Hanging out with hang gliding pilots

Jan “Hans” Pieters flies an aircraft in which he can turn the engine off and glide back to his home base at Hana Airport.

But the 70-year-old Dutch-born powered glider pilot is up against tough competition from microlight ace Armin Engert of Hang Gliding Maui, also working out of Hana.

It was a natural pilgrimage for me to go and see German-born Armin and to be blown away by stories of his hang gliding past.

I had begun microlighting myself in 1984 after 11 years in hang gliding, which included five years as British hang gliding team coach and two stints as the U.S. Team coach, including the 1985 World Championships almost in Armin’s backyard – Kossen in Austria.

Despite being awarded the first National Trophy from Queen Elizabeth II in 1985 for having undertaken more for British hang gliding than anyone else in its first 10 years, and later making the first microlight flight around the world in 1998, my actual flying record pales into insignificance against the 2,500 hang gliding hours alone amassed by Armin.

We became instant “kindred spirits.”

I noticed that all the young girls plumped for a flight with Armin rather than the less daring but actually quite brilliant flights offered out of Hana by Hans Pieters.

Many people on Maui seem to have started out elsewhere, then chosen to live the rest of their lives on what seems an island paradise; Hans was no exception.

Born in 1944, his father was killed in the war within less than a year of his birth. Hans learned to fly gliders at the age of 14. But he chose an oceangoing life in the shipping industry, where he had a girl in virtually every port (’twas ever thus). He has children – two daughters and four granddaughters living on the U.S. Mainland – and he worked like a dog for most of his life.

“I was in Long Beach at the age of 62, working 70 to 80 hours a week,” he told me, “when I looked in a mirror one day and saw that I looked older than I had a month before. I realized I was going to die within two years if this life continued.”

He sold his possessions, borrowed some money, bought a serviceable Diamond Katana Extreme motor-glider he found in Dallas, and had it shipped to Maui to set up Skyview Soaring.

“The street I lived on in California is called Skyview,” he said. “I chose Maui because I wanted to work on a small island where competition was limited and there would be plenty of potential clients. Hana is a wonderful, laid-back little airfield.”

Gliding is the oldest way of flying – the Wright Brothers learned to glide before they put an engine on, and it was the death of the German gliding pioneer Otto Lilienthal in 1896 that had set them off into aviation.

In the last eight years, like all pilots, Hans has amassed stories unique to flying.

“A Japanese couple turned up, and the husband went on Armin’s microlight. After a nervous pause, his wife came over to me and asked for a flight. From the time the engine started, until we landed, she screamed. It was virtually nonstop screaming. I asked her occasionally if she wanted to land and she stopped screaming to say no, she didn’t, and then she went back to screaming again, clutching my arm. She said afterwards how much she had enjoyed the flight.”

Hans gets about half the number of clients of the perpetually busy Armin, but he offers an experience I found personally thrilling. To be more than a mile high, at 6,000 feet with clouds all around, and to see the engine turned off and watch Hans take his long-winged aircraft virtually anywhere he wanted, made me forget about the usual hang-glider pilot moan about aircraft with covered cockpits – we call it “indoor flying.”

There are two little windows in the cockpit out of which you can guide fresh air on to your face, and there is a languor and an ease to the flying which have their own charm.

“Of course, like everyone on Maui, I dream of owning a boat and heading east around the world in my own time, but for the next three years, at least, this is as fine a way of earning a living and meeting people as you could find.

“Many have become friends. I nearly married one. Some have bought their own gliders because of the experience.

“But a 34-foot catamaran will get me in the end.”

* Brian Milton is a pioneer hang gliding and microlight aviator vactioning on Maui.