Robert Doornick hang gliding (drawing by Sandra Filippucci)—1986


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.

I think hang gliding is a communion with nature. You are so close to the elements and have such admiration for nature. When you’re up there, you are also in communion with yourself and your god, and you have wonderful conversations.

Robert Doornick flying with the birds—1970's

With every high-intensity sport, there is a fraternity among those who practice the sport, because you can never share with others the enormous excitement of what you’re experiencing. But you can look another pilot in the eye after you’ve landed and say, “Shit, that was a great flight,” and you’ve said it all.

And when you’re watching live, a part of your soul is jumping off the cliff with the pilot, and for that brief moment, you have experienced that takeoff, that moment of flight, when a human being becomes a bird…

I’d always dreamed of flying and heard about Francis Rogallo, a NASA engineer who was commissioned to design a new re-entry parachute for a space capsule that would have directional capability to a specific rendezvous point. He created the delta wing, which was like a triangle.

This was in the late ‘60’s, and kids in California made copies of this design out of sheets of plastic and bamboo frames and started jumping off of sand dunes and acting like birds.

This was the birth of the hang gliding sport—a totally out-of-control activity practiced by daredevils in California. There were no manufacturers…you had to build your own delta wing. So the sport got the reputation of being practiced by pot-smoking Californians, and a lot of people got seriously hurt or killed.

I heard the news and was impressed with the whole concept and wanted to try it as a serious person who wanted to fly like a bird. I was in my 20’s and living in Bronx, NY, working for Air France in PR, taking care of VIP’s.

I then learned that a man named Bobby Riggs had designed his own hang glider with aircraft aluminum, and in a very unique wing shape that re-created a sea gull wing. It dawned on me that Bobby was a man making as professional an aircraft as possible, because the sea gull wing had very forgiving qualities.

I phoned Bobby in California and persuaded him to make the parts and sell them to me. I bought them, he sent them, and I assembled them. Now all I have to do is jump off the hill! My wife Elle trusted me: “Robert will figure it out,” she said.

Robert & Elle Doornick

At first I thought that I could just jump off the hill and that because it was a legitimate aircraft, it would fly me like a car or a plane. I found out that I was the stupidest, most innocent man in the world.

I would drive to Sandy Hook in Connecticut, off of Route 84, east of Danbury, where there are two hills at right angles to each other and level ground. It is plain, deserted, very quiet. I figured it was my private pilot training area, and Elle accompanied me.

I would have to assemble the glider each time. The wings would fold into a tube three times the length of a ski bag that went on top of the car. A couple of bungies, and you’re in business. The wings had a 30-foot span when open, and the frame and cables all went on top inside the canvas bag. The harness and a helmet went inside the car.

I would open it up, attach myself to it and RUN! I would immediately crash and fall…What’s wrong with this hang glider? I was running down the hill with hiking boots into bushes and rocks. Hands all bloody. Thank god I had a helmet.

I would spend several hours doing this, and many cars would stop and watch and say, “Hey, honey, let’s see if this guy is going to kill himself.” I got a reputation as the crazy guy who was attempting to kill himself every Saturday and Sunday morning. A nutcase who’d run down this 300-foot high hill and crash. Hell of a reputation. Occasionally I’d get two or three feet high and then crash even harder.

I was smart enough, though, to not jump off a cliff, which people in California were doing and killing themselves. Eventually I did do cliffs of course, once I knew what I was doing. I went to the library and read books on aerodynamics and micrometeorology, which is weather patterns close to the ground.

Immediately I had a lot of “AH-HA!” moments.

I learned how temperatures and weather affect the movement of air close to the ground. Invisible activities of air to anticipate and calculate. So you could predict how the air would move, because there were trees or rocks or an open field with rising heat along the slope of the hill. I also learned that wind behaves very much as water does as it encounters rocks and uneven terrain. Once these various and easy to understand principles of nature were absorbed into your mind, it became possible to stand atop a hill or mountain and visualize in your mind the direction, speed and behavior of the wind as it made its way across space, encountering—and reacting to—the topography of the land, temperatures, etc.

Omigod! I went the next weekend, and in front of all those cars I had the most beautiful flight. I was no longer stalling and crashing by trying to get lift from underneath. All the cars were honking, and then lots of drivers came out to learn how they could fly too. Later I paid Lee Keeler to come to Sandy Hook and teach me how to hang glide properly and safely. He contributed much to Elle’s and my technique, and all of this new knowledge gave me a lasting respect for the sport and its unfathomable beauty.

(Part 4 of this four-part article describes more of the technical aspects of how a hang glider flies and how pilots read the terrain and the air currents.)

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