Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

A PILLAR OF AIR

I stood at the top of Mont St. Pierre, the mountain, and looked down over the side of the cliff at Mont St. Pierre, the town, 1400 feet below. A few stray sounds – blues music from the bar, the cough of a rusted muffler – drifted up like memories. This little crossroads of settlement – more a confluence of natural features like river and sea, valley and mountain, than manmade roads – had been my world for the past ten days. Now I had ascended far above it and could see it in its whole.
It looked little changed from the village I saw in a framed black and white photograph hanging inside the tavern, taken many years ago from this same spot. How could that photographer have guessed that one day people would launch themselves off this cliff and soar over the rooftops below? I found it equally hard to believe that I was about to do precisely that.
I had come to this tiny village on the north coast of Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula as part of a crew shooting an episode for a travel and adventure TV show. It was our last day and the producers had granted the crew members time for a quick hang glide. I would be flying tandem with Patrick, a devotee of the sport since its birth.
“I grew up by the coast in France,” Patrick quietly explained, “watching the seagulls. Then I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and wanted more than ever to fly.” When he saw an early hang glider on TV, he wasted no time in writing away for one. Soon the package arrived in the mail and he carried it up to the top of a small mountain and put it together. “I sat there all day, looking out over the valley below, trying to find the courage to fly. Finally, it started to get dark, and I didn’t want to walk back down, so I put on my harness and flew to the bottom. I will never forget that first flight.” Now, after countless subsequent flights, he tries to recapture the exaltation of that first step into thin air the best way he can: vicariously, by taking others for their first flight.
For tandem flights, the takeoff is crucial. Patrick strapped on our harnesses and told me we were going to practice “the takeoff run”. I put my arm around him and leaned against his side like a drunk. The physical intimacy seemed appropriate with a man I was trusting my life to. We held this position for a moment, imagining a cliff before us. Then I felt his weight shift almost imperceptibly forward and I moved with him.
“Run! Run! Run! Run!” he shouted as we broke into a mad dash toward the imagined cliff’s edge. All week long, I had watched dozens of others practice this same drill, and wondered what was going through their heads. Now I knew: denial. Still, if we should actually go through with this, I reasoned, I would stand a decent chance of living to see tomorrow. After all, Patrick had been flying hang gliders since before I learned to walk.
The waiting was the worst part. After I got hooked into the glider and walked up to the edge of the cliff, there was nothing to do but wait for the right headwind. There was still the faint hope that it would never come and we would have to cancel. While I nourished that thought, I had far too much time to consider the folly of this endeavour. What I was about to do contradicted all my instincts. Nor could I find refuge in feigned ignorance of my impending fate – for there it was, the void, yawning irrefutably before me.
My thoughts drifted to the bottom of that void, at the base of the mountain, where, for some reason I dared not perceive, stood a tiny graveyard. It was its location that troubled me; it seemed to mark the exact place you’d fall if gravity won out over aerodynamics.
I tried to reassure myself with the encouraging precedent set by all the fatality-free flights I had personally witnessed over the course of the week. After all, there had only been that one crash. And both the pilot and his unlucky passenger had walked away from the accident rattled, but unhurt.   
Finally, a breeze (or was it a zephyr?) idled by and stirred the little ribbon indicating wind direction that Patrick had been watching like a hawk. He lifted the control bar of the glider and said three words to me, as we had practiced in training. They now sounded like the three most ominous words I had ever heard.
“Are you ready?”
I had watched an earlier first-timer not hear this question, transfixed as she was on that empty space before her. If there was one thing I was going to do, it was avoid a similar embarrassment in front of the assembled onlookers. “Yes,” I gulped.
I pressed my body into his, waiting for that hair’s width shift forward that would signal the beginning of our run. Once we started down the short ramp that ended in open air there would be no going back.
Then I felt it and everyone yelled, “Run! Run! Run!” – a collective urge willing us airborne. But I didn’t need to be told. I ran. I closed my eyes just as my feet kissed the sweet earth goodbye.
