The sky over Big Spring, Texas, provides near-perfect conditions for racing hang gliders. But the area definitely lacks one feature generally associated with hang gliding -- mountains.
No matter. From Aug. 8 to 15, Big Spring hosted one of the more eclectic events in aviation, the Big Spring U.S. Nationals, among the most prominent hang gliding competitions in North America. The competition was the second half of the nationals; the first week of the event took place a month earlier in July in Idaho.
Flying the colorful 80-pound hang gliders in the flatlands is possible thanks to a new generation of lightweight airplanes. These Dragonflies can tug hang gliders aloft with a rope and then release them a few thousand feet above the ground. From this altitude, the pilots dial into the abundant thermal lift and start their 100-mile runs.
The event drew competitors from overseas and across the U.S. Among them were the top seven American pilots, many of them fresh off a turn at the world championships this spring in France.
Pilots used Big Spring's retired Air Force hangar to prep their wings away from wind and sun.
"That's an unusual amenity. The pilots definitely appreciate it," said David Glover, the meet organizer. Pilots do, however, place their harnesses above ground overnight. This discourages the occasional scorpion from nestling in.
Like the paragliding world championships this spring in Mexico, a hang glider competition is akin to a sailing regatta. Thanks to their high speed and deep range, many of the seven tasks flown were over 100 miles.
While the racing is intense, the pilots do have moments to exhale and survey the country.
"The most amazing dreams we have are when we are just floating above the landscape totally unencumbered with nothing around us," said Jeff O'Brien, a competitor and test pilot. "Hang gliding is truly the flying we do in our dreams."
Jeff Shapiro, another member of the U.S. National Team, added, "For some of us, the ground just feels confining."
After seven race days, veteran California surfer Glen Volk was crowned the Big Spring U.S. Nationals champion for 2009.
For more information on hang gliding and paragliding, please visit www.ushpa.aero.