They don't have any superpowers, catchy code names or even wear spandex tights. But this team of high-flying crime fighters has proven themselves to be real men--and women--of steel.
They are the Sylmar Hang Gliding Assn. arson and crime watch, what you might call an aerial neighborhood watch--or eye in the sky--protecting the Angeles National Forest above Sylmar. And all they need to launch themselves into action is a convenient mountaintop.
"It's like being Superman," said Larry Walton, 52, a West Hollywood lawyer who joined the squad when it was formed 3 1/2 years ago. "It's really easy to spot things going on from the air."
Every day, seven days a week, members of the dedicated corps of about 200 hang gliders drive up the winding road to the top of 3,500-foot Kagel Mountain, shoulder their kites and leap into space with the zest Clark Kent used to leap tall buildings.
But these crime fighters do not patrol some sprawling metropolis, nor do they seek solutions with their fists. Instead, they keep their eyes, and disposable cameras, trained on the Angeles National Forest for illegal dumping, abandoned cars and brush fires.
When they see a problem, the aerial crime fighters get on the radio to a spotter on the ground at the gliders' "landing field," an open grassy area near El Cariso Park in Sylmar. The spotter then alerts firefighters or U.S. Forest Service rangers.
"They're good informants," said Wolfgang Tamm, district law enforcement officer for the Tujunga ranger district. "They're like a bird floating over your head. You never know they're there."
Although officials have not made any arrests as a result of the watch program, Tamm said the gliders' daily flights have helped discourage potential troublemakers. At times, the fliers have also kept small problems from becoming big ones.
Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Don DeYoung remembers one afternoon in June, 1992, when a single-engine aircraft slammed into a fog-shrouded hillside above the Pacoima Dam, killing the pilot. Gliders flying above the fog spotted the crash and led air-rescue crews to the scene, where firefighters extinguished a small blaze.
"It took a while to find it, but they helped on that one," DeYoung said. "They do what they can to help."
Two months later, another member of the air patrol prevented a blaze from spreading when he alerted officials to a car that went off a mountain road in Dillon Divide, setting a brush fire.
With fierce Santa Ana winds, blistering summers and overgrown vegetation, the Angeles National Forest is a tinderbox. In 1993 alone, there were 172 fires in the huge forest.
As bad as that tally was, the watch program's founder, Rome Dodson of Sylmar, believes some of those fires could have gone out of control without the glider patrol. "We've nipped a number of them in the bud," said Dodson, a robust age 64, who counts seven fires spotted by the watch program since 1990.
Most days are pretty uneventful, though. Suspended beneath 65-pound wings made of aluminum tubing and Dacron sailcloth, the gliders soar high above the trees, catching warm air currents that rush up the face of Kagel Mountain from the Valley.
The fliers often circle for hours, dividing their time between searching for trouble and soaring with the hawks. On a recent flight, Walton spent nearly an hour making the 2,150-foot descent to the tundra-like landing field, a relaxing flight with very little to report.
"I spotted a dog," Walton said as he extricated himself from his cocoon-like harness. "I don't know if he's a criminal or not."
Tamm discourages the air jockeys from trying to catch troublemakers, who may be armed. But that's fine with most of these gliders.
"It's hard to apprehend somebody," said Fred Ballard, 48, an antique-car restorer who lives in Santa Clarita. "You can't just land and chase after somebody."
Nonetheless, "it's a great program," Ranger Tamm said. "Other national forests and agencies could benefit from this."