***
The Wright brothers were not the first to fly. Before their historic first powered flight, pioneering humans had joined the birds in the sky with unpowered gliders made of canvas and willow wands.
The first person to fly a heavier-than-air craft assumed his heroic place in history reluctantly. In 1853 Sir George Cayley, then 80, persuaded his coachman to climb into his “governable parachute” and soar some 900 feet. People ran to where the prototype crashed to hear the shaken coachman declare, “Please, Sir George, I wish to give notice. I was hired to drive and not to fly.”
Nearly 40 years later Otto Lilienthal picked up with more enthusiasm where the coachman had left off. The world’s first true pilot of the skies, he became an expert at controlling his gliders by shifting his weight. He completed more than 2000 flights in increasingly sophisticated gliders before, in 1896, the odds caught up with him and he was killed when a sudden gust of wind sent him crashing to the ground.
Other inventors were inspired by Lilienthal’s example and built gliders of their own, with varying success. But glider experimentation was brought to a virtual halt when, a few days before Christmas in 1903, the Wright brothers flew with an engine from the beach at Kitty Hawk. The world became captivated by speed, size and altitude. In a mere blink of an historical eye, the Wright’s Flyer evolved into the X-1 breaking the sound barrier in 1947.
But somewhere between those two points of development the spirit of flight that moved the ancients to soar with the birds was partially lost. Cockpits became enclosed, pushing buttons replaced shifting weight, and pilots began flying more with their heads than their hearts. People became immune to the wonder of flight. It would take gliding to help them rediscover it.
***
Yvon Ouellet could be Captain Mont St. Pierre. Born and raised in the little Gaspesie village, he has all the characteristics of a native superhero. He can even fly.
“About eight year ago,” he explained in strained English, “I made the decision to wing my life away, like a bird. Since that time, I never have regret.” He opened his unusually long arms heavenward like a pair of great wings and gave voice to a cry that demands daily venting: “Thank you, Cosmos!” 
People say he spends more time in the air than on the ground, though physically he is an unlikely candidate for defying gravity. He is, quite simply, built like a giant. With his long, curly red hair, cleft chin and prominent brow, he could have just stepped off a Viking raiding vessel. Yet such fearful impressions are banished the moment he flashes his perfect, superhero smile.
Yvon makes his living taking tourists on tandem hang glider flights, and when the weather conditions are right, he’s kept busy with a constant backlog of customers. He winters in Mexico and Guatemala – not to vacation, but to keep flying more customers.
While other hang glider pilots eke out a living in his shadow, Yvon is clearly at the top of the food chain. Seeing him in action helps explain his appeal. As a grand finale to his flights, he dives in low over town and executes a series of roller coaster twists and turns, invariably producing screams of terrified delight from his captive passengers, cries that he augments with loud “ye-haw’s!” and crow “caw’s!” In this way, he manages to broadcast an advertisement to potential new customers even while flying with his current one. Add to that a contagious laugh, his reputation as an impeccable pilot, and, of course, that winning smile, and Yvon’s service is too potent for most to resist.
***
There is no single inventor of modern hang gliding; rather the contributions of a disparate many tinkering in workshops and testing their creations in isolation. Volmer Jensen was one of the first, building and flying his first glider in 1925. Then Francis Rogallo, an American, designed a light, flexible wing.
Fast forward to Australia in the 1960’s, where the sport of flying from gliders towed behind speedboats was gaining popularity. Part of the sport involved performing daredevil acrobatics from a horizontal “trapeze bar” below the wings of the glider. John Dickenson, one of these aerial entertainers, married Rogallo’s superior wing with this bar, and the basic design of the modern hang glider was realized.
Only, no one knew it yet.
It took a great showman, and a small accident, to take it the final step. Bill Bennet, also an Aussie, was flying with the new Rogallo wing one day, when his towboat ran into a sand bar. He had no choice but to release his line and found to his happy surprise that he was able to guide his craft safely to the water below. From then on a release became part of his performance, and from the reaction of the awed crowds who watched he knew he was onto something. He took his show to America in 1969, his tour culminating in a triumphant flight around the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty. Gliding had at last recaptured the popular imagination.
