Three or four times a week for the last seven years, Ludwig Von der Luhe has secured his hang glider to the roof of his car, driven to the highest accessible mountain in the Angeles National Forest and set up his gear atop Mt. Wilson, 5,700 feet above sea level.
The 54-year old German immigrant frequently is accompanied by his 5-year-old German shepherd, Baubi, who seems to love flying almost as much as his master.
Harnessed and ready for flight, man and dog wait patiently for just the right gust of wind as they form an awkward, piggy-backed silhouette against a sea of endless blue.
Seven years ago, an awe-struck Von der Luhe first watched pilots fly hang gliders from the same mountain.
"I was just a spectator," Von der Luhe said. "I saw some people with gliders and I asked them what they were doing. When they told me, I got so excited over it I bought myself a glider the next day."
He was equally enthusiastic about learning, even when he lacked the $500 for training.
"I ran out of funds, so I only went half of the time." Von der Luhe said. "I taught myself by watching. I stood outside and listened to the school instructor and then I would do the same thing."
Von der Luhe and his wife, Laura, came to America 20 years ago from West Berlin and settled in Port Hueneme, Calif. Even before he became a citizen, Von der Luhe served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. He later got his citizenship and moved to West Covina in 1977. The unemployed plumber and his wife have one son, Norman, 28.
Baubi strayed into their lives about 1983. "We're like two good friends," Von der Luhe said. He has another German shepherd, this one white with blue eyes, whom he also calls Baubi because they both make the same "Bo" sound when they bark. But Laura Von der Luhe calls the first dog Wolfie.
About three years ago, Von der Luhe noticed how eager the first Baubi seemed to be whenever he went hang gliding.
"When I launched he would always try to charge down the hill with me," Von der Luhe said. So he had a special harness made to take Baubi with him "for the fun of it."
But they did some testing first. "I said to him that I wanted to see how well he would behave. I put on the harness and hung him on a tree, and wiggled him a little bit," Von der Luhe said.
When the dog responded well, Von der Luhe told him, "Now you are qualified to fly with me."
He has tried the same experiment with his white German shepherd (Baubi No. 2) and Charlie, a stray black dog he met at Kagel Mountain. But the second Baubi was never able to fly, said Laura Von der Luhe. "He wiggles out of the harness. He's smart."
Von der Luhe was able to get Charlie in the air, but the dog vomited because there was a lot of turbulence.
Von der Luhe has flown with the first Baubi about 70 times and so far has never had a problem.
"Baubi is so special. He enjoys long rides, he looks at scenery . . . . He always seems to like it as well."
Von der Luhe doesn't seem to think that there is anything unusual about flying with his dog. But it is not that common, said Elizabeth Sharp of the United States Hang Gliding Assn. Inc. in Pearblossom, Calif.
"The pet is an unusual one that will put up with this," Sharp said. "The pet could freak out a bit, but when it's someone they know and trust, there's no problem. You just need a very trusting pet."
Sharp said that the association's magazine featured a man hang gliding with his dog about three years ago but "it hasn't been done recently." As far as she knows, a dog was first taken hang gliding in the mid-1970s.
Von der Luhe says all he needs is a custom-made harness and a larger glider. But that's no problem for Von der Luhe; he has six of them.
Flying with a dog is no more dangerous than flying alone, said Von der Luhe, but he has to be more careful about launching and landing.
"When flying with Baubi, I have to run harder, and the wind has to be at the very least 6 m.p.h. blowing into my face," he said. "The hill has to drop sharply so it's easier to get airborne. When landing, I have to flare (push out the bars which stops the glider) harder. It all becomes routine."
He also wears a parachute, although hang-gliding mishaps are rarer today than they were in the late 1960s, when the sport first hit California.
"The best way to prevent an accident is to use your good judgment," he said. "Know when to fly and when not to fly. When the conditions are not 100%, you get the glider together and leave flying for another day. It's just that simple."
Von der Luhe refrains from other stunts, such as loop-the-loops. "I think it is dangerous practice. Maybe I'm too old, but I still feel it's dangerous."
It's enough for him just to fly.
"If I do not fly I feel miserable," Von der Luhe said. He smiled, searching for a better word: "How do you say . . . earthsick."