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Airman First Class

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dazzling aerial demonstration, with a hang glider trailing dense colored smoke and streamers as it swoops and soars while the pilot shoots off pyrotechnics, will be a featured performance at the Van Nuys Air Show this weekend.

Some pilots will demonstrate feats of aerial showmanship using engine power, but Dan Buchanan will rely only on nature’s air currents and updrafts to maneuver his aircraft.

It will be the first demonstration of its kind at the 35-year-old annual aviation expo, expected to draw 300,000 spectators to Van Nuys Airport.

And after Buchanan guides the 32-foot ultralight wing back to earth, he will slide into another mode of transportation--a wheelchair--to hand out souvenirs and greet spectators.

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A paraplegic since double sporting accidents in 1981, Buchanan, 42, has soared to stardom on the air show circuit.

A spokesman for hang gliders calls the demonstration “unique, dynamic and motivational.” Phil Bachman, executive director of the United States Hang Gliding Assn., said Buchanan, a former custom-home builder and mechanical engineer, “is probably one of the most visible hang glider pilots in the country.”

Air shows are now competing to book Buchanan’s aerial performance. His demonstration at Van Nuys will mark the 10th on his 18-city show calendar this year.

“He gets out in front of the public and shows what hang gliding is all about,” Bachman said. “Then when they see him get into a wheelchair, the reaction is pretty amazing.”

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The association spokesman said Buchanan gave credibility to hang gliding demonstrations at air shows, the third most-popular spectator sport in the country, behind horse racing and baseball.

Until recently, Bachman said, pilots and others considered gliding, which was popularized in Southern California, a fringe sport embraced by longhaired dropouts of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But hang gliding association surveys indicate about 10,000 hang gliding enthusiasts nationwide earn an average annual income of $59,000 in a variety of professions.

Performances at Van Nuys will be among Buchanan’s most challenging, he said, because the congested air traffic around the airport will cramp him into the tightest space in which he has ever performed. Two 10-minute flights are scheduled at 11:10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, airport officials said.

New challenges are a way of life for the sportsman, who lives in the rural mountain community of Forestville, nestled among redwood trees near Santa Rosa. Last week, Buchanan spent five hours in a sailplane over Minden, Nev., camped at a mountain lake in the Sierra Nevada and spent the next day paddling down the raging Russian River in a kayak.

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“I try to make every minute count,” said Buchanan, who previously raced dirt bikes and motorcycles on ice--using spiked tires. He also taught scuba diving and was a snow skier and ski jumper. “I don’t put things off to later years. I do things now.”

Buchanan said he is following advice given him at age 13 by his dying grandfather: “There’s probably 10,000 things I can’t do, but a million things I can do.”

Raised in New York’s Catskill Mountains, Buchanan shuns city life, preferring instead the bucolic home he shares as a single father with his 18-year-old son, Mike. Along with two other team members they rack up thousands of miles a year performing across the continent. Mike assembles the glider and operates a winch on a truck designed by Buchanan to launch the craft.

Buchanan said he began taking lessons in hang gliding at Lake Tahoe in late 1980s. That winter, he was injured while practicing ice racing on a motorcycle in Monroe, N.Y., when he slid out and hit a dam. A few months later, he tried hang gliding without an instructor in Carson City, Nev., as a stormy weather front moved in.

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“I went out on my own when I shouldn’t have,” he said. “I had a hard landing.” The glider hit him in the head, exacerbating earlier injuries and leaving his legs paralyzed.

After three months in hospitals and another three months recuperating, Buchanan returned to hang gliding, with wheels added for takeoff and landing. He has since racked up more than 2,100 hours of soaring, often for hours at a time, to elevations of 17,000 feet and more.

No longer able to work in the home construction business, Buchanan returned to school to learn mechanical engineering. He then worked independently as a teacher and engineering consultant in computer-assisted design.

In 1989, Buchanan was asked to give a demonstration of his flying skills at an air show in Medford, Ore. With that start, he began appearing at more shows and, in 1993 gave up his mechanical engineering business to join the air show circuit full time. He appears at the largest civil air show in the country, at Oshkosh, Wis., and has performed in Canada, Mexico, Australia and Thailand.

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What some people term as dangerous sports, Buchanan calls exhilarating.

“Everybody’s been frightened at some time,” he said. He is most intimidated by “people driving crazy on the highway.”

Opening ceremonies will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, with a flyover by the Condor Squadron and remarks by Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, grand marshal. Aerial entertainment will begin at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with an aerobatic flying circus finale about 3 p.m. both days.

Gates will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Parking and shuttle bus service will be provided at the following locations:

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* Woodley Lakes Golf Course parking lot, 6335 Woodley Ave., Encino

* Birmingham High School, 17000 Haynes St., Van Nuys

* Mulholland Middle School, 17120 Vanowen St., Van Nuys

* Cal State Northridge, corner of Devonshire Street and Lindley Avenue, Northridge.

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* Veterans Administration Hospital, 16111 Plummer St., North Hills

* Monroe High School, 9229 Haskell Ave., North Hills.

Admission, parking and the shuttle service are free.


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