Across the street from the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant and under roaring jets taking off from nearby Los Angeles International Airport, people are trying to learn how to fly.
Strapped into lightweight metal frames that support large cloth wings, they are pushed off a 30-foot bluff overlooking the beach and the Pacific Ocean. Their first attempts are wobbly but, in time, some of them will be jumping off tall cliffs, soaring through the sky looking for pockets of warm rising air to keep them aloft.
They are all would-be hang gliders and on weekends several dozen of them can be found on a small patch of ground west of Vista del Mar near Dockweiler State Beach, learning how to fly.
"Man has always wanted to be a bird," said Dan Skadal, a hang-gliding instructor as he watched his students take short, brief flights off the bluff. "When you're hang gliding you're free and out there in the breeze."
Skadal is an instructor with Flight Systems of Santa Ana, one of two hang-gliding schools in the Los Angeles-Orange County area certified by the United States Hang Gliding Assn. The other is Wind Sports International of Van Nuys. There are also five or six independent certified instructors in Los Angeles, according to Cindy Brickner, executive director of the 6,500-member association, which is based in Culver City.
They all use the small bluff in Playa del Rey for training, Brickner said, because the winds are good and the sand will cushion any rough landings.
Skadal starts his students out on flat ground, letting them get the feel of the glider before they graduate to the bluff. After five days on the bluff, students spend another five days flying with an instructor in a two-person hang glider off a 3,200-foot mountain near San Bernardino. In the last four days of the course students solo off the mountain with a two-way radio attached to their glider in case they need assistance.
Hang gliding became popular in the early 1970s, said Brickner, and since 1974, the association has regulated hang gliding and promoted the certification of hang-gliding teachers as a means of reducing hang-gliding fatalities. And the Hang Glider Manufacturers Assn. tests and certifies hang-gliding equipment. Both are private, voluntary organizations.
"In the early 1970s, people were constructing hang gliders in their own backyard and did not always understand the principles of aerodynamics and engineering," Brickner said. "But they would strap these things together and jump off of any hill they could find. As a result many people were hurt and killed."
But as the hang-gliding association's training and teacher-certification programs began to be accepted nationwide, and as the manufacturers began to test and regulate their own products, hang gliding gradually became a safer sport, she said.
According to Brickner, hang-gliding deaths in the United States have decreased from a high of 43 in 1976 to nine last year. Two deaths have been reported this year, Brickner said.
Skadal admits that one can get killed hang gliding. "But good schools and instruction keep people from getting hurt," he said.
Fifteen days of classes, averaging eight hours a day, cost $750, including the use of equipment. Twelve days of classes with Wind Sports run $675. Hang-gliding equipment can cost from $1,500 to $2,500.
Most of the students said their decision to take up hang gliding shocked families and friends.
When student Stephanie Kustick was asked why she wanted to learn how to jump off a cliff into space, she said, "I like to do crazy things sometimes."
Kustick, 23, said that after one day on the beach she knew she wanted to fly solo. "It's hard to get used to balancing the wings," she said. "But it feels good. You can feel the wind holding you up there."
Michele Rodriguez, in her fourth day of instruction, responded with an enthusiastic "Oh, yeah!" when asked if she was going to continue her lessons until she could make solo flights.
And she emphasized that women should not be deterred from taking up hang gliding.
"Many women think the equipment is too heavy for them," she said. Hang gliders weigh 45 to 80 pounds. "You don't see too many women out here. But I can lift it," said the 5-foot-3 Rodriguez. "Hang gliding is not hard to do."
Student Pat Bird took up hang gliding after a friend was killed in the sport last January. Dan Racanelli, a former world champion in acrobatic hang gliding, was electrocuted while on the ground as he tried to free a companion whose glider had become tangled in some power lines.
"His death gave me the incentive to get into hang gliding," Bird said. "I used to only watch. Now he can't do it any more, so I thought I would."
Bird, however, does not feel that he is risking his life. "I've seen the gnarliest hang-gliding wrecks there could ever be and people walk away."
Another student said he was willing to give hang gliding a try because advances in hang-gliding technology make the sport safer than in the past.