Linda Salamone can tell you precisely where she was when her life changed — soaring 8,000 feet above Prescott Valley, Arizona, strapped to a hang glider.
“Coolest thing I’d ever done,” Salamone says.
That flight, almost 24 years ago, launched her in a new direction, one that allowed her to travel the world, to make friends in other countries, to scratch her competitive itch, and ultimately to help others both in need and searching for new adventures.
“Hang gliding made my life amazing,” she says, “and I want to give back, back into the sport.”
Salamone (rhymes with alimony) works at Kitty Hawk Kites’ hang-gliding site behind the Cotton Gin in Jarvisburg. She is in her sixth summer here, though she takes a three-week break in July to travel to Italy for the World Hang Gliding Championships. She is a U.S. team leader and does not compete, as she says her competitive days are mostly behind her.
“I’m kind of in the easy-chair, retirement phase of my flying career,” she jokes. “I want low stress. My goal is low stress, but to still be in the air.”
Salamone, a 55-year-old native of Rochester, New York, is divorced, with three grown children. She was a biomedical researcher at the University of Rochester for nearly 20 years, but when funding dried up for her position in 2013, it enabled a nomadic streak that carries her to places far and wide. Home at the moment is San Bernardino, California, a quality-flying site, but in recent years she has lived in New York, Florida, and Arizona, as well as summers on the Outer Banks and side trips both foreign and domestic.
“She’s exceptional at what she does,” says Jonny Thompson, flight park manager at the Cotton Gin site and Salamone’s boss. “I think it’s innate in her to strive to be the best all the time.”
Thompson has known Salamone for almost 20 years and calls her big-hearted and special.
“She’s just one of those people,” he says, “where everything she does, it’s only a short time before she’s doing it at a high level.”
It was a vacation trip to Arizona to visit her sister, Laura, in October 1995 that propelled her. Her sister suggested that she try a tandem hang-gliding flight — strapped in, piggybacking with an experienced pilot — at an acquaintance’s facility. Reluctantly, she agreed. She was hooked immediately.
“I had an epiphany while I was in the air and I realized that I’d always dreamt of flying,” she says. “It was a thing that checked all the boxes. I was flying; I was flying prone like Superman or Peter Pan. It kind of struck me while I was up really high: I dreamt about this. I needed to learn how to do this, and I did.”
Salamone went home to Rochester and learned to pilot hang gliders. She began competing in 2001, in what’s called Race to Goal contests, which are multi-day events where organizers devise triangular courses — a little like sailing races, only airborne — and glider pilots use GPS devices to reach daily destinations. Courses range from 25 miles up to 250 or 300 miles at sites such as Texas or Australia. Pilots can be aloft for hours under favorable conditions. Pilots typically reach 5,000- to 6,000 feet elevation in east coast contests, she says, and 12,000- to 14,000 feet at west coast events.
The 5-foot-4 Salamone says that she was rarely the fastest pilot, but often the most determined. “I was stupid competitive,” she says. She won several national championships and was ranked as high as 12th in the nation overall and fifth in the world among women in the mid-2000s. She competed in the world championships, held biennially, five times from 2006-2014.
Injuries and age eventually took a toll on her competitive fire. She shattered her upper right arm on a crash in Georgia in 2009. In 2011, she chipped three vertebrae in a crash during a small competition in Italy. Two years later, she tore her right rotator cuff in a crash in Arizona, which required surgery and shelved her for almost six months.
“I got to thinking that I’m a little old to be out here breaking bones,” she says. “You don’t heal as quickly.”
Salamone hasn’t flown a hang glider in almost two years, switching to paragliders, a lightweight, more portable apparatus that uses a parachute. Pilots are seated in paragliders, rather than strapped to a rigid structure and prone. She still considers herself a novice on a paraglider.
“It’s a different way of being in the air,” she says. “I love being in the air, I don’t care what it is. It’s just kind of tripping a different switch.”
Severance pay from her lab job and sale of a house provided Salamone with a financial cushion, but she sought work with flexible hours and conditions. A friend suggested that she apply with FEMA as a housing inspector for independent contractors in the wake of natural disasters. She took courses online, underwent a background check and became certified.
She was called to the Houston area for six weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, then went to Florida for several weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Last fall she was in Wilmington, N.C., for a couple of weeks after Florence, then went to the Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael devastated the coast. She says that she was overwhelmed initially, but quickly improved. Her ex-husband was a contractor, so she knew construction, and she followed directives and formulas devised by the Feds when meeting with victims. Sixteen-hour days were the norm.
“I love the work,” she says. “People are happy to see you. ‘Oh, there’s the FEMA lady!’ It’s super engaging. It’s exhausting. It’s maddening at times. You’re under the gun. You know somebody’s checking over your work. It’s super, super rewarding. I get really depressed when I’m done and get home. I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.”
Salamone derives similar pleasure from her gig at the hang-gliding site. Families and people on vacation, enjoying themselves, maybe trying something new. She feeds off of the energy and happiness of others. She is living the life she wants.
“Life,” she says, “is not a test run.”