Military service was best thing for hang gliding veteran

Melbourne Beach resident Mark Lucas enjoyed flying to great heights in his career and his hobbies.

Most people, when going up into the sky to, say, 16,000-plus feet, usually opt for something like an airplane to provide a modicum of protection.

Most people are not Mark Lucas, who flew up to those rarified heights wearing not much more than an assemblage of aluminum sticks.

The Air Force veteran and avid hang glider managed that feat years ago, when during the World Gliding Championships in California, he got enveloped in a monster of a thermal current that took him up, up and away into the sky, or to be exact,

16,342 feet.

He had not packed auxiliary oxygen because he had not intended to set a record. He just wanted to enjoy a good day of gliding. He also set

a record.

He managed to control the glider despite the oxygen deprivation he experienced. As a unfortunate souvenir, blind spots plagued his vision for several years afterwards.

Lucas picked up the sport while stationed in Spain. It also was in the Iberian Peninsula that he picked up his higher education, which like his gliding, served him well throughout his life. He amassed college courses at the Universidad de Zaragoza before completing his electrical engineering studies at the University of Arizona.

At the time he joined the Air Force, Lucas had burned through a series of jobs that included construction work and garbage collection. He could not afford the luxury of college, and, like many young men and women, gravitated to the military.

“It was the best thing that could have happened to me, and I grabbed on with both hands,” he said.

He landed a plum assignment, tending to a communications power plant about 50 miles from Zaragoza. The area was perfect for hang gliding, and Lucas took every free moment

to practice.

After completing his studies, he was assigned to Vandenberg Air Force Base, where he joined the tight-knit community that oversaw classified satellites. He retired as a captain in 1994.

As a civilian, a stint with a Harris Corp. project in New Mexico served to introduce him to Melbourne.

“I thought this was the place I wanted to return to,” he said.

A tech adviser for a Harris spinoff, Lucas was in the right place at the right time. The company, responsible for open-source, remote sensing software, caught the attention of bigger companies.

“It started getting gobbled up by larger and larger corporations,” said Lucas, who went along for the ride until he retired four years ago.

These days, he dabbles in the stock market, plays drums in a band and is learning the piano. He hasn’t glided for years, but the Melbourne Beach resident is keeping tabs of gliding venues in Central Florida.

“I’m tempted to go back,” he said.