Winging it on the Outer Banks

Magical things happen atop these great sand dunes. The dunes include the largest on the East Coast, soaring 80 to 100 feet above most everything else and offering fine views in all directions: the gleaming Atlantic to the east, a picturesque estuary to the west and beach houses and tourist swarms below.

"I've been living here 25 years, and every New Year's Eve we go up to the dune to watch the sun set," Leslie Deligio, 59, a nurse, said as we sipped beers at Outer Banks Brewing Station brew pub on the teeming strip along the North Carolina coast. "Then we come down and party."

Another local leaned over and offered his own bit of dune mythology: Certain more lascivious activities are known to happen up there. Wink, nudge.

However, it was the Outer Banks' legendary winds and sand for soft landings - not the extracurricular activities - that lured Orville and Wilbur Wright there from Ohio for their famous Kitty Hawk flights of 1903. Today, that same combination summons thousands of tourists for world-class kite flying, hang gliding and intense games of make-believe.

"We need to get to the top of the mountain!" a 4-year-old yelled as his little feet chugged up the searing dune one toasty summer afternoon. "It's the only way we will survive!"

I, however, skipped the make-believe and went right for the hang gliding.

Kitty Hawk Kites, one of the area's oldest outfitters, offers four beginning and four advanced courses a day off the area's dunes, and they appeal to a wide swath - from 9-year-old girls with braids to grandfathers in shorts and white athletic socks pulled high. My lesson came on a hot afternoon moderated by warm ocean breezes.

Training began with signing away my life - repeatedly. Five signatures and 12 initials across several pages, though what I signed away I didn't know. It seemed better that way. Then came an hour of talking, as a lecturer told 20 classmates and me what we faced. Anxiety was palpable - we were going to fly? - even if we all tried to hide it.

Our flights would not be epic, we were told; if we were lucky, we would travel 125 feet - five more than the Wright brothers on their first flight, Dec. 17, 1903. Didn't matter.

"The feeling of weightlessness is the same at 18 feet as 18,000 feet," our lecturer said. And then came a warning: "Do not panic. Panicked is no state to be in in a hang glider."

That, of course, made us only more nervous. But out we went, from the classroom to the hot sand, where our instructor, Hunter Deakle, quietly admitted to me that he was new to the sport, even though he became a quick addict.

"Unpowered flight," said Deakle, 26. "It's birdlike, man. People dream of this stuff."

We dream of it, indeed, but we're also intimidated by it. Birds fly. We walk. It makes even hang gliding off a sand dune intimidating. But helmet on head, latched to the glider, instructions firmly in head about turning and maintaining flight, it seemed impossible until actually taking that first running leap off the dune and stepping into freedom and weightlessness.

Well, sort of. Most first flights, mine included, ended with a quick thud, the glider's metal tip nosing into the sand. My first flight was a mere 20 or so feet, but my second extended to about 40 feet. I don't remember looking at anything during that flight - only the feeling of brief soaring.

"That was nice!" Deakle said. "It's because you had a sick takeoff."

"How do you know when your takeoff is sick?" I asked.

"You move all the energy from your legs to this," he said, and shook the glider. "There's not a lot of banging around. It's smooth."

We all had our moments, both high and low. Succeeding took equal amounts of concentration and absolute letting go. You knew it went well when, at the moment it seemed you should be heading back to terra firma, you stayed aloft. You defied your own expectation.

A bad flight ended jarringly, quickly, thuddingly. We all had them.

"I call that one the IHOP special," said Joe Hewitt, 44, of Raleigh as he brushed sand off his body. "I pancaked. I think there might be a spot behind one of my molars that doesn't have sand in it."

My last flight was my best. I traveled about 100 feet. I was still short of the Wright brothers but soared far enough to want to continue, to go farther and to go higher. After skydiving the first time, I knew it probably would be my last time. But after five flying leaps off a 100-foot sand dune, all I wanted was more.