For more than 35 years, Missoulians have, on certain warm and breezy days, been able to look up to the skies east of town and enjoy the sight of hang gliders soaring on the thermals above the valley. But this spring those distinctive v-shaped kites have been conspicuously absent.
That’s because the air traffic control tower manager at Missoula International Airport asked University of Montana officials to ban hang gliding on the mountain following three unreported incidents last year in which airplanes and hang gliders got too close for comfort.
For 35 years hang glider pilots have found a way to coexist with airplane pilots, UM and air traffic officials in the unrestricted skies above Mount Sentinel. But in February Henry Barsotti, the air traffic manager for Serco—the British company contracted by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate 58 air traffic control towers across the country—sent a letter to university officials stating, “there is no real way to insure [sic] the safety of aircraft operations…if hang gliders are operating from and in the vicinity of Mount Sentinel.”
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there’s never been a hang glider-aircraft collision in Missoula (or anywhere else in the country, for that matter). That board’s database reveals that since 1962, the first year for which records are available, there have been 61 reported airplane accidents in Missoula, including a midair collision in 1970 that killed 10 people and injured two others.
John Kangas, an airline (and hang glider) pilot from Boise who has been flying in and out of Missoula for 20 years, says the current conflict stems from the fact that commercial airliners have only recently begun to approach Missoula over Mount Sentinel, an established and FAA-recognized hang glider launch site.
“In order to come over Mount Sentinel you have to make a very steep diving approach to get stabilized in time for a safe landing,” says Kangas, who adds that he has never flown over Mount Sentinel—except in a hang glider—for that very reason. “I don’t think a pilot would do it if an FAA inspector were on the plane.”
Besides, says Kangas, it’s the FAA, not Serco, that designates airspace, and hang gliders have as much right to fly there as commercial airplanes.
“The national airspace system is designed to accommodate every American user,” says Kangas. “The airlines would like everybody to stay out of the air so they could have it to themselves, but that’s not how it works in America.”