CRESTVIEW — Neil Larson’s feet may be firmly on the ground, but his heart still soars — and has since May 23, 1971.

That was the day — about a month before his high school graduation — that Larson, now a Crestview commercial artist and sign painter, fell in love with the then-fledgling sport of hang gliding.

“I got interested in it at that age where you’re just getting out of the nest,” Larson said. “It kind of caught my interest and my folks thought it was a safe thing for me to be consumed with.”

As a graduation present, his parents drove him to Newport Beach, California, for what was billed as the First Great Universal Hang Glider Championship.

“By the time we got there, the unpaved road and the hillside was just replete with cars,” Larson said. “It was a fly-in instead of a sit-in, like the hippie thing. 

MEMBER NO. 24

Larson was hooked. He became Southern California Hang Glider Association’s 24th member, and soon was club historian.

The club changed names over the years and is now the Colorado-based United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.

Five years ago, Larson spearheaded the erection of a marker in Newport Beach commemorating that first 1971 fly-in.

In May, he headed to Playa Del Rey, near Los Angeles, for Otto 45, the fly-in’s 45th anniversary, for which he designed the commemorative T-shirt.

The gatherings are named in honor of Otto Lilienthal, a German aviation pioneer who flew more than 2,000 glider flights starting in 1891, 12 years before the Wright brothers’ famous flight.

On May 22, Larson again strapped on a harness and swooped down a hill.

Before then, he hadn’t hang glided since serving in the Army in Bavaria in 1981.

FLYING IN BAVARIA

While in Bavaria, Larson went hang gliding through an Army recreation program, letting no one know he had previous experience.

“There was snow on the ground. There was permafrost. The hillside was covered with these little fist-sized nuggets of ice and snow,” Larson said.

“I took off running and I got into a prone position. You get more control the faster you go. I was going bombs away with my knuckles six inches off the ground.

“(The instructor) was running after me like a banshee because he was sure when I got to the bottom, my face would be bloody and my knuckles would be shredded, but I did a perfect flair up and landed.

“It was like a Martin and Lewis skit. He came up huffing and puffing and said, ‘You’ve done this before, haven’t you?’”

ONE REGRET

Larson’s stories of his experiences and accounts of his hang-gliding achievement appear on the Newport Beach Historical Society’s website and in Cross Country magazine, among other media.

While Larson is now content to keep his feet on the ground — most of the time — he follows other hang gliders on the internet and leaves comments of encouragement.

“When I get on YouTube and I see a guy in Romania or someplace flying, I’ll tell him, ‘Great flight, keep it up,’” Larson said.

He can imagine what happens next.

“He’ll go back to his neighborhood bar and tell his friends, ‘I got praise from one of the founders!’” Larson said.

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THE ORIGINS OF HANG GLIDING

In 1971, in the hippie uprising era, the interest began from leftover ideas developed by NASA, the aerospace industry and the aeronautical manufacturing industry. Pressed into the urban sprawl of Southern California, some free-thinking and inventive youth began to pursue flight by the seat of their pants. 

In May of 1971 on a straw grass-covered hillside in Newport Beach, an unusual collection of hand-built, one-man, foot-launched aircraft gathered to celebrate the 123rd birthday of Otto Lilienthal.

The event was  titled  The First Great Universal Hang Gliding Championships, by founding Otto Meet planner Joe Faust. Along with Richard Miller and Jack Lambie, the three men promoted this multiple-aircraft event as a means of organizing the sprouting interest across Southern California for these original hand-built light -weight one-man “hang” gliders.

On the hillside that day in attendance were Bill Liscomb, Mark Lambie, Taras Kiceniuk Jr., Ernest Faher, Neil Larson, Frank Colver and Joe Faust.