Hang gliding enthusiasts are protesting a decision by Los Angeles County officials to ban the sport at Dockweiler State Beach, a Playa del Rey park considered the premier hang gliding training site in the county.
County Chief Administrative Officer Richard B. Dixon last month notified hobbyists, who launch gliders from a 20-foot-high bluff on the beach, to take their sport elsewhere because the practice endangers bicyclists riding on a nearby path. Officials also declared that the trainers' insurance was inadequate to protect the county from liability for accidents caused by the hang gliders.
Spokesmen for the U. S. Hang Gliding Assn., which certified the instructors who teach at the site, say they plan to appeal the decision to the County Board of Supervisors unless they can persuade the county administrator to change his mind. There is no public place in the county where hobbyists may legally use hang gliders.
Joe Greblo, spokesman for the 7,200-member organization, said the decision is unfair since there have been no serious hang gliding accidents at Dockweiler in the 22 years that people have been learning the sport there.
"This is just such a bunny hill," he said of the training bluff. "We're not bothering anybody and we don't have any accidents and in spite of that, we're being kicked out."
Greblo said students interested in the sport are at greater risk of injury since none of the training sites in nearby counties have the safety record that Dockweiler has. He said several students have already suffered sprained ankles and dislocated shoulders at a site in San Bernardino county where many of the instructors who once taught at Dockweiler now hold classes.
Dockweiler is ideal for beginners because the winds are steady and predictable and there are few rocks and trees to get in the way of a descending hang glider, said Cindy Brickner, president of the hang gliding association.
"It's a large sand pile to land on," she said. "You can't ask for a more forgiving surface to try practicing a sport on."
She said the low bluff is perfect for practicing because students do not become exhausted after carrying their gliders back to the top after a test flight. That means students can make five or more flights per practice session, contrasted with only two or three on a higher plane, she said.
"It's just a premier beginning place to learn the basics of hang gliding," said Dr. Stuart Anderson, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at UC Irvine who has been hang gliding two to three times a month since he took his first flight at Dockweiler three years ago.
Last month's decision to end hang gliding at the park capped a year-long effort by enthusiasts to reverse an earlier county ban.
According to Larry Charness, chief of planning for the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, county officials decided to ban the sport at the beach last fall when they discovered a decade-old Los Angeles city law prohibiting hang gliding in city parks. Although the county manages the beach, the property is in the city's jurisdiction and subject to city laws.
Hang gliding enthusiasts then approached the City Council and the city Recreation and Parks Commission, which ultimately approved hang gliding instruction at the park if the county agreed to issue a permit.
But county officials refused the permit, saying they could be held liable for accidents caused by the hang gliders.
Sensitive to Claims
"We don't quarrel with (the hang gliders' safety record)," Charness said. "It's just that from time to time there are freak accidents. . . . The county has gotten fairly sensitive to liability claims. There have been some massive cases regarding this kind of thing."
Although Brickner said the organization's $1-million liability insurance policy meets the county's requirements for activities considered "high risk," the policy is inadequate because claims arising from other activities elsewhere would reduce the amount of coverage available for accidents at Dockweiler, said Rudy Alvarez, assistant chief of risk management for the county.
Brickner said her group cannot afford a separate $1-million policy for training at Dockweiler park.
She said she disagrees with the county's assessment that hang gliding is a high-risk activity. Despite its reputation for attracting daredevils, she said, hang gliding is one of the safest sports around. Six people died in hang gliding accidents last year in the United States, contrasted with about 40 deaths per year when the sport first started in the early 1970s, she said.
"We haven't hurt anybody, we haven't caused traffic jams . . . and we're still being refused the right to practice our sport," she said.