Hang Glider Club: Harnessing the wind: running down to go up

New students experience hang gliding or paragliding at Ashio Mountain. New students experience hang gliding or paragliding at Ashio Mountain.

At Ashio, many students gather from universities in Japan to enjoy flying. At Ashio, many students gather from universities in Japan to enjoy flying.

Celebrating a member's first solo flight. Celebrating a member's first solo flight.

Paragliding event held at Tottori Sand Dunes, in western Japan. Paragliding event held at Tottori Sand Dunes, in western Japan.

Hang gliding is an open air sport that exploits the energy of thermals in hilly and mountainous regions. The pilot sits horizontally in a harness suspended from a winged airframe, which is guided by shifting of the pilot's body weight from side to side, and by pushing and pulling on a base bar to control altitude. The roots of the sport can be traced back to the 1880s, while Tokyo Tech's Hang Glider Club took to the air a century later in the 1980s.

"You take off by running and launching yourself from a hill or mountain," says Eiki Yasuda, a third-year student of civil and environmental engineering and the club's leader. "To land, you slow the glider down as much as possible and hit the ground running. I's great fun."

The club has fifteen members. On most weekends about half of the members head off by car to Ashio Mountain in Ibaragi Prefecture, about 100 km northeast of Tokyo to practice hang gliding and also paragliding, where the pilot is suspended from a parachute-shaped wing in a seat-harness, which is controlled using a series of cords. Each member owns their own hang glider or paraglider, which is stored in the practice area.

Although the sport has a reputation for being expensive, "we know how to keep costs down," says Yasuda. They usually camp out in tents over the weekend, while their hang gliders and paragliders are acquired used, sometimes from older members who pass their equipment on to newcomers when they graduate.

The sport also carries a reputation for being dangerous. But club member Akito Tateyama, a sophomore studying applied chemistry, says the danger is exaggerated. "We wear full-face safety helmets and protective gloves. And each member carries out his own maintenance of the equipment, which is the best way to make sure it's completely safe. "

In addition, new members are taught by a professional hang glider expert until they have mastered full control of the equipment. "They start off jumping from a small hill, which makes it easy to learn," says Yasuda. "After eight or nine days of such practice for paragliding, twice that for hang gliding, a member is ready to launch from Ashio Mountain at a height of around 400 meters."

Tokyo Institute of Technology Bulletin No. 28 (November, 2012)