Did you know that you live near a hang gliding mecca? No? Neither did we. But, as it turns out, we do. Tucked up against the Sam’s Point Preserve on the Shawangunk Ridge, the town of Ellenville is known the world over for its ideal hang gliding conditions. This, explains Paul Voight from Fly High Hang Gliding, is because the ridge “is the first tall mountain in a long way. So the wind comes across flat terrain for many miles and then hits the mountain and has to go up. The valley is fairly low, so it heats up quite a bit and these hot bubbles of air go blasting up and keep rising and rising. They’re compounding meteorological factors.”
Prime hang gliding real estate, in other words. The nearest spots on the East Coast that are comparably favorable are as far away as New Hampshire, Virginia, and Tennessee, says Voight, which is why people have been hang gliding in Ellenville since 1973.
The sport’s physics can be dizzying and daunting — you; a glorified and unmotorized kite capable of zipping over 100 miles per hour; the wind; and anywhere from 4,000 and 6,000 feet of air between your feet and the ground lasting from a few minutes to 11 and a half hours (a flight of this length was recently recorded out of Ellenville). But Greg Black of Mountain Wings insists hang gliding is perfectly safe. “For some reason the general public thinks we jump off cliffs and that if the winds stop we fall out of the sky,” he says. “We can’t fall, that never happens. The gliders can’t break or spin or stall. The U.S. Safety Council says hang gliding is one of the safest activities you can be involved in. It’s inherently a safe sport, it’s very regulated.” The only thing that can go wrong, really, is an extremely rare mid-air collision, in which case the pilot still has a parachute to fall back on.
That isn’t to say becoming a hang glider is straightforward. Training to get the proper certification to fly on your own takes at least three months, according to Black. But those who go through the process swear by the pastime’s magnificence. “Gliding is a sport of your senses,” says Black. “It allows you to tap into parts of your brain that aren’t used for anything, that are meant for flying. It produces a very addictive chemical in your brain.”