Monday, July 3, 2017

Hang gliding at Wallaby Ranch.

The last week of May was a birthday week celebration. I went to Wallaby Ranch with Pam Schwartz the curator at the Orange County Regional History Center. The ranch, (1805 Deen Still Rd, Davenport, FL 33897) is located a short drive from Orlando. As soon as we exited Deen Road into the drive, a sign overhead announced that we had arrived. The plan was to stay in one of the tiny cabins, called hooches) for the night and then fly at the crack of dawn the next morning.
Oliver van Dam Merrett greeted us and drove us around the property in a golf cart. There is a huge hanger full of hang gliders and a dozen or so hooches, a pool, volleyball court and a central barn gathering area where pilots congregate before and after the flights. Nikki Meir had helped me make arrangements for the day and she introduced us to her new puppy named Larry. Since it was late in the day with little wind, folks were grounded. We decided to watch the sunset from the pool.


The next day we got up before the sun to the sound of a plane engine firing up. We were rushed out to the field which acts as the take-off area and several guests were strapped in and went up before "Tom!" was called. I kept sketching since I'm used to answering to "Thor". People kept gesturing my way and it finally dawned on me that I should get up. I tripped over a puppy (Larry) on my way to my hang glider. Within seconds, I was signing my life away and then, Malcolm Jones, the ranch owner strapped in beside me. Malcom is said to have had more safe flights that anyone else in the world. Central Florida is a great place for hang gliding because the coastal winds meet in the center of the state and rise. People come from around the world to fly here. You strap in by stepping into what looks like a sleeping bag and then you lie down suspended from support straps. A small yellow plane was latched by rope to the front of the hang glider and before I had time to get nervous, we were quickly accelerating across the field. The wheels left the bumpy ground and we were up.

The ground gradually slipped farther away. The plane kept circling the property gradually gaining altitude. I saw another hang glider take off below me and assumed it must be Pam getting the same experience. Then the strap to the plane was released and we were on our own. We glided in silence and Malcolm said to me, "Welcome to my office." The experience wasn't what I expected. The was no gut wrenching thrill, but instead a simple peace as we glided over the gorgeous landscape.  A reservoir was in the distance and the properties were neatly divided into a grid. Light wisps of clouds floated below us and our hang glider cast a shadow onto them. That shadow was surrounded by an amazing circular rainbow. I have never seen anything like it before. The, we circled and went right into one of the clouds.

I was told to let go of the steering bar in front of me for a moment and the hang glider stayed steady. "See, it flies itself" I was told. Pulling back would slow us down, edging the nose up, and pushing forward accelerated us as we glided down. Pulling left and right of course circled us in those directions. The ground was slowly getting closer. I spotted Pam on the field, and she waved to me. I was told later that we hung in the air motionless for some time above the field. Malcolm took control of the glider and guided us, landing belly down on the field.

Pam had not gotten to fly yet and we were told that with the winds picking up, the flight would need to be canceled for the day. They don't take chances at Wallaby, they know good flying conditions and do not push the limits for safety's sake. We decided to stay one more day in the hooch and Pam was the first person in the air the next morning. Evenings feel like a relaxed camp outing with friends as we sat in the barn and played games while several guests got out a guitar and sang. The pool saw plenty of use in the heat of the day and some pilots hung out under the large live oak trees to exchange flying stories. I can see how this could become an addictive lifestyle. You need to go up on 20 tandem flights before you can fly solo and Wallaby offers lessons from some very experienced hang gliding pilots. This was truly an experience of a lifetime.


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