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A New Flight Pattern : Plagued by Poor Image, Pilots of Hang Gliders Launch Good-Will Campaign to Soar in Esteem

January 25, 1987|T. W. McGARRY | Times Staff Writer

The daring young men in their flying machines were too daring by half, and their fans were a pain in the posies.

It was back in the 1970s and early 1980s, a time the veterans now recall as "the bad old days," in Sylmar, where high-altitude hang gliding was born.

The men and women who pioneered a new sport, launching themselves from San Gabriel Mountain ridges to ride the wind under triangular kites, sometimes fell out of the sky onto residents' roofs or crashed through fences into yards. One kite-rider infuriated the Federal Aviation Administration by soaring insouciantly through the landing-traffic pattern over Van Nuys Airport.

Death, Injuries, Litter

Four fell to their deaths in the space of a few years in the late 1970s, and dozens were injured.

For more than 10 years, the spectators they attracted generated litter and other nuisances, from trampling flowers to urinating on lawns. In 1983, homeowners around the gliders' landing zone in the Pacoima Wash area appealed to the city government to chase them away.

So who would have guessed that barely three years later, the hang gliders and the people of the foothills where they land would patch up their quarrel and live happily ever after?

But they are.

Today, even some of their most vocal former foes describe the hang gliders as a welcome addition to the neighborhood, giving Sylmar a picturesque distinction, something to point out to visitors and provide a colorful free show for residents.

"We like the hang gliders," said Susan Kacy, leader of a 1983 homeowners' revolt against the kite pilots.

"We don't have any problems with them at all anymore. One of the things I like about my house now is watching the hang gliders."

"The hang gliders have become an asset, an attraction of Sylmar," said Dean Cohen, president of the Sylmar Civic Assn. "It's spectacular to watch these colorful gliders come down out of the sky on a sunny day.

"You can't satisfy 100% of the people, so I suppose there must be somebody out there who is opposed to them, but, by and large, the community is very much in favor of them now."

The mass change of heart was the result of a determined drive by hang-glider pilots not to lose the right to fly over Sylmar, which is the equivalent to them of St. Andrews to golfers and Wimbledon to tennis players.

"Sylmar is world-famous as the home of hang gliding," said Joe Greblo, one of the founders of the Sylmar Hang Gliding Assn. and co-owner of Windsports, a Van Nuys firm that sells hang gliders and gives flying lessons. "Thousands of people come from all over the world just to say they've flown at Sylmar."

He said modern hang gliding began at Dockweiler State Beach in Venice in the late 1960s, and as early as 1970 there were flights in Sylmar, which is where high-altitude flying began.

Commonly used launch sites in the San Gabriels are from 1,400 to 2,200 feet above the landing ground in Sylmar, and a descent can take from 10 minutes to five hours, but usually lasts 60 to 90 minutes. By 1973, the first U. S. Nationals competition for hang-glider pilots was held in Sylmar.

The high-altitude flights that began there led to dramatic changes in the nature of the sport. Hang-glider pilots, who originally floated a few feet off the ground from oceanfront bluffs to a landing on the beach sand, now routinely fly to 5,000 or 10,000 feet or higher, carried aloft by thermals--upwellings of warm air. Cross-country flights of 50 to 100 miles have become common. The altitude record for a hang glider is now over 21,000 feet, and the distance record for a straight-line flight is 221 miles.

To preserve their flying grounds in Sylmar, hang-glider pilots organized and mounted a public relations blitz--imposing rules on fellow pilots and spectators alike, befriending the annoyed homeowners and working to acquire some political clout of their own. To all appearances, they succeeded.

Residents had complained to the late Los Angeles City Councilman Howard Finn that hang gliders swooped low over their yards, invading privacy and sometimes crashing into their property. They said spectators created traffic hazards and parking problems, leaving debris that ranged from soft-drink cans to dirty diapers on their lawns.

"It was kind of a crude, adventurous sport in the old days," Greblo agreed. "People were landing in parks and yards, just anywhere. There were accidents and fatalities that gave it a bad reputation, a deserved reputation at the time."

48 Deaths in 1977

A national record of 48 hang-glider deaths occurred in 1977, Greblo said, spurring calls for laws to control the sport, then unregulated. In Los Angeles, the city Recreation and Parks Department barred hang-glider landings in parks except at approved sites, and no sites were approved.

In 1978, the United States Hang Glider Assn. and glider manufacturers organized to improve the sport's safety record. "We realized red lights and sirens weren't the best public relations for us," Greblo said.

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