As part of the Audi e-tron tour, I stopped off in East Sussex to try a little hang gliding. Hang gliders are unpowered wings that can be launched from hills or winches, or launched by being towed aloft behind a microlight aircraft. They can even be powered by adding a hang glider harness fitted with a lightweight 2-stroke engine.
Hang Gliding became a big deal in the '70s and widely known in the '80s as an adventure sport. In fact enthusiasts in California were running down hills with homemade kites in the '60s following the groundbreaking designs by Francis and Gertrude Rogallo, who were later recruited by NASA hoping to land spacecraft with them.
It actually started in 1889 when German engineer Otto Lilienthal first published his research into controlled flight, though the Chinese were experimenting with kites that could carry a man as far back as 600 AD.
The last few decades have seen hang gliding go from a distinctly risky sport to one of the safest air sports. Hang gliding has benefited from technological advancements in materials and design as well as professional flying schools.
I’ve always wanted to hang glide so I took the Audi e-tron to the South Downs to meet up with Matt at Airports Sussex to try a tandem flight. He was recommended by the British Hand Gliding Association.
Matt first started flying 28 years ago. He went to Australia in 2006 and gained his advanced license and returned to work as a training instructor with South Downs Hang Gliding. After three years he became a full instructor and three years later gained his senior instructor qualification. Four years later he started his own school. He was also a tandem piloting New Zealand. Matt is currently the most experienced Chief Flying Instructor teaching hang gliding in the UK with 21 years of experience flying solo, tandem and teaching internationally.
We met up at Bo-Peep Hill in East Sussex overlooking the South Downs on a glorious sunny day with winds around 15 mph. Perfect for a first flight. The view was magnificent with the sea behind and to the right of us. Lakes dotted the landscape glinting in the dazzling sunshine and dazzling green and yellow pastures stretched out before us.
Matt and Richard took us through the safety training and then we got togged out in the helmet and flight suit. Richard linked Matt and I up to the glider, a bright blue and yellow 220 Fun flex-wing glider, then we started running forward into the wind. A few steps later we were borne aloft, sailing up into the sky. Matt indicated that I should place my legs back into the suit for comfort and away we went, soaring over the swiftly falling hill beneath us.
The sensation is extraordinary, I’ve flown many different ways, but this was the closest to actual flight. You are horizontal like a bird, floating above the fields below, with just the rush of the wind whistling through the sail above you. Matt is the perfect companion, extremely strong, calm and passionate about flying.
I’ve always preferred to go solo on sporting adventures, but actually, it was more fun in tandem as you could share your wonder whilst listening to flying tips from the expert. Matt pointed out the various lakes, landmarks, coasts and country pubs as we flew over. He also explained how we were essentially falling forward, rising with the wind as it bounced off the hill below us.
We swooped to the left and right, circling full turns. As I grew more confident he showed me a stall and a dive. Both exhilarating, flying like an eagle, hitting speeds of 40 mph. The closest you can get to having actual wings. It is the most surreal experience to hang above the ground observing the world from a birds perspective. Everything is so small and far away. We flew at a height of 800 feet on the clearest sunny day just enjoying the unbelievable thrill of unpowered flight.
Hang gliders use pendulum action to steer, just shift your body forward using the bar to dive, shift back to rise, right or left to turn. As long as the weather is right you can even have a go turning yourself. I could have stayed up all day, but after twenty minutes we circled round to the left and back over the hill for our landing. A few quick steps as we touched down and it was over.
I cannot recommend this more highly, it’s one for the bucket list. You can also take a five-day course to receive an Elementary Pilot qualification, where you learn to take off, land, fly high and make professional turns. A precursor to the Club Plot training with your own glider. Exciting stuff. Imagine travelling all over the world to fly over some of the most exotic landscapes.
The South Downs is pretty magical, but some other great hang gliding spots include Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Interlaken in Switzerland, Kahului in Hawaii, La Jolla in California, Fethiye in Turkey, La Torre in Mexico, Salt Lake City in Utah, Magaliesburg in Johannesburg, and Queenstown, New Zealand.