Notes for new hang glider pilots--On the cost of learning to hang glide

Notes for new hang glider pilots--On the cost of learning to hang glide

July 31, 2006 edition
Steve Seibel
steve at aeroexperiments.org
www.aeroexperiments.org

 

When I learned to hang glide in 1997 and 1998, my instructor was charging 90$ for each lesson, which was typically a full morning or afternoon of instruction.  After paying for 10 lessons, any additional lessons that might be needed to prepare the student for his first mountain flight were free—in other words, the total cost of instruction through the first mountain flight was capped at 900$.  It took me the full course of 10 –or maybe 11 or 12—lessons before I was ready to make a mountain flight, even though I came to the hang gliding world with a fair amount of sailplane experience.

 

I didn’t go through any kind of formal hang gliding ground school.  I did purchase Dennis Pagen’s excellent “Hang Gliding Training Manual”, “Performance Flying”, and “Understanding the Sky”, and read them from cover to cover.

 

My instructor allowed his students to use his equipment until they purchased their own—this was included in the basic instructional fee.  Consequently, most of my training hill experience was on an old, tail-heavy Wills Wing Raven.  One of my fellow students purchased a used Wills Wing Falcon mid-way through his training hill experience, and I envied his improved progress with the newer glider.  My instructor didn’t consider the old Raven suitable for a mountain flight, so shortly before I was ready for my first mountain flight, my instructor helped me locate a barely-used Wills Wing Spectrum (a beginner/intermediate glider) that was for sale in my local area for 1500$.  This was a real bargain.

 

Since I wanted to be ready for my first opportunity to make a soaring flight, I found an old Ball variometer (with no altimeter capability) on an internet buy-and-sell site for 50$ well before I actually made my first mountain flight. I also knew that I would be expected to have a parachute before making a mountain flight, so I found an old “meat-saver” parachute on the internet for 50$. I also picked up a used open-face helmet and a set of big orange wheels from a pilot in my local area for about 50$ in total.

 

With a great glider, a functional variometer, an open-face helmet, and a questionable parachute, I was all ready for my first mountain flight.  My total cost outlay at this point was 900$ for instruction plus about 1650$ for gear, including my glider.  I was still using my instructor’s knee-hangar harness, with parachute pouch—a special adjustable model that he had recently purchased specifically to be able to loan students both small and large a training hill harness to which a parachute container could be added.

 

My first mountain flight was wonderful and I was pushing my instructor for the chance to make a soaring flight.  I ended up catching the glass-off later in the day.  My variometer beeped so rapidly that I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to come down, so I entered a dramatic series of diving spiral turns that left me no room to execute a reasonable pattern, which in turn led to a broken down tube.  I began to get the idea that a variometer with an altimeter display, to monitor long-term trends in altitude, might be a useful tool.  In truth though, all I really had to do was learn to keep an eye on the surrounding terrain.  In fact, a few years later I watched a novice hang glider pilot have many superb soaring flights with neither altimeter nor variometer.  I think that this sort of thing is excellent training.  Anyway, I eventually "splurged" on a well-used Brauniger AV Comp variometer with a digital altimeter and with barograph recording capability, that I found on the internet for about 200$. As I continued to make mountain flights, I made an arrangement with my former instructor to continue to rent his knee-hangar harness for a nominal fee per flight, but I soon realized that I needed a real pod harness that would allow me to easily carry all my glider bags down to the landing fields without duct-taping bundles of cloth to the back of the harness.  I found a used pod harness on the internet for about 250$, with which I had several years of great soaring flights. At this point I had spent about 600$ on gear exlusive of my glider, plus 1500$ for the glider, plus the costs of instruction.

 

One item that I lacked for several years was a radio.  I now strongly advise new pilots to obtain a real radio that can receive and transmit on the normal USHGA channels by the time they are ready for their first mountain flight.  This is an important safety item, and though I’m not a fan of excessive “radio-controlling” by someone standing on the ground, I do find myself reluctant to mentor novice pilots who don’t have radios.  An Icom T2H Sport radio only costs about 100$, and can be modified by a knowledgeable person to receive and transmit on the USHGA channels.  The radio can simply be taped to a down tube.  A hand-held CB-style mike from Radio Shack is quite inexpensive and can be taped the glider’s base bar to allow a pilot to easily transmit in flight (though in truth it’s much more important that a novice pilot can receive than transmit!)  Some foam taped over the microphone will help reduce wind noise.  A supply of AA rechargeable batteries, plus a charger, will keep the radio fed and happy.

 

All things considered, I generally suggest that people who plan to purchase good used gear should plan to budget about 2000$ for a glider and about 1000$ for the rest of the gear, including harness, parachute, variometer, helmet, wheels, and variometer. This budget will definitely not allow for the latest-and-greatest versions of each of these items. However--and in contrast to my own actions--the parachute is one item where there is no real reason not to buy the best that you can find, used if not brand new. The newer style of chutes offer a much lower descent rate than the older "meat saver" chutes. Your chute should last indefinitely, and someday you may be very glad that you purchased a high quality parachute.