***
The new sport of hang-gliding caught on early in the tiny village of Mont St. Pierre. Situated halfway down the coast of Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula, this community of 290 people is tucked between two rolls of the modest Chic-Choc Mountains and stretched along half a mile of shoreline overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On a clear day, you can just make out the Laurentian Mountains on the far side of the water.
Behind the village stretches lush green farmland, bisected by a small tree-lined river that ambles up the valley. Farther inland is the Parc québécois de la Gaspésie, where woodland caribou forage in the shadow of 4000-foot mountains that remain covered with snow for most of the year. But the vast majority of the area’s human inhabitants live by the sea, joined by the coastal highway that circuits the peninsula. In the summer months, a steady trickle of tourists round the bend on that highway and pull into Mont St. Pierre to watch hang gliders and, more recently, paragliders, launch from the neighboring mountain.
That same stretch of highway serves as the village’s main drag and social meeting spot. Telephones are redundant, as you are bound to pass the person you want to talk to several times a day on this strip of road. If they still manage to elude you, chances are you’ll find them at the village’s one bar, Les Joyeux Naufragés (The Happy Castaways) , that night. There, you will see Quebec culture at its finest. The private world soon dissolves in the cozy common space of the bar. Patrons dip behind the counter to change the music while visitors who stay the night are often treated to a stream of drinks bought for them. With such inherent hospitality to be drawn upon, the bar needs no wait staff, and will only hire one, lured willingly from the crowd, on the busiest of nights.
The one night a year sure to be bustling is the party for the visiting pilots of the annual Hang-Gliding Festival. Usually held at the end of July or beginning of August and lasting a week, the festival has been a big event in town since it began in the 1970’s, drawing many pilots from New England, Quebec and Ontario. When the wind blows in from the sea and creates an updraft off the side of the mountain, the flying conditions are perfect and a dozen or more gliders can hang in the sky for hours. But the pilots come for rarer pleasures than just a good breeze: beach fires at night, the camaraderie of a shared passion for flying, the joie de vie of the town’s people, and the rhythm a place where nature still takes precedence over strip malls.  
Somehow, years of dreams realized in the sky above have rubbed off on Mont St. Pierre. The freedom of flight has slowly worked its magic into the people who live with it daily, permeating their dreams at night, and imbibing them with a subtle joy that holds the whole village in a kind of enchantment, as if it’s not quite part of the regular world, like some hidden Tibet of French Canada.
***
 When I opened my eyes, the jagged rocks of the cliff face were falling rapidly away and I was floating above the earth as if in a dream. Perhaps my eyes remained closed the whole time, and I did dream it all – such was the detachment from reality that I felt. Never having experienced anything like this, my brain simply refused to believe what it was seeing.
The trees, houses, river and fields below all looked laughably fake, like something out of a model railroad landscape. I felt a reckless sense of invincibility, as if I could dive toward the ground and perch on a treetop by simply willing it.
Once I remembered to breathe, I relaxed my tensed muscles and began to trust the counterintuitive notion that the air could hold our heavy bodies as if it were a solid structure – a pillar of air. I felt little movement, just a serene suspension and the wind in my face, as if I was 13 years old and coasting on my bike down the long hill near my home. I wanted it to last for hours.
“How do you steer?” I asked.

Patrick gave me a demonstration: push the bar to one side, the glider banks in the opposite direction; push the bar away, it slows down; pull the bar closer, it dives and speeds up. This last maneuver really got my attention. Suddenly the ground seemed a lot more tangible. 
Like the wall of consciousness at the end of a dream, the ground continued its inexorable advance. While we could buy a little time to float between heaven and earth, gravity always wins in the end. Instead of alighting like a bird, we landed gracelessly on wheels, my body skidding through the cut grass like a baseball player sliding into home base.
The spell was broken. I was back in reality. But I had flown – really flown – for the first time, if only for five minutes. Compared to this, all those routine flights in jumbo jets were no more than glorified bus rides.
I had lived the dreams of the ancients. This area’s ancient inhabitants, the Mi’gmaqs, had named it “Gespeg”, meaning “land’s end”. How right they were.

Copyright Sean Butler 2001

Published in The Ottawa Citizen, August 19, 2001

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