Hanging by a wing and a prayer

North Carolina has never been shy of reminding the world that the Wright brothers made their first flight among its dunes, but Tony Newton finds that there is much more to the state than just wind, sand and sea

It's 9.30am on a hot October morning, and I've just signed my name in three places and initialled in eight more on a four-page liability waiver document. This is before watching an introductory video that shows a graph demonstrating just how safe hang-gliding is compared with other activity pursuits.

And so it is, with the bad old days of the sport's birth behind it and a modern regime of instruction, supervision, regulation and proven equipment. I could have learned to hang-glide at any number of places in the UK, but in this centenary year of flight, where better to throw myself off a hill than the very sand dunes where Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first powered flight 100 years ago, on 17 December 1903?

So here I am in Kill Devil Hills, at Jockey's Ridge State Park in North Carolina, the state whose motto "First in Flight" on every car licence plate reminds you of its place in aviation history. I'm wearing a harness that I'm told has a breaking strength of 6,000lbs, clipping myself into a hang-glider that instructor Doug has just lovingly described as a "piece of junk". Not that there's anything wrong with the machine, it's just that from a flight dynamics point of view, this Eaglet training wing has the qualities of a brick, with a 4:1 glide angle (it flies four units forwards for every unit downwards) and a flying speed of about 20mph, while intermediate machines can achieve glide angles of 8:1 and better. But that's all pretty academic as I lie prone in the dry sand, suspended below the wing.

Sand is what it's all about in Kill Devil Hills, which gets its name from an old folk-tale about a fisherman who did a deal with the devil, but then reneged on it, trapping the devil in quicksand, against which he is (apparently) powerless. And it is sand which brings vacationers, sports enthusiasts and nature-lovers to North Carolina's Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks is a chain of "barrier" islands stretching more than 100 miles along the United States' Eastern Seaboard. Separated from the mainland by wide shallow sounds, these enormous reefs of sand protect the alligator, snake and bear rich swamps that border the coast from the ravages of the Atlantic. The very name "dismal swamp" given to the area conjures up images of CS Lewis' Narnia or Tolkien's Middle-earth rather than 21st-century America, and the area certainly has some vagaries. For instance, the beach up at Corolla is not just a recreational beach as we usually understand the term: this wide expanse of beautiful, golden sand also happens to be Highway 12, with cars and trucks speeding along the only four-wheel access to the expensive-looking beachside and oceanfront houses that line the dunes. At high tide and in bad weather, Highway 12 simply ceases to exist.

A guided tour by ATV (All Terrain Vehicle), or what we'd call a quad bike, is a great way to see the beach and the 90-plus wild horses descended from Spanish mustangs that roam the wildlife refuge, grazing undisturbed in homeowners' back yards and treating the land as their own. Two foals were born during Hurricane Isabel's passage, and during our ATV tour, we see some of the marks that the storm has left on the Outer Banks. In some areas, 60 feet of beach have just disappeared, leaving six-foot-high escarpments where previously there had been a gently rolling dune. We pass an old lifesaver station from the 1920s, in front of which a whole section of dune has been washed away. The winds and tides are no respecters of property, and we see beachfront houses which are now condemned as too dangerous to inhabit. The degree of sand erosion has been so great that tree stump remnants of the forest that once covered this area now poke through the sand at the ocean's edge where previously they had been permanently covered by a foot or more of sand. On a larger scale, the storm has created a new inlet from the ocean to the Currituck Sound beyond, dividing what was one island (Hatteras) just two weeks previously into two. Local officials had a difficult decision to take: to plug the gap with sand, to build a bridge or to leave the new scar that nature has wrought in the region?

But all this has been pushed to the back of my mind as I concentrate on what Doug is telling me. A final "hang check" to ensure that I am indeed connected to my wing and I get to my feet lifting the 60lb weight of the glider. I walk a couple of paces, break into a trot and finally a run, and leave the ground, my legs madly pedalling against nothingness as I remember Doug's instruction to keep running for a few paces more than I think I should. And I'm airborne, for a few short seconds and a few short yards, with Doug running alongside me shouting instructions and holding the wing on a leash.

