Hang gliding late 1970s and early 1980s
This page continues from Three-sixty degree appraisal (hang gliding 1976).
Here, I am about to launch a Skyhook Sunspot, which appeared first in 1977, from the Merthyr ridge in February 1979. (Paul G. is on my front wires.) The glider belonged to the students’ union at the Polytechnic of Wales, where I was studying computing at that time. The snow-capped Brecon Beacons are visible in the distance.
Because computers were to be used in creating all things, I reasoned that programming was a skill that did not tie one too rigidly to any specific branch of science. After all, exactly that strategy paid off for astronaut David Bowman (who was a generalist, but not programming, as far as I recall) in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, a Space Odyssey (1968). So much for the career advice embedded in science fiction… Having said that, according to Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins, Neil Armstrong was selected to be ‘First Man’ because of his breadth of knowledge. (Source: Why was Neil Armstrong chosen to be the first man on the Moon? on the BBC World Service; linked later on this page.)
Immediately after launching on my first flight in the Sunspot, I entered a series of rolls, to the left, then to the right, then left, right, and so on, until after maybe 20 seconds my nervous system caught up with the new glider’s combination of roll inertia (more that I was used to) and damping (less) that caused a subtle delay in its roll and yaw response. This Sunspot swing was common on such first flights, I learned later. For more about pilot-induced oscillation (PIO) and Dutch roll, see under External links later on this page.
See also my painting Skyhook Sunspot, 1977.
Digression: The Merthyr ridge is imposing partly because a line of jagged grey-brown rocks juts out a little way below its curved grassy crest. It does not interfere with launching, but its craggy and prehistoric aura has a psychological effect. One grey and windy day in the winter of 1978-9 I arrived on the ridge, where several other pilots were either ready to launch or rigging up. It transpired that I was the ‘senior man’ (as they used to say) and, after assessing the conditions as perfectly good although visually unappealing, I rigged the Sunspot. (I was 21 years old while some others there were older, but less experienced, which is often the case in hang gliding.) I launched and was soon joined in the smooth lift by the others.
Sometimes it is easier to lead than to follow.
On the subject of leadership, for more about Marty Alameda, see under External links later on this page.
A popular hang glider first produced in 1977 was the Electra Flyer Olympus.
You might be able to discern the short struts projecting from the leading edges. They supported cables, above, in front of, and below the wing, to keep those lanky leading edge tubes in shape. Together with the exposed crosstubes (and the exposed pilot) they created a large amount of drag, which the next steps in hang glider evolution set out to reduce.
Mike Adkins took this photo in July 1978 at Plaskett Creek, Los Padres National Forest, on the Pacific Highway south of San Francisco. Mike later took up paragliding and was active both as a pilot and site administrator right up to his death after a short illness in November 2009.
Bob D, flying the Miles Wings Gryphon 3 in the photo, says that you had to actively fly the it all the time—you could not relax. It was, however, immensely precise and controllable as well as having unbeatable performance (in its time). Production of the Gryphon was taken over by Waspair in 1978, inventor Miles Handley being unable to keep up with demand.
Note the bowsprit and cables instead of crosstubes bracing the leading edges. Unfortunately, all those cables created about as much aerodynamic drag as crosstubes.
Bob D, winner of the Gray Prize for Journalism (named for hang gliding photographer Bettina Gray) led the documentation of hang gliding in this region of Britain for many years.
During the winter of 1979 to 1980 I returned to designing and building experimental hang gliders, with this canard wing. However, as with my earlier creations, I found it was not as good as the state of the art. I believe that Skyhook had a similar experience with their earlier canard hang glider. (See my page Skyhook Sailwings.)
I re-used the vertical stabilizer (fin) 20 years later: See under Cultural collision in Hang gliding 1998 and 1999.
The canard configuration (which places the tailplane ahead of the main wing) prevents the main wing from stalling. Unfortunately, its disadvantages outweigh that safety feature, at least in hang gliding.
Eric Raymond developed the Arrow, a conventional glider with three-axis controls, but made out of hang glider materials and fittings, for Ultralight Products. Over the years, Raymond designed, built, and flew a variety of exotic, high-performance flying machines, some based of earlier developments such as the Manta Fledge and Seedwings Sensor rigid wings.
I read that, for a while, he worked for Airwave on the Isle of Wight, off the central south coast of England. From a quay 20 minutes walk from my home, I can see the Isle of Wight across the body of ocean called the Solent. It still astonishes me that such a legendary character should have lived and worked within sight of my home.
Also see my related topics page Ultralight Products of California and Utah.
In 1980, having obtained an HND in computing and started work as a computer programmer for a large defence electronics company, I saved up enough money to buy my first car. Previously, my flying was restricted to (in the mid 1970s) my local hill (within walking distance) and by obtaining lifts from other hang glider pilots. I then bought a Birdman Cherokee pre-owned (I couldn’t afford a new hang glider) and I could barely control it. Had I forgotten how to fly? I discovered that the deflexors had been over-tightened. When I loosened off the turnbuckles (bottle screws) that adjusted the cables, it flew like a dream. (Of course, by modern standards, it flew like a heap of junk.) I spent a day trimming it out on a low slope at Butser Hill (Hampshire) while people grass-skied below me.
