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Taking Flight : More enthusiasts are finding ways to temporarily break free of earth's bonds.


Dave Michaelson, gearing up for his latest thrill-seeking adventure, had just one question for the man taking responsibility for his life.

"Has anyone ever been hurt?" he asked Joe Greblo, the hang-gliding instructor about to escort him on a ride through the hazy sky high above Sylmar.

"I've done over 2,500 tandem flights, and the most that's happened to anyone I've been with is a skinned knee, so you look pretty good."

Michaelson smiled. He wasn't going to panic now. Strapped to the glider by a sturdy harness, he put his arms around Greblo's back. They ran three steps down a wooden ramp, and took flight.

In the San Fernando Valley, he is far from alone. From the courageous souls who parachute from airplanes to the unintimidated who glide off cliffs, the Valley is filled with people who love to spend time high above the land. Whether in packs or going solo, they soar through the sky with a grace normally reserved for the birds flocking nearby.

"I don't care what I'm doing," said Ted Boyse, who spends almost every weekend in the sky. "All I want to do is fly."

Each year, more and more are taking to the skies, according to those who run schools and above-ground programs in the Valley.

"It gets better every year," Greblo said. "It just takes the public time to warm up to these activities."

Or cool off. The hot weather months are a popular time for these men and women of flight. The heat of the Valley only intensifies their search for an escape in the air. Greblo said that each 1,000 feet above the ground, the air is 3.5 degrees cooler. (The smog, incidentally, pilots and jumpers say, is no worse in the sky than it is on land.)

But the air may become an expensive retreat, ranging from $75 for a hot-air balloon ride to almost $4,000 in new hang-gliding equipment. Although, for para-gliding and hang gliding, the costs are limited after the initial equipment purchase, those who want to take regular trips in hot-air balloons or sky-dive incur expenses that go nearly as high as their altitude. Here is a rundown of four aerial activities:

Hang Gliding

The 45-minute ride on the dirt road up Kagel Mountain in the heart of the Angeles National Forest was bumpy, much more treacherous, it would turn out, than the voyage ahead. The nine passengers disembarked from the van at the top of the mountain--3,500 feet above sea level and 2,200 feet above the landing site--for another Sunday of defying gravity. About 50 other enthusiasts had already arrived at the launch site, assembling their gliders and checking out wind conditions.

"As usual, it's like Grand Central or LAX here," said Kris Greblo, Joe's wife.

Most of them are in their 20s or 30s and have been coming to Kagel for years.

"Some of us are gypsies," said Cindy Benti, 29, of Culver City. "We know people at sites all over the country. There's always a room where we can stay. The social thing is kind of neat."

They are so devoted that they don't mind the long preparation time, which includes the trip up the mountain, the half an hour to get the glider ready, and the hours and hours it might take before the winds are smooth enough to launch. Gliders rely on slight turbulence and low-velocity winds. Not even the most skilled can take off if the winds go over 25 m.p.h.

But the die-hards are willing to wait as long as it takes.

"The feeling of achievement is so incredible," said Stacey Board, 28, of Sunland, "that I'm happy if I get an hour of flying time. What waiting? What drive? . . . When I'm hang gliding, all my senses are working really sharp. You become totally focused on what you're doing. It's kind of hard to describe it without sounding like a goofball."

Tracey Kuhlin doesn't worry about how she sounds. She's only interested in how she soars. The glider takes her far away from her troubles.

"I go down that ramp," Kuhlin, 31, said, "and I feel like I'm running away from everything." Last year, Kuhlin was sued when her dog attacked a woman and broke her back. "I wondered whether I should fly because I was so angry," she added, "but when you're up there, nothing on the ground matters."

A typical flier like Kuhlin will stay in the air for several hours. Most land at the Sylmar Flight Park, run by the 250-member Sylmar Hang Gliding Assn., although they are known to glide for miles, and land in the middle of nowhere. They'll hide their equipment, and hope to hitch back to where they parked their car, returning later to get their gear. One pilot said the best strategy is to land near a gathering of people, impress them with exploits of the just-completed dangerous mission, and then politely ask for a ride. They claim it works.

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