2019-02-01 / ReBooted

Getting the Hang of It

Jill Gleeson

If there’s a better place to hang glide than the Outer Banks, I don’t know where it is. The barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina are flat-out gorgeous and offer some of the best seafood on Earth. But even more enticing than the views and the vittles is the opportunity to fly in the same place where Orville and Wilbur took a spin above the sand in the planet’s first powered aircraft. There’s something so grand, so satisfying, so... American about it.

Best of all, not only can you tandem hang glide where the Wright brothers made history, you can actually learn how to fly solo. Kitty Hawk Kites has taught more than 300,000 people to hang glide since opening its training center, the biggest in the world, in 1974. Tucked away next door to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding Training Center uses the park’s 90-foot-tall sand dune, the tallest on the Atlantic coast, to give students hands-on and feet off (the ground) instruction in the finer points of this super addictive sport.

There was no way I wasn’t going to give this a go while visiting OBX. So on a chilly, clear afternoon, I found myself striding across the sand, following in the wake of Luke, my instructor. Something in the sky caught my eye. There were two bald eagles circling above our heads. The Wright brothers, bald eagles... The only way this experience could have gotten more American is if someone dressed as Uncle Sam was grilling hot dogs and dishing out apple pie while singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on top of the dune.

There wasn’t, but as soon as we reached the summit of sand Luke called me over to the glider. I was so excited that I got very cocky. I was going to run like the wind, lift my legs so that my body was horizontal to the ground at the perfect moment and glide as high and long and impeccably as anyone ever had. I just had to remember to pull back on the glider, keeping its nose up, so I picked up speed. If I pushed forward too soon I’d stall, heading straight into the sand.

Which is exactly what happened. Someone was filming me, so I was able to see the whole thing from the perspective of an onlooker. I stood. Gave a big smile. Began running toward the edge of the dune. Pulled my legs up and behind me. And flew, maybe 2 feet off the ground, for about three seconds, before crashing face first into the sand. Objectively, I have to admit it was hilarious.

It didn’t get any better from there. I kept doing the same thing. I didn’t run far enough, and I pushed forward on the glider, slowing it, when I should have been pulling it back. I was a frustrated disaster. Finally, Luke — who had been reassuring me that this sort of thing happened all the time (although it didn’t seem to be happening to anyone else) — told me we had to wrap it up. I had one last chance to find out what it feels like to fly.

This time I took off running like Jason Momoa was at the bottom of the dune, naked and requesting a massage. I pulled the bar back, sharply, and the glider took off. Really took off. I was at least 15 feet in the air and I was going fast, and far. It was incredible. I felt no fear, just a sort of dazzled joy. I was flying! And then I heard Luke, who was holding onto a rope connected to the glider, yelling up at me to push forward on it. I think he thought the way I was going I’d end up in Ireland. Maybe I would have.

Instead I nailed the landing and almost immediately began asking Luke about the next classes at Kitty Hawk Kites I could take. Because for those few moments I flew I felt a little like I imagine Orville and Wilbur must have, utterly exhilarated, overcome with gratitude and wanting more. •SCM

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Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at and via her column at

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