Posts Tagged Elle Doornick

How I Learned To Fly A Hang Glider By Robert Doornick (Part 1)

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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Why I Introduced Hang Gliding To The East Coast (Part 2)

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.

Robert and Elle start the NY State Hang Gliding Assn

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.

this is all there is to it! It's easy...

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.

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