Voices & Choices When a Human Flies
By Lisa TE Sonne

At hang gliding school, the biggest barrier to flying through the air on man-made wings can be the resistance from the voices inside your head.

hang gliding
© Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

"You feel just like a bird!"
"Oh man, it's the best high there is!"

Those are the "exclamation-point" voices I hear once I get to the biggest hang gliding school in the country, but they are the voices of strangers.

They compete with some of the comma, question mark, double dash and period voices I hear in my head:

"You have nothing to prove—play it safe, and just photograph the others…"

"No, overcome your fears you bawk-bawk chicken—push your limits."

"Are you nuts? There is nothing between you and the ground. Aren't there hundreds of things that could go wrong and kill you? Remember that white-knuckled, knot-pinching fear-fest you used to feel on roller coasters?"

The voice of a friend also replays in my soundtrack. "Oh, for heaven sakes," he said on the verge of rolling eyeballs, "You have already crawled through caves with vampire bats, gone weightless with astronauts, and swum with great white sharks. Just do it. What are you afraid of?"

Good question. I am re-pondering an answer when a woman nudges a clipboard at me and her voice chimes in: "The people who are most afraid often have the best time, and you can always change your mind before you strap in. If you don't fill out these forms, though, you won't have a choice."

My Choice to Glide Through the Air
She had said the magic word: choice. Isn't that a key force of push and pull in travel—making choices and learning from them? I don't want to miss an opportunity. Hang-gliding is something I've never done before. "And you've never hammered a nail into your foot either," countered a peevish internal voice thinking of all the good galleries and bakeries I could have been exploring in Chattanooga, Tennessee just ten miles away.

Lookout Mountain Flight Park
© Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

Instead curiosity compelled me to choose to be at Lookout Mountain Flight Park. The online brochure says it's "the largest and most popular full time hang gliding school and resort in the United States." So far my wonder was overcoming my worry.

Filling out the forms, we are told, "This is not a ride. You are joining USHPA (United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association) as a student and this is a lesson." That provides a gravitas of purpose beyond a gratuitous adrenaline rush, and a sense there will be a modicum of control in this human experiment of how to fall thousands of feet and land safely.

Okay, so it isn't a scientific expedition to map a cave or to find extremophile life—motivations that have carried me through niggling fear before. It isn't a mission to chronicle a new way to explore the oceans, either. But, I rationalize, it is "a lesson." Hadn't DaVinci long dreamed of strapping on wings and being a bird? Do I really want to live in a time when such flying is possible and not know what it is like?

I start to read the liability waiver on the clipboard. I stop when the word "death" appears. Someone jokes that at least this is a good way to die. A bit premature, I hope. I am feeling nauseous and prayerful when I remember that this is supposed to be fun. I can still opt out. I still have my precious "choice," so I sign.

Preparing to Die—or Grin
The people around me seem to have the anticipatory excitement of little kids before unwrapping a big birthday present. I focus on their enthusiasm as we are fitted for crash helmets and a harness, and I try to block out the unwelcome words that move across my brain like a neon ticker tape: death, fate, destiny, idiot.

I meet Dan Zink, the glider-pilot who will have my life in his hands while I have my hands around his body. We will need to move in unison to make the aerial dance work well.

Hanggliding plane
© Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

His handshake is firm and reassuring. He manifests no suicidal tendencies or kamikaze instincts. We will be tandem flying, he explains. Both of us will wear harnesses that hold us parallel to the ground with our hands lightly gripping a bar in front of us. Zink has many years of hang gliding experience and a good reputation. Me? I jumped off the roof as a kid without some cardboard flaps for wings (and without injuring myself). I have previously savored rides in glider planes, dirigibles, helicopters, acrobatic planes, and hot air balloons. But none of that counts right now.

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