Sitting in a tiny seat behind a pilot who is in an equally tiny seat under a 32-foot wing, flying seems nearly impossible and downright foolhardy.
The "trike," a hang glider with seats and a motor in back, can carry two people thousands of feet in the air with nothing between you and the clear blue sky but a small seat belt.
"Are you sure you have a fear of heights?" asked Tom Graham, instructor and owner of Wide Open Sky Hang Gliding in Lawton. "Are you sure it's not a fear of falling? The two are different, you know."
Even with a fear of falling, hang gliding and related aviation sports have the safest record of any aviation, Graham said. It takes skill and common sense, but with lessons and experience, few accidents occur. Graham, stocky and strong, has the unique ability to quell students' fears with a dose of common sense and patient explanation.
So, with a bit of faith, the trike speeds down a field near the southern Oklahoma town of Walters. Suddenly, the trike comes alive and, free of the bonds of gravity, soars upward to nearly 1,000 feet off the ground.
IN THE VOID
Suddenly, you're in the void. You're as close to being a bird as you'll ever be.
This is the world of hang gliding and "triking." Catching thermals in the sky is becoming Oklahoma's best-kept secret pastime. As one of the state's hottest adventure sports, hang gliding is also the simplest way to fly, offering even the greenest novice the added bonus of flying on the very first day of taking up the sport.
Riding the sky is as simple as a two-hour drive from Oklahoma City.
"It's the simplest type of flight, and it's one that anyone can do," Graham said. "As far as learning goes, it's eight to 12 flying days to earn a Hang II rating, which is a novice rating."
For those seeking the thrill of hang gliding, a tandem flight is the way to start. A trained expert flies with the student, who then experiences this aerial sport immediately. After just a short course to learn safety and the basics, most students will be able to make short flights on their own, although Graham said a "mentor" usually accompanies novices so "you don't do something stupid and kill yourself."
"Once you have a novice rating, you have access to about 90 percent of the hang gliding sites," he said. "Like any sport, there's that element of risk. You have risk of collision with trees, with the ground. You don't ever fly alone " we always have ground crews and other pilots."
BAMBOO AND PLASTIC
Jim Reynolds of Walters is one of those instructor pilots. With 37 years of experience in the sport, he was among the "bamboo and plastic" crowd, those who made their own hang gliders from bamboo, plastic sheets and duct tape back in the 1970s. The seat, he said, came from a Fisher-Price play set.
"It's much safer now," Reynolds said. "I've always wanted to be an old pilot. You can be old or you can be bold. There's not a whole lot of old and bold pilots."
Oklahoma and Texas have surprisingly fruitful flying air. As far as flatland flying, it's one of the best areas for hang gliding.
"The object is to find air, thermals that lift you up. Ever see those big, fluffy cumulous clouds? There are thermals feeding those clouds, and the thermals are there even on clear days. You learn over time to find those thermals," said Graham.
Yet the sport is still relatively undiscovered in Central Oklahoma, with few taking up lessons or the thrill of flying.
"You would think that it would be popular, but it stays in the background," Graham said. "A lot of people think of it as an extreme sport, that only beer-drinking crazy people do. And because not many people teach it, it doesn't grow as a sport that much."
Some people do seek out the thrill, like Joe Ramsay, who traveled to Lawton to taste the sky.
"I'm freshening up on my lessons," Ramsay said. "(Tom) and Jim are the only instructors in Oklahoma, Missouri or Arkansas.
"There's nothing like it," he said of the sport.
Graham said he's taught students as young as 6 and as old as 74 to fly.
"You're in harmony with Mother Nature," he said. "You are using what she offers in order to fly. It's the closest to being a bird as you can get. Usually people who try it like it."
A Hang II pilot's rating costs approximately $1,400 for as many lessons as it takes to reach a novice rating, usually eight to 12. Hang gliding equipment is a bit more flexible, with a used glider costing as low as $500, and the top-of-the-line glider going for $10,000.
Those wanting just the adrenaline rush and an adventure for a day can schedule tandem flights for approximately $95. For more information, call (580) 695-8131. "Heide Brandes