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Uplifting Experience

Hang Glider Pilots Soar on Powerful Thermals Over Santa Ana Mountains


Erik Delf still gets a lump in his throat when he thinks back. Delf, a clockmaker from Laguna Niguel, made his first solo flight on a hang glider a couple years ago, accomplishing a goal he set while growing up in Florida.

"It's an emotional thing the first time you do it," Delf said. "Ever since I was a little kid and seeing that gum commercial on TV, I always wanted to do it. When I moved to California, one of the first things I did was look it up in the Yellow Pages."

Delf is one of a dozen or so who shows up nearly every weekend in the mountains above Lake Elsinore to fly with the birds and soar near the clouds.

"The thing I like is that it's so pure, no moving parts," Delf said. "It's just you and your wings, and you control the flight by just moving your body weight."

In the 1930s, sailplane pilots discovered an accommodating weather pattern that develops above the Santa Ana mountain range. This phenomenon, called convergence, sets up when the weather is normal and allows experienced pilots to climb to impressive altitudes and travel great distances. Warm air from the inland side of the mountains pulls the cool, marine air from the ocean side and they collide. The cool air bulldozes through the warmer air, causing the warm air to rise and provide incredible updrafts, or thermals.

Other thermal sites in Southern California typically have temperature inversions over them, which limit altitude gains to about 6,000 feet. But the famous convergence at Elsinore breaks up the inversion layer and can push gliders twice as high.

During the summer you can see a line of smog in the sky, one side is clear and the other is smoggy, which is the convergence meeting. Hang gliders can cruise it like a highway, and some have flown hundreds of miles--landing as far as Edwards Air Force Base and Barstow.

This line is also visible on the ground by spotting the dust devils that form along its path. The air above the dust devil is going straight up at speeds of 2,400 feet per minute or better.

"That's why you see birds circling and that's why you see all these hang gliders circling where these bubbles of hot air are rising," said Bill Soderquist, a Temecula resident who has been hang gliding above Elsinore since 1990. "On normal days, hang gliders get up to about 7,000 feet, but they have been as high as 13,000 here."

The quality of the convergence is measured in the amount of lift that can be gained, such as "a nine-grand day, or a 10-grand day."

"This site is so consistent that when I look up in the morning and see the normal weather, I can say, 'Yeah, it's going to be good,' " Soderquist said. "But there's going to be days that are exceptional."

Jay Scott of Huntington Harbour has flown his glider as far as Huntington Beach to the west and Palm Springs to the east by using the warm, rising air.

"I'm into gravity sports," said Scott, who has sky dived from tandem hang glider flights. "And this is one of the most rewarding

sports I do."

Scott Stuart is a former lifeguard now in a wheelchair after breaking his neck while diving into a swimming pool in Costa Rica in 1989. Stuart, who lives in San Clemente, is an avid hang glider. Stuart can't get a running start down the hillside to launch himself, so he props himself onto a set of wheels and rolls down the slope until he becomes airborne.

"That's the only aid I really need," Stuart said. "Once off the ground, I fly like everyone else."

There was a time when hang gliding had more than its share of serious accidents. But with the addition of parachutes to the list of necessary equipment, the mortality rate has sharply declined.

"I fly with the same group of guys on weekends and they're always here," Scott said. "Just like any sport, there's going to be injuries, but it's a slow aircraft. It's not like a car crash."

Blown takeoffs and landings account for most of the injuries. Parachutes weren't used when Bill Rehr started hang gliding in the 1970s, and he said many of the fatalities that occurred then could have been avoided with a chute. "The old days we kind of thought, 'Well heck, my parachute is already above me,' " Rehr said. "But I went to Hidden Valley once and there was a mid-air collision. One guy [who had a chute] lived and one guy didn't, and after that I said, 'I'm not flying until I get a parachute.' "

Rehr, whose truck is covered with hang gliding stickers, lives in Lake Elsinore because of the hang gliding and parasailing opportunities. Rehr said parachutes come in handy when the craft tumbles upside-down and either continues to free fall or flips back over and the G-force causes something to break. Sometimes equipment will break performing aerobatics or a side wire will simply fail.

"You stay with the hang glider and you all come down together," said Rehr, who has deployed his chute while parasailing, but never hang gliding.

In addition to a parachute, which costs about $400, a glider runs at least $800, the harness $600 to $700, and instrumentation from $175 to $1,500.

"You can get into the sport for about $3,000, if you get a used, low-performance glider," Soderquist said. "The harness and parachute you usually buy new because you want to keep those. You can get 180 to 190 hours on a harness and a parachute can last forever if it is taken care of."

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