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Cover Story : High Adventure Lures Riders of the Wind : Ventura County's weather, topography and beaches make it a premier spot for hang glider and para-glider pilots.


High atop the hardscrabble north slope of Ventura's Grant Park, Randy Liggett looks down at the city. Hundreds of feet below, homes along Ventura Avenue are as tiny as Monopoly pieces. On the rise behind him, tall cypresses rustle in a light breeze.

Pulling a para-glider from a bulky backpack, Liggett assembles it and climbs into the harness. Glancing at the horizon--where Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands poke through a carpet of late-afternoon fog--Liggett kicks the ground, raising a dirt cloud, and watches the dust blow to the east. Satisfied, he lowers his head, runs downhill and flings himself off the precipice without so much as a gasp, shriek or "Geronimo!"

For the next few minutes, Liggett casually swoops above the Avenue like Mary Poppins, getting a bird's-eye view, panoramic yet intimate, exhilarating and vertiginous. Then gently, like a butterfly alighting, he touches down on a school playground, an urban flyboy come home to roost.

Liggett is one of a handful of pilots who fly the friendly skies of Ventura County strapped to either fixed-wing hang gliders or para-gliders--which are basically parachutes. Soaring over city neighborhoods and rural farmland, circling the coast with gulls and soaring above the mountains, these die-hards routinely travel dozens of miles, often reaching altitudes of 15,000 feet and staying aloft for hours at a time. Agreeable coastal weather allows them more than 300 days of flying a year.

"Ventura County has to be one of the premier spots in the world for year-round flying," says Tom Truax, who holds most of the local records for hang gliding--including the longest flight, a 180-mile, 6 1/2-hour journey from Pine Mountain in the Los Padres National Forest to a small town east of Barstow.

Perfect weather. Varied topography. Miles of beaches for soft landings. Ventura has it all. Except an abundance of pilots. Truax says active pilots in the county number only a dozen in hang gliding and 20 in para-gliding. Scores more are former pilots, burned out by too many bumpy landings and close calls, or one-time pilots who had neither the money nor nerve, commitment and athletic skills to get beyond the training hill.

The male-dominated gliding sports (women have stayed away in droves) haven't taken off in the rest of the country either. The U.S. Hang-Gliding Assn.--the recognized body for both sports--lists just 8,500 hang glider pilots and only 1,600 in para-gliding (not to be confused with para-sailing, which is basically a parachute tethered to a boat).

Not everybody, of course, is willing to find thrills, chills and occasional spills while dangling from what appears to be a humongous kite.

"Probably 10% of the population enjoys thrill-seeking activities," says Dr. Richard M. Deamer, a Ventura psychiatrist and glider pilot. "Being released from gravity for a short time is liberating, an escape from a hum-drum life."

But for most of us, a hum-drum life may look better than the prospects of no life at all. A few years ago, before the USHGA tightened standards, pilots were dropping like flies.

Since then, hang gliding has averaged eight to 10 fatalities a year in the United States; para-gliding, which didn't reach this country until 1986, has had a total of about 10 fatalities, USHGA officials say. Ventura County reportedly has had two or three deaths in hang gliding over the years and none in para-gliding.

Like other action sports--wind sailing, rock climbing, ballooning and sky diving--hang gliding and para-gliding require intense training, experience, judgment and constant practice to lessen the chances of killing yourself.

"Safety is up to the individual and how he or she learns and practices the sport," says Ted Boyse, an instructor based in Van Nuys. "People get hurt because they do something they shouldn't. If you fly a hang glider or para-glider in the conditions they're supposed to be flown in, you should have no problem."

Gliding free, hearing nothing but the sound of the wind and your own heartbeat, is actually the safest part of flying. Although mid-flight stalls cause a few accidents a year, pilots carry an emergency parachute--some rocket-triggered to open instantly. Most fatalities are caused by crashing on takeoff or landing, experts say. Almost every year, a pilot is killed by simply failing to attach himself to his hang glider.

Top pilots prefer the higher performance hang gliders (hang gliding's world-record distance flight is 301 miles, more than 100 miles more the para-gliding record.)

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