I had had only few opportunities to observe these colored sails that are hang-gliders which slide silently in the crystal clear air of our mountains. But on the all too rare aoccasions when I had the chance to meet it, I was filled by the same serene feeling as when I observed the vultures of the Basque country. My attraction towards this type of flight collided however in another feeling : that to be that a wisp of straw blowed up by the wind, without any possibility of mastering either the trajectory, or the height, or even the destination of flight. In brief, "hand-gliding" had something in my spirit of " prisoner of elements ". How wrong I was !
Goaled by a colleague, who wanted, she also, to tempt the experiment, I got in touch with a hang-gliding school near Paris for "bare" day. Disappointment was as high as the prohibitive price. This day was transformed into an endless session of inflatings sail on flat ground, together with an instructor who did everything to discourage us, questioning ceaselessly our capacity to fly. Whereas I tried to maintain my sail some seconds over my head, I remembered my fruitless attempts to practise with the windsurfing board. Contrary to this last one, and well who dripped by this experiment, I did not give up at all and I looked afterward for a school near the mountains.
I could join a training week in a hang-gliding school in the Aspe valley, not far from the Basque country where my family and a lot of my friends lived. When I arrived in the premises of this school, I was welcomed by a big and robust strapping lad, with a sweet glance and a melodious accent answering Jean Louis's first name. He explained to me that novice trainings were full up but that, considering my aeronautical experience, and because I had already learnt to handle a sail during my " bare day " near Paris, he had registered me on a " level two " training which, although reserved for people having made at least two or three big flights, would begin inevitably with a session of revision on the material and the gestures to be assimilated during the takeoff and landing phases. I met my team mates who were all people of the region, and I had the pleasant surprise to learn that some of them and I had common friends. As soon as the modalities of registration were done, instructors distributed us our "wings" according to our respective weights, and our group moved off towards the shuttles, small 4WD vans being able to contain about ten trainees and their sails, intended to take us towards the takeoff sites.
Under a radiant spring sun, we arrived some minutes later at the " hillside school ", over which each spread the sail. First runs in the hillside by maintaining the sail over our head were a little laborious but I was reassured to notice that my lack of experience with regard to my team mates was far from obvious. So, during the morning, due to the permanent advices of our instructors, we all felt the magic sensation to be carried by the sail, our feet getting loose some seconds off the ground. At the moment we resumed contact with the planet, the sail collapsed slowly on the high ferns and the broom in flower which made a mischevious delight tangle our suspentes. It was necessary then to go back up the hillside with the sail on the back.
During these painful ascents, I had long breaks to observe the takeoff of those that were already flying. About six hundred meters higher, some hang-gliders moved slowly in the quiet and crystal clear air of this Pyrenean spring, over this valley where nature is so generous. From time to time, some wildcat vultures seemed to join them, offering us then a suspended ballet, where only some notes escaped from a nightingale beak marked the rhythm of a music made by silence and by plenitude. At around midday, we were all, in theory capable of mastering takeoff, necessary condition for the big flight of the afternoon.
One by one, the most experienced at first, my team mates got ready then for took off according to a rite which seemed already well established : While he proceeded to the sail checks of the trainee which where getting ready to take off, the instructor called by radio the instructor stayed on the landing field :
" - Hello! Can you hear me?
-I'm sending you Olivier with " Carlit twenty seven ". It's his third flight.
-OK! Here the wind is quiet. "
The trainee, is equipped with a radio allowing him to hear permanently instructors guiding him, moving then one or two steps to put his suspentes in tension while the instructor take his place in front of him so as to be able to interrupt his takeoff in case of bad inflating. Then, having observed the behavior of the wind due to ribbons acting as a windsocket, the instructor gives the signal to the trainee who moves one step more. The sail got up then over his head and the instructor began treating harshly energetically the trainee so that he remains concentrated :
" - Don't look at your sail ! Go on ! ! Go, ! Now you run run run ! " And miracle came true : two steps farther, the sail, which was some seconds earlier a piece of crumpled tissue, became a majestic wing sanking slowly into the valley. Halfway, the instructor who had stayed below took over to guide the trainee until the gently landing.
