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Soar Points : Several Aviation Thrill Sports Provide Relatively Safe Adventures


Feeling a little earthbound this summer?

Maybe it's time to get above it all, and we don't mean packed into a airliner with the romance of flight reduced by Muzak, plastic food and a seatmate who explains why paper money issued by the government is not legal tender.

No, we're talking aviation sports, 1990s style--hang-gliding, paragliding, ultra-light airplanes and soaring gliders.

They all provide wild blue yonder adventures with far more safety than the aviation thrill sports of past decades. And they are far cheaper and more inviting than the world of general aviation (private planes) that has become mired in daunting regulations, equipment expenses and insurance costs.

Most of us with a hankering for aviation will never get to fly, much less own, an actual airplane. But these aviation sports--all readily accessible in our corner of Southern California--give us the chance to spread our mechanical wings and play in the air.

This is a low-speed, low-tech kind of flying far more akin to Orville Wright than Chuck Yeager or Sally Ride. It is in some ways a nostalgic throwback to a time when aviators flew with little purpose other than to experience the thrills and challenges of aviation.

For those inclined, these are pastimes perfectly suited to summer. They are also inherently dangerous, as you will be flying at elevations of hundreds and even thousands of feet as your lessons progress.

Be sure you are comfortable with your instructor and especially with his or her attention to safety matters.

* Hang-gliding: "This is the closest you can get to the flying you do in your dreams," said instructor Tammy Burcar, whose hang-gliding classes are held on a hillside near the beach in Santa Barbara.

"This is the closest you get to flying like a bird."

A heavy bird. Modern hang-glider rigs--made of polyester fabric, aluminum tubing, stainless steel cable and canvas harnessing--weigh in at more than 100 pounds.

But for the skilled, this equipment provides smooth, graceful flight that starts on one of several hillsides or mountain tops where devotees of the sport gather, and then gains elevation with the use of natural air thermals.

A single flight can cover several miles--the world record is more than 300 miles for one flight.

For those who want a taste of hang-gliding without committing to the series of lessons needed before a pilot is allowed a first mountain-top solo, WindSports Soaring Center in Van Nuys offers mini-adventures that can be done in an afternoon.

Information: WindSports (818) 988-0111; Burcar (805) 961-2766.

* Paragliding: Ken de Russy was one of the pioneers of hang-gliding in the 1970s, but some veterans of that sport consider him a bit of a traitor.

De Russy has switched to paragliding--a similar, but kinder and gentler way to fly--and he offers no apologies.

"The reality," said de Russy, who teaches in Santa Barbara, "is that paragliding is so much more user-friendly, that it gives people a much better chance of experiencing the magic of flight."

Instead of fabric wings, paragliding makes use of a lightweight, nylon canopy that resembles a rectangular parachute. Paragliders are far lighter--a full rig weighs about 35 pounds--and portable. The entire rig can be stuffed into a knapsack.

"It's a much more spontaneous sport," de Russy said. "I can toss the equipment in my car, drive up to a site and be ready to fly in a few minutes."

De Russy charges $600 for a six-lesson package that leads most students to the point where they are ready to buy equipment. If the rig is bought through him, he comps any additional lessons.

Information: De Russy (805) 965-3733.

* Ultra-lights: For those who prefer a motor on their flying machines, there are ultra-lights--open-air airplanes that can cruise at about 40 mph and are not nearly so dependent on wind currents for climbing or navigating.

It emphasizes the basics in motorized flight.

"You really get the experience of flying like back in the old stick-and-rudder days," said Larry Harvey, an air traffic controller in Palmdale, during a break from an ultra-light lesson.

The main local spot for ultra-light lessons, flying and storage is Brian Ranch Airport, located in a remote area of Mojave Desert near Llano in the Antelope Valley.

Brian Ranch is run by retired engineer Jack Brian and his wife, Felice Apodaca, who offer introductory flights in tandems that last 15 minutes and cost $30.

Information: Brian Ranch (805) 261-3216.

* Soaring: Glider flying is the most expensive of these sports, as it requires an airplane tow to get the glider up to the speed where it can be safely flown.

But it does has its advantages--although a glider handles much like an airplane or ultra-light, it does so in peaceful quiet once the tow plane breaks away.

Much like hang-gliders and paragliders, flying a glider calls upon the skills and knowledge needed to ride air currents, but the glider pilot sits in a relatively comfortable, closed cockpit.

The place to try the sport is Crystal Soaring in the Antelope Valley. Sample flights cost between $70 and $110, and last from 20 to 40 minutes. The longest flight gets high enough to offer ocean views on clear days.

An aerobatic flight, for those inclined, costs $100 and lasts 15 minutes.

Information: Crystal Soaring (805) 944-3341.

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