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Reggie Jones stood at the edge of the red sandstone cliff in Canyonlands National Park and looked down. Below him, 2,000 feet of sheer face ended in a pile of jagged rocks dotted with blackbrush and cactus. The air was so still that he could hear the occasional sharp slap of wings as red-tailed hawks swooped in the clear desert sky. Ahead, as far as he could see, lay a panorama of high bluffs and tableland. A decision had to be made. "I can't do it," Jones said. "I can't jump."
But when the moment came, Jones and his Olympus 160 hang glider would take that terrifying leap off a southern Utah cliff called Dead Horse Point. But jumping off the cliff was only the first step in Jones' flight. After that he had to keep the glider aloft for precisely five minutes before landing on a tiny white bull's-eye marked on the sand far below. Five judges waited with stopwatches: "time accuracy" was one of six events in the 1978 Moab World Invitational Hang Gliding tournament. Competitors from Chile, Brazil, Colombia. France and the U.S. had assembled in Utah for the occasion.
A five-minute flight doesn't sound like much until one realizes that the pilots have only their own bodies, swaying in the wind, with which to maneuver their fragile craft properly. Just gliding wouldn't do it in the Utah contest; the flyers quickly had to find a thermal—a funnel of hot air rising from the desert floor—and stay with it. Desert thermals are often just 10 feet wide, so a glider must rise in tight circles. Then, when the pilot leaves the thermal for his downward sweep toward the desert, he must make certain that a miscalculation doesn't send him into the cliff or the rocks.
Jones reached up and snapped his harness to an aluminum hook at the apex of the glider's frame. "Give me some dirt, please," he said softly.
A young woman standing near the edge of the cliff tossed a handful of dust into the air. It went straight up, like a column of red smoke. "Looking good, Reg," she said.
Another woman produced a child's toy, a little wire loop that creates bubbles when dipped into a soapy solution and waved in the air. She swept her arm in an arc and watched the scattering bubbles. She smiled. "No crosswind, Reg," she said.
Jones said, "Let me go, please."
Two women stationed on either side of the glider let go of the wing tips, and a man holding the front of the craft released it and threw himself to the ground. Jones stood up straight and took three bounding steps.
He leaped into space.
The glider fell about 20 feet before seizing the air; and then it floated out over the desert, over the red bluffs and purple cliffs, toward the blue haze on the horizon. A cheer rang out, and Jones, now stretched under the wing with his feet supported by the stirrup, turned and looked back. "Oh. beautiful, just beautiful!" he shouted.