Getting the hang of it — hang gliding, that is

Getting the hang of it — hang gliding, that is
AT Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo, columnist Chris Erskine learns how to hang glide with the help of instructor Greg DeWolf. (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times)

With a pneumatic whoooooooosh, I leave Earth again, and I am not even propelled by the sort of happy hour rocket fuel with which I'm sometimes associated.

In truth, I do not have many happy hours. I have happy minutes, happy moments. An entire hour? Only our parents had happy hours, long chunks of the evening devoted to happy juice. By comparison, I'm almost a nun. A manly nun, sure. And on this day, the flying nun.


That's what this training glider looks like, that big cockeyed bonnet that Sally Field used to wear back in her "Flying Nun" days.

That was good television, the story of a pert Catholic nun who could soar like an angel, the sort of escapist fare favored back in the late '60s. Today we go the other way, with brutal shows — "Dexter," "Breaking Bad" — that soothe by reminding us our lives could be so much worse. You could get garroted, for example. Or summoned to jury duty.

So next time you're inching down the 110 south out of downtown, wondering how in the world the rich took control of those empty express lanes, or fretting over all the stupid things you fret over, most of which never come to pass, force yourself to think about what you could do to have one happy little moment.

Obviously, my mission is to instill a certain playfulness that seems lacking in your life right now. Your inner Peter Pan.

As I noted, the sensation of stepping off a bluff under a hang glider is almost pneumatic, as if compressors are involved, or elite German hummingbirds, or Orson Welles' voice box, a sensation similar to being whisked up into your father's arms when you were 4.

You'll have to admit that's not a bad playfulness, that sense of being swept up by a benevolent higher power. So bear with me as I explain hang gliding, a spirited and spiritual escape, and the greatest thing you've probably never tried.

"When lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag, anything can fly," the Flying Nun once explained. Reference too Bernoulli's principle of fluid velocity. Or not.

We are on the bluffs of Dockweiler State Beach, just west of LAX, overlooking lifeguard station 59. The bluffs here are 15 feet high, in some places maybe 30. Off to the right, a professional pilot who spends his off-hours flying his hang glider, floats in the late afternoon breezes.

At the lower bunny bluffs, it's just me, classmate Leo Laufer and instructor Greg DeWolf, who is almost birdlike in his passion for flight. Once he hang glided (hang glid?) from California to Kitty Hawk, N.C. Indeed, his bones might be hollow.

"Look up!" he's always telling me, for the inclination is to look down, where you might plummet to your sandy grave.

"Look up!" he scolds, as if catching me stealing something. "You don't drive down the freeway looking at your toes, do you?"

Here are the three things you need to brand into you brain if you're going to be a first-rate hang-glider.


Look up.


Keep your feet under you.

That's it, and I do two of those three things naturally. It's the feet thing I struggle with, because the natural inclination is to roll over on my back and play dead.

"Don't muscle it," DeWolf is constantly chanting, because brute force also comes naturally to me.

What you really want to know is how difficult it is, and I'd compare hang gliding to opening an umbrella or smearing a bagel with cream cheese. Essentially, anybody can hang glide. You're harnessed into this 40-foot training glider, which wants to fly the way corpses want to float.

So you can't really miss. Sure, the harness can be a little tight in the crotch, but what isn't these days, especially for manly nuns.

But before you know it, you've taken a few giant strides off the continent's left lip and are soaring with the pelicans, our avian soul mates, a bird Picasso must've designed.

Love the pelicans. Love everything about them — their lousy work ethic, their baggy chins. Especially the way they deliver all those babies.

That's not pelicans, you say?

Oh, look up.