09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Most of the time, Buddy lives the normal life of a Labrador retriever: He runs, he barks, he wags his tail when he's happy. But once a month, when the sky is clear and the wind fair, Buddy takes to the air and boldly goes where hardly any dog has ever gone before—soaring aloft on a hang glider over the California coastline.
It all started when Buddy, now 5, was a puppy chasing after owner Bill Kimball's hang glider. "He just didn't want to be left behind," says Kimball, 45. "So I made him up a little harness." Buddy's first flight was over the mountains, and he didn't like it. "His ears were back and his tail was down," says Kimball, a telecommunications engineer who lives in San Diego with his girlfriend, attorney Lisa Iulianelli, 36, and her earthbound dog and cat. "He was scared." Next time out, they headed for the coast, where the ride is smoother—and a canine aviator was born.
Now that Buddy's grown, Kimball has made him a bigger, stronger harness of black webbing—the kind that goes into car seat belts—and orange cushioning for comfort. "There's no way Buddy can fall out," says hang-gliding instructor David Jebb, manager of the Torrey Pines Gliderport, where Buddy and Kimball do their soaring. "And you can tell the dog is having a good time. He's always wagging his tail. He's happy." And comfortable. Once they're airborne, the 88-lb. dog spends the rest of the ride perched on his owner's back. "Buddy," Kimball admits, "is spoiled. When he barks, I answer."