A family of red-tailed hawks nests atop a towering pine tree in the patch of woods across the street from my house.
On clear, blustery days their screeches rain down from above as they glide and soar and dive through the skies over the neighborhood. I can often be found standing awestruck in my backyard, mouth agape, head tossed back, tracking their flight through the blue.
I’ll admit, I envy those birds — and any other critter Mother Nature saw fit to grace with the gift of flight. I’m not exactly a thrill-seeker — even open-backed staircases freak me out a bit. I’m not terrified of air travel, but I definitely clench the armrest tightly during takeoff and landing. Many years ago, I briefly dated a pilot who took me up in his tiny little four-seater plane. When he tried to impress me with a few dives and rolls, I demanded we land — that was the end of that relationship!
Something deep in me says humans were not meant to fly and every time I find myself in a plane I can’t help but think, “I’m not supposed to be here.” But when presented with the opportunity to go hang gliding, I jumped on it.
The day started at 9 a.m. atop Lookout Mountain, the mid-April sun had yet to creep over the ridge and I shivered in the breezy shade. Seven of us had gathered at the sloping concrete pad that experienced flyers use to take a running start before launching themselves off the side of the mountain. We were waiting for Ozzie, our instructor.
Lest you think I’m insane for agreeing to unleash myself from the shackles of gravity under the tutelage of a guy named Ozzie, know that it’s short for Oswaldo and rather than a shuffling, henpecked aging rocker, this Ozzie is a 40ish, svelte and gregarious native of Spain with some 20 years of flight experience tucked up under his wing. His flight helmet is emblazoned with the tiny handprints of his two daughters — a reminder of how important it is that he arrive safely back on earth.
Ozzie led us in a caravan to Lookout Mountain Flight Park in the valley below. We would be flying tandem one-by-one, strapped into the glider, hooked on to Ozzie and towed by an ultralight aircraft to 2,000 feet to be cut loose for our flight back to earth.
Ozzie went to great lengths to assure us just how safe the whole experience would be. He explained that it is in many ways safer than flying a plane and the very design of the glider coupled with the laws of physics makes it virtually impossible to crash land unless one were overcome by a suicidal urge and actually steer it straight into the ground. A simple weight shift is all it takes to right the craft and if something catastrophic were to happen, Ozzie was packing a parachute and he had a hooked knife strapped to his chest with which he could quickly cut us loose. But he assured us this never happens — in over 20 years, no one has been injured on a tandem flight.
When it was my turn to fly, I was definitely nervous and feared soiling myself at 2,000 feet. But it all happened so quickly and effortlessly. The little plane, basically a riding mower with wings, pulled us off the ground in just 100 or so feet and we rose high above the treeline. We made a wide, gentle U-turn and continued to climb, Ozzie chattering in his rapid-fire Spanish accent the whole time, explaining what was going on and pointing out the flowered fields and running horses in the valley far below — though I could hardly hear him for the wind whistling through my helmet and the roaring engine of the plane up ahead.
When the towline was cut, the plane sped off and a smooth, stable, quiet calm prevailed. We simply sailed on air. Ozzie kept talking, encouraging me to take control of the craft, gently shifting my weight to soar and dive and steer. He pointed out the sparkling streak of a stream far below and the mountain-ridged skyline in the beyond — still awestruck by an experience that he’s probably had thousands of times.
Time mutated as we descended back to earth in wide arcs over the landscape. Supposedly I was only in the air a dozen or so minutes, but it is an experience that will last a lifetime — one that transcends words, and one I plan to repeat.
And now, when I see those hawks soaring over my backyard, my envy has transformed to empathy.