"Isn't it badass?" says 24-year-old Sarah Lohmann, climbing inside the HH-60G Pavehawk. The dull, powerful smell of well-worn metal and mechanic's grease floods my nostrils. Quickly, before members of the 129th Rescue Wing of the California National Guard can see, I sniff an oily coil of rope hanging by the door of their combat rescue helicopter. It's a pragmatic, comforting odor.
"My dad used to smell like that," says a young man to my right, and I'm fairly certain from his tone that he wouldn't agree with my assessment of the scent memory.
Nine-year-old Bartlett Meyers slides behind one of the two M-60 machine guns mounted on the Pavehawk. He spins his baseball cap around, grips the gun in his fists, and fixes his father in the sights.
"A-a-a-a-ack! A-a-a-a-a-ck!" the boy screams, pumping his shoulders with the recoil of imaginary rounds as his father laughs and snaps pictures.
The formidable silhouette of Hanger One looms over the Pavehawk and more than 30 other aircraft -- everything from the B-1 Bomber to the F-117 Stealth Fighter to NASA's Space Shuttle Transport 747 -- which sit gape-mouthed and glimmering on the sprawling tarmac of Moffet Field for the inaugural Air Expo at NASA's Ames Research Center. Thousands of people weave in and out of the open-air martial carnival, climbing into cockpits, sitting in rescue nets, perusing souvenir booths, chatting with pilots, rifling through military grab bags passed out at recruiting booths, strapping into children's rides that simulate anti-gravity, and eating picnic food under the winged shadows of state-of-the-art military technology.
"I decided I want to be a pilot when I grow up," yells young Meyers as a bright red British Hawker Hunter races across the skyline with a mind-bending roar. "Dad, I want to fly that when I grow up!"
The boy's father smiles and says conspiratorially, "Son, that plane was made in the 1950s. You can fly something much, much faster now."
Bonnie Tyler's rousing '80s hit "Holding Out for a Hero," which has been blaring out of the loudspeakers, gives way to the similarly rousing Chariots of Fire theme as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a single-seat fighter whose speed and agility debuted with the destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility in 1981, takes to the air. At 700 miles an hour -- less than half of the Falcon's potential speed -- the aircraft darts across the sky with cool, silent, deadly elegance; then, moments later, the sky cracks in two, thundering and shuddering in the Falcon's wake. Onlookers gasp and clasp their ears as they grin at the might before them. Around and around the fighter goes, creating a cyclone of sound that seems out of sync with visual reality.
"It's like it's been dubbed for foreign TV," says Mark Curreri, laughing like a boy. "Man, I've always dreamt about flying! Sort of makes you believe you live in the most powerful nation in the world, though, don't it?"
The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II gets in the air for the United States Air Force 10th anniversary "Gulf War Salute."
"During the Gulf War, the A-10s kept up a steady pace of four sorties a day for 98 percent of the duration of the conflict," exclaims an announcer as the A-10 roars across the sky. "Let's hear it for them!" The crowd applauds without hesitation, and the fighter comes in low, strafing the nearby runway where pre-positioned pyrotechnics erupt with a bulletlike retort. The A-10 circles back and drops several "missiles" that explode in red mushrooms of fire, leaving impenetrable clouds of thick black smoke. As the smoke clears, the A-10 comes in for another strike. I try to imagine myself on the receiving end of that bird just as a wall of flame erupts at least a hundred feet over my head. Even at a great distance, the heat is nonnegotiable, and the A-10 is gone before the smoke clears.
"I've dreamt about flying since I was 5," says 35-year-old Bodhi Kroll, unfurling his brightly colored hang glider on the top of a tawny ridge on Mount Tamalpais.
As one of only 100 hang gliders in the country licensed by the FAA to give lessons and one of an ever-dwindling handful of people to do it professionally in the Bay Area, Kroll is in a unique position to make a living from his passion. "I wouldn't mind flying helicopters," says Kroll, considering for a moment other forms of air travel, "but, really, I want to fly like a bird. That's what I want."
Phil Merrell, a dental school instructor who grew up on a small airfield in central Indiana, once flew helicopters, but not since he discovered hang gliding.
"With a hang glider, the worst day in the air is better than ...," Merrell trails off, seemingly embarrassed to admit that being alone with the wind might be better than anything land has to offer.
Merrell and Kroll and the members of any of the three hang gliding associations in the Bay Area fly the way man has dreamed of flying since before Icarus, with nothing but wings between their bodies and the sky. Just like a bird.
Kroll recalls a 30-minute dogfight he had with a crow at 2,000 feet in Australia.
"That bird was diving at me with its beak open, trying to bite my toes, nipping at my tail, yelling," Kroll says smiling. "I wasn't sure if he was playing or if he was mad, but he stayed with me for a long time. I got behind him on a few occasions, but he'd just backpedal and get right up on me again. It was one of the most fabulous times I've ever had."
Kroll asks me to sign away my life and step into a harness.
"OK, most of the instruction is done at 1,200 feet," says Kroll, going over a very few rudimentary details ending with, "There is a parachute but I've never had to use it."
I throw my arm over Kroll's shoulder and jog a few feet. That's the practice run.
"OK," says Kroll, clipping my harness to his hang glider. "Let's go!"
I throw my arm over his shoulder again and we run right off the cliff.
At this height, the trees look like algae or thick beds of blue-green coral growing on the edges of sand banks; the streams look like silvery veins in a rock face; the houses look like model train sets. Nothing looks real. I try to make my mind understand what it is seeing, but the brain naturally compensates for fear, disassociating, drawing parallels with known experience. The result is I feel nothing but stillness and calm. Except for the occasional flutter of the glider as Kroll adjusts our direction by weight distribution, there is no sound. We are moving with the wind, offering little resistance, so the feeling is like that of floating more than flying.
We catch an air bubble coming up off a ridge of the mountain and rise higher than our initial launch. We come eye to eye with an eagle, caught on the same wind current, and watch as he flaps away to still more staggering heights. One of Kroll's pilots, Eric Mies, comes off the mountain with another novice who is experiencing a moment that typically takes hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to achieve. Watching them glide into open air, their shadow a tiny spot on the ground below, I am able to comprehend the enormity of the venture. From this height I can see Bolinas Lagoon in its entirety, a placid pool of azure blue and sea-foam green, and the ocean looks as still and flat as a bed of glistening marble. Mies and Kroll circle each other, rising and falling on different air currents, evaluating each other's good fortune as one glider enters an updraft that shoots it into the sky another 50 feet. Kroll tucks our nose and we dive. Dramatically.
After half an hour, Kroll tells me, the potential for airsickness noticeably increases for first-time fliers. This makes sense. Slowly, we descend, swooping in over homes and fields, watching as swimming pools and cars suddenly come into focus. Kroll picks a point on the beach between two sunbathers to land. We sweep out over the ocean, which suddenly has form, waves, and movement, and back again over the pale sand. We land between two towels with barely a thump.
"How'd you like it?" asks Kroll, already mentally preparing for his next guests in the air: a female doctor-nurse team from New York who want to hang glide nude.
"I had no idea ...," I say to the wind. "None."
People who really want to fly should call (510) 528-2300 or check out www.sfhanggliding.com.