Dockweiler Beach renews hang gliding memories.
Most KITPLANES readers probably don’t think of hang glider pilots as old folks. Indeed, it remains a younger man’s flying sport due to the athletic nature of the launch and landing. (At least that’s true if you don’t count the 30-40% of all launches that are done via aerotowing behind a specially built ultralight.)
Nonetheless, this event at a famed California beach site was dubbed the Geezer Fly-In by many who celebrated in good humor at the landmark where so many first got their feet off the ground under a hang glider. Many of those present qualify as fifty somethings.
“Nearly 400 pilots attended,” says Michael Riggs, himself a figurehead in the early days of hang gliding. Riggs started Seagull Aircraft, which became highly successful selling thousands of his distinctive hang gliders with the smoothly curved leading edges.
He also described the event this way: “There wasn’t a dry eye all day.” Of the hundreds who gathered, many had not seen each another in the last 20 years.
34th Anniversary Fly-in
Organized by longtime instructor Joe Greblo and his Windsports hang gliding business, the Dockweiler Beach fly-in proved to be such a draw that a 2003 follow-on event is planned to join the Wright powered flight centennial. Hang gliding, of course, is older than powered flight. Modern hang gliding originated in the late 1960s, but pioneers like Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute designed and flew their hang gliders well before 1900.
The Dockweiler Beach event takes us back to 1966 when several Los Angeles area hang gliding schools first began to use the site for primary training. The truth is that in those days, it was all primary training, but the site saw tens of thousands of young people getting their first taste of the joy of flying.
The fly-in, held all day on September 9 last year, brought back many hang glider enthusiasts from those early years of this aerial sport. It also drew the children of these pioneers. Baby Boomers and Echo Boomers enjoyed the day as did newcomers who enjoyed meeting the fabled names that began the sport of hang gliding in America.
Antiques: The Hang Gliders
Many of the old veterans of hang gliding’s early times were present, and so were their gliders.
In the earliest days, when the participants were at their lowest income level, building hang gliders out of bamboo and plastic was common. This wasn’t as crazy as it sounds because pilots rarely flew higher than they could survive in a fall. One of these Bamboo Butterfly models was actually scratch built from raw materials at the site on the day of the event. How’s that for quick build time?
Even more amazing: These flimsy looking contraptions were flown extensively by reunion attendees.
In addition to Windsports, the event was cosponsored by the country’s largest manufacturer, Wills Wing, formerly a family operation that also brought many members to the fly-in.
Now a medical doctor, family member Chris Wills enjoyed reliving the founding days of hang gliding. Though older and wiser, “Chris enjoyed flying barefoot in shorts and no shirt in an old seated harness,” Greblo said. Does Dr. Wills need his head examined? Probably not. This was a merely chance to revel in the good old days of hang gliding. Today, Wills flies both a modern ultralight and his GlaStar homebuilt.
Greblo helped set up a glide-angle contest. In this delightful memory of days gone by, pilots lined up to see if they could stretch the glide of early hang gliders all the way to the bottom of the hill. Modern hang gliders also present easily flew out to the ocean; glide angles today are better than 12:1. The oldsters barely achieved a 3:1 ratio.
Support of the City
Dockweiler Beach is now an official hang gliding center designated by the City of Los Angeles. After a dozen years of grappling with the bureaucracy of a major city, Greblo reopened the beach site to hang glider flight training. Cooperating with the spirit of the project, the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department relocated a bicycling path (part of a long route from Santa Monica to Long Beach) to the top of the 35-foot-high bluffs so that six hang glider launch sites have free access to the slope and the flat beach below.
A permanent sign commemorates the site. It signifies that a city, county, and state cooperative effort led to daily hang gliding activity just off the west departure end of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). A large bronze plaque notes that the Dockweiler coastal bluffs are considered by many to be the birthplace of modern hang gliding. Another sign, the familiar yellow diamond warning signs used on highways throughout America, advises bike path users that this area is a designated as a “Hang Glider Xing.”
On any flyable day-which is most of them-Joe Greblo’s Windsports staff might be seen giving primary hang gliding instruction at Dockweiler, just like 34 years ago. If you’d like to see for yourself, head west and look for the colorful wings that still carry enthusiastic flyers into the friendly Pacific skies.
Dockweiler Beach renews hang gliding memories.