John Harris learned to fly in the 1970s with a piece of nylon. And still today, whether he’s holding a kite string in his hands on the Nags Head beach or strapping a hang glider to his back on Jockey’s Ridge, he enjoys knowing that the only thing keeping the contraption aloft is the breeze beneath him.
There was a moment in 1974 when a man who lives on the coast stood on the edge of Grandfather Mountain, perched like a bird 1,600 feet above the base. In this moment he realized that one of two outcomes lay before him: death or history.
He came a long way for this moment. He drove 400 miles from the sandy shores of the Outer Banks with two friends, up the winding mountain roads, heads bobbing, stomachs yelling, hearts palpitating.
Below this man lay jagged rocks, brown bears, and a wide expanse of rough, spiky limbs waiting to catch him. The man had a son, a mother, two brothers, a sister, nephews, and nieces — people to grieve him if he died.
The July sun caused sweat to form on the small of his back and the palms of his hands. The man stood, shoulders slightly bent forward from the weight of science on his back. Strapped to him was a hang glider — nothing more than a sheet of nylon stretched across some aluminum bars.
He walked away from the edge. Then he turned around, sprinted toward the ledge, and jumped.
On that day, July 13, 1974, John Harris made history jumping off Grandfather Mountain. Hugh Morton, who owned the mountain, took a photo of him preparing to jump. He looked like a giant bird with one large wing.
Only a couple of other people had dared to launch themselves off a mountain with a piece of nylon strapped to their backs. And they did it on the West Coast. Harris was the first in North Carolina to jump off a mountain with a hang glider and live. His name was splashed across magazines and The Washington Post.
In these moments, Harris always listens to his instincts. And because he listens, he succeeds.
He started Kitty Hawk Kites in Nags Head to teach people how to fly in the place flight first began. He intended for the name to pay homage to the location of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flight. He now runs two hang-gliding schools, one in Nags Head and one in New Hampshire, and he has taught half a million people how to fly. His safety record convinced one company to underwrite the first insurance policy ever created for hang gliders.
The weather makes it difficult to give lessons consistently, though, so he added retail kite stores to pay the bills. He now has 15 stores along the coast of North Carolina and plans to open stores all across the southeast. In the summers, he employs 350 people. Now people recognize him for the toys, not the flights.
But all these business ventures make Harris so busy that he has no time to do the one thing that launched his life. He has no time to fly.
Four hundred miles east of where Harris jumped off that mountain, on the top of Jockey’s Ridge, the wind kicks up to 25 miles per hour. The breeze carves ripples in the sand and piles it into small hills. The grains fly upward into Harris’s thick, white hair. The sand assaults his glasses, peppering the lenses with particles. He and two instructors are on the dunes for a flying lesson; the conditions aren’t good. Winds stronger than 20 miles per hour can push the Eaglet — the 28-foot-wide hang glider for beginners — straight back. A young woman is lying down in the sand, clipped beneath the glider in a harness. She wears a helmet and balls up her fists beneath her chest, above the aluminum bar.
“Make sure you have one to one-and-a-half fists’ distance there,” Harris says.
The woman digs her feet into the sand. Slowly she stands up, and the instructors, one on each side of the Eaglet, grab long tethers attached to the crossbar.
“Start running,” one of the men shouts.
The woman and the men begin running, and within a few seconds, the wind lifts the Eaglet and the woman into the air. For a moment, she flies.
When she turns around and looks at Harris, he smiles.
Harris doesn’t find his way to the dunes often these days. He rarely flies. He promised himself he would slow down and go hang gliding more often, but he hasn’t. The last time he was strapped in a harness and sailing in the wind was a year ago. But that feeling never leaves him.
“When you launch, it’s like throwing your fate to the wind or Mother Nature,” he says. “But if you do the right things, you can stay up for a while and you feel like you’ve mastered Mother Nature or maybe life for a moment.”
Harris’s life began far from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He was born in Moberly, Missouri, in 1947. His dad died when he was a year old, his stepfather died when he was 10, another stepfather when he was 25, and the last when he was 50. But his mother was a fighter and a worker.
Margaret Page Smothers raised four children on a 250-acre farm. She didn’t sleep much, a trait she passed on to her son. Harris could drive a tractor and a truck by the time he was 10, and it was his job to feed the chickens, hogs, and cattle.
