About Owen Morse:
Owen Morse began performing in high school, and was hired by Disneyland while in college. He met his future partner Jon Wee in 1986, at the IJA’s convention in San Jose, California. They teamed up to compete in the IJA Teams Championships in 1988. The duo, know as The Passing Zone, went on to become one of the world’s top juggling teams.
So Owen, what got you interested in hang gliding?
It was Mark Nizer at the IJA fest in L.A., back in ’90 I think. He was telling Jon (Wee) and me about it. It sounded like a fun and cool hobby. Later on Jon and I both got our certified ratings, and we bought our first gliders in 1993. A few years later Jon moved and he stopped flying, but I kept with it and got interested in cross country hang gliding. That’s where you try to see how far you can go.
What do you like about it so much?
It’s very cool and very peaceful. It’s a marriage of high tech and nature. Much of the technology is borrowed from yachting. Gliders are made with exotic materials like carbon fiber and aircraft grade aluminum. They’re computer designed to be as safe and streamlined as possible. Plus they have sophisticated instruments. The GPS can tell you altitude and speed as well as your location. After your flight, you can play back your course on a computer.
Even though there is all that sexy technology, it’s still very peaceful. By taking advantage of thermals, (pockets of rising warm air) you can fly for hours. The world distance record is over four hundred miles which took ten and a half hours. You’re just out there in nature, enjoying the view with the birds. It’s really amazing.
How much time do you spend hang gliding?
It’s very weather dependent, and it’s also tough when you have work and family obligations. I’ll get out a few times per month in the summer, less in the winter. Occasionally I’ll get some time off and good weather, then I go three or four days in a row, but that’s pretty rare.
What is your greatest achievement in hang gliding?
Actually there are two things I’m pretty proud of. First, I hold the open distance record at my flying site in Crestline, CA. I flew a hundred and eighteen miles. The other is when I earned the presidential citation award from the USHPA (United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.) It’s the highest award they give. I got it for creating a hang gliding exhibit at the John Wayne airport in Orange County. It’s been seen by millions of people and it’s still there at the baggage claim.
Which do you prefer, hang gliding or juggling?
I would have to say hang gliding. It’s more fun, but I’d much rather be a professional juggler than a professional hang glider pilot. Performing is tremendously satisfying, and there’s even less money in the sport of hang gliding!
What was your best hang gliding experience?
It has to be setting site record at Crestline. I got over 14,000 ft. a couple of times, and I almost made it to the Nevada border. My record still stands, and it may be there for a while. If someone breaks it, I will definitely try to get it back.
How about your worst?
It was the first day of the US national hang gliding competition last summer. I’m a fairly competitive person and I’ve done pretty well in many of things I’ve tried. Because of that, I had some very unrealistic expectations for myself. Looking back on it, it was silly to think that I’d do well. On the first day, I barely made it out of the start cylinder. I wasn’t dead last, but it sure felt like it.
I had hoped to fly a hundred miles that day, but it was much closer to ten. It was very humbling watching all the pilots flying over my head. I do very well at my home site, where there are lots of mountains to use as clues to find rising air. It was a different story flying the flatlands in Texas and competing against some of the best pilots in the world. Many of them had been competing for twenty years, and that was my first. I was like, “Ah, that’s how you do it.” It was a bit like watching Anthony Gatto. They were really inspiring, but it was depressing too.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Yeah, sometimes I’m amazed at how similar juggling and hang gliding are. They are both male dominated activities. Everyone likes getting together and having a good time. You’re always trying to keep things in the air, and dropping is bad.
Also, they are both very misunderstood – there are a lot of misconceptions out there. When you tell someone you’re a professional juggler, they usually think you’re a clown in the circus. When someone finds out that you’re a hang glider pilot, they think you’re a thrill seeking adrenaline junkie.
It’s really not like that. Back in the 70’s there were a lot of injuries and deaths, but the technology has come a long way since then. Now it’s a very safe and peaceful recreational sport. It’s kind of funny. I feel like I’m always trying to properly represent juggling and hang gliding. I want people to understand what they’re really like.
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