Lange: Soaring with hawks

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange has been soaring with migrating hawks – much against his better judgment.

(LANGE) I’ve advocated for years that everyone, especially older people, should try something new each week in order to keep body and mind functioning.  Hang-gliding wasn’t what I had in mind – at least for myself.  But I couldn’t back out.

New Hampshire Public Television was given a bequest to produce a documentary on the migration of broad-winged hawks.  The good news was that the camera crew was to follow them to their wintering habitat in Equador.  The bad news was that some genius at the station dreamed up the idea of demonstrating the flight of hawks by sending the aged host of the show up in a hang glider to demonstrate the wonders of gliding on invisible air currents.

I’ve wanted for years to do it; but recent repairs to my undercarriage have left me unable to run fast enough to take off and, at the end of the flight, to land on my feet.  My wife and daughter thought it a great opportunity, but doubted I would survive.  Both of them wanted to be there to watch if I went up.

"Not to worry," I assured them.  "I don’t have disability insurance, the station claims that my workmen’s comp doesn’t cover hang-gliding accidents, and the flight center will require me to sign a waiver should anything go wrong.  

"What I’ll do," I said, "is interview the pilot – it’s a tandem flight – and we’ll talk about what’s going to happen.  Then we’ll tape the cameras to the glider, and a videographer can go up in my place.  I should be home by two."

No such luck.  When I pulled into Morningside Flight Park, the windsock was showing a light northwesterly breeze off Mount Ascutney, the clouds overhead were flat-bottomed – an indication of active thermals – and the friendly guys in the hangar assumed I was going up. The pilot told me he had over 3000 flights under his belt with nary a scratch.  And the glider was on wheels – kind of like an oversized grocery cart with nylon wings

The tow plane pulled in ahead of us; the towline tightened, and within ten yards we were off the ground.

We climbed for quite a while, circling in updrafts whenever the tow plane found them.  About 5000 feet the air turned hazy, wet, and decidedly chilly.  We were at the bottom of the clouds.

We let go the tow rope, slowed down, and began swooping around like a huge bird, hunting for lifts.  The Connecticut River valley spread out beneath us, with Springfield and Claremont both in view.

I could see, as we swooped first upward and then down, how some people get mystical about soaring.  But I have to admit that anxiety was closer to the surface than mysticism.  We passed a hawk floating easily on a thermal, utterly undisturbed by the much larger bird beside him.  We crossed the river, circled over a cornfield, lined up with the runway, and it was over.  What a trip!  That experience might just count for two weeks.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

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