Harris went to college at the University of Missouri at Rolla to study engineering. He joined a co-op program that let him work every other semester. His first job was in Sunnyvale, California, at Lockheed Martin. There he became friends with one of his coworkers, Ralph Buxton. They explored Santa Cruz and camped in Yosemite National Park. After graduation, Harris accepted a job at Western Electric in Winston-Salem, and Buxton went to work in Annapolis, Maryland.
One evening in 1973 while Harris was in his apartment on Summit Street, he opened the local newspaper, the Winston-Salem Journal, and there above the fold was a large photo of a man hang gliding. For some reason, that photo captivated him.
“Such a simple flying machine,” Harris thought. That night, he didn’t sleep. He lay in his bed and stared at the ceiling, clutching the newspaper photo in his hand.
“It was like an epiphany,” Harris says. “It seemed to awaken every nerve and brain cell in my body.”
The next day, he scoured the library for information on how to build and fly a hang glider. He found nothing. So he got the man’s name from the newspaper and called information in Kaysville, Utah, for his phone number. He mailed a check for $600 (although his weekly paycheck was only $400), and about six weeks later, a large, cardboard tube arrived. Inside were a red, white, and gold glider, about 16 feet wide, and an eight-millimeter film. Harris spent hours studying the black-and-white images of a man soaring with a large kite.
That weekend, Harris, Buxton, and a few friends met at Jockey’s Ridge. They carried the glider to the top of the dunes. One at a time, each man fastened the glider to his back and sprinted off the sandy slope.
Run. Jump. Crash. Run. Jump. Crash.
Each time they crashed, the men climbed to the next-highest dune. Until one moment, when Harris found himself running in place in the air.
“I was lifted up off the ground,” Harris says. “I was flying. There was such a sense of freedom.”
Every weekend, he hauled his glider back to Jockey’s Ridge. As he flew, he thought about the people who’d made this possible and developed an idea to carry this form of flight forward. He’d applied to graduate school at Texas A&M University, but the thought of being so far from the coast — the best spot in the world to hang glide, he says — sickened him. So he enrolled at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, instead.
He just couldn’t get that hang glider — and the feeling of freedom it gave him — out of his mind. He contacted Buxton, got him on board with the idea of making hang gliding a business, and visited real estate companies near Jockey’s Ridge.
“One man laughed me out of his office,” Harris says. A 27-year-old graduate student starting a business to teach people how to fly like birds?
Eventually he rented the garage of the Nags Head Casino just across the street from Jockey’s Ridge. He attended classes through the week and taught flying lessons on the weekends. At night, Harris slept above the garage in a sleeping bag and listened to the wind. In the mornings, he woke up to find large piles of sand in the corners of the garage. He bought a new answering machine every week because the tiny grains ate up the tape.
One of his first customers, Vernon Hollins, remembers the early days of Kitty Hawk Kites. He remembers Harris, a somewhat inexperienced flight instructor, trying to teach him how to fly.
“Here’s what you need to understand about John,” Hollins says. “He has some courage to face challenges. You have to understand; this is a man who ran off a mountain without knowing what would happen.”
Harris’s work paid off. He taught $10,000 worth of lessons that summer, and that fall, he didn’t complete his course work at Old Dominion. “Hang gliding got in the way,” Harris says.
Buxton moved to Nags Head a few years later to help. The duo sealed the walls of the garage, stocked T-shirts and kites to sell for extra cash, and taught three to four lessons a day. They had to take a break when the wind was too strong or when it rained or when a storm came up. Every night, they repaired their gliders and prepared for the next day, while listening to dancers stomp their feet overhead in the casino and smelling the draft beer. It was tempting to head upstairs and join the crowd, but they stuck with their work.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s when a recession hit the country and people stopped spending money to become birds for just a moment, Harris didn’t know if Kitty Hawk Kites could continue. But then, he had a dream.
In the dream, he was standing on Jockey’s Ridge. Hundreds of people walked to the top of the dune, from the beaches, from the road, from the sounds. The wind blew from the east, and sand flew. The group lined the dunes and joined hands. They raised their arms in a V. Then their bare feet lifted from the sand, their heads fell back, and they flew.
Harris took a cue from that dream that he should keep trying. He listened to his instincts, just like he did that day years earlier when he jumped off Grandfather Mountain and made history.
But before that picture of Harris became famous, there was another man and another moment.
On August 15, 1948, in Hampton, Virginia, Francis Rogallo successfully flew the first flexible flying machine — a small, paper-airplane-shaped wing sewn together from Rogallo’s kitchen curtains. Of course Rogallo’s invention wasn’t the first to help men glide above the dunes lining the Outer Banks. Orville and Wilbur Wright made more than 1,000 glides in 1902. But those flights were in a fixed-wing aircraft, and after the powered flight the next year, the public forgot about gliding with no engines.
