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Hang gliders take flight from the Pulpit in Fulton County

September 19, 2005|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

McCONNELLSBURG, Pa. - The scene Sunday afternoon atop a mountain above McConnellsburg resembled a typical late-summer picnic. The small meadow on Tuscarora Summit was full of children, tents, picnic tables, grills, food and dogs. A group of bird watchers used binoculars to observe migrating hawks.

What set this picnic apart from the usual family outing were the dozen or so hang gliders sitting in the field, and the pilots strapping themselves into the light aircraft and jumping off the side of the mountain.

The launch site is known as The Pulpit, a popular spot for hang gliding and paragliding. Off U.S. 30 east of McConnellsburg, the spot is co-owned by The Capitol Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association and the Maryland Hang Gliding Association. The groups jointly held the 13th annual Hang Gliding and Paragliding Festival this weekend.

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The nonprofit organizations have more than 100 members. They are dedicated to the growth, solidarity and safety of the sports of hang gliding and paragliding, officials said.

Daniel Broxterman, of Washington, D.C., director of the festival, said proceeds from a raffle will benefit the volunteer fire department of McConnellsburg.

"The pilots in the region are excited to give something back to the community, in return for the wonderful flight experiences and hospitality we enjoy in McConnellsburg," Broxterman said.

The Pulpit faces north-northwest, and pilots gain altitude based on wind hitting the side of the mountain or on thermals. Thirty- to 50-mile flights are not unusual, several pilots said.

"We ride the rising currents of air, like a hawk or vulture. Those birds are 'lazy fliers,'" Broxterman said. "They stay in the rising pocket of air."

The delta-shaped hang gliders weigh 50 to 80 pounds, have an aluminum frame and flexible wings and are sturdier than a paraglider, which looks like a parachute. Paragliders require less wind and move more slowly than a hang glider. By riding thermals across the valley at 3,000 to 4,000 feet, one pilot flew as far as Gettysburg, Pa., on Saturday; another made it to Fayetteville, Pa., east of Chambersburg, Pa., Sunday afternoon.

Dan Tomlinson of Woodbridge, Va., flew 26 miles in 21/2 hours Saturday.

"The views were fantastic," he said.

At 3,000 feet, Tomlinson discovered corn leaf debris blowing in his face.

"It was almost a storm of them. I'd never seen it quite like this at that height," he said.

Tomlinson landed in a field in Quincy, Pa.

"The farmers came out and said hello and made sure I was all right," he said.

One pilot preparing to launch had a map hanging from the frame of his hang glider; when he was lying down in the flight position, it was directly in front of his face.

"He's not a GPS-kind of guy," one of the helpers said.

Safety is paramount with the pilots. All wear helmets and parachutes during flight, although the parachutes are rarely needed, Broxterman said.

"If there are problems, they are usually during launching or landing," he said.

A variometer on the glider frame tells the pilot his altitude and whether he is moving up or down with green and red lights and also with ascending and descending tones.

Linda Baskerville of Fairfax, Va., has been hang gliding for 16 months. She started out on the ground as a foot-launcher, she said.

"You run down a tiny hill," she explained. "It takes awhile to get up to going off a mountain."

She noted that she is afraid of heights, "as many pilots are." She learned maneuvering skills in a two-person glider with an instructor telling her what to do.

A 16-year veteran of the sport, Christy Huddle of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., said hang gliding has changed immensely since she first tried it in California in 1975.

"It was a dangerous sport," she recalled. "The instructors weren't certified. The equipment wasn't certified. I went in the middle of the day, in the desert," where there were a lot of thermal currents. "I crashed. I didn't get hurt, but I said, 'This is nuts.'"

When she decided to try again in 1988, she learned about the new safety standards and took lessons.

New gliders for beginners cost about $3,500. More advanced ones cost $5,000 to $6,000.

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