Each fall, a trip to the Atlantic coastline in Wellfleet and Truro might just include a sighting of Flying Goblins.
On his album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” David Bowie, rock n’ roll’s angel of flight, space travel and extraterrestrial life, sang a bluesy tune written by Ron Davies of the Kinks that goes:
“When you climb to the top of the mountain
Look out over the sea
think about the places perhaps, where a young man could be
Then you jump back down…Think about all of the strange things circulating round
It ain’t easy, it ain’t easy
It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down.”
While both Bowie and Davies were probably imagining different subjects for the above description, the lyrics aptly fit two very similar and interrelated sports: hang gliding and paragliding. And, if you briefly classify the dunes of Wellfleet’s Whitecrest Beach as “mountains of sand,” the opening lines of this song relate all the more closely with gliding on Cape Cod.
The concept of both hang gliding and paragliding (as well as wingsuit flying) is pretty simple. Pilots make their way to the top of something tall, ready their wings, and walk the proverbial plank off into the air. At this point, they make it look really “easy,” especially paragliders, who appear to simply sit in their harnesses and chill out like someone on a front porch on a hot summer day. Although they may soar up into the clouds, and they may fly farther than 100 miles at a time, they’re still a long way from “heaven,” and eventually, they need to float—hopefully gently—to the ground.
If you’re wondering, the current world paragliding distance record of 588.27 km was set on October 10th, 2019 in Brazil by a trio of pilots—Marcelo Prieto, Rafael Saladini and Rafael de Moraes Barros—who flew for 11 hours and averaged 53.5 km/hr over the “Brazilian outback” in the Northeastern part of the country.
The New England Paragliding and Hang Gliding Club (NEPHC) lists four official flying sites: Mt. Tom in Holyoke, MA; Cannon Mountain in Franconia, NH; Plymouth, MA; and Wellfleet. Club president, pilot, flight instructor and instructor trainer John Gallagher notes that while these are the club’s official launch points, there are other unofficial spots to soar. In fact, he sometimes flies in his paraglider from friends’ lawns on Martha’s Vineyard, where he has a home. One might think that like skiers, when paragliders start at the top of a peak, they will lose altitude more or less continuously, making turns along the way to slow the descent and prolong the ride. However, this is not necessarily the case. Instead, paragliders or hang gliders will often launch and ride the air currents and winds upwards, far exceeding the altitude of their jumping off point. This is especially true of thermal flying, when pilots take advantage of columns of rising air. Gallagher says, “On a thermal, you can go all the way up to the cloud base. It might be 70 degrees on the ground, but by the time you get up there, the temperature could be as low as 40 degrees, even sometimes as low as zero.”
Back in the 1920s, a couple of decades prior to the invention of the hang glider, Wellfleet and Truro had become a soaring destination for traditional gliders of the type that resemble airplanes, so the wind properties of the dunes was well known. “In Wellfleet, there’s a lift band from the wind,” says Gallagher. This phenomenon is also known as a convergence zone, where the cooler air from the sea collides with the warmer air rising from the land. According to an excerpt from “Fifty Ways To Fly Better” by Bruce Goldsmith and Friends that appeared in the paragliding magazine “Cross Country,” the lift band is almost like a “soarable ridge” in the sky, one that a trained pilot can actually see. Goldsmith says there are two ways of flying such a lift: if there are thermals within the convergence, you simply fly ride those, but if not, the pilot must “maintain height by doing beats along the line of convergence. The most important thing in this case is to pay careful attention to stay on the inland side. It is easy to accidentally slip into the sea air side, in which case you will go down very quickly.” In Wellfleet, pilots look for a west wind. Gallagher says, “It should be hitting directly into the dunes. From Whitecrest, you can fly seven miles down to Nauset Light, then turn around and fly all the way back up to Highland Light in Truro and then return to Wellfleet.”
