Free as a bird— find an elite hang gliding school to offer one-of-a-kind views and adrenaline-packed adventure.
Cruising a rural stretch of U.S. 13, I spot something unexpected: A pair of hang-gliders soaring high above Virginia’s Eastern Shore. I pull over and watch them cruise over maritime forests and dense tidal marshes toward Quinby Harbor, Upshur Bay, and the wild barrier islands that lay beyond. I went looking for a hang gliding shcool.
The sighting leads to a fantastic discovery: The Shore is home to one of the most unique hang-gliding operations on the East Coast. Tandem tours carry visitors upward of a mile in the air and feature views of the Chesapeake Bay and more than 100 miles of protected shoreline. Gliding over isolated wetlands, bays, and the longest chain of undeveloped barrier islands in the global temperate zone proves to be a bucket-list experience.
Hang-gliders, I realize, are like the motorcycles of the sky. Only there are no roads, lanes, traffic lights, motorists, or rumbling engines to contend with.
“The wind is in your face and you’re soaring like a bird,” says Don Guynn, owner-instructor of the Virginia Hang Gliding Flight School. “It’s like a childhood fantasy come true; the freedom is intoxicating. Gazing down at the world from such dizzying heights brings this amazing sense of perspective. It’s meditative and joyous all at once.”
Luckily the Southeast is home to more than one exemplary hang-gliding center. Though few and far between, each brings incredible views and thrilling experiences.
The Virginia Hang Gliding Flight School
Don “Freeman Sky Coyote” Guynn became obsessed with free-flight around the age of 17 and has spent more than two decades sharing his passion for the sport with others through his hang gliding school. Years of teaching at top learning centers in Florida, Colorado, and on the Outer Banks of North Carolina inspired Guynn, a certified master pilot, to found his own hang-gliding school.
But he wanted to do things differently.
“Most places have beginner and intermediate learners launching off small hills or dunes,” says Guynn. Flight time averages less than 10 seconds. Return climbs—especially up sand dunes—are often physically intensive and time-consuming. That makes skill building tough.
Guynn starts by teaching the basics on the ground. Flight training is streamlined using a small aircraft to tow students to higher altitudes and tutor them in a tandem setting. That means learners get personalized instruction and incredible views.
Guynn grew up near the Eastern Shore of Virginia and knew the peninsula was the perfect location for a free-flight school. The area is sparsely populated, free of major airports, and features world-class aerial sights. Guynn relocated in 2013 and launched Virginia Hang Gliding on a 25-acre property near Onancock.
Today the school offers a variety of tandem tours, certification classes, and towing services for established pilots. The “Mile High” experience carries patrons to altitudes above 5,000 feet. The peninsula is just 10 miles wide on average, so fliers can enjoy simultaneous views of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
Looking to up the adrenaline factor? Guynn’s aerial acrobatics package brings stunts like barrel rolls, corkscrews, and loop-de-loops.
Tandem experiences start at $199; virginiahanggliding.info
Thermal Valley Hang Gliding School
Craig Pearson discovered hang-gliding as a high school freshman when he spotted pioneers leaping off Hibriten Mountain and coasting thermal winds to mile-plus altitudes.
“It was the wildest thing I’d ever seen,” says Pearson, now 58. “I said, ‘Now that’s something I’d like to try.'”
Pearson dove into the sport soon thereafter—and spent as much of the next 40 years as possible launching gliders off mountains and cliffs in North Carolina and the greater U.S. He quit his job as an electronics technician in 2010 to found a flight school in Lenoir, N.C., with his wife and son.
“It was one of those chase-the-dream scenarios,” says Pearson, a certified United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding instructor. “To me, I can’t imagine a better way to make a living than introducing people to the crazy, joyous world of free-flight.”
Pearson started by partnering with Foothills Regional Airport. Early offerings were limited to tandem tours and towplane shuttles for certified glider pilots. But he wanted to do more.
“Our goal was to create a [full-service learning institution] that could become sort of the central hub for a larger community,” says Pearson. The family connected with other local enthusiasts and landowners to expand operations.
The efforts have produced one of the East Coast’s most extensive hang-gliding programs. Thermal Valley now boasts progression-based training facilities for all skill levels, tandem experiences, certification courses, and a variety of services for skilled pilots.
The Happy Valley educational center offers hypercharged learning opportunities for beginners and intermediates. A large, grassy flying area is equipped with an anchored, variable-speed towing system for enhanced training efficiency. The platform brings 30-40 seconds of airtime and altitudes up to 60 feet. Golf carts provide swift and breezy shuttling. More advanced fliers can use the system to practice turns and climbing.
The new Butte Mountain facility is located a few miles north. There, advanced students practice foot-launching from 800-1,000-foot cliffs. Landing fields are situated at various distances so pilots can practice longer or shorter flights. The facility is open to certified gliders as well.
Tandem tours from $159; thermalvalley.net
Lookout Mountain Flight Park
One of the oldest and most respected institutions in American hang-gliding awaits in northwest Georgia near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lookout Mountain Flight Park was founded in 1980 and is currently the largest full-time hang-gliding school in the U.S.—and one of the only dedicated free-flight resorts on the planet.
“This is definitely a world-class hang-gliding destination,” says certified instructor, C.J. Giordano. He’s flown at hotspots throughout the U.S., Central America, and elsewhere. “I can say without reservation that Lookout Mountain is fundamentally unique; there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the country.”
For starters, the resort occupies a rural valley and 2,000-foot ridgeline in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The landscape is staggeringly beautiful; amenities are unparalleled. The 144-acre landing zone is surrounded by a wide range of lodging options that include luxury cabins, RV docks, tiny houses, and primitive camping. There’s also an on site general store, retail shop, eatery, swimming area, music stage, central bonfire pit, and more.
Educational programming spans all skill-levels of paragliding, ultralight aircraft and hang-gliding. Patrons learn the basics and level-up on a series of progression-oriented training hills. Tandem flights offer sightseeing thrills for fliers aged 10-100. More advanced students can practice tandem and solo launches from ridgeline platforms as high as 2,300 feet. Veterans flock to the park to use its premium facilities and shuttle services.
“We’re basically the national country club of [free-flight], but without any of the country club pretention,” laughs Giordano. He discovered Lookout Mountain taking beginner hang-gliding classes in 2012. He moved to the resort full-time in 2015 after becoming a certified instructor.
“Yes, the facilities are great, but what really makes this place so special is the community,” says Giordano. Most premier hang-gliding spots are extremely isolated and visited solely by experts. On-season weekends at Lookout Mountain, however, typically bring more than 100 fliers and their families. Some are greenhorns, others are veterans or even professionals.
“But everybody that’s here is here to fly or support somebody that wants to,” Giordano continues. “To me, that’s just incredibly cool.”
Tandem experiences start at $249; flylookout.com
Cover photo: Soaring in the Tennessee sky. Photo courtesy of Lookout Mountain Flight Park