Flying Like Birds: Evolutionarily Unnecessary; Passion Nonetheless

It’s quite interesting to me that the root of our desire to fly simply comes from observing birds doing it so naturally (are you not wondrously amazed to observe them?). Indeed, it’s the most fundamental aspect of a bird’s nature. It’s…fucking…DEFINING. In general, and with minuscule exception, birds fly. It’s what they do.

(Note to self: got the f-bomb outta the way)

Setting aside the sad videos of old: of people practicing passion over science and paying with their lives, are you aware that you can indeed fly like a bird, albeit with some equipment for assistance? No, I’m not talking about the Wrights or those who fulfilled their glorious legacy. That goes to all the advantages and benefits that come from human flight which are too enormous to delineate. And it’s A Big Deal, make no mistake. The B-747 and now, the johnny come very very lately A-380, are crowning achievements in an endeavor that is, very much, quotidian.

You see, it’s interesting that even though the passion to fly like birds goes way back — and I’m sure Leonardo with his schematics wasn’t the first — that’s not how we ultimately took to the air. We did so by means of engineering. We use — and this is an important distinction — control surfaces. Show me an aileron, flap, rudder or elevator on a bird. Doesn’t exist. But how they controlled themselves was observable enough to invent these crude analogs for controlling the flight of an aluminum tube. We excelled, but we never fulfilled the root of the passion, in my humble opinion.

Let me get something out of the way: I adore aviation and always have. My dad instilled it in me, but I’ll save that story for another post. Even though I was exposed to it from a young age, once I became aware of hang gliding I just knew that’s how I principally wanted to fly. I not on only wanted control, I wanted to control everything. Mark that thought, for the video.

So let me close the circle. Hang gliders work far more like a bird. Not precisely so, because you’d need to be flexing your wing — your airfoil surfaces — with various muscles. That’s certainly beyond our capability, but we get quite close with engineering such that shifting our weight in various ways causes a wing to warp — to bend & contort — in a way commensurate with controlling the aircraft. So, birds are actually a bit more "digital," — think individual feathers — but an analog curve works just fine. When birds employ various muscles to warp & contort their wings — in myriad permutations — it’s much the same sort of warping going on in a hang glider.

So, I’m going to show you a video. This is idle play time during the most recently completed pre-worlds in Monte Cucco, Italy, just this month. I don’t think I mentioned this, but on day 3 or so in Monterosso, Italy, I came down in the morning and saw a car in front of the hotel with about 5 hang gliders loaded on top. I figured they were some German, maybe Dutch pilots down for a flying vacation. I went about my business. Returning a while later, I saw there were people attending to the car. "Jamie, is that you?!" Yep, I ran into an old HG acquaintance way over in Italy (from my beginner days in Bay Area). She was with the boyfriend as I surmised, and Jonny Durand, the top competition HG pilot in the world. They were taking a day or so of R&R in the Cinque Terre between the Spanish Nationals an the Pre-Worlds, to be followed by the Dutch Nationals.

So before the video, let me give you a little bit on how a hang glider is controlled, so that you can watch with some sense beyond mere entertainment. Let me note this now: watch how these guys are constantly in movement. I’ll explain below.

Shopping cart.

That’s at least part of it, so let’s talk about that. How do you control a shopping cart? You push one side, pull the other. That’s directional control. There’s a number of additional aspects but I’ll leave it at that, now. The essential difference in terms of endurance is that in an HG you’re suspended, so you have to displace your full body weight. And many competition flights endure for over 3-4 hours.

Speed and up/down is a very complex thing to write about. They apply to both gliders and powered planes, moreso to the latter; but in common, in a normal docile flying envelope, the elevator of an airplane controls airspeed, just like in a glider or hang glider. Because of TV, people tend to think that a control stick means right/left/up/down. Not so, at least for aircraft that aren’t super-powered. For example, some modern fighters can simply power through a loop, even from a near stalled airspeed. In normal fight, airspeed (forward/back on the stick, pull/push on the bar) is what’s more critically important and controlled from those control surfaces or weight shift in an HG (when you see them move forward & aft).

Gliders can do loops too, but they must build up a huge margin of excess airspeed that they can convert into a maneuver (adequate angle of attack, technically), such as a loop.

Now I must be getting boring. The point of all that was only one thing. You can watch the following amazing video in many ways. You can just watch it, or you can understand it on many levels, if you’ve taken to heart and tried to capture what I written above (I tried). But I don’t expect anything and this is uncharted territory. For all I know, my readers are going to think WTF? Here’s the vid. If you have the capability, watch it in 720p HD, full screen.

And by the way. I was intending to do this last (Sunday) night, but got caught up in activities. Not sure about Muse and Knights of Cydonia, but I don’t hate it.

Finally, this is way far easier than it looks. It’s just cause you rarely see 3 dimensional sports on TV. You see 3D beings competing in 2D events. But that’s for another post.

If you want to read all about the day-to-day action at the recent pre-worlds, my friend Davis runs the premier on-site reporting service. (Sometimes the entries don’t have the forward arrow link, so just increase the last number in the URL by one to get to the subsequent issue)

Memberships are $10 monthly, $20 quarterly, or $65 annually. The cost of two premium coffees per month. Every membership helps finance the travel to write, photo, and film from interesting places and share the experiences with you.


  1. Laurie D. on August 17, 2010 at 06:08

    Muse is great but getting a bit commercial these days. Arcade Fire, on the other hand, is amazing and heading to the West Coast soon. I saw them last week. If you get a chance to see them live before they head to Europe, do it.