Hang gliding took off as a sport in the 1960s, and its epicenter on the Cape, starting in the 1970s, was the Seascape Motor Inn in North Truro. Owner/manager Charles “Chuck” Nyhan, who had also worked at the Andover Inn and at Killington Lodge, was happy to help build the scene, and he remained involved until he retired in 2013. Chuck passed away in 2015, but the community remembers him fondly. As has been the case with many innovations in aeronautics, hang gliding was developed as a military project. John Gallagher explains, “they saw a need for soldiers to soar and descend safely.” NASA engineer Frank Rogallo developed the first hang glider, known as the Rogallo Wing, in the late 1940s. According to the US Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHPA), “It had a glide ratio of 3:1, which meant that for every foot it dropped it would fly three feet forward. The design was revolutionary at the time and although it was used by NASA and the military, it would eventually become famous for its original intent—foot launched personal powerless aviation or hang gliding.” Many consider this form of soaring the closest thing to “pure” human flight. In the National Air & Space Museum’s classic IMAX film, “To Fly!”, the narrator begins with the line, “We first flew in dreams, but the dream of flight has become real.” At the same time, audiences watch as a hang glider soars above volcanic islands. In a 2015 article for “Air & Space Magazine,” Paul Glenshaw wrote: “In almost every other kind of flight the pilot or passenger is seated, and the apparatus of the flying machine is visible—you see the fuselage around you, the wing above or below you. But in a hang glider, the wing is mostly out of your field of view. You look out ahead and see nothing but the sky and landscape. You look down and there’s nothing between you and the ground but air. You hang from the straps in the harness and your body is free to move. The air is tactile, the wind in your face and ears. The clouds are so close you can actually touch them.”
Despite the thrills of flying and the growth of extreme sports such as big wave surfing, downhill mountain biking, aerial snowboarding and skiing, and all of the “cross” events, hang gliding has declined in popularity over the years. One reason for this has been a negative perception that it’s a dangerous sport. John Gallagher acknowledges the risks, but says, “It’s about like skiing, snowboarding or mountain biking. The biggest variable is the weather. But training and building experience are the ultimate steps in risk mitigation.” Another contributing factor to the decline in hang gliding numbers is the rise of paragliding. Unlike the “delta shape” of its aluminum-framed elder sibling, the paraglider uses, Gallagher says, “an elliptical, ram-air wing.” As air forces its way through, the ripstop nylon inflates into a parafoil, like a giant kite with a harness seat for its pilot. Although the development of paragliding took place in the 1970s, it wan’t until 1989 that it started gaining popularity when the first school for the sport opened in France. Since then, the sport has grown; John Gallagher started paragliding in 1993 and has since flown all over New England, including from Mt. Ascutney in Vermont and across the entire state of Massachusetts. One of paragliding’s appeals is it portability. “You can just take your pack and go fly,” says Gallagher. “A light setup could weigh as little as 20 pounds, but the average pack is about 40. Compare that to a hang glider, which weighs 70-100 pounds.”
For people interested in flying, tandem flights are a good option, and John Gallagher has been training tandem instructors for years now. “You can also take lessons at Morningside Flight Park in Charlestown, NH,” he says. Pilots receive licences with ratings of Beginner, Novice, Intermediate and Advanced. The USHPA includes multiple clubs nationwide with a total membership of about 9,000. NEPHC has 140 members, and Gallagher estimates that there are about 500 pilots scattered around New England. To fly solo in Wellfleet, a pilot must have earned a rating of Novice or better, and even at the Novice level must fly with a partner—not together in a tandem, but close by and in radio contact. There are seasonal limitations on flying in Wellfleet, however. “The National Seashore only allows flights from October 2 through April, when the plovers are not active,” explains Gallagher. “We’d love to fly here year-round, but still there’s a lot of flying in the mountains, too.” Halloween has traditionally been something of a festival weekend for Wellfleet flyers, but it’s unlikely that a big gathering will take place this year due to COVID-19. “For years, you couldn’t get a reservation at local hotels over Halloween,” recalls Gallagher. Nevertheless, Gallagher and other Cape pilots remain enthusiastic about their sport despite the pandemic, although tandem flights have largely been put on hold. Still, Gallagher cracks, “We’re still flying; it’s the ultimate in social distancing.”
Chris White, a frequent contributor, is an English teacher at Tabor Academy