The scarp overlooking the fields along Route 11, at Morningside Flight Park, is perfect for flying. From 450 feet up, Mike Holmes can feel the wind coming from the southwest and northwest.
Holmes has spread out his “wing,” the bright red paraglider, on the ground at the summit, and is checking its multiple lines for tangles. Each line is color-coded according to its function, so the pilot can control the wing with his hands.
Holmes is one of a group of dedicated pilots for whom sailing “the slowest aircraft known to man” is more than a tourist stop. He's also the president of the Vermont Hang Gliding Association, a nonprofit group that flies at Mount Ascutney, Sugarbush, Burke Mountain, Mount Washington and West Rutland. The VHGA promotes “the sport of foot-launchable aircraft in Vermont and neighboring states.”
A warm summer day like this one is perfect, with a thermal updraft waffling over the trees. After a moment Holmes decides the wind would be better from the 250- foot site, so he gathers up all his lines and the wing, and traipses over there.
Of course, once he's there the wind changes again. His wife, Linda, is watching and they share a laugh: “Every time!”
Nonetheless, Holmes runs downhill and in a moment is sailing out over the valley.
Down below, a group of hang gliders wait for a plane to tow them up 1,000 feet. Another group wearing harnesses and clips are on their way up the mountain to take the zipline course, flying down the east-facing slope among the trees.
It's all part of Morningside Flight Park, which opened in 1974. “The hill is perfect,” said manager Heath Woods. “That's why we've been able to keep doing this for 40 years.”
An introductory lesson takes four hours and includes lots of safety training. There's jargon: “LZ” means “landing zone,” “sail” or “glider” is the paragliders. “Locals” are birds, as in “the pilots watch the locals to see where the thermals are.”
For Vanessa Rubera, who's spent all morning flying her sail down the hill, it's a passion. She started almost one year ago. “I went to a paragliding festival in Mont St. Pierre in Canada and did a tandem paraglide right off a cliff, over the ocean. It was so beautiful! I was here the next day.”
Rubera is also a circus enthusiast who has been studying trapeze and other circus arts for four years. “I don't think of myself as a daredevil,” she said. “But I think maybe other people do. I don't think of this as scary. You just do it.”
Linda Holmes watches her husband take another flight off the 450. Linda will do tandem flights, but she says a bad hip makes solo flying not a good idea. When the flyers land, they hit the ground running so they don't have to brace against the momentum of the wing. “This is the best place to train,” she says. “There are so many EMTs here.”
Occasionally someone has a mishap, despite all the safety training, but the flyers take it in stride. The equipment is much safer than it was 40 years ago, and new technology makes it safer all the time. They wear helmets, keep radio contact with the ground, and carry extra parachutes in case something goes wrong.
“Most of the new wings, the Moyes they sell here, if you just let go they'll right themselves,” said Rubera. “You still need to know what you're doing though.”
Mike Holmes, poised for another leap into the air, offers his philosophy about accidents.
“There are two kinds of pilots,” he says. “Those who have been in the trees, and those who are going to be in the trees.”
-- GLYNIS HART