    More to the point of the post, we have several folks in this area that fly ultralight type planes, just hanging there in a seat. I always thought that would be like flying, but I can see how using your body to fly in hang-gliding is much closer. However, I’m not big on heights (enclosed planes are fine), so I will just have to enjoy through your video.

    • Richard Nikoley on August 17, 2010 at 07:22

      Laurie, effect is exactly the same for almost everyone. I’m not a fan of heights either. Pretty much hard wired in most of us. But feel the pull of than hang strap on your back and the trepidation just melts away.

      Some years ago We climbed half dome in Yosemite and when at the top it was a bit uncomfortable, both the drop and if you got too far down the slope of the dome, but for the latter I realized that if I had my wing strapped on then jogging down that slope to liftoff would have been entirely fine.

      • Laurie D. on August 17, 2010 at 08:12

        We just took a trip to the Rockies in June and hiked or rode up and down quite a few mountains. As long as I had something on the downside of the path, even tufts of grass, I was fine, but we went across one barren scree slope with a foot wide path and a sheer drop down – ugh, I did not like that much and had to cross it to go back again as well. I felt safer in my VFFs at least. My 22 year old daughter, on the other hand, skipped across like a mountain goat. Obviously, she didn’t get her hardwiring for heights from me ;)

        You are right, though, the harness probably makes a big difference. I don’t mind roller coasters and the like – it’s just those wide open dropoffs and my fertile imagination.

  2. J.S. on August 17, 2010 at 03:50

    In the future, we’ll be able to do things like hang gliding without leaving our homes — in virtual reality. That also makes it possible to control variables like weather.

    Hell, it won’t even have to be hang gliding — it can be flying, just like birds.

    • Richard Nikoley on August 17, 2010 at 11:35

      “hang gliding without leaving our homes”

      No offense, but hang gliding is hang gliding and masturbating at home with video games is masturbating at home with video games. “Virtual reality” means: unreal.

      I want reality, thank you very much.

  3. Bay Area Sparky on August 17, 2010 at 09:35

    Cool video. The music was “alright.” I’d actually have liked if they’d lost the music for a minute so we could hear what the hanglider pilot hears. Great stuff though.

  4. Lute Nikoley on August 17, 2010 at 13:10

    Cool video, those landings were right on the mark.

  5. Bill Strahan on August 17, 2010 at 15:15

    I’m not a hangglider pilot, but I am a VERY active private pilot. And I HATE flying commercially. My friends roll their eyes when they tell me they’re “flying” somewhere (meaning a commercial flight) because I correct them and say “You mean you’re being flown.” :)

    And it’s flexible. My younger daughter wanted to take a trip to the Bahamas this summer. We blocked out a week, and two days before we’re ready to go she says she’d rather go to Hollywood. No problem, I went back into flight planning mode and planned a nice trip to include some time around the Grand Canyon and the meteor crater near Winslow, AZ.

    The next day, the day before our trip, she informs me she’d really rather go see her grandparents for a day or two, then “Go somewhere cool, like Angel Fire, or Taos.” She added a polite “If that’s not a problem” to the end of the request. Too cute.

    So Dad & Daughter go to visit parents/grandparents, took an incredible tour of the Nimitz museum in Fredericksburg, Texas, and then headed out West to enjoy the food, weather, and sights of Santa Fe, NM.

    Not once was I herded through security, I never had to take my shoes off unless I wanted to, and the in-flight entertainment was time well spent teaching my daughter to fly.

    It’s a different mindset. And my plane costs about what a nice Harley does, so it’s not elitism. Just incredibly freeing and beautiful.

    • Richard Nikoley on August 17, 2010 at 15:24

      Yea, a few years back I got tired of the Friday afternoon drive to our cabin. Where it can take 3.5-4 hours for what’s normally 2:30-2:45, I realized I could fly to one of two nearby airports in about 30 minutes. I already had some hours from years past, and got going in a Citabria ’cause I think every powered pilot ought to start with taildraggers. Anyway, soloed right on schedule and passed a few other of the requirements before ultimately dropping it before getting my ticket.

      I have been considering going back and finishing up, however.

      • Bill Strahan on August 17, 2010 at 15:31

        Do it!!! You won’t regret it. Once you start flying, even in a 110-120 mph airplane, you realize what it opens up for adventure. Most of my flying is in my 2 or 4 seater, but we rent a 6 seater to take the wife and 4 kids and we have incredible memories of those trips.

        And the world is different down low. The scenery is different. Plus, it’s always a blast to show someone a few extra sunrises. You may have already experienced it, but it only takes a few hundred feet of extra altitude to bring the sun back up over the horizon just moments after sunset.

        Takeoff moments before sunset, fly along low and pick up some speed while it sets, then pull up and watch the sunrise. Pitch over and watch it set. Repeat until you’re queasy! It changes how you relate to the solar system.

      • Richard Nikoley on August 30, 2010 at 16:21

        Bill, looked on your blog for contact info but didn’t see it. Can you email me. I have some GA stuff to discuss, and I just checked back in with my flight school.

  6. ginger on August 17, 2010 at 23:08

    ah you should really try paragliding – once you fork the money over for the chute (well and a minimum yearly insurance fee here in germany) it’s all free. you hike up the mountain with the chute on your back & paraglide down – amazing morning workout, perfectly quiet, peaceful, you can achieve amazing heights/distances & totally safe with modern chutes.

    • Richard Nikoley on August 17, 2010 at 23:28

      Oh pleeze Ginger

      I’ll never, ever, be a pany pilot.

      I know PGs very well. All about ’em, flown with ’em a million times (you take up way too much airspace) , no thanks :)

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