Being the only one of the group to have never flown, I had to wait for all the others to leave before taking my turn. I tried to contemplate the extraordinary panorama which was offered to my eyes or to concentrate me on the instructor's commentaries who was debreifing every trainee takeoff, I did not succeed in getting rid of the apprehension which was tying up my stomach. After the last trainee had flown away, the instructor approached me by smiling. He helped me to spread my sail and verified the ties of my saddle while whistling.
" - You're scared ! arent't you ? " he asked me, while he was straightening my belts,
" - Yes ", I admitted, but I hurried to add :
" - But I do want to go there ! "
He contented himself by answering with a reassuring smile and repeated for the last time the takeoff procedure. Then he waited that the previous trainee had landed to make an attempt with my radio. Expectation of the convenient wind lasted only some seconds which appeared to me an eternity. Harnessed, helmet on head, arms crossed and commands in hands, I waited for the signal by unwinding in continuous the takeoff procedure in my head which had the worst difficulties to ignore the amplitude of my heart's beatings and the abyss in which I was going to rush. Then the moment so expected and so dreaded came:
" - OK, it is when you feel it … "
I did not feel anything, but I could not wait much longer. I took a decisive step. I was at once stopped by the the sail resistance which rose by taking its flight shape, and, pressing of all my weight on my saddle by stamping, I heard roaring the instructor :
" - Move ahead ! Move ! Go ! Make yourself taller ! "
When the sail stabilized over my head he said :
" - Release your front elevators ! Yes, it's well inflated ! Now you run, run by raising your hands ! " Two steps were only needed so that the abyss so dreaded fades under my feet, and silence consecutive to this explosion of energy were replaced by the reassuring instructor's voice in the radio :
" - Yes ! You are indeed there ! Your takeoff was magnificent ! Now you release your commands and you settle down comfortably in your saddle. That's right ! Now pull your right command " and as by magic my trajectory was modified quite slowly. At a bicycle speed, trees and meadows marched past under my feet as in a dream in an unreal silence. It was much more beyond my imagination. A couple of wildcat vultures passed under my wing as to welcome me at birds. I was then invaded by a shudder of enjoyment which called to my spirit:
" - No you're not dreaming ! It's indeed the present moment, all this is very real. " There, on this swing suspended from the wind, the feet hanging in space, I was flying …
But this sensation, to which I was already used, was very different from the one that I could feel by plane. This time this I was flying really as a bird : slowly and noiselessly, with a flying machine being able to curl up in a rucksack as birds fold up their wings along their sides. The landing instructor began to guide my approach making my trajectory follow a series of " S " perpendicular to the landing direction. Since my flying swing, I could observe my predecessor folding up his sail, the other trainees observing my approach, and the instructor positioned in the centre of the landing area, asking me to adjust my trajectory so that it succeeds on him. I still was contemplating my shadow on the leafy tops of oaks, beeches and sweet chestnut trees when I began the last turn before the final approach. On the order of the instructor I switched from a sit down position to a stand up position, as if I took out my landing gear, and raised my arms to acquire a maximum speed. When my feet were only one meter off the ground, I pulled profoundly my flight commands and resumed contact with the planet gently, as if I was landing on eggs. While the sail collapsed behind I stayed there, without moving, commands in hands, still asking myself if it had really happend. My eyes looked back up the cliff to the departure point , as if it was still necessary that I become aware completely that I had just realized the most unhoped-for wish of my childhood by tasting the pleasure untill then unknown to fly as a bird.
As soon as the apprehension of the first big flight is past, the novice flyer feels he can fly in complete safety, the reassuring voice in the radio contributing widely to it. But danger remains very real. For that, since the third flight, instructors made us do exercises of handiness in flight. The most important was "to feel" the sail by balancing his body in the saddle, as a cyclist tilts his bike to turn. As I tended to coordinate the movements of my body and my actions on commands badly, one of the instructors, having noticed the exceptional peace of the air which filled the valley that morning, asked me to fly without touching at my commands but only by moving my body in the saddle. So that this acts more effectively, the instructor had adjusted it rather slack. Once in flight, this regulation turned out destabilizing and it was difficult for me to keep my arms along my body. I decided then to spread my arms in cross, as if I was a bird spreading its wings. Due to this attitude, I had no more any difficulty controlling my trajectory only by putting back the weight of my body on the side of the saddle corresponding to the direction towards which I wanted to go. While I made a turn describing a complete circle, I closed my eyes and I saw again myself child, spreading my arms by imagining that I flew. Which child has never made this gesture ? Which human being did not dream one day that he flew like that ? And when my eyelids opened again, I noticed once again that this dream had become reality : I was really flying, with my arms spread as wings, and I could control my trajectory by balancing my body and go to a direction which only the sky allows its guests to choose in total freedom. Voice on the radio confirmed that I had well understood the use of my body and I could not refrain from uttering a victory shout which rang in the valley.
