High atop the hardscrabble north slope of Ventura's Grant Park, Randy Liggett looks down at the city. Hundreds of feet below, homes along Ventura Avenue are as tiny as Monopoly pieces. On the rise behind him, tall cypresses rustle in a light breeze.
Pulling a para-glider from a bulky backpack, Liggett assembles it and climbs into the harness. Glancing at the horizon--where Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands poke through a carpet of late-afternoon fog--Liggett kicks the ground, raising a dirt cloud, and watches the dust blow to the east. Satisfied, he lowers his head, runs downhill and flings himself off the precipice without so much as a gasp, shriek or "Geronimo!"
For the next few minutes, Liggett casually swoops above the Avenue like Mary Poppins, getting a bird's-eye view, panoramic yet intimate, exhilarating and vertiginous. Then gently, like a butterfly alighting, he touches down on a school playground, an urban flyboy come home to roost.
Liggett is one of a handful of pilots who fly the friendly skies of Ventura County strapped to either fixed-wing hang gliders or para-gliders--which are basically parachutes. Soaring over city neighborhoods and rural farmland, circling the coast with gulls and soaring above the mountains, these die-hards routinely travel dozens of miles, often reaching altitudes of 15,000 feet and staying aloft for hours at a time. Agreeable coastal weather allows them more than 300 days of flying a year.
"Ventura County has to be one of the premier spots in the world for year-round flying," says Tom Truax, who holds most of the local records for hang gliding--including the longest flight, a 180-mile, 6 1/2-hour journey from Pine Mountain in the Los Padres National Forest to a small town east of Barstow.
Perfect weather. Varied topography. Miles of beaches for soft landings. Ventura has it all. Except an abundance of pilots. Truax says active pilots in the county number only a dozen in hang gliding and 20 in para-gliding. Scores more are former pilots, burned out by too many bumpy landings and close calls, or one-time pilots who had neither the money nor nerve, commitment and athletic skills to get beyond the training hill.
The male-dominated gliding sports (women have stayed away in droves) haven't taken off in the rest of the country either. The U.S. Hang-Gliding Assn.--the recognized body for both sports--lists just 8,500 hang glider pilots and only 1,600 in para-gliding (not to be confused with para-sailing, which is basically a parachute tethered to a boat).
Not everybody, of course, is willing to find thrills, chills and occasional spills while dangling from what appears to be a humongous kite.
"Probably 10% of the population enjoys thrill-seeking activities," says Dr. Richard M. Deamer, a Ventura psychiatrist and glider pilot. "Being released from gravity for a short time is liberating, an escape from a hum-drum life."
But for most of us, a hum-drum life may look better than the prospects of no life at all. A few years ago, before the USHGA tightened standards, pilots were dropping like flies.
Since then, hang gliding has averaged eight to 10 fatalities a year in the United States; para-gliding, which didn't reach this country until 1986, has had a total of about 10 fatalities, USHGA officials say. Ventura County reportedly has had two or three deaths in hang gliding over the years and none in para-gliding.
Like other action sports--wind sailing, rock climbing, ballooning and sky diving--hang gliding and para-gliding require intense training, experience, judgment and constant practice to lessen the chances of killing yourself.
"Safety is up to the individual and how he or she learns and practices the sport," says Ted Boyse, an instructor based in Van Nuys. "People get hurt because they do something they shouldn't. If you fly a hang glider or para-glider in the conditions they're supposed to be flown in, you should have no problem."
Gliding free, hearing nothing but the sound of the wind and your own heartbeat, is actually the safest part of flying. Although mid-flight stalls cause a few accidents a year, pilots carry an emergency parachute--some rocket-triggered to open instantly. Most fatalities are caused by crashing on takeoff or landing, experts say. Almost every year, a pilot is killed by simply failing to attach himself to his hang glider.
Top pilots prefer the higher performance hang gliders (hang gliding's world-record distance flight is 301 miles, more than 100 miles more the para-gliding record.)
Para-gliders didn't arrive in the United States until a few years ago, but the sport is expected to become more popular than hang gliding, as it has in Europe. Para-gliders are easier to learn to fly and more convenient to use. Hang gliders are fixed-wing structures resembling huge kites, weigh about 80 to 90 pounds each and take up to an hour to assemble at the launch site. By contrast, para-gliders are "drivable" parachutes weighing only 15 pounds each, light enough for backpack carry and enabling pilots to hike to launch sites inaccessible to hang glider pilots. They also allows pilots to pack up their gliders after an emergency wilderness landing and hike out.
