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.
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
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
"Let me go, please."
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
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.