Hang Gliding in Outer Banks: What You Need to Know

Heather taking flight in the Outer Banks

My feet start running, and within seconds they are pedaling in the air. The wind has caught the hang glider, and I am lifted toward the sky. My nervousness before strapping into the harness is gone and replaced with pure adrenaline. Holy cow, I’m flying! I can’t believe that I have never done this before.

Heather taking flight in the Outer Banks
Heather Flying over the sand dunes

Have you ever wanted to learn how to fly? I didn’t have any inclination to learn but little did I know how exhilarating it would be. One of the best places to learn how to fly is to go hang gliding in Outer Banks with Kitty Hawk Kites. Kitty Hawk Kites is the largest hang-gliding school in the world and has been teaching beginners how to fly for over 45 years. And I was fortunate to be one of those beginners on a recent trip to the Outer Banks, thanks to the Outer Banks Visitor Bureau. If you want to learn how to hang glide, this is everything you need to know to make the most of your experience.

Jockey Ridge State Park

Jockey's Ridge State Park Sign

Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School is located within Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Jockey’s Ridge covers 427-acres and includes the tallest active sand dune system in the eastern United States. In addition to having amazing ocean views, it has the most optimum conditions for wind and climate, smooth and consistent ocean breezes, and soft sand for landings, making this the ideal place to learn how to fly. Even the Wright Brothers came to Jockey’s Ridge to soar the dunes. After the success of their gas-powered flight, Orville Wright came to Jockey’s Ridge to be the first to conquer flying over the dunes. He knew this place had the right hill shape with the right height above sea level and an unobstructed path for the wind to avoid turbulence. And soar he did! On Oct. 24, 1911, he flew for 9 minutes and 45 seconds over the sand, a record for over 63 years. Jockey’s Ridge State Park still has the optimum conditions for flight today as it did back in 1911.

Kitty Hawk Kites

Kitty Hawk Kite Hang Glider

Francis Rogallo, an aeronautical engineer, inspired by his conviction that aviation should be available for everyone, invented the first flexible delta wing in the mid-1940s. Francis said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could drive to the outskirts of town, unfold a wing from the trunk of your car, and fly away over the countryside?” This flexible delta wing made it possible for aviation to be both practical and affordable for the masses allowing for a new generation of hang gliding enthusiasts to emerge.

Since being founded in 1974, Kitty Hawks Kites’ mission has been to teach the world to fly. Nearly half a million people have taken their first flight here. Kitty Hawk Kites designs, makes, and tests their kites on the same sand dune that Orville did in 1911. Did you know that hang gliders are highly engineered flexible wings capable of extended soaring flights? It is the closest humans can achieve a birdlike flight coasting on the thermals. The current record holder for soaring over Jockey’s Ridge is held by Dan Skadal, who made it 5 hours and 21 minutes on June 28, 1982. A far cry from Orville’s first soaring record.

Heather posing with the hang glider

As the largest hang gliding school in the country, they offer hang gliding lessons for beginners, intermediate, and advanced flyers and offer over 25 other adventures, from surfing and kiteboarding lessons to dolphin and kayak tours. The beginning hang gliding lesson includes ground school and five flights for $129/person. If you want to add on the film and photo package, it is an additional $39/person. I would recommend adding the Go Pro package as it is a great viewpoint to see your facial expressions as you are flying over the dunes. If you want to get your “Hang 1” pilot rating, you can also do this here.

One of the coolest lessons that I would like to try one day is to fly the 1902 Wright Glider replica, built by the Wright Experience. It is one of a few in existence and the only one of its kind available for the public to fly. Can you imagine flying in the similar glider that the Wrights Brothers did while making aviation history? Well, you can with Kitty Hawk Kites!

Replica Wright Brother's Airplane in the Kitty Hawk Kites Garage

Strapping into Gear

The gang waiting to hang glide

After you sign your liability waiver, you can get your gear. All flyers have to wear a helmet and the harness that gets attached to the hang glider. You don’t have to put on all the gear until you get up to the hang glider. But for me, this is where my butterflies started fluttering. Was I really going to do this?

