Soar Like An Eagle With Hang Glide Chicago

by Larry E. Nazimek
All Photos Courtesy of Hang Glide Chicago

Since prehistoric times, man has dreamed of soaring like eagles. While powered airplanes have enabled us to fly faster, higher, and farther, than anything in nature, if you want to soar like an eagle, there is no substitute for hang gliding.

Hang gliding has been around far longer than powered flight, even if it was not called by that name. The Wright Brothers, for example, did extensive flight-testing in gliders at Kitty Hawk before attempting powered flight, and much of their research was based on that done by Octave Chanute at Miller Beach in the Indiana Sand Dunes. Chanute’s work, in turn, was based on that done by Otto Lilienthal. None of them, however, had nylon fabric stretched over aluminum poles like today’s hang gliders.

A great place to learn about this sport is Hang Glide Chicago, located at Enjoy Field (4LL4), southwest of Kankakee, Illinois. The business, established in 1998, is currently owned and operated by Joe Yobbka, who bought the business in 2003. They operated at various locations until 2006, when Enjoy Field was opened. It was the first airport certified in Illinois since the terrorist acts of 9-11-01. The primary turf runway is 1,000 ft. long, so unless you fly an ultralight or STOL (Short Take Off & Landing) craft, you will want to drive, instead of fly, there.

“The sport has the approval of the FAA to self-govern, and it works just fine,” explained Yobbka. “If the FAA were to govern the sport as is done with other aspects of aviation, it would kill the sport.” The U. S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Assn., USHPA (, regulates the activity.

Pilot John Licata explained that there are Beginner, Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Master, and Instructor Ratings, with endorsements for various types of flying and skill levels (H-1 through H-5).

A person who has, for example, proven his competence for flying from hills, may not be tow-launched until he has been certified for it. There may be certain places where one must possess a certain skill level (such as an H-3) in order to fly there, such as a place where pilots must launch from a cliff, and the required level can change, depending on the winds. Licata summarized it as, “Don’t go beyond your skills.”

There are various ways in which a flight begins. A common method is by launching from a hill (which usually provides a flight of only 20 seconds), or launching off a cliff. This type of launching, however, is not an option for the flat terrain around Enjoy Field, so other types of tow launches are used.

The most common method of towing at Hang Glide Chicago is with a tow plane. The tow planes look a lot like ultralights, but they are light sport aircraft, certified airworthy by the FAA, complete with an N number, that have been modified for towing.

Most of the gliders I saw there were the type where the “landing gear” is the pilot’s feet. For launching, however, the glider is placed on a launch cart. As takeoff speed is reached and the glider becomes airborne, the cart is left on the ground. (Foot-launching behind a tow plane is a recognized form of launch by the USHPA, and it is commonly used in Europe and Australia, but a launch cart provides a safer and easier launch for properly trained pilots.)

I flew with instructor Peter Berney for a “tandem” flight in a Freedom 220 made by North Wing ( In this tandem arrangement, I flew in a harness directly above Berney, who was in a separate harness. This aircraft has a fixed landing gear, so no other aid is required for the takeoff roll.

Berney has been flying hang gliders for 19 years and has been an instructor for eight of those years. During that time, he has made over 1,200 flights and has logged over 800 hours.

For this flight, we were towed by Marty Stadnicki, who was flying his Kolb Mark III Classic that has been modified for towing. Attached to his plane is a polypropylene rope with a loop on each end. The glider pilot threads a smaller rope through the loop on the other end.

The two pilots brief the flight, with the planned release altitude being the biggest variable. For the tow, the glider pilot is in charge, since he can see the tow plane directly in front of him. There is no radio contact between the planes, but it is not the least bit necessary, as the operations are generally routine, and hand signals are sufficient.

The tow was initiated, and we were airborne within a few feet. Berney kept the tow plane on the horizon by varying our rate of climb through pushing and pulling the horizontal bar on the front of our glider. One end of our towing bridle was released by squeezing a lever that resembled the hand brake on a bicycle (with the other end being retained, thus releasing us from the long tow rope).

While the glider pilot is the one that makes the release, the tow pilot may also release the entire tow rope if he sees any problems in his side-view mirror, such as a glider that is weaving from side to side. A release by the tow pilot is seldom done, and when it is, he must look to see where the rope has landed so that it may be retrieved.

We were towed to 2,500 feet AGL.  Stadnicki made several turns in order to keep us near the field, since that is where we definitely wanted to land. Berney explained that the tension on the tow rope is only about 120 lbs.  I depressed the release lever on his command, and we were on our own.

It was relatively quiet in the air, so Berney and I were able to speak to each other with no problem whatsoever.  Although I was riding above him, I was still able to grab the downtubes and pull my body to one side in order to make the glider turn. It’s simply a matter of pulling, waiting for the wing to drop, and then waiting to complete the turn.  The wing remains banked until the pilot pulls his body to the opposite side to roll the wings level.

In hang gliding, the objective is to fly in rising air currents. This is a lot easier with a variometer, an instrument designed for hang gliding, because it tells the pilot if he is rising or descending. The pilot need not look at the display, however, because a climb is indicated by a beeping tone, while a solid tone tells the pilot that he is descending.

There are also other methods of getting the gliders airborne. One of the methods they have is with a reel of tow line behind a truck. Yobbka explained that the truck moves forward, pulling the glider, and the tow line is let out as the glider becomes airborne, but the line is kept taut, “…just like the way you let string out when you’re flying a kite.”

A somewhat bizarre-looking device is a motor scooter mounted on a frame.  The wheels have been removed, and the rear wheel is replaced with a reel.  The scooter faces the glider, and as the scooter “driver” applies power, one end of the rope (routed through a section of PVC pipe) is taken up on the reel, while the other end tows the glider. (This is a teaching method for students nearing their first solo flight, in order to perfect their foot-landing skills.)

Most airplanes perform better in colder air, because the air is denser.  Such is not the case, however, with gliders. Berney explained that while some glider pilots fly in the winter, you don’t have the thermals you have in the spring or summer, with spring being the best. “What we look for is a large temperature differential between the overnight and daytime hours.  This is one of several conditions contributing to a favorable daytime lapse rate, which is defined as a change of air temperature with regards to altitude.”

With skill and the right thermals, a hang glider can stay up for hours and can actually fly cross country. Krzysztof Grzyb had recently flown 192 miles in one flight! Grzyb (rated at the H-4 level) is the world’s top hang glider pilot this year for cross country flights.  He explained that pilots are scored on their six best flights, with one point for every kilometer traveled, and there are extra points for flights with triangular legs.

Berney and Yobbka explained that used hang gliders can be purchased for $1,000 to $3,000, and new ones can be purchased for $3,500 and up. One of the gliders there cost $24,000.

To appreciate hang gliding, you must take a flight, and Hang Glide Chicago is an ideal place to try it out. Perhaps you’ll be hooked by it and become a glider pilot.

For more information on Hang Glide Chicago:

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