Daredevils ‘soar with the birds’

Short of sprouting wings or riding an airplane, hang gliding is the closest many will get to actually flying. 

When the glider leaves the ground there’s a feeling of weightlessness that lasts until touchdown. Apart from the wind whistling past, it’s quiet and surprisingly peaceful as the glider soars thousands of feet over the ground.

Alyssa Prieto, a first time hang glider, said it is unlike anything else.

“It was really fun,” Prieto said. “I’d definitely do it again.”

Lauren Tindle, who works at Florida Ridge Air Sports Park, has  been tandem hang gliding since she was 9 years old.

“Getting in the clouds, especially around sunset, that’s the best part,” Tindle said. “It’s amazing.”

Florida Ridge Air Sports Park in Clewiston has been giving Floridians the chance to soar through the clouds for the past 14 years. 

After checking in, first-time hang gliders must go through a brief safety presentation and sign a few waivers before hitting the skies. They are then guided to the takeoff point where they meet their designated instructor and are strapped laying on their stomach into the hammock-like harness hanging above the instructor.  

Because Florida is short on mountains, Florida Ridge uses an ultra-light airplane to tow gliders into the air. After reaching the predetermined height, a minimum of 1,000 feet at Florida Ridge, the instructor unhooks the towline and the glider is flying free. 

Derreck Turner, a tandem instructor at Florida Ridge and competitive hang glider, has been hang gliding since he was strong enough to lift the glider.

“When I’m doing tandems, (my favortie thing is) seeing the people change from sometimes how nervous they are before the flight to how exhilarated and excited they are after the flight,” Turner said. “Sometimes it’s when they’re yelling and screaming up there like they’re riding a roller coaster and I can see all the emotions. This is something extreme.”

In his free time, Turner competes in hang gliding competitions and has traveled everywhere from Arizona to Italy for competitions. He said flying over the Swiss Alps was some of the best flying he’s ever done. 

“You could see the glaciers back behind the mountains over the tops of the ski slopes,” Turner said. “That was pretty incredible, seeing over 300 years worth of glacier. You could see from one end all the ways back up to the other end. You fly almost over the top of all of them.”

Hang gliding competitions work much like sailing regattas. Gliders follow a course with turning points marked on GPS. Whoever completes the course first or whoever get the furthest on the course wins. 

In order to stay in the air longer, Turner said gliders use drafts of rising air called thermals as a sort of filling station.

“You go where you see those soaring birds going around and around,” Turner said. “That’s hot air rising, so you go to where you can use the birds or you can sometimes feel it in the glider.”

Using this method, gliders can stay airborne for hours at a time. In order to fly in competitions, interested hang gliders must first get certified. Florida Ridge  offers certification classes at their facility. 

“The best way is to go to a school,” Turner said. “It takes between 15 and 30 flights depending on the individual and (his or her) aptitude to go up and learn how to fly.” 

After  those first flights, students are usually ready to fly solo. 

“Then you can learn to soar with the birds,” Turner said.