Adventure 101: Hang gliding the Outer Banks

There’s a reason that the Wright brothers picked the Outer Banks to take their first flight: reliable breezes, wide open, non-vegetated spaces, and 100-foot dunes—the tallest on the Atlantic coast—where even novices can fly safely before alighting in soft sand. 

Your first flight in a hang glider “might just change your life,” says Andy Torrington, who has been teaching the sport near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, since 1991.

“It feels as if people are trying to lift you off the ground by your belt, and within seconds they have succeeded. Then you’re weightless, soaring as you do in flying dreams.”

Getting Started

First-timers need only enough fitness to walk up the dunes five times and an ability to follow instructions, says Torrington, whose employer, Kitty Hawk Kites, has been giving lessons in the 420-acre Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks for 40 years.

“Just bring an open mind,” Torrington says. “You don’t even need shoes: It’s easier to run barefoot in the sand.”

Taking Flight

Class starts with 45 minutes of ground instruction, after which groups of up to five students ascend the sandy hill and buckle into a harness integrated into the glider; the frame is aluminum, the wings Dacron, and the connective bolts and wires aircraft-grade.

“Then you start running,” Torrington says. Within a few steps you’re airborne, following the contour of the dune as an instructor runs alongside shouting instructions, chiefly which way to push the steering bar to maximize flight time. At this point, “be as relaxed as possible,” says Torrington.

First-day fliers typically get five to 15 off-the-ground runs and soar 125 feet forward, “farther than the Wright brothers did on their first flight.”

Fear Factor

Torrington stresses that hang gliding is safer than its death-wish reputation suggests: “We teach more than 8,000 students a year, from ages 4 to 92, and the most common injury is a tweaked hamstring, from people running too fast at takeoff.”

When to Go

Summer is the busy season, but better flying conditions—a steady breeze from the east—prevail in spring and fall. The nearest major airport is in Norfolk, Virginia, 80 miles north.

The Outer Banks offers a chill vibe and plenty of outdoor fun, from calm-water kayaking to surfing, fishing, golfing, and some of the East Coast’s nicest big-wave beaches.

Torrington recommends the nameless sound-side shore along the western border of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, and the miles of often deserted beach on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles south.

More Flying Spots

This piece, written by John Briley, first appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.
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