 

By three or four years after my first mountain flight, I had upgraded most of my original gear.  The Wills Wing Spectrum hang glider soldiered on for at least 4 years of heavy use, and was eventually replaced by a well-used, but higher-performance wing that I purchased at Wallaby Ranch for 1000$ .  My original pod harness was stolen, and I replaced it with a used Wills Wing Z5 harness in good condition, which I purchased off the internet for roughly 500$.  This was actually a lucky turn of events—this harness turned out to be extremely comfortable for me, and had lots more room for gear storage.  The old parachute was replaced by a newer Lara chute that I purchased used from a local pilot for several hundred dollars.  In time I realized that a full-face helmet was an excellent idea, and bought a used motorcycle helmet in a good condition for under 100$.  I also decided to buy a GPS-compatible variometer—which really is completely unnecessary—and found a used Brauniger IQ Comp GPS on the internet for 500$.  So the total cost for the harness, parachute, radio, variometer, and helmet that I am flying with now was about 1500$, and the total cost of all this gear plus my current glider was about 2500$. Of course, in addition to all of this, I've spent plenty of money on gas for my little Ford Festiva with it's simple, ladder-based hang gliding rack, driving all over Oregon and beyond in pursuit of the best winds.

 

Your mileage may vary!  Instructor’s fees vary widely, depending in part on whether the instruction is essentially a “hobby” or a serious commercial venture for the instructor.  I’d caution you against taking informal instruction from someone who is a superb pilot but has no recent experience with the needs of beginners.  Over time, flying becomes so instinctive that an experienced pilot may have great difficulty in anticipating the pitfalls and problems that await beginners, as well as in breaking down his technique into manageable bits that a beginner can absorb in a progressive, step-by-step fashion.  Keep in mind also that your instructor may or may not be interested in helping you find and evaluate suitable used equipment, depending in part on whether or not he is a dealer for new equipment.  If you cannot afford to buy new gear and are looking for used gear, you should attend the meetings of your local hang gliding club and meet as many local pilots as possible.  (There undoubtedly is a local hang gliding club somewhere near you—ask around!)  Let people know what you are looking for and ask if there is any used gear in good condition for sale locally.  It’s always nice to be able to try gear on and inspect it first-hand before purchase, rather than buying something off the internet.  However, there are five to ten widely-used classified sites for hang gliding gear on the internet, and these can at times be the source of good bargains.  The best opportunities occur when a novice or intermediate pilot decides to leave the sport and sells all his gear in one package.  In these situations, it’s sometimes possible to find a glider suitable for a beginner, plus a harness, parachute, helmet, variometer, radio, and wheels, all for a very reasonable price.  Always seek the advice of your instructor and/or other trusted local pilots who are familiar with the needs of beginners before making this kind of a purchase.  (Again, the local cross-country champion may, or may not, fall into this category!)  You don’t want to end up buying a glider that is completely obsolete, as this will seriously hinder your progress.  You also need to avoid buying a glider that is too advanced for you, as this too will greatly hinder your progress.  Some of the best gliders for beginner pilots include the Wills Wing Falcon and the Pacific Airwave Pulse.  Of course, any used glider needs to be subjected to a thorough inspection of all structural components before flight, for safety’s sake.  The best way to find good used gear at affordable prices is to frequently check the most popular classified sites for hang gliding gear on the internet, while simultaneously becoming involved in your local hang gliding community.

 

If you can afford to buy new gear, then by all means do so.  You'll know that it hasn't been mistreated, and you may get better support from the manufacturer if repairs are needed.  But if you can't afford to buy new gear, don't assume that hang gliding is beyond your reach.

 

A closing note: do the appropriate research before you dive into any new sport. Hang gliding instructor's rates vary widely. Before you start, be sure you understand what you can expect to spend to progress all the way through to being ready to fly in the mountains (or via aerotow) independently. Find out whether this estimate includes new or used gear. You might want to contrast the cost of a course of instruction with your local instructor with the cost of travelling to a major hang-gliding school or flight park. If your goal is simply soaring flight in general and you haven't yet been thoroughly bitten by the hang gliding "bug", it might be an interesting exercise for you to also evaluate the cost of becoming an active member of the nearest sailplane club. In general this sport is much more expensive than hang gliding, but this is not always the case--I learned to fly sailplanes from volunteer instructors in an economy-minded club that charged extremely low rates for tows and flight time. The truth is, though, that there's nothing quite like the sensation of running off a mountain with your own wings resting on your shoulders.

 

We'll see you in the sky!

 

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