Voices & Choices When a Human Flies - Page 2
By Lisa TE Sonne

The wing fabric above us looks thinner than the sails on a boat. My brain tries to remind me that this craft is rated to pull more G-forces than a Cessna airplane, but I am not interested in pulling G-forces at the moment. Scrabbly grass barely pokes out of the compacted hard ground that is inches below me now, and could be thousands of feet below us soon.

A long tow-rope extends from us to the ultra-light Dragonfly ahead. We are poised to move forward and up—directions I like metaphorically and in the abstract, and never objected to before on hundreds of concrete airline tarmacs.

Chattanooga travel
© Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

At this moment though, when I could be thinking pre-lofty thoughts about Pegasus and how this upcoming experience is the pinnacle of man's dream to fly, when I could be savoring that we are about to soar thermals like an eagle, I instead seem to be twitching loose neurons. I think I have to go to the bathroom. I worry that the harness will bunch my underwear into a wedgie. I am beyond wondering whether the pilot who will control my life has slow reflexes or poor crisis management skills.

"Turn. Smile for the camera," Dan says good-naturedly. "It's mounted on the side."

Oh, good! Distract me as we are about to take off and leave "choice" on the ground. Pander to that contemporary compulsive disorder of our culture to capture every experience in digital bits for a social networking opportunity. Try to make the passenger wonder if her good side is showing instead of whether she is making a good choice. Is it too late to change my mind?

It's one thing to take chances walking down a shady-looking alley to get to an address because you want to meet a renowned artist in a foreign city. Terra firma is fairly familiar. And travelling, don't we roll risk-dice every time we get in a cab or bus or plane and a stranger is at the controls? Isn't control an illusion?

I can leave the ground and scuba dive with thousands of feet of blue, then black abyss, below me. I have learned how to ascend to the surface. I have not learned how to "land the glider" when we are thousands of feet above the ground. If my fear is really just my ignorance, isn't that appropriate?

My imagination parries doubt powerfully. I am tingling to know what it is like with only air between me and Mother earth. Will I lose a sense of where my molecules end and the air begins, the way I feel united with water when I am diving?

© Debi Lander

Cue up the Thrill-Fright-Joy
Thoughts are pushed out in a wake as the tow plane in front of us roars and thrusts forward, bouncing our suspended bodies gently over the grass. We lift off, and the human landscape falls below us, getting smaller and more remote as we get higher, more detached from solids and enveloped in gases. We are above the lush greens of forests and farms, and then above a cliff that stages a single hang glider running off the edge with wings.

We are towed determinedly upward, and Dan kindly talks me through it, telling me how I will be able to steer the wings myself with just a light touch of my fingers on the bar and a slight shift of body weight. My ignorance diminishes slightly and my fear sheds some flakes. I wonder later where they land.

We reach about 2,100 feet above the ground, when Dan says something like: "We are about to be released. You will feel a little jerk, and then we will be on our own."

The umbilical rope connected to the craft with engine power ahead drops away, and I let out an involuntary "whoa!" as we change our pitch and speed. An internal spasm of thrill-fright-joy and my pulse quickens.

Then all those noisy, oxygen-grabbing voices inside and outside my head are gone. All the roar of human engine-uity flies away. We are floating on silence, suspended in a serenity of expanse-filling emptiness.

Hanggliding takeoff
© Debi Lander

Gliding through gorgeous quiet, we swirl through the air above peaceful pastures. In a sky without clouds, my residual worries evaporate.

For a stretch, I try my fingers on the bar and feel the craft gracefully turn. Then, I just want to "go with the flow." No more words or voices. Cells alive to the winds. Everything and nothing the wondrous same.

No human-made window separates us from the elements. I am a human kite without a tethering string to the ground. I spread my arms out with a natural smile and soar.

A bird indeed!

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Lisa Sonne has savored traveling on all seven continents and became the first woman to "fly underwater" while on a National Geographic television assignment, and floated weightless with astronauts and cosmonauts while covering space for LIFE magazine. An award-winning writer, author, photographer, innovator, director and producer, Sonne's work has contributed to an Oscar-winning documentary, Emmy-winning series, and Peabody-winning television. Her credits also include cover stories for in-flight and college alumni magazines as well as travel pieces in History, Wired.com, and Yachting. She publishes www.WorldTouristBureau.com and co-founded www.CharityChecks.us to help thoughtful giving.

Sonne's new book "Everything 101" offers curiosity catalysts of eccentric trivia and useful information in eight subject areas: Literature, History, Philosophy & Religion, Social Studies, Psychology, Math, Science, and the Arts. It's available in Barnes and Noble stores and as an E-book to help your smart electronic devices be even smarter.

Photos courtesy of Debi Lander and the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Related articles:

High-speed Kills on the Open Plains: Falconry in Wyoming by Rachel Dickinson
Scars of the Wild by Stephen Markley
Kicking Back (and Kicking) Like a Monk in Korea by Michael Buckley
Two Wheels, Two Drinks: Biking through America's Heartland by Tim Leffel

Other United States and Canada travel stories from the archives

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