Hanging around: With the advent of motorised launches, the unique thrill of hang-gliding can now be had immediately. Tony Kelly strapped himself in

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The Independent Culture
I had always imagined that hang- gliding consisted of long trudges up hills followed by the all-too-brief exhilaration of the flight. So it came as a pleasant surprise to find myself cruising at 400 ft within minutes of getting strapped up in a Norfolk field.

The explanation for this is the tow launch, which has done for hang-gliding what the ski-lift did for skiiing - remove most of the hard slog and give you more time to enjoy the sport. This particular device was a winch tow made out of a converted Volkswagen Beetle: other methods include a microlight aircraft which will get you to 2,000 ft in just five minutes.

I was accompanied by Tony Webb, who introduced safe towing to England in 1984. He strapped me into my padded suit and hooked me to the glider. Then we lay down together on the ground. 'Put your right hand on my right shoulder-strap and your left hand around my left wrist,' he instructed. 'I'm afraid it's rather intimate.' Noticing my tension he asked whether I had flown before. 'What, not even an aeroplane?' he exclaimed when I replied negatively. 'You're brave starting with this.'

'Stand by, stand by,' he shouted into a radio as the field cleared and the winchman started the motor. We raced across the grass then took off gracefully as the wheels dropped away beneath us. We soon reached a good height and at 400 ft I was looking out over the flat Norfolk landscape. Tony unclipped the tow rope and we were on our own, the only control being the shift of our body weight. The wind was a perfect gentle breeze - too much or too little wind can make gliding difficult. 'Just follow my movements and do as I say,' Tony reminded me. 'And whatever you do, don't grab the aluminium bar.'

We completed a circuit of the field and came in to land. 'Look ahead of you rather than down,' Tony said, 'otherwise it will seem very fast.' I tried, but failed, to obey as we cleared parked cars and an irrigation channel before hitting the ground and sliding to a halt across the grass with our elbows almost touching the surface.

'Would you like to do it again?' Tony asked, and to my surprise, I was keen. The second time we got even higher and did a couple of dramatic turns. As we landed smoothly, my eyes trained well ahead this time, I felt that I could really take to this.

'You'd normally do that at the end of a week's training, after around 40 flights,' Tony explained. Beginners learn the principles of gliding, practise their take-offs and fly several times at head height before trying anything else. Starting with a dual launch is the short cut to adrenalin.

So don't people find it deflating, circling the field at 400 ft and then spending days barely off the ground? 'Don't underestimate the excitement of low- level solo flying,' Tony said. 'For a beginner each new step is a thrill. The dual flight shows them what they are aiming for. After five days they can do it by themselves and most people have learned to fly sensibly and safely in seven or eight days.' Most centres offer an Elementary Pilot's Certificate after a one-week course.

More advanced hang-gliders get into cross-country flying, staying in the air for hours at a time. On weekend mornings Tony Webb's club sometimes flys together to a local village, landing on the green for a pub lunch. The club distance record is 55 miles, well short of the UK record of more than 150 miles. 'I've offered a bottle of champagne to the first person to get beyond the M1, 100 miles away,' Tony told me.

Two flights did not make me a hang- glider, especially as I was not in control. But a dual launch gives you a reasonably cheap thrill, and a safe opportunity to decide whether you like the sport. Even if I never do it again, I've been 400 ft off the ground, breathing fresh air and experiencing a sense of freedom which you could never get on a plane.

Dual Launch hang-gliding can be booked through Anglian Activity Breaks (0508 492132). A two-day course, incl dual launch flights, costs pounds 175. Information from the British Hang-gliding and Paragliding Association (0533 611322)

(Photograph omitted)