SHERIDAN — Each Memorial Day weekend in Sheridan County for the past 35 years, the American Flag has not been the only thing waving with pride. Saturday morning, once again, daring athletes will take flight for the annual Hang Gliders Fly-In.
Hang gliding is a sport critics call deathly dangerous and enthusiasts call natural and beautiful.
Armed with a glider, a helmet and the knowledge bestowed on them from instructors, these athletes can fly with the birds and do things no other winged plane can accomplish.
“It’s one of the only sports you do in a four-dimensional world,” hang gliding instructor and regular fly-in pilot Johann Nield said. “You can go up, sideways, down and around; a glider is the only regular plane with a wing that could do a 360-degree turn within its own wing span.”
And for Nield and other flyers nationwide, the majesty of the sport is only paralleled by the beauty of flying in the Bighorn Mountains.
Memorial Day marks the opening of flying season and each year as many as 25 pilots gather at the Sand Turn pull off area of Highway 14 outside of Dayton to take advantage of rare and ideal weather and wind conditions.
From 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with a key “soaring hour” of 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., the history of thermal activity of the mountain has proven ideal.
“We’re privileged to have a wind that blows into the mountain on its own force,” Nield said. “It pulls in from the valley when the thermal activity that has been out on the fields warming up is pushed toward the mountain, so you have an 85 percent chance of being pulled up instead of just landing.”
Rising currents of warm air pull the glider up in a thermal lift, or air deflected upward by the mountain ridge — known as ridge lift — can serve the same function.
“As long as you stay in the parameter of that thermal, you go up,” Nield said. “I’ve been in thermals going up at 50 feet a minute and some going up at 3,000 feet a minute.”
Once the pilot gets above the mountain ridge they hit a sheer, which is wind going in two directions.
If they hit the eastward sheer they can soar over Sheridan and beyond at speeds up to 45 miles per hour.
The pilot steers the glider with a bar and their body weight, connected to a single 360-degree steering wheel beneath them. Swinging their body — which is laying in a sling — from side-to-side will turn the glider and pushing and pulling the bar will tip the nose to either climb or descend.
“It’s a bit of technical flying, dependent on the pilot and his experience, but it’s a lot of fun,” Nield said. “If you approach it correctly and get the right instructions and the right equipment it’s a very safe sport but if you approach it with the daredevil approach you can get in some trouble.”
Nield and his son have been teaching the sport since 1990 and they say the dangerous reputation has stuck around from days when safety regulations were not in place, which is no longer the case.
“In the ‘70s, if you could put together some nylon and aluminum tubing and make something that looked like a hang glider, people would buy it and people were dying,” Nield said. “There were no regulations. Equipment was made in a backyard and people would run down a hill with it and it would fall apart and they would die.”
Before a glider can go to market today, it must be certified.
The testing and certification process is very thorough and expensive, making it so that very few highly qualified creators are distributing the entirety of the gliders for sale.
There are three certifying entities that all follow the same basic guidelines for certification that include rigorous stress testing, driving tests, flight tests and membership dues before a creator can receive a certificate, and this process can cost manufacturers upward of $50,000.
The sport can be expensive for athletes as well, at least in the beginning.
The initial investment to purchase a glider, helmet, harness, lessons and everything else you need to get airborne will cost around $5,500 minimum and can go up from there depending on the glider selected.
However, Nield is quick to note that in terms of ongoing expenses, there is very little cost involved.
“The prices have gone up, but what you’re buying is the technology because these gliders are just so beautiful and safe,” he said. “After that it’s inexpensive in terms of once you’ve bought your equipment you have no costs, as long as you take care of it.”
Unlike other sports, no practice space or participation fees are required.
Many gliders seek out new launch points and when they identify a good location simply ask the land owner if they can take flight from there.
“Here in Wyoming we have a lot of beautiful land and flying sites but not a lot of people,” Nield said, adding that most landowners have no problem with the sport due to its green nature. “I don’t use any gasoline, I don’t make noise and I’m as natural as can be. You don’t need a pilot’s license and it’s self-regulated. Some landowners may look at it and think it’s crazy, but there are a lot of other sports I wouldn’t want to do.”
Whether watching from the ground in town as gliders soar overhead, heading up to Sand Turn to watch the pilots take flight or gathering at the landing pad to watch the imperfect and often comical landings that Nield compared to an albatross coming in hot — the opportunity for spectators to enjoy the sport with two feet on the ground will be plentiful in Sheridan County this weekend.