Accessible Hang Gliding in Woolacombe by Fenella Johnson

I have always thought of myself as a bit of a daredevil when it comes to adrenalin sports. That feeling of freedom and euphoria is unparalleled!

Having already completed a skydive, been water-skiing, and enjoyed various other hair-raising sports, I was ready for my next challenge. The idea to go Hang Gliding came about by chance when a friend mentioned that they used to fly regularly with a club in Woolacombe, just down the road from where I live. This sparked an interest that led me to look up the sport online. I immediately came across the website for Fly Like a Bird, who provide tandem Hang Gliding and Paragliding experiences in North Devon. I contacted the Chief Flying Instructor, Sam Jeyes, to see whether the sport could be accessible to someone with a physical disability, as I knew that running off the edge of a cliff with only one functioning leg would be tricky! Sam was brilliant, and after a Zoom call to discuss my abilities and impairments, a plan was put in place to get me flying. I also completed a short application form that was sent off to Flyability to help cover some of the financial costs of the flight. The quick and simple process made it even easier to get in the air!

Fast-forward a couple of months and my flight date was approaching. The weather was brightening up after a bleak winter and the days getting longer. I was eagerly anticipating this next adventure! However, the day before my booked flight, the weather forecast was not looking good, and the Hang Gliding was postponed.

However, I did not have to wait long before the weather conditions were looking better… 3 days after my original booking, I was making my way to the meeting point! As I drove on to the field from which we would be taking off, I was astounded by the view out over the coastline. The sparkling blue sea reflected an even bluer sky, with barely a cloud in sight. It was perfect!

I was immediately made to feel welcome by Sam and the other members of the Club, who all had such a friendly and laid-back manner that my nerves dissipated instantly. After completing the necessary safety checks, I wriggled into the flight suit, harness, helmet, and gloves, and started to slowly make my way down to the glider, which was spread out majestically on the grass. We had a trial run of getting me suspended under the Glider, checking that my paralysed right arm and leg were in good positions and weren’t likely to get caught in any of the mechanisms. It was also a good time to check how communication between myself and the instructor would work once we were in the air, as I rely on lipreading due to profound hearing loss.

Checks complete, we made our way to the take-off area. A team of other Hang Gliders assembled around the wings and got ready to launch us over the edge, enabling us to do a prone start and avoiding the need for any running! Suddenly, we were taking off and I had that familiar rush of adrenalin as we soared into the sky. As we flew along the coastline, gaining altitude, I was astounded at how peaceful and free it felt, leaving me in an almost dream-like state. We spotted a Buzzard and flew with it for a while, watching it track down and catch its next meal. I couldn’t believe my luck!

We soared along the coast for almost half an hour, marvelling at the incredible views that we were getting to view from such a unique perspective. I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat the entire time we were in the air… and for quite a long time after too! Eventually we came in to land on a very neatly mown strip of grass and gradually came to a stop. What an incredible experience!

Huge thanks to Sam for such an amazing flight and for his ingenuity in working out how we could get me in the air, and to Flyability for the grant to make this possible.