Humans have dreamed about flight since the dawn of time, but hang gliders weren't invented until the late 1800s. They quickly disappeared, obliterated by engine-powered flight, forgotten until Europeans rediscovered them a little more than 20 years ago.
In Ventura County, the first hang glider, or reasonable facsimile, appeared about 1973. Crude kit gliders cost about $400 then--versus $4,500 today--and had a glide ratio of only three feet for every one foot of elevation. Homemade gliders were usually constructed of bamboo and garbage-bag plastic.
Among the hang gliding pioneers in the county were Tony Deleo, Randy Liggett, Jim Woods, Ron Gruel and brothers David and Mark Arrambide, all of whom flew by the seat of their pants.
"I went out to watch David one day (in 1974) and thought, if he can do it, anybody can," says Deleo, a Ventura real estate broker. "Two days later, I bought a glider and we all drove to Mt. San Miguel in San Diego. Within the first couple of days, I was getting up to 1,000 feet, more than enough to kill myself."
In retrospect, Deleo thinks he and his friends are lucky to be alive. "We were pretty stupid," he says. "We didn't even know why gliders flew. The sport was absolutely terrifying then."
Terrifying, but exciting. Jim Woods took his first flight in July, 1974, on a Thousand Oaks mound known as Tarantula Mountain. "Early gliders didn't fly very far," says Woods, an Ojai machinist who owned one of the county's first glider shops. "But you could have a lot of fun on a small hill."
By the mid-'70s, pilots nationwide had become better than their equipment. Bored, they began reaching for new heights.
Across the country, fatalities shot up, with more than 150 pilots killed by decade's end. "What had seemed like a gentle, quiet sport turned into a death sport," Woods says. The fatalities alarmed the Federal Aviation Administration, which considered regulating the sport. To avoid government control, the USHGA set stricter rules for pilots and pressured manufacturers to establish testing procedures for equipment.
While the USHGA cleaned up hang gliding, designers were busy improving glider performance, raising the thrill quotient. The 1981 Comet, which had a 10-to-1 glide ratio, "was a turning point in the sport," Tom Truax says. Suddenly, soaring long distances became possible, which meant pilots were able to spend more time in the air.
Truax, 38, capitalized on the new hang gliders, becoming the first county flyer to crack the 100-mile barrier. His contribution to local gliding, however, goes beyond his records.
In 1981, when still new to the area, Truax set out to find his own launch site. Noticing 7,500-foot Pine Mountain on a map, Truax went for a look in a rented light plane. Today, the mountain is the launching site for world-class flying from late spring to early fall.
On a recent Sunday, Truax, Tony Deleo and other members of the Topa Flyers--a club named for the craggy peaks above Ojai--rendezvous in Ventura and car pool to Pine Mountain, a 90-minute drive. On the final leg, they leave California 33 and take a narrow, winding fire road six miles up the mountain, past U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, to within 500 feet of the summit. They set up their gliders on a dirt road along the mountain's south face, which rolls steeply into a vast, rugged valley.
Pilots have to become weather experts, amateur meteorologists who can read the sky and interpret subtle changes. Looking southwest, beyond the mountains, Truax sees the city of Ventura, overcast with little wind. Above Truax, the cloudless skies are bright blue and the wind blows toward him in gusts up to 25 m.p.h., less than ideal launch conditions (winds should be between 5 and 15 m.p.h.). But Truax thinks they will improve.
"The day's early," he tells the others. "Don't be gangbusters to go."
One of the pilots decides not to fly. Kevin Cwiok, a 36-year-old Ventura aircraft mechanic, hasn't flown since January and feels uneasy trying to tackle strong gusts.
"The anxiety is too much to deal with," Cwiok says.
Facing their gliders into the wind, the pilots painstakingly assemble their craft, rigging lines, stretching Dacron fabric over the wing, inserting battens. Concentrating in silence, they attach two-way radios and an electronic box to the triangular trapeze hanging below the airfoil. The box, called a Variometer, indicates altitude, air speed and vertical movement--whether the glider is going up or down.
