Sky's the Limit but Landing Space Isn't

Times Staff Writer

Standing on a cliff at the 5,700-foot peak of Mt. Wilson, Dick Snyder peered into the sky at a few wispy clouds hovering above the mountains, ran toward the edge and dove off.

Dangling beneath an aluminum and Dacron hang glider, he drifted in the air above the sprawling San Gabriel Valley, an unbroken carpet of suburban tracts, high-voltage power lines and roads.

Shifting his weight, Snyder dropped down, aiming for a postage-stamp-size landing site nestled in the stew of suburban development.

He dove over rooftops, dodged a few telephone poles and finally settled down near some tennis courts on a plot of land that may soon give way to a housing development.

"A catastrophe," said Snyder of Altadena. "You're looking at the last open space left in the city and it just happens to be where we land."

But the proposed housing project means that the Mt. Wilson landing area may soon be closed to hang gliders, following the fate of dozens of landing areas once used by gliding enthusiasts in Los Angeles.

Development, intense competition for park space and fears of lawsuits have reduced the number of prime landing sites near Los Angeles to four.

Gone are landing areas in Redondo Beach, Playa del Rey, Torrance and Azusa, where fliers pioneered the sport.

In addition to the Mt. Wilson site, the prime sites left are in Sylmar in the San Fernando Valley, Crestline in western San Bernardino County and Lake Elsinore in western Riverside County, which is also in danger.

The most frustrating loss for hang gliding enthusiasts has been Dockweiler State Beach near Playa del Rey, one of the area's first hang gliding sites and until recently the place where many Southern Californians learned to hang glide.

The beach, with its soft sand, gentle slopes and steady coastal breezes, was closed to hang gliding in 1986 because of concerns over liability.

For those who have experienced the unpredictable consequences of living near a landing site, such as occasional rooftop landings and downed power lines, the threatened demise of hang gliding comes none to soon.

"It just turns our weekends into a circus," one Sylmar resident said. "They're nothing but headaches."

But for fliers who have ridden the air currents swirling around Southern California's mountains, the loss is painful.

"To lose the finest flying in the U.S., or to see a sport disappear from its birthplace, is a shame," said Cindy Brickner, executive director of the 7,000-member U.S. Hang Gliding Assn. "It's like saying you won't have Alpine skiing in Switzerland. Now that would be ludicrous."

At its outset 17 years ago, hang gliding flourished in Southern California, which offered year-round flying and a plentiful supply of launch sites from the mountains and beaches.

"It's amazing that something so good is so accessible," said Snyder, who has been flying Mt. Wilson for more than 11 years.

Not Regulated by Law

In theory, a hang glider in the early years could take off from any elevated location and land in any open space. The activity itself was not regulated by law. But not all high points offered good wind currents, and landing posed another problem--getting permission, at least tacit, from the owner of the land.

The experience at Mt. Wilson exemplifies some of the complications.

Below it lies the densely developed city of Pasadena. In the early years, fliers who launched at Mt. Wilson landed at the city's Victory Park. But that site was closed to hang gliders in 1982, when the city banned landings on city-owned property after several gliders barely missed baseball players. Now fliers aim for the 16.4-acre landing site off Washington Boulevard.

But within the next few months, that site, which has been sold by the Pasadena Unified School District to a developer for $9.3 million, could be lost to a 184-home development called the Rose Townhomes.

The probable loss of the landing site struck a sad chord for the 22 pilots who met at Mt. Wilson on New Year's Eve for an informal event known as the Mt. Wilson Fly In.

For 11 years, many of the pioneering pilots of the region have gathered at the summit for a cold winter flight and few hours of reminiscing over a barbecue.

Most said the fly-in would probably be the last of their New Year's Eve reunions.

"It's probably going to go the way of the gooney birds," flier Bob Lafay said. "It's a sad day, a passing of an era I guess."

At Lake Elsinore, located at the foot of the Ortega Mountains, there is an abundance of open land, but also a burgeoning number of 'For Sale' signs and billboards announcing new housing developments. The number of residents in Lake Elsinore has increased from 6,000 in 1980 to more than 12,000 today, and the city's population is expected to double again in the next seven years.

"A few years ago I thought of Lake Elsinore as a sleepy little cow town," flier Robert Ewing said. "Now you can see the development everywhere. Eventually, all of this is going to be built up."

The five-acre landing site sits in the middle of several planned developments.

"It's prime land. It'll go soon," flier Loren Culp said. "I don't see a developer or the city trying to accommodate us."

Some city officials are sympathetic to the fliers' plight, but say hang gliding is not a top priority.

"It's not that we're anti-hang gliding," said Nelson Miller, community development director for the city of Lake Elsinore. "We just don't have the resources to do anything for them. They need five acres. That's the size of a community park that everyone could use."

Sylmar and Crestline are experiencing similar building booms, and both landing sites border large developments in various stages of planning or construction.

But unlike Mt. Wilson and Lake Elsinore, the Sylmar and Crestline sites are expected to remain in use, at least for the time being.

The 4.3-acre landing site in Sylmar was recently deeded to the Sylmar Hang Gliding Assn. by the developer of a nearby mobile home park. The site is the fifth to which fliers have been relocated in the 16 years that they have been flying off nearby Kagel Mountain, from which a flight often lasts 60 to 90 minutes.

And at Crestline, the site is owned by Juanita Jackson, the widow of a hang gliding enthusiast who dreamed of turning his rocky four acres in the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains into a glider park.

