The feeling of flying — being eye-level with the gulls, falcons and the myriad migrating birds that soar through the skies above the Outer Banks — is at the core of what keeps Jonny Thompson taking people soaring into the skies above the Outer Banks.
Thompson, flight park manager for Kitty Hawk Kites, works April to September administering tandem, aerotow, platform, and static launches for the oldest hang gliding school on the East Coast, which is also the largest instructional school of its kind in the world.
“That is the whole thing about hang gliding. When I fly an airplane, it is marvelous machine,” says Thompson, a veteran aviator who has been a hang glider pilot since 1975, and an instructor since 1977. “But when I'm flying in a hang glider, it’s me, flying. The wing is an extension to my body. I feel changes in conditions at the wingtips when touching the control bar.”
It’s a feeling he has helped legions of others experience over 45 years and more than 9,000 flights. Thompson is a master-rated pilot, hang gliding instructor, tandem instructor, and FAA Flight Instructor and Examiner — and he is a member of the US National Sport Class Hang Gliding Team that made the world competitions in 2014.
What gives him the most pleasure is sharing the experience with others.
“’Amazing,’ ‘Oh, wow,’ and ‘I can’t believe it’ … Those are the words first-time flyers use,” Thompson says. “There really is no way to describe the experience — it is so different for everyone one who tries it. It feels like it is you who is doing the flying. They’ll say, ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever done,’ and ‘I can’t wait to do it again!’”
He tells of the time he was giving tandem instruction to several generations from a large family. First, he took the children up. They were having so much fun, the parents decided to try it. After eight or nine flights with the children and their parents, the family matriarch, who was in her late-80s, asked quietly, “Am I too old?”
“We said, ‘No, come on!” Thompson remembers.
They strapped her in and took her up. Thompson, who likes to engage his students as a way to gauge their frame of mind, noted this passenger was very quiet during the whole flight. She didn’t talk, and she didn’t want Thompson to talk, either. She was in the moment.
“When we landed, I swear it seemed like her feet didn’t touch the ground, until she got to her husband and threw her arms around him to share the moment,” Thompson says. “I still can hardly talk about it without choking up. We changed her life — in her 80s — with something as simple as flying her in a hang glider. That’s not a bad way to spend a lifetime.”
Not that jumping on a hang glider is an impetuous decision. Many first-time flyers approach powerless light with no small amount of trepidation. After all, you are launched several thousand feet in the air held aloft by nothing other than fabric, struts, and wires, controlled by the gentle breezes.
Thompson is first to acknowledge that “aviation has risks.”
“We have ways of dealing with those risks, and it is up to you to make good decisions,” he says. “I’ve been flying since 1975, and I’ve never been seriously hurt in a hang glider. True, it’s not as safe as sitting on a couch watching a movie. But you live longer if you get out and do stuff.”
It used to be when you wanted to learn, you strapped on a wing and ran to get off the ground. The motto was “never fly higher than you were willing to fall.”
At Kitty Hawk Kites, Thompson uses a light sport open cockpit to tow solo and tandem hang gliders to altitudes from 2,000 to 12,000 feet. It’s actually safer, because it can allow for mistakes and corrections.
Many confess a fear of heights holds them back. He has learned that most are not afraid of heights — they are afraid of losing control. When put in harness, flyers are held very securely and very comfortably. And, of course, no flyer gets that far without a thorough safety demonstration.
“Most of those who say they are afraid of heights, as soon as leave ground say, oh, this isn’t what I expected. We give up to 2,000 flights a year, and the number of people who are unable to deal with the sensation is less than I can count on one hand. And almost to a person they are glad they did it.”
Many are drawn to the area of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills because it is the place where humankind first slipped the surly bonds of earth. Riders enjoy a special thrill using those same winds the Wright brothers used to develop their unpowered aircraft, which were not that different in concept from modern hang gliders.
“That connection certainly isn’t lost here,” Thompson says. “I think that is one of the reasons we have been so successful in this business.”
They are also successful because they encourage every flier to experience that “feeling of flight” from the first run.
“We try and never do a tandem flight where the passenger is strictly passive. We use tandem flight as training; we like to have every student fly the glider at some point during the flight. We become the safety pilot to put them back on the path. It makes it a lot easier and safer to learn.”
So why does Jonny Thompson keep going up?
“For me it’s the control. I’m riding on invisible air currents, manipulating an apparatus that feels like an extension to my body. I’m soaring with raptors and like-minded people. As much as I love flying and pulling hang gliders, it is the people and friendships I make, that bonding with like minded people has made it impossible for me to quit flying. Not that I’ve wanted to. It truly is a life-changing event.”
Why should anyone else — everyone else — do it?
“At the end of your life, you’re not going to regret what you did as much as you are going to regret what you didn’t do. Why not try it? We’ve dreamed about flying since we lived in caves, and we now live in an age where you can experience that kind of flying safely.”
Have no doubt Jonny Thompson plans to keep flying for the rest of his time on earth.
“I get to meet people at their best. They are open, excited, happy, and they are receptive to what they are about to do. I’m the one who is blessed. I get to do what I love every day.”