BAD AIR DAY

 

Corey takes hang-gliding lessons

 

 

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

      When it comes to sky sports, I am not an adventuresome adventurer. We're talking skipped heartbeats whenever a ski-lift chair goes over those rolly things.

      Considering the situation with commercial airplanes lately, however, hang-gliding has lost significant precariousness to me. Perhaps it could even serve as alternate holiday transit between LAX and JFK. (Of course, carry-ons would be severely limited.)

      I signed up with Windsports Hang-gliding School because it teaches beginner courses at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo. Here, the birds you soar above are the ones sleeping by the volleyball nets, the clouds you carve gentle pirouttes through comprise ground-level fog, and the airplanes you're eye-level with are in the process of taking off from neighboring LAX.

      The Dockweiler slopes are only 15 feet high and made of sand. They're perfect for someone used to adventures in two dimensions, someone who nose-dived every kite he ever flew and could never sail a paper airplane all the way across a grammar-school classroom. (OK, fine, junior high.) 

      Although your signature is required on 10 release forms waiving the right to sue if your head falls off, wiping out at Dockweiler means you will most likely live to play another day of "go back up the hill until you stop crashing." 

      Our class of four is taught by Jeff Dodgen, a 41-year-old Venice Beach resident originally from Tennessee.  Dodgen has 14 years of gliding experience, although he's only been with Windsports since August. He begins by assembling our vehicle, which weighs about 50 pounds but feels lighter because the wind perpetually yanks it skyward. 

      Unlike, say, motorcycles, the more advanced a hang-glider is, the smaller it is. This explains why our model contains a monstrous 130 square feet of sail. It also has the words "FLIGHT SCHOOL" emblazoned across the back and is entirely neon-puke green. This ensures that a) no one will confuse us with hang-gliders who are cool and b) we can easily be spotted when we accidentally blow backwards onto Runway 26L.

      Dodgen takes a test flight to show what is expected of us. He walks, then runs, down the slope as the air gently scoops him up and moves him in a smooth line toward the ocean. It looks green-screen fake.

      After climbing back up (the only physically taxing part of hang-gliding), he explains that, with proper experience, students can sail for as long as three hours, to as high as 60 feet in the air, from a similar launch.

      "All that's required to hang-glide is a slight amount of physical ability," he says. 

      Good, because a slight amount is exactly what I have.

      "And a LOT of ability to relax." 

      Umm, do you have any other requirements available that I can substitute?

      My first preflight problem has already developed. Because of all the water I was advised to drink when I called to schedule my lesson, I am now being called upon by nature. But the nearest rest room is half a mile away.

      "Just get in your car and drive to it," says Dodgen. Sounds good, only my car is 1.5 miles away, since I couldn't read the directions to the parking lot correctly.

      "Well, I guess you're on your own," he says.

      Hang-gliding was invented more than 100 years ago by a German, Otto Lillienthal, not as a sport but as a means of manned flight predating the airplane. (The Wright Brothers based their invention on schematics drawn by Lillienthal, who died during a gliding accident in 1896.)

      Once airplanes got off the ground, however, there was no need to glide anywhere, so the idea was shelved until 1966. That's when surfer types gathered at this very state beach -- named after Isadore B. Dockweiler, inventor of the idea of having too much free time on your hands -- to try something that only a subculture high on pot and Dick Dale tunes could come up with.

      These pioneering wing nuts draped sails made of garbage bags over frames made of bamboo, wrapped them in duct tape and ran screaming off the hills with them. A 1972 "Popular Mechanics" article elevated this unbalanced behavior from oddity to sport.

      It's appropriate that hang-gliding was born on these very sandy hills. Because that's where, thanks to me, it may well die.

      Laurie Shu of downtown L.A., who will not reveal her age, and her two friends -- who decide, after assessing me, that they will not reveal their names -- vote that I should go first.

      The goal of hang-gliding, Dodgen says, is to achieve "trim position." Although this sounds similar to my goal when dating, what it really means is balancing the center of gravity. The slightest shift in body weight steers the glider in the same direction, while leaning forward noses the glider down, and leaning backward lifts it up.

      As the wind cuts across my helmet like a power sander, I am strapped in for a pre-flight check. 

      "The number one reason for deaths in hang-gliding is launching before being properly hooked into your equipment," says Dodgen. (Funny, the number two reason is launching AFTER being properly hooked into it.)

      Dodgen has me inspect the steel oval on my body harness, called a caribbeaner, which hooks into a strap on the glider called the hang point. He has me check the clearance between my body when prone and the wheel bar. The last detail Dodgen calls out has me glad I'm doing this and not him.

      "Crotch check!" he announces, referring to an inpection of whether my legs are firmly in the harness.

      Other than still having to go to the bathroom quite badly, my crotch is fine. But Dodgen does have one area of concern: my grip on the steel bars on either side of me.

      "Your hands need to be loose and relaxed," he says. "You will just hang there. That's why it's called hang-gliding. If you have a tight grip, you're not going to feel where the glider wants to be in order to fly straight and level."

      After running down the slope, eyes on a distant flag as instructed, I feel an upward tug potent enough to launch me uncontrollably into the air lanes, like the balloon pig from the cover of Pink Floyd's "Animals" album. So, of course, my hands clutch the bars. 

      All the words in the world can't hope to eradicate certain base instincts, such as grabbing onto something when your body is headed somewhere it's not in control of. The last time I ignored that instinct, I ended up flung off my ten-speed, head first, onto the street in front of my 7th grade classmate's house.

      The result of my reflexive grasping looks not unlike the black-and-white footage of all those aspiring airplane inventors flapping and spiralling off cliffs and into the ground. 

      I nearly find a rest room, all right, in my Levi's.

      There are no injuries but the walk of shame, back up the sand to face my new hang-gliding friends, is pain enough. (In addition, a small crowd of cute female bicyclists gathered at the edge of the slopes just in time to witness my new entry for "agony of defeat" visual from "ABC's Wide World of Sports.")

      My classmates offer sympathetic stares that simultaneously say "nice try" and "please don't let me screw up that bad."

      Of course, Laurie and her two anonymous friends don't screw up at all. They each execute perfect flights, learning from my excellent bad example.

      On my next trip down (following a desperate bathroom rendezvous) I catch my very first taste of altitude not viewed through a plexiglass window. It's only five or six feet of it, but it's quite a rush, much better than the "E.T." ride at Universal Studios.

      I have indeed learned how to hang loose, or at least how to pretend to. But this presents an entirely new problem. All my hang-gliding expertise to this point has been in crashing, not landing. When a glider descends from a height, your feet need to be ready to Fred Flintstone the thing back into control. Instead, my legs collapse like cell-phone attennae. 

      "Did you notice you balled up your body and didn't land softly on your feet?" Dodgen asks, apparently under the impression that my noticing skills were as bad as my hang-gliding skills.

      After more coaching and two more runs, I finally begin to get the hang of it. In fact, by two hours into the class, my sailing is relatively smooth. (Sorry, I promise no more bad hang-gliding puns if you, um, hang in there with me.)

      "That was perfect!" Dodgen says of my fourth run, smiling.

      Naturally, it would be better without a man hanging off the side of my glider to make sure I don't hurt myself.

      But I'll take what I can get. 

      Windsports teaches a four-hour beginner's hang-gliding course for $120 at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo. Call 1-800-HANG-GLIDE for hours and information.

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