Chris McKitterick (mckitterick) wrote,
Chris McKitterick

Stories from a perilous youth #2: "Chris Learns to Fly."

Part 2 of the new series:

I must have been about 13 when I decided to build a hang-glider. I mean, who doesn't want to fly? I subscribed to Popular Mechanics magazine, and in the back were various and sundry black-and-white ads for plans to build everything from water purifiers to go-karts to ultralight helicopters, so surely it was within an adolescent boy's reach to make a hang-glider in the garage while his parents were off at work, right? I mean, it's just a big kite. I loved kites, even made myself a box-kite once. So I set out to build myself a hang-glider. I was going to fly! How hard could it be?

Even back then in the Paleozoic, one could easily find dimensions and designs for such devices (far more modern and safe than the bi-wing shown in the photo), so I set out to find suitable materials to build my own aircraft. Fourteen-foot wingspan? Check! Cross-frame skeleton? Check! Tensioned upper and lower struts? Check! I even made a control bar from which I would hang and lean to steer the craft by the maze of control wires attaching the bar to the framework above.

I should clarify a bit: As I was a kid working with zero budget, the materials weren't exactly up to FAA standards. So rather than aircraft-grade aluminum tubing, I used scrap wood trim from a house under construction in the neighborhood. Similarly, rather than rip-stop nylon for the sail, I used clear plastic sheeting - also construction leftovers. Control bar? Wooden dowel. Control wires? Twine, as was the harness. And everything was held together with tape and staples. The height of 13-year-old engineering and manufacturing skills. Seemed plenty sturdy in the back yard!

A couple of friends were more than willing to help me haul it up the steep hillside near my house. I lived in a little neighborhood about two miles from Ortonville proper (western Minnesota, almost in South Dakota), so once we climbed up from the forested neighborhood, this was all grassland - until one reached the top of the hill, where the golf course (of last story's fame) lived at an altitude of about 500 feet above the river valley. Windy, too, across the road and above the trees: The perfect spot to catch an updraft, thought I. So up we trudged, a friend supporting each wingtip while I carried the craft from its center. It was reasonably light, seeming especially so whenever a breeze tried to snatch it from our fingers. (There's a bit of foreshadowing: This lightweight construction would prove to be its undoing.)

We reached the top of the hill and turned around to prep for launch. It was a warm, breezy June afternoon, pillowy clouds gliding past the sun, all manner of trees swaying in the breeze far below, Big Stone Lake huge and dark just a few blocks away, busy road between me and all that pretty valley stuff. Insects buzzing and all that. Probably a hawk soaring majestically overhead. I should note that this is exactly the worst launch point for gliding that I could have found, but, hey, we were too young to drive, and what did we know?

So I cranked up my courage and nodded to my friends, then started running downhill with them helping balance the wings. Almost instantly, the wind yanked me and my huge kite out of their hands as my feet left the ground. I was flying! It took off skyward nose-first, and if I hadn't been so busy thinking, "Holy crap! I'm flying!" I would have tried to keep from such a steep climb. Within seconds, the glider had rocketed upward nearly 10 feet... while at the same time the hill fell away even faster, as it was pretty steep. I think I laughed aloud, though I was pretty busy trying to figure out how to steer by shifting my weight.

But all was not Pepsi and bubblegum: The same helpful wind that dragged me skyward also applied pretty serious torque to the wooden skeleton and simple fasteners that comprised the structure of my aircraft. Just as I began to steer, I heard a mighty crack, and almost as soon as that sound registered as sub-optimal, I was Icarus, slain by hubris. Down we fell, wings folding upward where the cross-brace cracked and twine tore loose of its moorings; down, down, plastic sheeting flapping in the wind like some great, prehistoric, dying bird. The hard back of the unforgiving ground rose up to meet us, but I was falling too fast to land gracefully on such a steep slope. What followed was a tumbling and cracking and crumpling as hang-glider wrapped its arms around me - its staple-studded arms, broken and full of slivers and lengths of entangling twine as the sail tore free and engulfed me like a blanket. A blanket embroidered with countless pointy bits. Because I carried a good deal of momentum and we were on a long slope, we rolled like that for what felt like hours before coming to a stop at the lip of a drop-off overlooking the road.

I couldn't really move at this point, bound and bloodied as I was within my ruined flying machine, but I lived! And I had flown! What were a few (hundred) bruises and cuts? I had flown in my own home-made hang-glider!

Not that I've repeated this adventure, mind you. But someday I'll fly again. Just maybe with better materials. Or perhaps in a flying machine made by professionals.
Tags: stories from a perilous youth

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