Ground School Hang Gliding Training

Michael giving us hang gliding training

How are we going to get these gliders in the air today? This is where the Ground School comes in. Before heading out to the dunes with all of your gear, you must go to ground school. Here you learn about what body position you need for the standard flying position, like elbows relaxed and down to your sides, feet in front of the other like you will be in a race to begin, and a relaxed grip on the bar below your chin. Besides body position, you will learn more about how you want the hang glider to launch and land into the wind, just like larger birds do.

Since we are beginners, the instructors will be running alongside, holding onto tethers. If you need to speed up, the instructors will yell for you to pull in one inch; this small movement will drop the nose a little and make you faster. The other thing you learn in ground school is the three-axis of control for the hang glider: pitch (up and down), roll (left and right), and yaw. The last thing you learn is how we’re going to get this thing out of the air and back onto the ground nice and safe on our feet. It is called Flare. When the instructors yell “Flare,” you have to push the bar all the way forward, and you’ll finish straight above your head. This makes the glider a parachute, so it will slow down and completely stop. The glider will go from horizontal to vertical. The important thing is to listen to the instructors as they will tell you when to Flare. FYI…this is really hard to do in the excitement of flying; make sure to listen to them. I didn’t do a great job at this on my last flight. You can laugh at my antics in the video below.

Walking to the Sand Dune

Walking to the sand dune for hang gliding

Be prepared to walk quite a bit to reach the sand dune where you’ll take off. There is a wooden boardwalk at the beginning, and when that ends, everyone takes off their shoes and leaves them under the deck. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so I carried them. You can take a small bag (filled with sunscreen, water, camera) with you and set it down at the top of the dune. Just be prepared for all the sand that will get in everything if you take it. They recommend bringing a bottle of water with you as you are out on the dune for almost 3 hours.

Getting into Position

Hang gliding pre-flight tips being given to Heather

So, who wants to go first? The instructors ask. Definitely not me. My nerves are on high alert, and I no way want to be the first one out there. Especially since our first try at this in the morning was canceled due to the winds being on the border of not safe. We ended up coming back in the afternoon to more favorable wind speeds. After watching a couple of my friends do it with no problem, I’m ready. You have to hook yourself to the hang glider with the carabiner on your harness and lay flat on the ground, hands relaxed on the bar, with elbows down to your side. The instructors check that everything is ok, and then you have to stand up. This is probably the most uncomfortable part where the straps on your harness ride up your leg, and you so want to push them down, but the instructors are ready to go. They yell, “Clear,” and you are off and running.

Taking Flight

Heather getting ready to take off

I can’t believe that in moments after them yelling “Clear,” I am flying high above the sand. My nerves from earlier are all gone and replaced with exhilaration. I can’t help smiling through my entire flight. And after I stick my first landing perfectly, I jump for joy. “I did it!” My giddiness was contagious, and even my instructors laughed after my flights. I did five flights in total, and each one was longer than the last. Our goal was to fly to the orange cone off in the distance. I was the first one out of the two groups hang gliding that afternoon that reached the orange cone. Then one of my friends managed to make it past me. With my competitive nature in high gear, I was determined to get even farther, which I did, but in doing so, I exhausted my instructors, who were running alongside me. My friend once again squeaked out a little farther than me on her last flight, getting the longest distance out of all of us.

Looking at the videos, it might look like you aren’t flying at all-just skimming over the sand. However, you can feel the initial lift with the wind and the level off for the flight duration, and you know that your feet aren’t dragging on the ground.

Hang Gliding in Outer Banks

Heather hang gliding in Outer Banks

I had never had a strong desire to fly before I tried to hang gliding. I chalk it up to not knowing what I don’t know. But, now?! I love the feeling of being airborne with the wind rushing by, catching a thermal, and coasting over the sand. Flying is magical, no matter what kind of flying you are doing. But, flying a hang glider over a beautiful beach with ocean views, a stone’s throw from where aviation began, is a pleasure that few will ever know. I hope that you will take an adventurous leap to come to the Outer Banks and experience the joy of flying yourself. Trust me; you will be forever changed after this joy of a lifetime!

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Further Reading

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