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Taking Wing : Recreation: Paragliders are flocking to ocean cliffs. But cities fear liability suits and are acting to ban fast-growing sport.

August 09, 1991|RONALD B. TAYLOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fliers call them "paragliders" and use them to soar like sea gulls riding on the wind.

Increasingly, the fragile and controversial craft can be seen over the Palos Verdes Peninsula cliffs, their pilots suspended only by a harness under the fabric of the parachute-like wings. Riding thermal updrafts, some pilots stay aloft for hours and soar thousands of feet in the air.

Experts warn, however, that the sport can be dangerous.

Trouble can come with a sudden gust of wind or unexpected turbulence that collapses or stalls the chute, sending the flier crashing into a sea cliff or mountainside, experts say.

"You can get into trouble real quick . . . (and) get yourself killed," said Rob Kells, an instructor in the fledgling sport. A paraglider training manual, published by a manufacturer of the gliders, warns: "Injuries and death can and do occur, even to trained pilots."

Always on the lookout for new places to fly, a few pilots have been taking off from Rancho Palos Verdes city parks and privately owned bluffs overlooking the ocean, prompting officials to ask who would be liable if a flier or bystander is injured or killed.

Fearing lawsuits, the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council recently passed a law banning all "manned flight" from city parks. The law--which goes into effect this month--is one of the first passed by a Southern California city that is aimed specifically at the new para-gliding sport.

City Parks and Recreation Director Mary Thomas said paraglider pilots have been flying off of Del Cerro and Abalone Cove parks. They have caused no problems, she said, but the city had to be prudent and ban the flights "before somebody got killed or injured," leaving the city open to litigation.

In neighboring Palos Verdes Estates, there are no laws against paragliding, but Police Chief Gary Johansen said: "We discourage the activity. It is extremely hazardous. . . . We don't want them (flying off the bluffs) because if they get in trouble, the rescue would cost the taxpayers money."

This latest flying fad combines elements of hang gliding and sky diving in a newer, less expensive sport. Imported from Europe only a few years ago, paragliding is attracting a small but growing number of thrill seekers.

"I'm an adrenaline junkie on a budget," said John Gusan, 21, a Simi Valley college student taking paragliding lessons.

Paragliders are made of brightly colored nylon or Dacron and look like the parachutes used by sky divers. Instead of merely floating down, they can be steered and flown like gliders. Pilots can take off almost anywhere by simply spreading their chutes on a bluff or hilltop and catching the wind, and they can land in very small spaces.

Compared to other forms of sport flying, paragliding is relatively inexpensive, though not cheap. The colorful wings, which weigh about 15 pounds, cost nearly $3,000. Flight instruction costs about $650 for the eight to 10 hours needed to qualify a student for a license. The licenses, issued by the American Paraglider Assn. or the U.S. Hang Glider Assn., allow pilots to rent or purchase equipment.

Paragliding is so new in the United States that there are no reliable accident statistics. The American Paraglider Assn., formed just three years ago, reports that six fliers have died since 1988.

Fewer than 1,000 people in this country have been trained in paragliding and certified by instructors. There are about 200 certified fliers in Southern California, officials report. By contrast, Europe has an estimated 80,000 licensed paraglider pilots, they said.

While most of the flights in Southern California are made from hills above the Simi Valley and the mountains around San Bernardino and Riverside counties, a growing number of enthusiasts are discovering the Palos Verdes Peninsula's spectacular bluffs above the Pacific.

Some enthusiasts are not eager to share their airspace. Mike Christmas, a business executive who also sky dives and windsurfs, considers paragliding the ultimate sky ride but is reluctant to talk about the sport or the places where he flies. "We're experts and know the area, but we don't want to see inexperienced people out here. It's too dangerous," he said.

Christmas and his flying buddies launch from private land with the owner's permission and fly just off the land's edge hundreds of feet above the pounding breakers, their gliders quartering on the wind.

He warned that soaring along the peninsula cliffs is much different from riding the warm-air thermals in the mountains or the deserts. Cool winds blowing off the ocean collide with the land mass, producing a wave of rising air that lifts the paraglider.

Because the pilots must stay close to the cliffs, the risk is great, experts warn. Strong winds can hurl them out of control against the cliffs.

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