These soar points are ones to savor

Email|Print| Text size + By Rob Azevedo
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2004

CHARLESTOWN, N.H. -- When the birds are walking, you know it's a bad day for flying. At least that's how Jeff Nicolay, co-owner of Morningside Flight Park, explained the wind conditions. ''You probably should have called ahead," said the gangly Nicolay, 51, dressed in shorts and a floral shirt.

On a recent morning, as the sun washed over the hamlets along Route 11, heating Sullivan County to a heady 86 degrees, the air was headed nowhere. Wind speed of a paltry 20 miles per hour dashed our plans of hang gliding. Visions of being towed high above the strolling crows dissolved.

''The only thing we'd be doing today is some ground skimming," said Nicolay, who has gone hang gliding hundreds of times, including in Puerto Rico and Mexico, as well as New England and California.

Morningside Flight Park in Charlestown, population 4,749, is a hang gliding and paragliding flight center. The park started to take shape in 1975 when Nicolay and his partner, Phil Haynes, 75, a farmer by trade and owner of the land, decided to convert the 150 acres into a business other than dairy farming.

Bordering the Connecticut River and a few short miles from Springfield, Vt., Morningside has been recognized by many thermal draft enthusiasts as one of the premier flying sites in the United States.

''I've flown from here to Plum Island [in Newburyport, Mass.] before," said Jeff Bernard, 40, of Danville, as he stood in the hangar holding his young daughter. Bernard has been piloting hang gliders since 1983.

Hang gliding's popularity dates to the late 1960s when its progressive development became more technologically advanced. The instrumentation used today, and the principles behind the wings, parachute, and harness, are actual offspring of 1960s technology at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Today, hang gliding is considered one of the fastest-growing action sports in the country. All styles of ultralight flight have become weekend activities for people ages 10 to 70. For those taking lessons, Morningside provides all the amenities: harnesses, gliders, instructional videos, helmets, and instructors approved by the US Hang Gliding Association.

Beginners can buy a four-hour lesson for $125, or a six-lesson package for $645. Those coming just to glide, not to take lessons, must have their own equipment. A glider costs about $3,000 to buy; harness and helmet are another $1,500. It costs $10 to get in the gate at Morningside. Experienced paragliders with their own equipment then purchase a $25 ticket with 10 punch holes. Each hole earns them a ride up the hill to any of the various markers from which they'll take off. White flags are placed at elevation spots 150, 250, and 450 feet up. It is here where paragliders attempt to sail off into the air.

Once at the proper elevation marker, the glider's equipment is checked while the wind speed is verified by one of Nicolay's five instructors. Paragliders lay the canopy out behind themselves, straighten their lines, then walk, jog, and finally run downhill until the canopy fills with air and lifts them into the sky.

''It's very unusual for a person to make more than two or three takeoffs from each marker in one day," said Nicolay. ''We have close to a thousand visitors annually," he said, from beginners to advanced gliders.

Paragliding differs from hang gliding in that paragliders launch from their feet, after running down a hill and letting the individual cells of the canopy create the air foil shape of the parachute. Then, once they've found the perfect thermal development, created by the sun heating the ground, gravity takes over, acting as the engine that lifts them into the air.

Hang gliders, who are harnessed into a frame attached to giant wings, are towed into the air by a small plane. At about 2,000 feet altitude, the tow rope is released and the hang glider glides on alone. Average speed for a paraglider is about 15 miles per hour, compared with 25 miles per hour for hang gliding.

Nicolay fired up the four-wheeler and started climbing the deep green hill that looks built for extreme sledding. The ATV worked hard as we stopped at the first marker.

The view from the summit of the 50-foot training hill is delicious. A broken-down softball field is the backyard to a small farmhouse. The Connecticut River stretches behind a long line of trees, leading your eyes into Vermont.

You can see the 3,800-yard grass runway beyond the circular landing mat. That's for the small planes that tow the hang gliders.

Far below, the atmosphere around the sun-worn blue hangar is nice and easy.

Rolf Fuessler, a regular at Morningside, wasn't glowing, though, when he arrived at the park. Having driven two hours north from Boston's South End, Fuessler learned he should have checked the wind chart on Morningside's website before making the run.

''Not a chance today," Nicolay told him as they stood in the hangar with their sandals cushy on old carpet.

Fuessler, 58, recalled sitting in a cafe in France one day when he looked up and saw ''these things" in the air. Over the course of two days, he watched people paragliding and said, ''I have to do that."

''I just thought it was so beautiful," said Fuessler, who is a public relations specialist. ''It was a romantic attraction."

Since that day in France, Fuessler has reached 12,000 feet in altitude, and has paraglided in Chile and California. He also has found himself stuck in a sumac tree in Charlestown, and fallen into a canal in Utah.

As we stop at the hill's 450-foot summit, Nicolay repeats his feeling that the world above our heads is a fascinating thing to be part of. All the meteorological knowledge in the world, he says, cannot compare to sailing in an even air pocket.

Rob Azevedo is a freelance writer in Manchester, N.H.

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