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US Women’s Hang Gliding Team sensation

July 24, 2008

Lisa Verzella stands quietly at the edge of the ridge at Point of the Mountain in Draper, her attention fixed on a windsock on the ridge in front of her. She watches patiently as the wind causes the tall grass below her to sway violently as if it were trying to escape its own roots in the steep hillside. The wind calms slightly and with a few graceful strides forward, she launches her hang glider smoothly, its wings cutting through the chilly evening wind.

“I like to launch from mountain sites and try to fly 100 to 200 miles away,” said Verzella, who came within one mile of breaking the state record hang glider flight of 190 miles by gliding from Wasatch Mountain State Park in Heber to South Pass, Wyo., in about five and half hours. Three weeks later someone else broke the record by flying 220 miles after starting from the same launch site.

Verzella is one of the world’s top cross-county hang glider pilots. She is one of three women on the U.S. Women’s World Hang Gliding Team, and will be traveling to Italy to represent the United States in competition next month. She routinely flies her glider extreme distances to attempt to break records or just to enjoy the open sky using only the power of the wind, all while maintaining altitudes as high as “cloud base” (14,000 to 18,000 feet). The harness that attaches her safely to the underside of her glider is something like a sleeping bag with pockets for food and water. It zips around her legs and feet to provide insulation from the sub-zero temperatures she experiences at high altitudes. She even carries a tank of supplemental oxygen to counteract the thin air above 13,00 feet.

“You have to dress for skiing,” Verzella said. “You dress for snow, your Camelback hydration pack freezing, everything at 18,000 feet. You could sit on launch for half an hour sweating and sweltering, then end up in the landing field in 2 minutes because the wind is bad, or you could be up for 8 hours and freezing up at cloud base. You just don’t know.”

Verzella has a real understanding of the weather, its fickleness, and its potential effects on her flight. She originally went to school at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and still plays as lead trumpet for Ballet West. But her passion for flying persuaded her to extended her education to aid in her understanding of the wind.

“I had been making my own forecasts and living or dying by them for the last 18 years,” Verzella said. “So I figured I would finally go to school for meteorology. They say that if you could paint the air you would never fly in it, but there are certain aspects of it that are predictable. I study the forecasts so that basically what I am doing is stacking the odds on my side.”

It was a career in music working for Ballet West that originally brought Verzella to Springville from upstate New York. The availability of hang gliding launches was just a perk. But that is not the case with many of the flyers in the State. Utah is considered to have some of the best flying in the country if not the world. The suburban neighborhood surrounding the launch site at Point of the Mountain is a tight-knit community with many of the houses belonging to active hang gliders and paragliders.

“People come from all over the world to fly at Point of the Mountain because it is very consistent and there is very good instruction here,” Verzella said.

Getting started in the sport requires professional instruction as well as a significant investment in equipment. It would take about two weeks of instruction in good weather to earn your “hang-2” certification from the United States Hang gliding and Para-gliding Association, which will allow you to practice on your own at sites like Point of the Mountain. It takes many years of flying several times a week to get to Verzella’s level, and even then each flight can be dangerous and unpredictable.

Even with 19 years of experience flying gliders under her belt, Verzella admits that she gets nervous before each launch. “Then once you are in the air, especially at beautiful sites like the mountains here at Lone Peak or over Twin Peaks, it is breathtaking, yet you almost forget how incredible it is until after you land and you are thinking about the flight and you are like ‘dang I was way up there!’ ”

Over this past weekend Verzella traveled to Hurricane north of St. George in search of just the right wind conditions to make another attempt to claim the state record. She was hopeful on Friday before leaving but her flight attempt Saturday was short lived. After take-off she couldn’t catch the updrafts and “bottomed out early,” forcing an early landing after a short flight. Yet Verzella is not discouraged. Her passion is dependent on the turbulence of nature and her dedication to the sport demands a respect for the winds and a willingness to accept her lack of power over nature. Hang gliding is about harnessing the power of nature, not trying to fight it.

061308 HangGliding_01
Lisa Verzella launches her hang-glider from Point of the Mountain during a practice flight on Thursday, June 12, 2008.
My thanks go out to Craig Dilger of the Daily Herald for bringing us this excellent article.
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