When Edward Messina, MSN, CRNP, was 15, there were no such things as “extreme” sports.
The Pennsylvania native traces his interest in hang-gliding to a group of neighborhood friends who learned the practice from an amateur-flying instructor they met through word of mouth. They were all amateur aviation enthusiasts, and hang-gliding was a new and different form of flying that had yet to be explored.
Hang-gliders learn via one of two means, Messina says: tandem flight by towing with an ultra-light motorized aircraft—or the foot-launch method, where you pick up the glider and run down a grassy slope, eventually progressing to more vigorous uphill launch.
He and his friends started in the grassy slopes of West Chester, Pa., and progressed to flying amid the more mountainous regions of the state.
By virtue of his age, Messina says, “I was at the mercy of the other people who had the means to get there.
“We had one glider that three of us shared,” he says. “Then as we got to be more proficient, we started buying individual equipment. I would guess it was probably about a year and a half or so before we felt really confident in our skills and newly acquired equipment that we felt safe enough to go out to the mountain.”
Nobody was there to thrill-seek; no one was courting danger. In fact, Messina says, his approach was safety-conscious from the beginning.
“For everyone who’s involved in it, there’s a fostering of safety around it because you want to have fun today and live for tomorrow,” he explains.
“That’s how we approach when we deliver medicine to our patients as well. That’s been a running theme throughout not only my flying career but also my professional career.”
And like his nursing career, Messina says, glider designs evolved to take on a high degree of sophistication, capability and performance.
“I can remember flying a big hang-glider kite with a big spaghetti strap harness that was [constructed] much like a parachute is harnessed together,” Messina says. “It literally was a webbing-type of harness, compared with the harness that I fly today, which has a carbon fiber back frame and a reserve parachute.
“Gliders in the 70s had an inherent danger if you put them into certain attitudes of flight,” he says. “If you flew too fast with them, they could go into a full-on dive. There was a stark contrast to what I was flying in 1976 as to what I’m flying in 2013.”
Over 35 years of flying hang-gliders, he says, a pattern begins to emerge. Records peak and valley in the number of hours flown or flights logged, “and you then overlay that into your life, and you can see when you were in school, when you got married, when you had children.” The pastime follows the undercurrent of his life.
“No matter where I go on a hang-gliding trip, whether it’s regionally or out on the West Coast, I take my harness with me,” Messina says. “I fly with hang-glider pilots who are well into their 60s. I’ve flown with hang glider pilots who are 70 years old and above. I’ve met people who are just getting into it in their 50s.
“I’m finding myself, that as I get older, I might not be charging as hard, but I’m still charging – still having fun at it and enjoying that time.”
“The way I look at it is to work without fun is no fun at all,” Messina said.
Aviation isn’t Messina’s only pursuit, either. Since childhood, he’s been an avid cyclist. He can remem- ber buying a Schwinn 10-speed racer that he rode from the suburbs north of Philadelphia through Bucks County to New Hope and back. For decades, Messina also has competed in cycling to benefit cancer research, including a popular fundraising circuit that takes riders to the Jersey Shore.
“If I can’t fly, I ride a bike,” he says. And then there’s the surfing and snowboarding. Growing up with the Jersey Shore as a family vacation spot, Messina remembers body surfing off the beaches of Wildwood until the day that “somebody showed up with a surfboard.”
“It was a very large, heavy long- board; a very thick, heavy-ply fiberglass,” he says. “I can remember riding on it and hitting my head and saying, ‘this stuff hurts.’”
The real allure didn’t come until adulthood, when Messina was on vacation with his wife and children. The family was riding boogie boards, and his 8-year-old son asked if they could rent a surfboard instead. Now the four of them have been on surfing vacations from Mexico and Puerto Rico to Panama and beyond.
“It gives you a perspective different from sitting on the beach,” Messina says. “Again, you approach this from a safety format. So you need to be cognizant of what the bottom is like; what’s the wildlife like. You go in and talk to the locals and you find out what the lay of the land is and what the local phenomenon is when you go there.”
From surfing, it was a stone’s throw to take up snowboarding, Messina says, a hobby that intersected neatly with his hang-gliding pursuits.
“We had petitioned Blue Mountain Ski Slopes for years to be able to use their property to launch from,” he says. “If you can drive to a launch site versus hiking in, it’s much easier on the body.”
Messina traces his love of the outdoors to a childhood of scouting, a grandfather in Wildwood who took him sailing and fishing on his boat, and an outlook of approaching every day to get as much out of it as he could. That’s why hang-gliding has remained such a rewarding passion.
“It gives me a different perspective on the planet,” Messina says. “You’re flying along with these birds, hawks, ospreys, eagles; you don’t think about the trials and tribula- tions of daily activity. Your whole focus is on flying.”