Sheridan Takes Flight This Memorial Day Weekend
When Johann Nield saw his brother-in-law Jim Bowman leap off Garden Creek Falls in Casper on his hang glider during a family reunion, he was immediately hooked. It brought back boyhood memories of when he used to jump off anything he could, close his eyes, and pretend he was flying.
He no longer had to pretend.
It would take four years for those dreams to finally take flight as he returned to his corporate job in Florida and lost himself in work. By 1978, however, he resigned from his job at American Express Corporation and headed back to Wyoming, during which time he stayed with Jim while securing a home.
Johann asked Jim to teach him how to hang glide, which would be the beginning of his long flying career.
You don’t just jump off a cliff and start flying, as Johann learned. Jim slowly led him through the process. He began by assembling a glider, learning all the parts of the wing as it took shape. After the wing was finished, there was a little bonding needed between the man and the machine.
“The next step would be to touch it as an airplane and friend,” he wrote in regard to his passion for flying. “Running with it and allowing it to fly about … as we try to control its path into the wind.”
Then, he put on a harness and strapped into the wing, ran and jumped off a cliff into the air.
“You realize that you are the motor and you have to run this new wing into the sky,” he said. “It’s easy if you commit.”
The next challenge was going higher and further than the time before, and trying to keep yourself from believing you are better than you actually are. It’s a head game, Johann explained, and if you let yourself fall into the trap, this is where you go wrong.
“As the equipment and my skills were getting better, so were the feelings inside me,” he said. “The dreaded intermediate syndrome would rear its ugly head. As in all high adrenal sports, we must keep this feeling at bay.”
Nowadays, at age 72, he lives in Dayton at the base of the mountain where his biggest challenge is being physically fit enough to run with a 60-pound wing on his back.
“But if the day comes that I can’t run my hang glider off a mountain, I’ll shift gears and fly my paraglider.”
The event, now in its 40th year, is popular with locals and tourists, alike. He’s seen up to 300 onlookers stopping to watch. Only hang gliders and paragliders with a hang rating of three or better can participate, he noted, and all must be able to control a wing that weighs 60 pounds and has a wing span of 30 feet with 164-square feet of sail.
“Death sports always draw big crowds,” Johann noted.
Some of the frequent fliers at the annual Memorial Day Hang Glider Fly-In at Sand Turn came to watch them glide as kids and are now returning with their own kids in tow, according to Johann. He’s not surprised because flying in the Bighorns is one of the most beautiful areas for hang gliding.
“It’s strictly beauty,” he said. “You can get up to 15,000 feet some days, but the beauty of launching and flying around such a beautiful sky is mind blowing.”
The trick, according to Johann, is launching off the leeside of the mountain and catching thermals, which are the upward currents of warm air, used by gliders, balloons, and birds to gain height.
“Everyone wants to see and maybe experience the thrill of adventure,” he said. “During the years I have been flying Sand Turn, we have always asked the crowd if they would like to join us in retrieval or flipping the slurry bounds of gravity. Many do and many just want to have a small experience of being a part of it, if even for a short while.”
As far as he’s concerned, flying is the purest expression of life.
“Yes, I know I can die every time I run off a mountain or step off a cliff,” he said, but for him, it’s worth it.
Not only is it therapeutic and life affirming, but, he added, it’s the only sport where the participant is in a four-dimensional world. It’s an experience that is hard to describe without doing it yourself, he said, as he struggled to find the words. For Johann, it’s like tunnel vision. All of your thoughts are channeled into surviving and making it safely to the ground.
“It’s just you, your wing and the wind that is going to make a difference in your ability to survive,” he said. “All the pressures and bullshit you endure has to leave your mind when you take that first step.”
By Jen Kocher for 82801 Life Magazine, where Sheridan lives.
For more info on this weekend’s fly-in, click here.