The other takeoff site, " eight hundred " , (useless, I think, to give the reasons of its given name), was in the widest part of the valley. Flights from this site were often two in three times longer than those of " five hundred ", not only because of the more important heigth, but also because this site was often subjected to phenomena of confluence or restoration at the end of afternoon. Moreover, the landing of this site was situated less than a hundred meters from the premises of the school, which offered us the pleasure to return our wings on foot. If this can seem insignificant to those who did not live it, these steps stay in my recollection as intense moments of happiness. I remembered myself my flights of the day while the pleasant colours of the twilight in the valley invited me to promenade in the streets of this magic village. All around, the green hillsides and the immaculate summits distilled a strange serenity which aroused in me musing and a desire to go even farther, towards some more freedom.
Since the following training, my ceaselessly expanding enthusiasm had been right of the will of some friends and the other colleagues who looked, through the Committee of Establishment, activities "discovery". It was the time of magnificent moments among friends who shared an exciting adventure. During rustic dinners, conversations went good: each relived the day's feelings and there was always someone who had distinguished himself by his clumsiness or by his capacity to be always flying when the aerology became shaken. I was often this one … Indeed, I happened to land in the middle - hillside, sucked up by an "air down wind" which watched for me around a coomb. Another time, I struck the full whip of a powerful thermal which threw back me in its downward part, so that I beat, this day there, the record of the shortest flight, with an average fall rate as high as that of a jump parachute.
The more I progressed, the more I became aware of the real danger. The freedom from care of the early flights was substituted bit by bit by the laborious learning of the mountain aerology and its unpredictable traps as cuttings or " devils of dust ". I began to admit that my autonomy would take a long time to obtain. On the other hand, instructors did not hesitate any more to invite me for more ambitious flights. In the takeoff, the apprehension remained very present, as in the first flight. It was well described in the text of an advertisement for a wing constructor : " fear, fear in the womb hidden behind the curtain of pleasure ". It was often necessary for me to draw from the depths of myself the necessary courage to continue. Happiness has a price. It has to be paid.
In this state of mind, I was invited to a " mountain flight ". Ultimate dream : to join on foot a summit by carriing his wing and then flying down. This day there, the chosen summit was the " Labigouer ", peaking two thousand and two hundred meters high. On a crystal morning, we went to the border of the Pyrenees National Park, together with the most experienced instructor: Patrice. The driver arrange a meeting some hours later at the foreseen landing area and abandoned us on the marked out path which led to the summit. Ascent, although painful because I lacked obviously training, let us discover bit by bit an extraordinary panorama : The Ossau peak in the East and the Anie peak on the West seemed to guard the entrance of the valley which extended in the North. In the South, the dry and rocky crests and the canyons of the Spanish side drew a Western landscape, glittering with light. When we finally reached the summit, we had only a little time to admire panorama because the breeze began to get up and it was time to leave before the wind strengthened. The all got ready and the most experienced by us left in first. Having his own radio, he broadcast permanently the state of the air flow: everything was quiet. When we tried our radios, only one worked, the others had gone off. I was thus going so to fly without radio. I dare to admit now only I almost wished it. Patrice approached me and made an inspection of my equipment. Not finding there anything to criticize he said:
" - OK, we meet below, take the food bag and open the bottle of wine. "
And there I left the ground, without the usual reassuring voice, really free and responsible for my trajectory, for a one thousand hundred meters flight which stays still in my recollection as the biggest and the most magnificent flight I have ever experienced. Once landed, I was assailed by my consciousness:
" - Yes it's indeed what I want to do ! I want to go over mountains with my wings. I want to climb summits and come down again by flying, I want to feel nature and life, wind and clouds, dawn and twilight, sun and stars … "
And in the evening, before sleeping, my imagination populated the future of big flights, full of nature, open air and big silence and serene flights together with the wildcat vultures which would complete my learning of free flying.
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