By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Some people look to the sky and get a feeling that seems to say, ‘That’s where I belong.” Dan Davis, 48, of Tupelo, experienced that sensation about 30 years ago, when he looked up to see someone gliding overhead.
“I just knew someday I wanted to do it,” he said.
Consider that a dream come true for Davis, an experienced hang glider pilot with nearly 450 flights to his credit. He had to buy his wife new dining room furniture before he was allowed to take that first flight in 1993.
“I was just out of my mind, deliriously happy and excited. We had a four-hour drive back home, and I drove my wife nuts. I was so excited,” he said. “It’s flying. It’s going up in the air, like in dreams you’ve had as a kid about being able to fly. I still have the dreams, except I get to do it, too.”
Davis’ enthusiasm was catching for Roger Tubbs, a 64-year-old Tupelo resident and former Air Force pilot.
“In the 1970s, I wanted to try it, but I just never got around to it,” Tubbs said.
Davis helped stoke the fires again in the 1990s, but Tubbs wasn’t quite ready.
“We put the credit card down, then I told my wife about it. She threw such a fit, we didn’t go,” Tubbs said. “It took me five years to talk her into letting me go. Even then, I had to make sure my life insurance was paid up.”
Both Tubbs and Davis started with short tandem flights with an instructor. Under the watchful eye of other pilots, they developed their skills over time, and they’re still learning.
“There’s a lot of supervision at the beginning,” Davis said.
“Even now, everyone’s watching to see what you do,” Tubbs said. “You actively seek comments about your performance. The person not doing that is the exception, not the rule. It’s a training environment.”
Most of their flights take place off Lookout Mountain in Rising Fawn, Ga., near Chattanooga, Tenn. Planes will tow hang gliders into the air, or pilots can launch from a platform on the mountain. It’s an intimidating experience, Tubbs said.
“First time, I didn’t want to go off. Dan finally shamed me into going. I was chicken, unabashedly chicken,” he said. “This wasn’t peer pressure. This was peer shame.”
It’s a leap of a faith to jump off the side of a mountain strapped to a 32-feet-long wing. In light wind, it takes three to five steps, and that’s it, Davis said.
“If it’s windy, you lean forward and you go up,” he said.
“When it’s really blowing, you have someone holding on to your hang glider for you,” Tubbs said. “When they turn loose, it’s almost like you’re levitating.”
When your feet lift up, it’s a different world with no walls beside you or floor between you and the ground.
“If you’ve gone sailing, you get a lot of flapping and popping. This is different,” Tubbs said. “This is just rustling. It’s quiet up there. I guess it sounds like sheets hanging on a clothes line in the wind. Just a little rustle is all you hear.”
The goal is to stretch the ride out for as long as possible by catching thermals, rising air currents that allow a pilot to ascend higher.
“You can feel a thermal,” Tubbs said. “You can smell a thermal.”
When a hang glider descends, it’s called “sink.” On rare occasions, a pilot encounters a “wonder wind,” which Tubbs described as an air mattress that lifts the hang glider up.
“You’re a thousand feet off the ground. You’re not descending, you’re just floating. That’s the epitome of it,” Tubbs said. “That’s just perfect, butter smooth. When it’s a wonder wind day, Dan always says, ‘Even the sink is going up.’”
The men have a good-natured competition that goes back and forth, as they compare flight statistics.
“My longest time was three hours, eight minutes,” Tubbs said.
“Oh, good,” Davis said.
“What? Yours is longer?” Tubbs said.
“Yep,” Davis said. “Four hours.”
Davis has flown 8,080 feet above the ground. He’s flown at higher altitudes, but that’s the most distance he’s had between him and hard earth below. In this measure, Tubbs comes out on top by 35 feet.
But competition is something for the ground. Flight time is different.
“I flew with an eagle once, a bald eagle,” Davis said. “That was one of my favorite things. I was flying just straight across a ridge. The eagle came from the other direction, passing 10 feet from my wing tip at exactly the same altitude I was at.”
Davis has been flying since 1993, and Tubbs began hang gliding in 2000. In all that time, Tubbs had the only injury when he busted a finger during a landing.
“It has the reputation as a daredevil sport,” Davis said. “Takeoffs and landings are very intense. You have to do it right, or you get in trouble.
“But in the middle, it’s pure relaxation, very spiritual,” he continued. “You’re just gliding around several thousand feet above the ground. It is so relaxing, absolutely wonderful.”
It’s an addictive feeling, and Tubbs and Davis are hooked. They do most of their flying off Lookout Mountain, but they haul their hang gliders to other locales, including Valle de Bravo in Mexico, where they went as high at 11,000 feet in the air.
“You were looking across these big valleys all the way to Mexico City,” Tubbs recalled. “I remember thinking at the time, This is what I pictured in the ’70s. This is what I pictured when I first wanted to fly. This is why I’m up here.”