Launching off Mount Greylock, and gliding through the air
The yearning to fly becomes reality for those few, brave souls willing to send themselves over the edge of their comfort zone and into the realm of a bird’s eye. Earlier in the summer, I traveled to Mount Greylock to interview hang-gliding pilots and watch them launch. An experience from my early 20s convinced me that I enjoy the rush from the ground more than I would in the air.
Back then, a friend asked me to go parachuting. Three of us joined a training course, geared up, packed into a small plane, and flew to 2,500 feet. I was the heaviest, so I went first. The instructor gave each of us three commands. “Feet out,” he said, a little too loudly. When the door opened and wind blasted into the fuselage, I slid my feet onto the wing. I promptly obeyed the next command: “Get out,” and found myself standing, holding on to a wing support. “Go,” he cried, and I tried to make sense of that instruction. “Go,” he yelled with unmistakable urgency, but I held on. “Go!,” he roared, and I let go. Once the parachute opened, I appreciated the view of fall colors from above and landed without a hitch. But I never went back, although my fascination with going airborne remains.
There is a loose assortment of regional pilots who make up the Massachusetts Hang Gliding Association (MassHGA) and soar all over New England, converging upon Greylock when weather conditions are just right. “Mount Greylock is my favorite site in Massachusetts,” says Gary Trudeau from Cheshire, an official in the MassHGA, who has been hang-gliding since the mid-’90s. He explains that Greylock is great for pilots because they can drive their gear to the launching point at the top without having to approach hike. He adds that Greylock is ideal for spectators because there’s an open viewing area and because Bascom Lodge, which provides food and facilities, is nearby.
But the weather must be right. Hang-gliders launch and land into the wind. At Greylock, the launching site faces east, so pilots need a not-so-common easterly wind, which is often a sign of incoming bad weather. “Some years, I’ve flown there 17 times,” says Trudeau, “and other years not at all.” He adds that the flying season is May into November.
Hang-gliding pilots say that landing requires the most skill in their sport because, once descended to landing height, they can’t circle back for another approach. As Trudeau describes it, the technique is to skim over the ground until the pilot feels the right amount of deceleration, then to stall by lifting the wings, and land. “If I make a good landing, I don’t even have to take a step,” he says. “I stop at a standstill.”
The landing may be the most challenging, but it’s the mountaintop takeoff that’s the most dramatic. To launch, pilots walk their glider 20 yards from the mountain’s edge and wait. An assistant helps steady the craft and keep an eye out for traffic. On a crowded day, pilots may have to wait five or ten minutes for as many as 50 brightly colored hang-gliders and paragliders to get out of the way. When it’s clear—and they feel ready—they sprint toward the cliff, that fast-approaching abyss, until the wings get lift and they’re flying.
Once aloft, the goal is to get higher—over 5,000 feet off the ground—and enjoy the ride for hours at a time. They do this by taking advantage of thermals—pockets of warm air rising to the cloud base.
“We joke that people meditate for years to become present,” says Mark Droy of Southampton, a co-official in the MassHGA and an avid pilot since the ‘70s. “When you run off the edge of a mountain, you get present in two seconds.”
Droy shows me the harness, the altimeter, and the reserve parachute. “Ever had to use it?” I ask. Earlier in our interview, Droy told me about his younger days in the sport, when there was little regulation or training. Those days were a Wild West of sorts, with cowboy pilots pushing the edges of a new frontier. Today, the sport is highly regulated and available to all who can learn to fly with poise and land intact. When I ask him about the parachute, he answers, yes, “but not in 30 years or more,” he adds, knocking on the cement bench we’re sitting on. I tell him I’d like to hear about that later.
“Yeah,” he replies. “That’s probably better left for after landing, over a few beers.”