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Gerry Uchytil has been hang gliding for 40 years. He uses a propeller assist when launching from the ground. After liftoff, below, in a field in Rogers, Wis.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

How I got this body: Taking to the skies

  • Article by: SHEILA MULROONEY ELDRED
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • July 23, 2012 - 5:27 AM

When Gerry Uchytil and a friend heard about a hang-gliding club starting up in southern California in the early '70s, they sent for a kit and built a glider. Uchytil has been flying ever since, through the sport's heyday in the '70s and '80s, when there were about 200 hang gliders in the Twin Cities, and Uchytil was part of the Skyline Skydogs Club near Duluth. Now, Uchytil estimates there are five or six hang gliders left in the Twin Cities. As a teacher, he does most of his flying in the summer, but conditions are best in spring, when the warm daytime temps following cooler nights cause the air to rise.

DIY FLYING MACHINE "We went out [with the glider we made], even though we had never seen one before. We had never heard of anyone who knew how to do it. We went out and lifted it up and started to run. It didn't fly. We went high on the hill, and it still didn't fly. So we went even higher and started running. I ran down the hill and the keel rotated down into the ground and broke. My friend decided he didn't want to do it anymore, but I took the debris home and fixed it and went out by myself to a sledding hill and just kind of figured it out."

90 SECONDS OF FAME "We did a lot of stupid stuff back then, but we're still here to talk about it. Back in the '70s, quite a few people died. There was no regulation. In 1974, I was in the national Soaring and Hang Gliding Festival in Michigan. Me and my buddy drove over there; there were 200 pilots from all over the world. I won the duration contest -- I still have the trophy. I flew 1 minute and 30 seconds. Now, I've flown over 100 miles about 25 times. In the first 10 years, there were quantum leaps in technology."

LIFTOFF BOOST "We used to fly the ridges along the Mississippi. Most of the sites are not accessible anymore -- owners put up housing developments, etc. On many days now I use what is called a Mosquito motor harness. I run off level ground and power up till I find a thermal (a heated parcel of air rising) and then shut off the motor and soar."

FLIGHT SIMULATION "I try to be in shape as much as I can. I'm a phys-ed teacher and a track coach and I was a head football coach for 25 years, so I like being fit anyway. There are days when the lift is really strong and it's a really hard workout. While suspended in your hang-gliding harness, you use your body weight to make control movements. ... You hold onto a triangular bar called a control bar. So if I pull my weight forward, I go faster; if I push back, I slow down. If I roll my leg to the right, I turn right. It's kind of subtle. I usually go out for a 4-mile run/walk a couple of times a week, and I bike 20 miles a couple of times. I played football and pole vaulted, and I've had shoulder surgery. Most of the people around the country who do it are pretty fitness-oriented."

LIKE A BIRD "The highest I've been is 18,000 feet. You need to find a strong thermal to soar. A cumulus cloud is the top of a thermal. The air rises and when it gets to the dew point it makes a cloud. On a good day we try to get up to the cloud base. If you watch hawks or eagles, they fly around to find that lift, and then circle in it. Some days clouds may form at 3,000 or 6,000 or 10,000 feet. When you're laying in your harness, you don't see the glider, because it's above you. So it's this feeling of freedom: You're really flying like a bird. The control movements are natural, and you feel like you're flying. Sometimes it's smooth and the eagles are flying right next to you. It's incredibly beautiful. When you talk about this kind of stuff, people think of these kinds of sports as thrill sports or extreme sports, but to me, it's more serene and natural."

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