In the early 70’s, Robert Doornick began hang gliding and introduced the sport to the East Coast. He also helped make it safer and spread the word about it to tens of thousands of people. Here is his story of those exciting days in four parts.
Due to the total absence of government (FAA) control over this sport, a number of people just took a lesson from a dude on a hill and didn’t study micrometeorology or aerodynamics. They were like blind pilots, and many would crash or suffer fatal accidents. They didn’t understand that there is lots of air lift—like an elevator going up—near a cliff. There is turbulence near a smaller hill. Water is a great teacher of aerodynamics.
Hang gliding is the most absolutely beautiful thing a human can experience, so I didn’t want the government to control it. Back then anyone could jump off the roof of their house or the top of a cliff or a mountain. Some of the earlier hang gliding enthusiasts on the west coast had given hang gliding a bad rap. It was literally a joke: hang gliding was for pot-smoking hippies. That was the media, and subsequently the public, impression of the sport. It was far from the truth however, as countless wonderful people throughout the west coast and elsewhere across the US were getting into the sport, because humankind has always wanted to emulate birds. What many of these individuals lacked was information and education.
I wanted to fake government control to help create some sort of accepted structure. So I created a non-profit organization. The New York State Hang Gliding Association. I put on my three-piece suit and carried a briefcase and walked into state government, and parks department, agencies knowing the minute I mentioned hang gliding, they would tell me to get out. But I would say, “We are an association dedicated to the evolution of the sport of hang gliding in a safe and organized manner. Here is a set of our by-laws and an instruction manual I wrote and an insurance policy that covers landowners. We plan to use state parks to attract the public and tourism.”
Of course the NY State Hang Gliding Assn was an organization of just two people—me and Elle, my wife. (Later I learned that there may have been just three or four people hang gliding on the east coast, and we all got to know each other.)
Anyway I got the right to use Pound Ridge reservation near Katonah on Route 684. And Bear Mountain Ski Area, Catamount Mountain Ski Area, Hunter Mountain Ski Area, and Holiday Mountain near Route 17 in the lower Catskills.
I would ask them, “What do you do to attract people in the summer to make money?” Everywhere I went we drew thousands of people, media interest, Geraldo Rivera— Elle and I taught him how to fly, and he made an ABC special. We were big news, generated lots of publicity. It was brand new. We were constantly interviewed by talk shows and news magazines. Eventually there were dozens of us flying.
We were the only organized school. Our story was that we’re a non-profit organization, and we’re going to teach. You can fly for free at our approved—and supervised—sites, but you must be certified. A safe place to fly. A training program. And a small fee for the course to support the NYState Hang Gliding Association. We gave the first course in Manhattan, downstairs from a bar that sold drinks. There was a movie projector, props, and a hang gliding harness. The film was about hang gliding. The lessons taught aerodynamics and micrometeorology.
And we immediately established ourselves as one of the safest areas in the world…statistically. Only one death in over 10 years—someone flew into high tension wires.
Many students would give up. But we weeded out the people who wouldn’t learn about the physics—60% of them. So only 40% made it to the slopes, and the sport got a good reputation. Before they got to fly, they went into a simulator I had someone build for me: no sail, no forward motion, so a student could learn control bar motion and develop reflex response time.
After all this pre-flight learning, students got to practice take off and landing with a real hang glider on a short and shallow hill. They could not fly too high or too far, and this helped them to familiarize themselves with the most important technical aspect of flying a hang glider (take-off and landing). They were also taught the importance of pre-flight aircraft check, the buddy system, and the importance of resisting the temptation to take off unless conditions were ideal.
Students received a certification which entitled them to return and fly for free at these supervised locations, being given opportunities to fly from higher and longer slopes as they demonstrated their abilities. As they graduated to a top level, they were accompanied at another nearby mountain top where we leaped off steep inclines or cliffs, flying to our heart’s content, soaring for hours if desired, then landing in the valley below.
I did this because I wanted the sport to succeed before it became outlawed for being too dangerous. So people had the opportunity to practice the sport safely and enjoy it for years to come.
Over 2-3 years, the school put a lot students through—maybe 2000. We even used a church in Westchester County for classes. It grew rapidly in New York, and then other states. An association was formed in California, and later it became the national organization.
Then I taught other people to teach. The hang gliding sites became places that were monitored by pilots who were competent and qualified, and who made sure new enthusiasts had proper credentials and correct equipment. The pilots were paid by the students to teach them. In turn, they kept a watchful eye on visiting pilots, making sure their equipment was in good flying conditions and that they were qualified.