As a diversion for folks who otherwise lead button-down lives, soaring across the sky on a breath of air can be uplifting. It can also be dangerous. Flying may be making the world smaller, but it remains a fact that it is impossible to miss it if you fall. And nowhere has that fact been more painfully in evidence than in the troubled young sport of hang gliding.
For the 15,000 Americans who literally fly a kite on a weekly basis, hang gliding has immense appeal. A factory wing can be bought for as little as $500 (or as much as $1,100), which makes gliding fairly inexpensive. Those who have tried it say neither ballooning nor skydiving offer the same birdlike freedom that hang gliding does—and the cockpit of a sailplane is a prison cell compared to the harness of a kite.
But for all its fetching qualities, hang gliding is quickly establishing itself as the most hazardous mass-participation sport in the world. It is impossible to say exactly how many were killed flying hang gliders in the U.S. last year, but the Federal Aviation Administration has received reports of at least 44. The U.S. Hang Gliding Association's count was a slightly more conservative 39. No single agency is responsible for keeping track of hang-gliding accidents, and that is part of the problem, but by all accounts the incidence of crippling injuries and compound fractures is an orthopedist's nightmare.
Despite such grim statistics, hang gliding has boomed in the past three years. The sport is seductive in its beauty; even the photographs of hang gliders are captivating. What the pictures don't show are the intrinsic perils, says Jack Haberstroh of San Diego, who once operated a school for hang-glider pilots. "When people see those fantastic pictures, they can't wait to get their own kite and jump off a mountain. And who can blame them? It all looks so easy. What those people don't realize is that what they don't know about hang gliding could kill them. And most of them don't know plenty."
The modern incarnation of the hang glider was designed for the U.S. space program by Francis Rogallo, for whom the most-used wing is named. His basic idea was set aside when NASA turned to other means of bringing back its space vehicles, but it wasn't long before crude gliders, constructed largely of bamboo and Dacron and put together with spit and string, began to show up on the bluffs overlooking the beaches of Southern California. In that nascent period the fliers were a curious amalgam of self-immolators and bored surfers.
Today the sport has become more organized. There are at least three national hang-gliding associations in full flight. Their leaders insist that hang-glider pilots take no more chances than a person who rides a motorcycle or straps on a pair of skis. But a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association warned that hang gliding is "a high risk operation" and alerted physicians to the types of injuries peculiar to the sport—fused spines, broken necks and brain damage.
The article also came to at least one startling conclusion: the more experienced the pilot, the more likely he is to come to a tragic end. "Serious injury seems to be a greater threat to the sportsman whose preliminary gliding experience permits him to risk higher flying, over rough terrain, in marginal weather conditions, and, in particular, to risk launches from cliffs rather than the running start from safer and more gradual slopes."
Larry Sherrer, onetime University of Hawaii running back who now lives in Larkspur, Calif., was flying the wing of a well-known manufacturer last year when one of its aluminum tubes bent. After cartwheeling into a spin from 800 feet, the craft fell, leaving Sherrer with a broken ilium, a separation of the pubic bones, eight fractured ribs, a collapsed lung and an assortment of cuts and bruises. "The manufacturers have a good thing going," says Sherrer. "They sell these aircraft without having to prove to anyone—including the FAA—that the things are safe. The only place the sport can be regulated effectively is at the factory, and as long as the manufacturers are the ones making money, they ought to assume responsibility for their product."
The FAA has yet to set regulations that might straitjacket the sport, much to the delight of kite manufacturers and the USHGA, which asserts that peer pressure among the participants is the only safeguard needed. But such attitudes are changing. Last August the National Park Service proposed banning hang gliding, as well as all other forms of powerless flight, from federally owned parks, and many state parks are considering similar bans. The hang-gliding industry, fragmented though it is, mounted a letter-writing campaign that it hopes will block such moves, and there is evidence that it is working.
The Department of the Interior recently dispatched Assistant Secretary Nathaniel P. Reed to Yosemite Park to investigate flying conditions. What he found was hang gliding at its best. A park ranger was assigned to supervise the activity during those time periods when gliding was permitted from 3,254-foot Glacier Point. "We discovered that they had established a control system that was working," says Reed, "so I proposed we rethink our earlier decision."