Adventure travel: The Icarus syndrome, or how to join the bird club

Run for your life, then jump off a mountain.
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The Independent Online
There's nothing quite like learning with the best. When it comes to the "extreme" sport of hang-gliding, knowing that your virgin flight is piloted by a national champion gives immeasurable confidence. Then, just after take-off - when that moment of true terror subsides - it dawns on you that you're with the man who goes highest, farthest and fastest, and possibly takes more risks than other pilots ...

But don't worry about that for now. Just getting airborne is hard enough, psychologically, on a tandem flight. It's not even a cliff, strictly speaking, that you have to jump off, but by the time you reach the end of the crazily steep wooden launch ramp that hangs from the mountainside, there's nothing below you to snag your wingtips or break your fall.

For anyone with a normal response to precipitous places, running hard to the edge is absolutely the last thing you should be doing, but what the hell. When the man says "Run!" your legs start pumping as if your life depended on it, which it could do: watching the preceding duo charge down the ramp, there's no question they ran out of runway before they were airborne.

Nevertheless, for a taste of the real thing, it's better than starting more conventionally, getting just a few feet off the ground under your own control on a gentle hillside. After an all-or-nothing flight from a mountain top, you'll know for sure whether hang-gliding is for you. It's not just experiencing the various manoeuvres, which you try high above the ground, with the comfort of someone by you to sort out mistakes. It's the sensation of free flight - the undiluted thrill of soaring high in the air with nothing between you and the earth. And you can do it without even having to know the meaning of stall, spin or "incident" - the official hang-gliding term for anything from a stubbed toe to much, much worse.

In the air, you're just ballast, but probably quite noisy as dead weights go, particularly when swooping downwards - something the pilot does from time to time to check that you're paying attention. Looking down isn't a problem - it's all such a long way off - but looking round and above at the fluttering edge of the wing can trigger an emotional crisis. Every reminder of the insubstantial craft that is keeping you up there, tests your faith.

The astonishing views change with alarming speed. In the foreground are your hands resting on the base bar, while the valley floor forms a far- off backdrop, but in the middle distance, and coming rapidly closer, is the side of the mountain. Suddenly treetops and rock are blurring past, but a sweeping turn takes you back out over the valley. All sensation of speed is lost, other than the wind on your face. Flying over a nonchalant bird of prey, you have to wonder what it's thinking. You're bright yellow, and much bigger than any of its relations, but like them you're flying quietly, which seems to be the critical factor; you're one of the team.

Control of the hang-glider is achieved by moving your body weight. Pulling yourself towards the triangular control frame points the nose downwards, increasing speed; pulling yourself to one side makes the hang-glider turn in that direction. Pushing back too much slows you down and eventually results in a stall - something you want to do only when landing. And that's probably the worst part of a tandem flight. Landing on two pairs of feet would require the co-ordination of three-legged-race world champions, so you land (nominally) on the wheels at the ends of the base bar, and flat on your stomach. At best, your nose comes within inches of ploughing through a cowpat.

Welcome to the glamorous world of hang-gliding.

Where to learn

The British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (0116 261 1322) has details of local clubs and licensed flying schools. Training Wings, the official training magazine, contains practical information and encouraging features.

Tandem flights aren't universally available, but are becoming more popular for teaching as well as "joy rides". Standard tuition in the UK involves a three-to-four-day elementary course, with controlled low-level solo flying. The next stage, Club Pilot, involves higher launches and learning to soar - rising on thermals and "wave" (wind forced upwards over hills and mountains). Astonishing height gains can be achieved in the right weather.

As for learning abroad, some of the most spectacular hang-gliding takes place in the Alps and joy-rides are often available above ski areas. If you want to learn to fly in a more challenging region, Osterreichische Zivilluftfahrschule, Kossen, Austria (fax: 0043 5375 2160), is based in one of the best areas for the sport. Spain is also popular, thanks to mountainous terrain and warm weather.