COLUMN: Tragedy taps the memory bank

The horrific hang gliding accident near Harrison Mills this weekend brought back a lot of memories.

The horrific hang gliding accident near Harrison Mills this weekend brought back a lot of memories.

Back in 1974 an acquaintance of mine began rhapsodizing about the thrill of hang gliding, the freedom to soar like a bird. He was convincing, and that winter he and I set off for Calgary to take lessons. There the manufacturer of what was then the leading “kite” not only offered basic lessons, but levels that allowed one to assume the title “instructor.”

We took the advanced training, though in hindsight it was little more than a few extra “flights” down the slopes of a downtown park followed by a few more quick trips off the little hill outside his home in Cochrane.

While the training was rudimentary, the hang gliders at that time were even more so.

Fashioned of thin aluminum tubing supporting a triangle of nylon fabric, they were fragile units.

And unlike the harnesses now used to connect the rider (we preferred “pilot”) to the kite, all we had was a narrow wooden seat suspended like a child’s swing from the framework by 3/8ths inch nylon rope. Fortunately, there was also a little seat belt that kept your backside attached to the board.

In their day they were state of the art. In reality they were death traps.

But we flew them anyway, and in the winter/spring of 1975 I was one of the first hang gliding instructors on the Lower Mainland.

We used the slopes above where Abbotsford’s Sandy Hill Elementary now sits, and the south-facing hills just west of Mission, for training.

Those who “survived” the bumps and broken wrists of crash landings were taken for high-elevation flights off Vedder Mountain and eventually off the large mountain to the east of Osoyoos.

Carried over from my earlier days skydiving was the mandatory instruction that before every take-off, you had someone else double check your kite, and your attachment to it.

Unlike the tragic event this weekend, no one ever fell from their wing.

Unfortunately, though, crashes and fatal accidents did happen. Once in Grand Forks, a kite collapsed in mid-air. On another occasion off Mount Hope, a friend launched into the downdraft created by the mountain’s shadow, and died in Silver Creek.

That, and a few crashes of my own, including flying into a wind shear over an irrigated alfalfa field in Osoyoos that caused the ground to come up very quickly, caused me to reassess my thrill seeking.

After a couple of years, my kites were hung up, so to speak. There still rests within my barn a few wing spars from my old hang gliders, and a Canadian flag has flown proudly in front of my house for decades, suspended from an aluminum tube that once carried me aloft.

But despite the near misses those many years ago, and even hearing about the young woman who plunged to her death, every time I watch a duck swoop into the pond out back, or seek a hawk gliding gracefully over the fields, I get the urge to “fly” again. At least today, if you are careful, and there’s no equipment failure, the sport is relatively more safe, and the adrenalin rush is incomparable.

Then I remember how important it is to see the sunset each day, and relegate back to memory those sometimes chilling, but always exciting, experiences of flight.