Friday, June 21, 2013


Quest Air Hang Gliding

Pilot readies glider
Recently I took the opportunity to visit Quest Air, a hang gliding facility in Groveland, about 35-minutes west of Orlando.  It was a typical central Florida day, sunny and breezy, as I drove west after exiting Florida’s Turnpike, heading toward Clermont.  Quest Air is one of two area hang gliding facilities offering tandem glider rides to the public.

Normally when I think of hang gliding I think of non-power assisted launches off of cliffs; at Quest Air, in the flat lands of central Florida, the hand gliders are launched via aerotow.  Aerotow launch is accomplished with the aid of an ultra-light airplane which tows the hang glider to altitude and releases.
Quest Air is situated at a large grass runway airport servicing only hang gliders.  When I arrived, there were two gliders airborne and an ultra-light tow-plane in the process of landing.  Everyone was dressed in shorts and t-shirts; a group was in the process of preparing a meal on a barbeque grill, others were sitting around waiting on their turn to launch private gliders or take a tandem flight.
I signed my life away with multiple release forms and waivers, got a 30-second safety brief and “how-to” slide show, was issued a helmet, and then introduced to my pilot/instructor for the tandem flight. I have since learned that hang gliding is somewhat dangerous with Quest Air being the site of four deaths over a fifteen-year period, the most recent in February of this year (I guess ignorance is bliss in this case).

Towed take-off
The pilot, who I will refer to as Spinner, prepared the glider as I rode in a safari jeep (no windshield, no roof, no doors, etc.) to the end of the runway.  Here a 250-ft string (I call it a string because it was a smaller gauge rope than a clothes line) was stretched between the ultra-light tow-plane and the glider.  Spinner got into the lower harness, and I was instructed how to strap into the upper harness.  These were cocoon style harnesses which attach to the frame of the glider and suspend your body in a supine position (belly down) parallel to the ground.  At this point, Spinner attached the tow rope directly to his harness and gave the tow pilot a thumbs up - ready to roll. 
Within seconds we were airborne and gaining altitude.  The ultra-light flew in wide circles bringing us to altitude; due to windy conditions the ride was a little bumpy.  Spinner released the tow rope at approximately 2,700-ft, and the tow plane veered off to return to the airfield.

Spinner immediately started searching for a thermal updraft to help us maintain altitude.  The variometer/altimeter attached to the airframe of the glider would begin a series of beeps when it detected lift and was ascending.  Having located a thermal, a glider pilot will circle within the area of rising air to gain height.  By shifting his weight right, left and forward, the pilot controls the direction of flight.

Steering lesson
I watched the tow plane descend and land on the airstrip, then took in the view of Lake County from a height of approximately ½-mile.  Spinner gave me some instruction on maneuvering the craft and allowed me to control the banking of the glider.  The tight circles used to catch the thermal had made me slightly queasy, which I understand is normal.  After about 15-minutes we had lost enough altitude to require Spinner to begin his landing approach. 

We flew parallel to the runway then reversed our approach and came in for the landing.  Spinner brought us in smooth, gradually dropping until the wheels were inches off of the grass; he leaned hard forward and the wheels touched down.  Seconds later we were stopped.  The wheels are no more than nine-inches in diameter and your body is suspended face-down only slightly above the wheels, so it makes for an exciting landing.
The staff was friendly, knowledgeable and accommodating.  The atmosphere was extremely laidback.  I would recommend the experience to anyone interested in experiencing hang-gliding.

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