The Liberty Gazette
August 8, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: I’d climbed to seventy-five hundred feet, and would cruise at this altitude over the cliffs below me, all around. This is Cajon Pass, where adventurers are drawn to hang glide through the saddle between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. The pass offers ideal lift and wind to carry a motor-less hang glider to a vantage point above the sculpted earth, alone with the whoosh of the air. From my altitude, they appear suspended, like mud-daubers; like wings with pods dangling beneath them. I call them adventuresome partly because these intrepid souls soaring through the pass initiate their flight by stepping off a cliff, trusting their wings.
On the cliff, they strap into their contraptions, hoist their bulky load and run downhill until the air blows across their wing to create enough lift. At first, the wind catches and holds them aloft and their legs drop momentarily like an eagle’s talons ready to snatch its prey. But the force quickly pushes their bodies horizontal, streamlined with the craft, as they shift their weight to steer.
In this pass, sometimes they swoop down low along the slope, rolling from side to side, twenty feet off the ground. If updrafts are present, they stay in the air longer, soaring along the rising terrain. Once they land, in a field or a parking lot, the flyers free themselves from their people-lifting kites, satisfied by the exuberance of human flight.
When I’m in a sailplane I also use thermals – columns of rising air that develop from unevenly heated ground – to stay up in the sky. But the way a sailplane starts its adventure is different from hang gliders. My sailplane is towed into the atmosphere by an airplane. But a hang glider cannot be towed by a powerful airplane because its speed far exceeds what a hang-glider can handle; tow planes cannot fly slowly enough for them. For hang gliders the launch pad is a hill, the launcher, human legs. This has limited the sport of hang gliding to hilly areas. That is, until the Dragonfly.
The Dragonfly started life in 1990 as an ultralight airplane to meet demand. Designer Bob Bailey had one purpose in mind, tow hang-gliders where there are no hills from which to leap. Since that time with the help of these airplanes, people in flat country have been able to enjoy the thrill of soaring flight.
One of the most popular places to get a towed flight is in Florida. Most of the state is flat as a pancake, the highest point being 345 feet, at Britton Hill, near the Alabama line. With a fleet of Dragonflys, Wallaby Ranch near Lakeland, Florida has towed hang gliders nearly every day since 1992, amassing tens of thousands of flights.
Geography and geology no longer limit the hang gliding experience, thanks to the Dragonfly, a classic American success story of finding a need, filling it, and hanging in there.