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Riding the winds of change

As paragliding booms, the graying flock of hang gliders who once ruled the skies fear for the future of their sport.

February 03, 2012|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Dolan, who took this shot with a remote camera attached to the hang glider, hitches a ride over Sylmar with veteran "hangie" Fred Ballard.
Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Dolan, who took this shot with a remote camera… (Jack Dolan / Los Angeles…)

As the ancient Dodge van bumped and creaked up the mountain road to one of Southern California's legendary hang glider launches, a 68-year-old thrill-seeker sitting in back mentioned that the 83-year-old riding shotgun is attracting condors whenever he flies.

"He thinks it's because he talks to them," George Boswell said of his older friend, Rome Dodson. "We don't have the heart to tell him it's because they're vultures."

There's never been a shortage of gallows humor among hang glider pilots. They confront mortality every time they stare down at the world from thousands of feet with only a hollow aluminum frame and a thin sheet of Dacron holding them aloft.

But as the age of a typical "hangie" soars into the 60s and 70s, many worry less about their own survival and more about the future of the sport they love and helped invent in the sun-baked mountains around Los Angeles.

Today, most younger pilots favor the soft-winged paraglider — a steerable parachute with no rigid frame — pioneered by French alpinists looking for something light and compact enough to stuff into bags and carry on their backs up rugged peaks. From there, they would launch themselves for an aerial tour of their climbing route and a suitably stylish descent to the valley floor.

From the outside, it would seem the camps have a lot in common. Any two people who are willing to strap themselves to a wing and run off a mountain cliff, hoping to ride columns of warm, rising air to 10,000 feet or higher obviously share a rare and overpowering faith in something: God, physics, luck?

But like followers of any creed who go their separate ways — think skiers and snowboarders — hang gliders and paragliders sometimes regard each other with a suspicion that borders on tribal.

For hang gliders, there is a practical concern: Fewer pilots means manufacturers may go out of business, making it hard to replace worn-out gear. But there is an emotional side, too: Many hang gliders have risked their lives for decades and seen friends killed honing skills that allow men to soar like birds of prey. It hurts to see that knowledge abandoned in favor of a sport that at first seems as hard to master as sitting in a lawn chair.

One of the few young hang glider pilots left, 27-year-old Ryan Voight, said he knew he was living dangerously when he posted a message on hanggliding.org admitting he'd recently tried paragliding. And liked it.

The message board (plastered with advertisements for a "mature singles" dating service) erupted with outrage. Curmudgeonly hang gliders accused Voight of harboring an anti-hang-gliding agenda, demanded to know if he was an undercover paragliding instructor trolling for business and suggested his views would be more welcome among his own kind, on a paragliding forum.

One aggrieved hang glider wrote: "We have a right to not have PG shoved down our throats all the time."

As it turns out, Voight is a second-generation hang glider. His dad owns a hang gliding school and shop in New York. The younger Voight teaches whenever he can near his home in Utah, where he supplements his income as a ski instructor.

Despite the ostracism, Voight is still paragliding. He is not the only turncoat.

Bowing to the seemingly inevitable, the U.S. Hang Gliding Assn. added "and Paragliding" to its name a few years ago. In 2011, the number of paragliding members (4,066) surpassed the number of hang gliders (3,922) for the first time.

"It's hard because hang gliders started it all in the 1970s, when they were in their 20s or 30s, but now they're getting to the point where they can't do it anymore," said Nick Greece, 35, the association's spokesman.

Besides, a hang glider is "a way cooler craft … it flies faster, it can fly in more wind," Greece offered, just before confiding that he flies a paraglider. He is, in fact, a world-class competitor in the sport.

One problem with hang gliders is their big, awkward frames. Getting them up the hill usually requires a truck, or a large van, with a roof rack. Once at the launch, it takes time to assemble their metal tubes, steel wires and complicated harnesses.

That rigid frame, though, means most hang gliders can fly twice as far and twice as fast as most paragliders and, significantly, a hang glider will knife through the turbulence surrounding rising columns of air — known as thermals — with much less drama. But it takes longer to learn to handle all the power.

That's why most newcomers are flocking to paragliders, prompting old hangies, who in their youth were derided as "sky bums," to despair that the younger generation is addicted to instant gratification.

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