On a clear winter afternoon, swept clean by a recent rain, several flying enthusiasts are out on the Via de las Olas bluffs with remote controls in their hands. In the distance, big jets are taking off from LAX, silently soaring over the Pacific. But the men’s focus is closer by, on the model planes and flying wings that playfully chase each other through the sky, guided by the pilots’ sure hands. The wind coming up the steep hillside provides the ideal environment to keep these engineless gliders aloft, while the pilots can vicariously enjoy the pure joy of swooping through the air, catching the wind and performing acrobatic tricks with a view of the ocean stretching from Point Dume to Palos Verdes. The bluffs at the Mount Holyoke lookout are one of the few locations in Los Angeles perfect for this activity. Soaring specialists come here from all over the city, but many of the diehard are Palisadians. It’s a short trip from home to see if the wind is blowing the right way. “Everybody has a tree they like to watch to see which way the breeze is going,” says Jim Breese, who looks at the palms up the hill above his house on Las Pulgas as his own personal wind meter. The basic flying wings, 3 to 4 feet long and shaped somewhat like a thick boomerang, are made of styrofoam that easily survives frequent crashes. Fancier models, which look more like 3- to 6-ft. replicas of actual airplanes, are made of fiberglass. Palisadian Kerry Feltham, one of the regular “pilots,” even made a movie about this mostly male phenomenon, called “The California Flyboys.” Feltham, a director whose short film “Too Much Oregano” won the Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, decided that the flying made “a natural subject” for a half-hour film. A teacher at Palisades High School, he stationed himself on the bluffs on and off for about a year with a digital video camera in hand, and completed the film in 2002. The “flyboys” are mostly “guys who do things with their heads all day,” says Feltham. They include a retired pilot, engineer, corporate lawyer, and chiropractor. “It really is a kind of spatial thing-you switch off the analytical part of your brain and go into the rhythm part of the brain.” “I saw Jim [Breese] flying out here and he let me fly the plane,” says Feltham recalling the first time he tried to pilot a model 10 years ago. “I put it in the tree.” But he was hooked. “Now I’m out here a couple of times a week.” “You get better at it,” says Breese. “At first it’s all you can do to keep it in the air. My wife bought me a radio-control set and it stuck. It’s the last she’s seen of me.” The hobby is social and meditative at the same time. “It’s the danger of not being in control and seeing how far you can go without being in control,” Breese says. “It gets you in touch with the wind.” Larry Seversen, a psychiatrist and one of the “flyboys” featured in Feltham’s movie, likes to watch red-tailed hawks as an inspiration for flying. The hobby also has an aerobic side to it. When the planes don’t stay aloft, or crash into one another during “combat,” they can fall down the hillside, and the pilots hike down one of two paths to get them. Yet planes that fall into a certain spot, known as the “Bermuda triangle,” are often lost forever. “Whoever goes down the mountain the fewest times wins,” Breese says. Breese, an engineer who designs hard drives for computers, taught a class at the Palisades/Malibu YMCA last year about how to put together a plane. Although none of the students got into flying regularly after building their planes, Breese maintains that it’s a great hobby for kids. The kits cost $45 and up, with the radio transmission costing $70 and up. Breese allows the young children walking on the bluffs with their parents to try his radio controls. “We encourage questions. We like to find new addicts,” he jokes. The hobby can get expensive for those who go onto fiberglass planes, which can cost $500 or more. They are best for experienced pilots because the planes can break easily when they crash to the ground. Gas-powered planes, which are noisy, are never used on the bluffs, and electric-powered models are seldom flown there, as most of the pilots prefer to use the natural wind power. Some aircraft pilots “waggle their wings” in friendly hello when they see the glider fliers on the bluffs. The best “flying” season is spring and summer, when the on-shore breezes provide just the right lift. About five to 10 people will come out on the weekend with a good wind. The informal group, known as the Palisades Soaring Club, often flies until dusk. “It’s very relaxing, being out there with the sun and fresh air, the ocean breezes blowing on you,” Breese says. “It’s an all-engrossing sort of thing.” To purchase a copy of “California Flyboys,” e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Introductory beginner kits can be found at hobby shops, such as Hobby People, 10825 Pico, 234-2425 or Evett’s Model Shop, 1636 Ocean Park, 452-2720. Fiberglass models can be found at specialty retailers such as www.nesail.com
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