Hang glide over sand dunes in the Outer Banks

By Erin Gifford

USA TODAY “Go Escape” magazine

Published 8: 00 AM EST Nov 17, 2019

One by one, my three children soared above the wind-swept sand dunes, overcome with jubilation as they took to the sky on colorful 30-foot-wide hang gliders. As they experienced flight for themselves, the location’s significance was not lost on us. We were just 4 miles from where the Wright Brothers made their history-changing 12-second flight in December 1903. 

It’s fitting that visitors can heed the call of the sky in an area so steeped in aviation history — and what more scenic place to experience flight than North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a stretch of barrier islands that fills up each summer with beach-loving families who return to these alluring shores year after year.

Gliding lessons take place at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, home to the tallest natural sand dunes on the East Coast, reaching 80- to 100-feet tall and offering spectacular views from the Roanoke Sound to the Atlantic Ocean. Consistent winds and soft, sandy hills in every direction make this 427-acre park an ideal place to learn to glide. 

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“It’s the best-kept secret in aviation, to be able to fly these amazingly simple, but fun aircraft,” says Billy Vaughn, veteran gliding instructor and assistant manager for the Hang Gliding Training Center at Kitty Hawk Kites’ Jockey’s Ridge location. “When people come in off the dunes, the number of comments (or) smiles is incredible. It’s beyond rewarding to be able to offer this experience to visitors.”

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A three-hour gliding lesson begins with the basics — as in 45 minutes of classroom instruction to get you up in the sky, but also keep you safe when you drift back down to earth. From here, climb the towering dunes for five adrenaline-fueled solo flights on a nonmotorized hang glider that allows you to effortlessly soar from 30 to 100 yards or more. 

For those who feel uneasy in the moments before takeoff, the best advice — a mantra, they say at Kitty Hawk Kites — is “relax, look ahead.” These three words get a lot of first-timers through that first flight, adds Vaughn. After that rush, four more mesmerizing flights await, and it only gets better as the nerves melt away under the warm sun. 

Kids as young as 4 can learn to hang glide. Safely harnessed in, instructors run the manned glider down the dune and let go, allowing little ones to soar on their own. Older children take classes with adults. It’s less hands-on: Instructors still guide you into flight, but you’ve got more latitude to fly — or crash — on your own.

 “You can really light somebody’s fire here,” adds Wolf Gaidis, a longtime instructor and manager at the Hang Gliding Training Center, noting how special it is to give visitors their first experiences on a hang glider. “You throw them up there and watch them light up. They want nothing more than to remain aloft.” 

For each dune flight, instructors carry and return the glider to the starting position. Given each one weighs 50 to 75 pounds, it’s a real workout on its own, but “to be able to give first-time gliders a taste of this, it’s indescribable,” adds Vaughn. 

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Instructors are as easygoing as they come. They know that most people are gliding for the first time and are a bundle of nerves. They work quickly to gain your trust, boost your confidence and ensure that the experience leaves you with a broad smile.

“Part of the trick was learning to trust your instructor and let go,” notes Kristy MacKaben of Cumming, Ga. She took her two school-age children to learn to hang glide on a summer visit to the Outer Banks. Despite being nervous for her kids — who were “off-the-wall ecstatic,” she notes — they loved being airborne and couldn’t wait to fly again.

While summer is the most popular time to learn to hang glide in the Outer Banks, lessons are offered year-round. For those eager to take it to the next level, Kitty Hawk Kites can also train you to become a hang gliding pilot.

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