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Risky Thrills : Fears of Accidents, Lawsuits Prompt Rancho Palos Verdes to Put Curbs on Parasailing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fliers call them “paragliders” and use them to soar like sea gulls riding on the wind.

Increasingly, the fragile and controversial craft can be seen these days over the Palos Verdes Peninsula cliffs, their pilots suspended only by a harness under the fabric of the parachute-like wings. Riding thermal updrafts, some pilots can stay aloft for hours and can soar thousands of feet in the air.

Experts warn, however, that the sport can be dangerous.

Trouble can come with a sudden gust of wind or unexpected turbulence that collapses or stalls the chute, sending the flier crashing into a sea cliff or mountainside, experts say.

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“You can get into trouble real quick . . . (and) get yourself killed,” said Rob Kells, an instructor in the fledgling sport. A paraglider training manual, published by a manufacturer of the gliders, warns: “Injuries and death can and do occur, even to trained pilots.”

Always on the lookout for new places to fly, a few pilots have been taking off from Rancho Palos Verdes city parks and privately owned bluffs overlooking the ocean, prompting officials to raise questions of who would be liable if a flier or a bystander is injured or killed in an accident.

Fearing lawsuits, the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council recently passed a law banning all “manned flight” from city parks. The law--which goes into effect in mid-August--is one of the first passed by a Southern California city that is aimed specifically at the new paragliding sport.

City Parks and Recreation Director Mary Thomas said paraglider pilots have been flying off of Del Cerro and Abalone Cove parks. They have caused no problems yet, she said, but the city had to be prudent and ban the flights “before somebody got killed or injured,” leaving the city open to litigation.

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In neighboring Palos Verdes Estates, there are no specific laws against paragliding, but Police Chief Gary Johansen said, “We discourage the activity. It is extremely hazardous. . . . We don’t want them (flying off the bluffs) because if they get in trouble, the rescue would cost the taxpayers money.”

This latest flying fad combines the elements of hang gliding and skydiving in a newer, less expensive sport. Imported from Europe only a few years ago, paragliding is attracting a small but growing number of thrill seekers.

“I’m an adrenaline junkie on a budget,” said John Gusan, 21, a Simi Valley college student taking paragliding lessons.

Paragliders are made of brightly colored nylon or Dacron and look like the parachutes used by skydivers. But instead of just floating down, they can be steered and flown like gliders. Pilots can take off almost anywhere by simply spreading their chutes on a bluff or hilltop and catching the wind, and they can land in very small spaces.

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Compared to other forms of sport flying, paragliding is relatively inexpensive, though not cheap. The colorful wings, which weigh about 15 pounds, cost nearly $3,000. Flight instruction costs about $650 for the eight to 10 hours needed to qualify a student for a license. The licenses, issued by the American Paraglider Assn. or the U.S. Hang Glider Assn., allow pilots to rent or purchase equipment.

Paragliding is so new in the United States that there are no reliable accident statistics. The American Paraglider Assn., formed just three years ago, reports that six fliers have died since 1988.

Fewer than 1,000 people in this country have been trained in paragliding and certified by instructors. There are about 200 certified fliers in Southern California, officials report. By contrast, Europe has an estimated 80,000 licensed paraglider pilots, they said.

While most of the flights in Southern California are made from hills above the Simi Valley and the mountains around San Bernardino and Riverside counties, a growing number of enthusiasts are discovering the Palos Verdes Peninsula’s spectacular bluffs above the Pacific.

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But some enthusiasts aren’t eager to share their air space. Mike Christmas, a business executive who also skydives and windsurfs, considers paragliding the ultimate sky ride but is reluctant to talk about the sport or the places where he flies. “We’re experts and know the area, but we don’t want to see inexperienced people out here. It’s too dangerous,” he said.

Christmas and his flying buddies launch from private land with the owner’s permission and fly just off the land’s edge hundreds of feet above the pounding breakers, their gliders quartering on the wind.

He warned that soaring along the peninsula cliffs is much different from riding the warm-air thermals in the mountains or the deserts. The cool onshore winds blowing in off the ocean collide with the land mass, producing a wave of rising air that lifts the paraglider.

But because the pilots must stay close to the cliffs, the risk is great, experts warn. Strong winds can hurl them out of control against the cliffs.

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Thomas said the potential for accidents prompted the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council to act. Every weekend, she said, paraglider pilots have been launching from the bluffs above Abalone Cove or climbing over the hilltop safety fences along the cliffs of Del Cerro Park and jumping off.

“We just can’t allow this,” Thomas said.

The ordinance goes into effect in mid-August but will not be enforced until warning signs are put up in the parks, she said. For a short time after the signs go up, violators will be given warnings. Thereafter, offenders will be fined $100 for the first violation and $200 if they’re caught again.

Unlike hang gliding or sky diving, paragliding requires no cumbersome equipment or expensive airplane rides to go flying.

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Once certified by either of the two associations, a paraglider pilot can stuff his or her 15-pound chute into a backpack and head for the nearest hilltop or bluff. Takeoff is relatively simple, even in light winds, but trying to fly the 30-foot wings in strong winds is tricky and dangerous, experts warn.

Then there’s the problem of finding a place to take off and land without tangling with the law or an irate landowner.

“It’s hard to find places to fly that are suitable,” said instructor Kells, who is also a partner in an Orange County firm that builds paragliders. Too often, landowners have been irritated by outlaw fliers who take off without asking permission, he said.

“Unfortunately, these guys screw it up for everyone else,” Kells said. “We try to work against that.”

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