"I could sell this land for a profit, but I want to make this a glider park," Jackson said. "I even have it stipulated in my will that this remain that way."

But even at those sites, the long-term outlook is unclear.

'Not Out of Woods'

"At the moment, I have my doubts," said Joe Greblo, the owner of a Van Nuys hang glider shop, Windsports International, and vice president of the Sylmar Hang Gliding Assn. "What about next year with a different set of politicians? Or the year after that? We're not out of the woods yet."

Fliers are particularly upset by the ban on the sport at Dockweiler State Beach, which posed far less danger to hang gliders than the high mountain sites and thus seemed ideal for beginners.

"It's an open space that's used for nothing, sits across from a sewage treatment plant, is under a runway and has a flawless safety record. They shut us down, just like that," said Greblo, who runs one of the two hang gliding schools in the region. "I couldn't think of a more secure spot than Dockweiler."

But in late 1986, the county, which manages the beach, banned hang gliding after discovering a decade-old Los Angeles city ordinance prohibiting hang gliding in city parks.

The fliers appealed to the City Council, which finally agreed to approve the sport if the county would issue a permit.

Potential Danger

But after a yearlong battle, County Chief Administrative Officer Richard B. Dixon announced last August that hang gliding would not be allowed because of the potential danger to bicyclists riding on a nearby path. Officials also declared that a $1-million liability insurance policy provided by the U.S. Hang Gliding Assn. was inadequate.

"It's not that we are particularly against the sport, but it's just that beaches have become a favorite target of litigants," said Ted Reed, county director of beaches and harbors.

Reed said the county has already had more than its share of lawsuits arising out of accidents at the beach. It is awaiting action on 25 suits filed by people who were injured diving off piers, and recently agreed to a $3.4-million settlement stemming from an incident in which a piece of concrete fell on a jogger.

Henry Bachrach, the county's chief of risk management, said the insurance requirements for hang gliding at Dockweiler are the same as those for other high-risk events.

But given the risks and the relatively small number of hang glider pilots who want to use the site, he said, providing more insurance or moving a bike path are not feasible solutions to the problem.

"You can't push the world around for one flea," he said. "They're pretty far down the list of priorities."

Few would question the risk involved in hang gliding. Most pilots wear parachutes, but there is still the danger of crashing on takeoff or landing, running into a tree or power line or having the glider fall apart in extreme conditions.

The skies have also become more crowded as landing sites in other areas have been closed.

"You almost have to fly with a bullhorn," said Gary Vandenberg of Altadena, who has been hang gliding for nearly 14 years.

300 Deaths

Since 1971, the U.S. Hang Gliding Assn. has recorded more than 300 deaths nationwide related to the sport, including a high of 43 in 1976. (There are no statistics available for the Los Angeles area.)

But since 1976, the number of deaths has declined to a low of about 10 reported nationwide in 1987.

Experts believe that the decline can be traced to two safety programs instituted by the association and hang glider manufacturers.

In 1976, after two years of high fatalities and a surge in the number of new fliers, the association began a rating system to ensure that the skill levels of fliers matched the areas in which they flew.

For example, it called for pilots who fly an intermediate area, such as Sylmar, to pass a written test and to have taken at least 90 flights from beginner hills, such as those at Dockweiler, where the wind is gentler and launch and takeoff sites are more forgiving.

Advanced Skills

According to the group, to fly the most difficult areas, such as Mt. Wilson, where a faulty takeoff can be fatal and a landing requires advanced handling skills, a flier should have logged more than 250 flights, flown at five different intermediate-rated locations, and had at least one one-hour flight.

At the same time, the Hang Glider Manufacturers Assn. established design and safety standards, including a review by a panel of experts of all new models.

But there is no government enforcement of the rating system and most fliers say the weakest link in the safety of the sport in the Los Angeles area is the lack of supervised hang gliding areas where fliers can be regulated and monitored.

At Sylmar, Mt. Wilson, Lake Elsinore and Crestline, fliers informally patrol their areas to make sure only qualified hang glider enthusiasts fly, but concede that unqualified fliers manage to use the areas as well.

In San Francisco, the National Park Service has allowed a local group, Fellow Feathers, to manage a site at Ft. Funston. The group patrols the area and allows only fliers with the proper rating to fly.

"It has worked out very well," said Howard Levitt, a spokesman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. "It's become quite an attraction in its own right. On a good day we've had hundreds of people come and watch."

There have been two deaths since the area was established in 1979.

Other sites that operate under the auspices of local authorities include San Diego's Torrey Pines State Beach, Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park and Ed Levin County Park in Santa Clara County.

Despite the success of these areas, hang glider enthusiasts have been unable to find an official location in the Los Angeles area.

'Expect Disappointment'

"We've been rebuffed and put off for so long that we've almost come to expect disappointment," said Brickner of the U.S. Hang Gliding Assn.

Even without supervised landing spots, most fliers say the sport will persist as long as there are schoolyards, dry riverbeds, parklands and golf courses to land in--with or without permission.

"They would just drive us underground. It will be a game of tag," Snyder said. "People will land wherever there is open space. I mean, if you lived at the base of a mountain that produces 150-mile cross-country flights, would you drive an hour to fly off a 1,500-foot hill?"

But Snyder and others say the future of the sport in Southern California seems bleak as landing spots disappear and the few that remain become too crowded and too difficult for beginning and intermediate fliers to negotiate.

"It's definitely fading," said Vandenberg as he prepared to launch off of Mt. Wilson. "We'll still be around in 10 years, but I can see it becoming an obscure sport again, just like it was in the beginning."

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