But by the mid-’60s, Rogallo’s hand-drawn design appeared in National Geographic, and entrepreneurs began fashioning hang gliders out of bamboo, nylon, and plastic. They were attracted to Rogallo’s hang glider because of its simplicity. The wing, arched slightly in the front, allows the wind to flow over the surface and create lift.
This invention strips us of certain comforts and complications. There are no flight attendants or lavatories, no unnerving lectures about oxygen masks or emergency exits, no protective metal casings. There are only a man, his mind, and the wind.
In John Harris’s office in Kill Devil Hills, there is no space. You must be thin to squeeze inside. Narrow inches separate stacks of boxes. There’s a TV on the desk, rolled-up posters, and files stacked higher than Harris’s white hair that peeks out behind them.
But he is rarely here. He’s on the road, driving up and down the North Carolina coast to one of his 15 stores, or to his two stores in Florida, or to his second hang-gliding school in New Hampshire. He manages 70 employees in the off-season and 350 in the summer. His real office is the company vehicle with the Kitty Hawk Kites logo painted on the side.
Harris doesn’t stop. He works 15-hour days, and he doesn’t sleep much, either.
“His work is his life,” says his wife, Sandra Allen.
He and Allen met at work. When Harris decided that she was the one, the woman he could trust, the woman who knows the business, he outlined a plan to her, sort of a business proposal. Step one: Let’s announce that we’ll date to our coworkers. Step two: Let’s go to the movies.
“The dating was the easy part,” Harris says.
The couple got married seven months ago, and they haven’t taken many vacations since. But they enjoy the small things: chocolate chip cookies, red wine, walks on the beach, her head on his shoulder at night. And then there are the big things: the customer who lost 111 pounds so she could learn to fly, and the Francis Rogallo Foundation Harris started to honor Rogallo’s contribution to hang gliding.
Sitting downstairs in the Kitty Hawk Kites warehouse in Nags Head, Harris pulls out a photo album. The photos are of his family, but mostly of his son, Jonathan: he’s Superman; he’s flying in a hang glider; he’s wearing an old sweatshirt; he’s naked on the edge of the bathtub; he’s riding a horse.
He looks just like his dad.
“He really looks like me now,” Harris says. “Except he has short hair.”
Another photo. “This is up in New York where the soaring-society museum is.” Another. “That was prom, graduation. For their senior graduation party, we had the jet boat come over and pick everybody up and take them for a ride. It was a lot of fun.”
Jonathan always felt a bond with his dad growing up. And he remembers working with him in the summers, when he dressed up as a bear and ran around as the Kitty Hawk Kites mascot.
“I started working when I was 12,” Jonathan says. “Dad always tried to teach me things. He always said, ‘Be observant.’ And we were always taking trips. … But it’s hard to talk about my dad.”
When Jonathan was a kid, his dad was always working, and when they spent time together, it was usually in the store.
Jonathan is now a chef in Connecticut. And every time Harris heads north to the hang-gliding school in New Hampshire, he stops to see him. And his son, red-eyed from 15-hour workdays with no sleep, cooks his father a meal.
Back in Nags Head, on top of Jockey’s Ridge, in Harris’s favorite spot to fly, the woman strapped to the hang glider finishes her lesson. Harris and the two instructors carry the Eaglet to the bottom of the dunes. The wind pushes back Harris’s hair, revealing lines across the 66-year-old’s forehead. Sand blows into his hair and clings to his black jacket. He bends over the Eaglet and rolls up the blue-and-white nylon wing. The wind picks up. Behind Harris on the dunes, a man fastened to a red-and-white glider hunches over in the wind, eyes squinting to see. The breeze keeps pushing him back. “The wind is too strong today,” Harris says.
This month marks the 41st anniversary of Harris’s Hang Gliding Spectacular and Air Games. Every May, he invites hang-gliding enthusiasts from across the world to bring their gliders to Jockey’s Ridge and fly above the dunes. Hundreds of gliders will span across the park, a small city of mechanical birds. Harris will join them for his yearly flight. He’ll walk to the top of the dunes with his old glider. He’ll clip into the harness and stand up with the weight of science on his back. Then he’ll run, feet pedaling through the sand. The wind will lift him. And then — if only for this one brief moment — he will fly.