Flights of Fancy

As a teenager growing up on a farm near Lethbridge, Alberta, Will Lanier and his buddy received identical requests from their parents: that when they received their driver's licenses, they would both promise never to ride motorcycles.

Lanier recalls the moment. “We both looked at each other. [and thought] ’Oh, really?'”

In the mid-1970s, the fledgling sport of hang gliding hadn't made much of a dent in the collective consciousness of the southern Alberta prairie, although the “Bamboo Butterflies” launching off the California coast had made a big impression with Lanier and his pal. The two had won the high school science fair with a wind tunnel showing how a hang glider flew, and they were ready to experiment for real. Their parents were mortified when they learned what the pair had up their sleeves.

“When we were 14, everyone thought we'd die. But they signed their pact with the devil, and we weren't riding motorbikes,” Lanier says. “So if they were going to tell us not to fly hang gliders, we were gonna be monks.”

Now an entomologist with Montana State University and a Bozeman resident for 18 years, Lanier, 49, still doesn't ride a motorbike; for most of the past 30 years his mind has been transfixed on hang gliding.

While gushing with details of his flights, Lanier offers few words as to the reasons why he chooses to point his wing at the clouds—other than that one should simply try it to discover the allure for oneself. There is the sense that the impish defiance that defined Lanier’s teenage quest still gurgles within him.

Case in point: The 2005 Montana Cross Country Challenge, the year-long competition for the annual state air-powered distance record, open to both hang gliders and paragliders. Lanier felt the flat, open northern plains near Shelby offered the perfect terrain for long-distance flight, but he needed a buddy to drive the retrieve vehicle, and his hang gliding friends weren't up to the task. So he made the unorthodox move of enlisting what's normally considered the hang glider's arch-nemesis: a paraglider pilot.

The reason for animosity between the two modes has to do with speed—the hang glider is fast, and the paraglider is slow. When the two attempt to share the same thermals, conflicts can arise. “If there's 20 slow-moving 'bag' pilots in the air, and 15 fast-moving hang gliders, it's no fun,” Lanier says. “You're not flying, you're dodging the 'nylon pylons,' as we call them.”

But the limited number of hang glider pilots in the Bozeman area compelled Lanier to compromise. The fact that Bozeman Paragliding owner Andy Macrae had a specially designed hydraulic payout winch didn’t hurt any, either.

Macrae's winch, installed on the back of his truck, could unspool 5,000 feet of cable while being driven at up to 30 miles-per-hour, and it was just the sort of thing Lanier needed to launch in the flats near Shelby. After scouting out the terrain over several weekends, the pair and some drivers sized up the conditions on the morning of May 15, 2005.

It was a morning of prairie hawks rising in the thermals, small wind devils lifting bits of wheat chaff, and puffy little cumulus clouds. Perfect. “Once I saw that start to happen all over the place, I knew, okay, this is the day,” Macrae says. “I better make the best of it.”

Lanier made the first launch, a paraglider-inspired foot launch off the back of the truck. But he failed to find a decent thermal and quickly landed. Macrae followed, and his launch was spot on. He immediately started sailing east with a good tailwind, averaging groundspeeds of 38 miles per hour and thermaling up to cloud base at about 10,600 feet.

Lanier followed with a flawless launch of his own, but by that time Macrae was 10 miles in front of him. Lanier never caught up. By the end of the day, both had won the annual competition. Lanier had logged 113 miles, and Macrae had traveled 125, demolishing the state record of 45 1/2 miles for paragliders.

Lanier's latest goal is to find another perfect flight—but about as far from Montana as he can get. For the past five years Lanier has spent his vacation time visiting the small African country of Eritrea, on the Red Sea, hoping to fly along the country's 8,000 foot elevation escarpment near the capital city of Asmara. “It's huge,” Lanier says. “You could drop the Bridgers into it and they would disappear.”

Plus, when the cooler air of the Red Sea mixes with the hot air of the valley below the escarpment, it makes for thermals rising early in the morning. Mix that with ridge lift coming over the 200-plus-mile escarpment, and the flying conditions are ideal.

The only thing is, no one's ever flown a hang glider there before, and the war-torn country's powers-that-be haven't been exactly forthcoming in issuing Lanier permission for the flight. “At a certain level I've got a lot of support. People are interested. 'We'd love that to happen here. It should happen,'” he says. “You push them and they go, 'We can't get permission.'”

Actually, Lanier did manage to get permission for very short flights on his first two visits, but those can hardly match the long-distance flight he dreams of. “I need two weeks of permission, so I can map the air out, make some mistakes, and then get a long flight like this.”

But his luck seems to be decreasing, rather than increasing. Although unsure of the country's reasons, Lanier suspects it has something to do with a poor country understanding little of a rich Western country's concept of recreation.

To give an example of his frustration, Lanier describes a goodwill visit he made to a school, in which he showed off his glider to a physics class. Lanier recalls the first questions asked by the students. “'What is the purpose? Why?'” Lanier says. “It can't build a road, it doesn't haul water, and it doesn't fling lead at our enemies. They just don't get it.”

Yet he persists. Macrae says Lanier asked him to join him on a trip to the African country, but Macrae demurred, preferring his yearly paragliding vacations to Valle de Bravo, Mexico, instead.

But Macrae doesn't begrudge Lanier his persistence. “He's a determined individual, but that's sometimes what it takes,” he says, explaining that many of the best spots to fly probably required obsession and determination on a par with Lanier's. “Maybe that's what it's gonna take, is Will just going for it.”