a hang glider has gone in a single flight is 462km; the National record is 244km - a flight from the Peak District to Devon; the World soaring record is 4 1 75m (about 13,000 feet) and the National

soaring record is only 30m short of this. The flight duration record. once a challenge worth pursuing and one that prompted a (‘ardifl‘student during his attempt on it to request sandwiches to be lowered from


another glider on a piece ofstring. is no longer contested because of the dangers ofexhaustion.

It was, then. with this impressive record behind them that the British hang-gliding teams set out for tlfe European Championships in Yugoslavia which take place next weekend. Many ofthose not dodging the waves of Yugotours charter flights (on which steaming hot perfumed towels are most assuredly provided) will be in the skies over Glenshee for the Scottish Hang-Gliding Championship which is taking place over the weekend of 23—25 June. As Britain's largest open competition it is expected to attract around a hundred pilots who over the three days will be tested on their abilities to travel the furthest distance and complete speed trials.

lfyou are interested in watching the pilots of these elegant aircraft being put through their paces. flying starts at around 10am. weather conditions permitting. You may just get a feel for the excitement and exhilaration that enticed the Wright brothers and the other early aviators into the skies.

You need a pilol '3 licence before you can fly a hang-glider. Instrucliim can be obtained (III/1e ( ‘uirn well Hung—(Iliding School. Glens/tee. Bruemur. 033 974/ 33/.

Further informationfrom Illt' British : “(mil GlidingAssociation. ('rumi'e/l.

Bedfonls‘ltire. 0.334 75/ ()88; Secretary oft/1e Scottish Hang Gliding Federation. .3 l’ar/x Home. The Fur/wigs; llumi/lon. .llln‘ (Nil.

The l "— 38 June l‘Nl) 77