About 60 hang glider pilots will launch themselves off ridges of the San Gabriel Mountains and soar above Sylmar skies this weekend to honor a founder of one of the nation's most popular gliding sites.
Jeff Scott, who died at 32 in September after a nine-year battle with cancer, was a hero to members of the Sylmar Hang Gliding Assn. He was a test glider pilot from Northridge and a pioneering flier who dared to ride the thermal waves above Sylmar before hang gliding became a well-known Southern California sport.
"He was distinguished in the sense that he was one of the first hang gliders in the area and competed with world-class gliders," said Joe Greblo, who founded the Sylmar hang glider group with Scott. "We felt we had to remember him and honor him in a way he would appreciate."
The Jeff Scott Hang Gliding Competition will begin at 11 a.m. today at the crest of Kagel Mountain, 3,300 feet above sea level. Spectators may gather at the landing field at the northern end of Gridley Street in Sylmar. Pilots of canvas-winged gliders will race along a 25-mile air path in the mountain range.
Scott knew the route well, having first launched himself off the summit in 1972. He participated in the first U.S. national hang gliding competition in Sylmar in 1973 and holds a long-distance record for gliding from Palmdale to Santa Monica in 1979, Greblo said.
Soon after that record flight, he contracted a rare form of cancer with a complicated name his mother does not remember how to pronounce. "It began with a growth beneath his chin and slowly spread to his lungs," Beverly Scott said.
But for nearly nine years, while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatment, Jeff Scott flew. He worked as a heater and air-conditioning maintenance man for the Los Angeles Unified School District during the school year and devoted his summers to flying, his mother said.
"It was his whole life. He did it every chance he got," Beverly Scott said. "When he first started, he used to tell me not to worry because more people have died in bed than have died hang gliding."
His friends recall that six months before his death, weakened and with troubled breathing, he flew from the Sylmar site, where warm weather and scenic vistas annually attract thousands of pilots.
"Jeff just couldn't let go of his glider," said Erica Koesler, a Sun Valley pilot. "I remember we helped him up the mountain and practically picked him up and launched him ourselves."
Scott, at 6 feet, 7 inches, literally stood out from the troupe of glider pilots. When he harnessed himself to his wings his friends said he was like a giant eagle.
"When Jeff was up in the air," Beverly Scott said, "it was his freedom."