As the ground comes up to meet me, I flare the wing by pushing the control bar away from me as far as it will go, and I land upright and intact. If I look anything like my classmates (four of us per instructor, and we learn as much from each other's flights as our own), we resemble a cross between the cycling across the moon sequence in ET and the birdman competitions that bring punters to the pier in British seaside resorts.

Those out on the dunes with me are a varied bunch. The youngest is a 10-year-old boy who, being lightweight appears to take to the air effortlessly and fearlessly (with an instructor either side to avoid too much of a painful "crash and burn"). There are no age limits to flying on the dunes: you just have to be big enough not to fall out of the harness and weigh between 75lbs and 225lbs (just over 5 stone to 16 stone).

The oldest is a 65-year-old lady who's always wanted to fly and whose husband thinks she is mad and has gone fishing rather than watch her. She ends up almost upside down after one messy landing, but gets up and does it all over again with a big grin on her face. There are a variety of other interesting "wheels up" arrivals that cause howls of laughter all round, but the soft sand is hugely forgiving and there are no injuries. Some have suffered from varying degrees of apprehension from mild concern to a sleepless night beforehand, but after our session on the hang-gliding equivalent of the nursery slope (or "bunny slope" as they call it in the US), everyone without exception wants to do it again - and soon.

If you'd rather take to the air by proxy, the dunes are a great place to fly a kite, and local shops sell a bewildering range of kites from the Mary Poppins standard to high-performance stunt kites and even ones in the shape of biplanes, fighters and, looking like it will never get off the ground, a kite modelled on the famous Wright Flyer. You'll also find more models and pictures of lighthouses than you could ever imagine.

North Carolina is proud of its maritime heritage, and the four remaining lighthouses which these days provide a great viewing platform for visitors are a reminder that the area is also known as the graveyard of the Atlantic, with more than 1,500 wrecked ships lying on the seabed from Corolla to Ocracoke. The area, as you might expect, is a great place for scuba-diving as well as flying. The 214 steps to the top of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse (the only one which isn't candy-striped) are worth it for the great view.

One of the attractions of the Outer Banks is their remoteness. Not remote in the sense of desolate, and there's a lot of building going on as prices surge. But it's one road in and the same road out, with one lane in each direction: fine most of the time, but not somewhere you want to be in peak vacation season or when there's a mandatory hurricane evacuation as happened recently. There are local airports in Manteo and Elizabeth City, and an airfield at Kitty Hawk that's being upgraded in time for the upcoming centenary celebrations at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, but none of these have commuter services and are of no use unless you're flying or chartering your own plane.

Best options for the UK visitor are Norfolk, Virginia (90 miles and two hours by car to the Outer Banks, with redeveloped waterfront area and a big naval base), Charlotte, NC (five hours by car and a volunteer from the tourism bureau gives visitors a free one-hour walking tour of the city's historic sights. It seems that there's so much confusion as to what is meant by "uptown" and "downtown" here that they've agreed to disagree and called the bustling bit "Center City" instead), or Raleigh Durham (three hours by car and a good flight to have a heart attack on as the front end often seems full of doctors travelling to and from the pharmaceutical and medical device companies of Research Triangle Park or the medical school).

If you find yourself in Raleigh, a trip to Big Ed's diner is worthwhile. My order of a cheeseburger was nixed by Big Ed himself, who insisted that I order one of his specials. A massive plate of barbecued chicken and a side order of devilled eggs duly arrived. Between mouthfuls, I quizzed Big Ed about his business. Serving 600 covers a day, the diner is open for breakfast and lunch, but not dinner. Big Ed's gold Rolex is testament to the goldmine that his home cooking has become over 40 years, and evening opening would surely bring in locals, tourists and their dollars. But, says Big Ed, "it would just be too much trouble," and that about sums up the relaxed nature of this man and his creation.

North Carolina, and specifically the Outer Banks will be well and truly in the media spotlight when the flight centenary celebrations kick off. You'll probably see footage of my instructor Doug piloting the replica of the Wright Flyer. You'll certainly see the dunes and beaches on TV and in newspapers... and you might just decide they're worth a visit.

Tony Newton flew from Gatwick to Charlotte, North Carolina, with US Airways (0800 783 5556; www.usairways.com). The alternative gateway for the Outer Banks is Washington DC, served from Heathrow by British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic, and from Manchester by BMI

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