Hanggliding near my home in Wellington, South Florida



When I started in the sport of hanggliding more than 20 years ago living in Munich, Germany we flew mostly in the Austrian Alps. The scenery is terrific there, but from Munich you always had to drive for 2 hours or so, take a lift up the mountain, and basically invest an entire day to get a shot at a flight, even if it was just a short 10 minute sled-run. (More often, however, it was a scenic, multiple hour thermal flight!) When we were students we had plenty of time and could afford to miss an occasional day or two – the weather forecast controlled our calendar back then…

By relocating to Florida in 1996 I moved too far away from the mountains as to rely on them for hanggliding. Other methods need to be employed to get airborne in the flatlands. The two dominant methods used here in Florida are truck- and aero-towing. I learned the towing technique in a very special setting at James Tindle’s Miami Hanggliding business being towed off a boat in the waters of Biscayne Bay and flying tandem with an instructor. (This is the best way I can recommend for people in Florida to get a taste of hanggliding.)

With truck-towing, you launch off a platform on a driving pickup truck while a winch is paying out a tow-rope to which you are attached (like flying a kite). Finally you release the tow-rope and fly free, ready to thermal up (or sink down). We did a lot of truck towing in the late nineties in the sugarcane fields near Lake Okeechobee, but it was always a hot and dusty affair.

With aero-towing you launch off a three-wheeled trolley and are pulled up behind an ultra-light aircraft. This is much more convenient and safe, and it became the dominant mode of getting airborne for hanggliders in many flightparks around the nation, especially in Florida. The U.S. National Hanggliding Championships each year are conducted this way in April in the flightparks near Orlando (Quest Air and Wallaby Ranch). But even with aero-towing one problem remained for me: I still had to drive at least 2-3 hours to get to a place where I could hangglide!

Then I found a solution in 2000: A motor-powered harness that would allow me to foot-launch my hangglider, now converted to a motorized, ultralight aircraft! I chose to buy the Airtime Explorer, a harness developed in Australia and now distributed in the US through US Airborne. Since there are many large fields near where I live in Wellington, I can now take off and land within a mile of my own home!


Thursday, November 24, 2005

It is Thanksgiving holiday and a spectacular day in South Florida.
It’s not a stretch to think of hanggliding on a day like this! (Sidebar: It takes just a few character replacements: Thanksgiving
à Thankgsglidving à hanggliding) We have the day off, the weather couldn’t be better, and I have a few hours in the afternoon for a scenic flight over my community and the local neighborhood.

Usually I set up my glider in a large Polo field, but today I can’t use this field as there is an annual hockey tournament converting this large field into a maze of hockey fields, goals and spectators. My second choice is a large un-cultivated field, but after hurricane Wilma this field has not been cleaned up yet and the grass is quite tall there. So I have to go with a third choice near a local church, not the biggest field but it will do.

The photo shows my Airwave Klassic hangglider with the Airtime Explorer motor-powered harness fully set up. Note the folding propeller at the tail end of the harness and the fuel tank at the top of one of the two down-tubes. The engine is a Radne Raket 120 Aero; this Go-Cart racing engine weighs 15 pounds and with 13 hp at 9000 rpm it creates roughly 45kg of thrust. That’s not much, but enough to get me airborne under good conditions, i.e. slight headwind and a long runway. It still amazes me even after more than 20 years of hanggliding that I can lift everything up, run a few steps into the wind and this little machine gets me in the air and thus fulfills the dream of flying!

With several circles I slowly but steadily climb out over the field at 200 fpm. It’s 4:45pm; the evening sun paints everything in a magic yellow light. The visibility is the best I have seen here, thanks to the cool, dry air of the last few days.

This view is to the North-East from about 1000 ft. At the bottom of this picture is the landing field (with the “Q” shaped gravel track). In the middle is the Grand Isles community with my home. If you know the neighborhood you recognize many features, for example the Polo-Park middle school, the US 441 (State Road 7) or the Wellington Green shopping mall. On the horizon you can clearly see the Atlantic Ocean and several of the tall buildings of Palm Beach on the left side. Taking pictures like this every year or so also gives me a sense of the relentless home construction and community development going on around here.

By contrast, the view to the West reveals the many spacious lots of the Equestrian communities in Wellington. Most of these fields belong to horse farms or Polo clubs and they all provide re-assuring emergency landing sites (if my engine were to quit at low altitude).

The view to the South reveals yet other features, such as a large area in the early stages of development as well as the levee forming the Eastern boundary of the Loxahatchee swamp. A close look also reveals a large antenna (more than 1000 ft tall) in the left side of the photo – I have circled this antenna from above in previous flights…

A few minutes later and several hundred feet higher I get a great view of the Polo field now converted for the Hockey tournament. I can’t help but thinking that there may be a thousand people watching the games, but only one enjoys the vantage from 2000 ft above!

A view “under my belly” shows the underside of my motor-powered harness in flight.

I continue my flight towards the South-West – away from the controlled airspace of the nearby Palm Beach International airport to the North-East. About 15 minutes later I have climbed up to 3000 ft, closer to the last Cumulus clouds of the day. At the South-Western most point the Wellington farms intersect with the levee around the Loxahatchee:

Looking straight down 3000 ft it becomes hard to discern individual trees or cars, but you can still see all the buildings and drive-ways. Additionally, I can often see flocks of white birds against the uniformly green-brown background of the swamp, such as the birds flying a “V”-formation to the left of the diagonal canal on the left side.

Looking up towards the West the setting sun is behind a thin cloud and paints a wonderful yellow-orange sunset over the many watery spots of the swamp:

I again marvel at the fact that I can enjoy such a view just a few miles from my home! A 180° different view, both literally and figuratively: Untamed wilderness with aligators and bird wildlife to the West, abundant signs of civilization and hundreds of thousands of people to the East.

It is 5:20pm and the sun will set in less than 10 minutes! I turn my engine off, stop the propeller which now folds back and makes it fairly aerodynamic and allows a very quiet glide back down in about 15 minutes while watching a spectacular sunset. I also see many people out on their patios eating turkey dinners – after all it is ThanksGiving day! On one occasion – while circling and setting up for a landing in the field – I see many people craning their necks and staring straight up to see the unusual flying object over their heads. When I wave my hands they all wave back excitedly… A minute later I touch down. It’s not a perfect landing in now near zero wind (nose touches the ground) but still safe. I walk back about two hundred feet to the parking lot where my car is parked and set down the glider and harness.

I start breaking down my equipment and need to hurry up, for two reasons. One, as it gets dark quickly and I can easily lose small pieces of equipment in the dark. Two, as my family has prepared our ThanksGiving dinner and I don’t want to be too late – unlike 20 years ago I can’t afford the weather forecast to completely control my calendar anymore…