"We've got a cumi out front now," Truax shouts, pointing to a small, puffy cloud above the mountain. Cumulus clouds are formed by thermals rising off the ground. Although it's possible to fly all day on ridge lift--wind bouncing off the side of a mountain--a pilot usually needs strong thermals to get enough altitude to break away and head for the desert or the coast.
After Truax calls a pilots meeting to discuss safety, weather and flight-path options, the pilots tuck themselves into cocoon-like harnesses and, one by the one, walk their glider to the launch--a foot-high dirt mound on the side of the road. When the gusts cooperate, the pilots take turns running downhill into the wind. In only two or three steps, they're airborne, banking to the west. Within 45 minutes, a gaggle of gliders circles high above, heading to the backside of the mountain.
"We're at 10 grand and going to the (Cuyama) Badlands," a voice squawks from Truax's radio.
Truax planned to use his para-glider on this day, but with his harness in the shop for repairs the winds ground him. He settles for driving the chase vehicle, picking up his comrades three hours later, five to 10 miles from the launch site. Except one pilot, who found the right combination of air currents, reached 14,500 feet and landed at New Cuyama, 30 miles northwest of the launch.
When high-performance hang gliders made distance-soaring possible in the early '80s, Truax, Randy Liggett, Ron Gruel and several other members of the Topa Flyers each threw $10 into the pot for the first pilot to do the "Pine Mountain Challenge," a 25-mile flight to the beach.
On a clear June day in 1984, Gruel took his hang glider up to 12,500 feet late in the afternoon and decided "to make a glide for the beach, but I didn't think I had a chance. The wind usually dies out late in the day." Coming in low over Ventura Avenue after about an hour in the sky, Gruel was sinking fast and figured his chances of landing on the Ventura Freeway were improving by the second. Skimming the walkway over freeway, he barely made it to the sand, touching down at the base of the pier.
Three weeks later he repeated the feat and went on to claim other local records. During a flight three years ago, he set Grant Park standards for altitude and distance by catching a convergence: an updraft formed by winds out of Ojai meeting the onshore flow.
"I was in the right place at the right time," says Gruel, 37, who sells home-security devices. "I got up to 5,000 or 6,000 feet over the Avenue and then went to 11,500 feet over (Ventura) Marina. The wind was blowing to Malibu, so I went with it."
Of all the problems facing the gliding sports, the biggest may be the disappearance of prime launch and landing sites. Suburbia's growth is devouring open space, while lawsuit-wary landowners are keeping pilots off their property. About 10 years ago, Rincon Mountain, the best intermediate launch site between Santa Barbara and Ventura, was closed when the landowner put a gate across the access road.
"If I can't get a landowner to let me on his property because he thinks I may wind up suing him, the sport is going to be limited," says Ken Brown, a Salinas hang glider manufacturer.
Another limitation: Gliding is a high-pressure, physically and mentally grueling sport that demands total commitment. Many pilots burn out. Landings, especially, take their toll, pounding hang glider pilots and also inflicting back trouble on para-glider pilots who accidentally touch down buttocks first.
Most of the pilots who began flying with Tony Deleo 20 years ago have retired, no longer willing to pay the price to be lords of the skies. Deleo, 42, thinks he will fly indefinitely but has reservations about letting his 5-year-old son, Ryan--who has been accompanying his father to Pine Mountain almost since he was born-- get involved in gliding.
"Inherently," Deleo says candidly, "it's a dangerous sport."
Gliding Sites in Ventura County
NAME ELEVATION LOCATION RATING Simi 200 feet Southwest Simi Valley Beginner Bates Road 200 feet Rincon Point Intermediate Round Mountain 550 feet Camarillo, off Las Posas Road Intermediate The Avenue 740 feet Grant Park, Ventura Intermediate Oat Mountain 3,200 feet North of Fillmore Advanced Nordhoff Peak 4,500 feet North of Ojai Advanced Chief's Peak 4,800 feet North of Ojai Advanced Pine Mountain 7,000 feet North Ventura County Advanced
SOURCE: Randy Liggett
Qualified to Teach
U.S. Hang-Gliding Assn. Certified Instructors
* Topa Topa Para-gliding
Randy Liggett, instructor
* Windsports Soaring Center
Joe Greblo, instructor
* L.A. Para-gliding
Ted Boyse, instructor
* Fred Vachss
* Hang-Glider Emporium
Ken deRussy, instructor
Robert Brown, instructor
SOURCE: U.S. Hang-Gliding Assn.