PASADENA — The hang gliders began gathering at the 5,700-foot summit of Mt. Wilson shortly after noon on New Year's Eve, and the parking lot was soon flooded with a sea of multicolored Dacron wings.
Snow covered the ground and the chilly temperature brought shivers to the crowd of spectators as the pilots began bundling up in layers of thermal underwear, sweaters and snowsuits.
Despite the weather, each flier moved to the edge of a cliff, and after a quick run, flung himself into the freezing air.
While thousands were assembling below for the annual Rose Parade, this die-hard group had gathered for the 11th Annual New Year's Eve Mt. Wilson Fly-In, an informal get-together of pioneering gliders that, through word-of-mouth, has grown into a well-known event.
Shades of Our Youth
"Why do we fly on New Year's Eve?" asked Tracy Harbur of Azusa, founder of the event. "I really don't know. I guess it's like a big high school reunion."
This year's flight held special meaning for many of the fliers because a developer plans to build 184 homes on the 16.4-acre landing site just north of Pasadena High School. If the project goes through, the site would be lost, making it difficult, if not impossible, to launch off Mt. Wilson.
"It's just a shame," said Dick Snyder, who has participated in the fly-in for the last 10 years. "It's the end of an era. This is our last New Year's Eve, barring some miracle."
This year, 22 fliers from as far away as North Carolina turned out for the event, along with a half-dozen friends and relatives.
They began gathering at the landing site shortly after 10:30 a.m. to organize the trip to the top of the mountain. Three hours later they began launching, one after another.
For many of the fliers, it was just another day of flying off Mt. Wilson, one of four major year-round hang gliding sites in the Los Angeles area.
Dave Ross, of Mountain View in Northern California, had driven south for a vacation and heard about the fly-in the day before it took place.
"I didn't expect to see anything like this," he said.
But for many veterans, most of whom have 10 years or more of gliding experience, the event is something they look forward to each year.
Bob Lafay of Tujunga said it offers old-timers a chance to fly together and revive the spirit of the early days of hang gliding, which was born in the early 1970s on the beaches and hills of Southern California.
He sees some of the pilots only once a year at the fly-in.
"We're searching for the old days in some ways, when it was a much closer group," he said. "This is our New Year's celebration."
For some, the event has simply become a habit that is hard to break.
"It's something I've done for 11 years, and I just hate to give it up," Harbur said.
He started the event with a friend 11 years ago as "just a lark." But the novelty of flying on New Year's Eve and watching the crowds gathering below for the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena caught on.
"I'm always shocked to see so many people turn out," he said. "It's a great way to end the year."
Big Audience Turns Out
New faces have come and gone, but the core group of about 10 fliers has remained the same, Harbur said.
This year's turnout was one of the largest ever and drew spectators to the takeoff site on Mt. Wilson and the landing site below.
By 4 p.m., most of the pilots had flown down from the mountain and begun taking apart their gliders.
Harbur said it's sad that this may be the final event.
But he added: "Who wants to get maudlin? We'll start another tradition somewhere else."
As for the flight itself, "it was great," said Harbur, who had drifted away from the crowd and circled a ridge by himself.
"Since this could be one of the last times, I wanted a nice flight alone in the sky, and that's the way it worked."