I took this photo with a 110-format camera taped to a downtube of my Birdman Cherokee in 1980.
The crosstube fairings (made by a different manufacturer as an add-on) were intended to reduce drag and possibly even provide a small amount of extra lift. However, I suspect their main effect was aesthetic.
Those sailcloth crosstube fairings contained short battens, one each side, to eliminate flutter. However, the little battens were not well secured and on one occasion at 3000 ft above the Devil’s Dyke (a few miles north of Brighton, England) a sound like ripping fabric caught my attention. (As you might imagine. Incidentally, the red container you might discern on the harness at chest level contains an emergency parachute.) As the sound continued and the glider continued to fly normally, I realised one of the crosstube fairing battens had come loose.
Roly made the sails for my experimental hang gliders in 1975 and ’76. He then became a full time sail-maker for a succession of leading hang glider manufacturers, including Birdman, based in Wiltshire, UK, who made the Cherokee.
See my related topics page Birdman of Wiltshire, England.
While I completed a Higher National Diploma in computing in 1979 and started work as a programmer for a defence electronics company in Surrey, Roly the sailmaker traveled to California where he visited Wills Wing in Orange County. He says he wished he had worked for them, but he was offered a job at the rival manufacturer Delta Wing (founded by Australian pioneer Bill Bennett). While there he visited Roger P, formerly of Kestrel Kites, Poole, Dorset, for whom he worked as sailmaker in the mid 1970s. Possibly because Britain did not provide opportunities for such go-ahead individuals as Roger, he emigrated to the USA.
Roly’s bid for stardom in California did not work out. After three months, he returned home and joined Solar Wings, which became one of the world’s foremost hang glider manufacturers.
Notice the modified wording in the windscreen visor of Roly’s Morris 1000 and its increased wear and tear by this time, partly resulting from several trips delivering hang gliders from Britain to Spain.
See my related topics page Solar Wings of Wiltshire, England.
From my desk diary, Tuesday, March 30th, 1982:
R.N. Air Medical School.
The event was a disorientation and decompression course organized by BHGA medical officer and former navy pilot Dunston Hadley, and run by the Royal Navy School of Aviation Medicine at a mansion requisitioned during World War 2.
Driving down to Hampshire from my weekday accommodation in Surrey, a large and very old multi arch bridge signified entering the Portsmouth area, but I was so disoriented navigating and driving, that I arrived late. As a result, I missed the disorientation exercise, at which (I heard later) top pilot Judy L excelled. The similar NASA multi-axis trainer facility was depicted in the 2018 film First Man. (See my review).
My most clear memory of the place is of beautiful Wrens in uniform (with high heels) standing and walking around the veranda carrying clipboards. (Wrens — WRNS — Women’s Royal Naval Service.) I could scarcely imagine that, ten years later, the nearest thing I ever had to a proper girl friend was a Wren. (See The mysterious lady in About the author part 2. She might even have been one of those there that day! It did not occur to me to ask.) I digress…
In the decompression chamber, one guy had to be let out through the air lock because of ear pain. A common problem where the ear is blocked with wax (as far as I recall). With the trainees in pairs sat next to each other, at an air pressure equivalent to (I think) 20000 ft, one of each pair removed his (or her) oxygen mask and carried out a simple repetitive exercise, while his buddy watched for signs of distress in case putting the other’s oxygen mask on for him was called for.
With my oxygen mask off, my task was to write out my name over and over. My signature definitely became scrawly near the bottom of the page. An older pilot, whose task was patting his knees and clapping hands alternately, started missing in the latter. It was like something in a film. One guy had to fit plastic shapes inside a hollow plastic sphere with matching shaped holes, which he did until he started struggling to fit a rectangular block through the circular hole.
The exercises over, we watched a US Air Force film about disorientation, featuring F-100s flown by pilots in silver flying suits. It is a serious danger in hang gliding in the event of being ‘whited out’ by cloud suck. Unlike F-100s and most other conventional aircraft, hang gliders are not equipped with ‘blind flying’ instruments.
Johnny C mentioned the recent television series Fighter Pilots, about selection and training of RAF aircrew. (Rhod S, best man at the wedding of two of my hang gliding friends, was thrown off the course in about the second episode, although he passed subsequently.) Johnny asked the instructor how us hangies might fare in such a process. I think his words were “If there was another war, god forbid, and we were called up…” The navy flight surgeon and his comrades all agreed emphatically that we could not possibly be any worse than those guys! (Did Johnny know something the rest of us did not?)
Then a British film, narrated by a well-known television news reader, about how easy it was to convert from conventional aircraft to the vertical take off Harrier. (Most Harrier pilots I have encountered impart the opposite impression!)
Three days later, Argentine forces invaded UK-owned islands in the south Atlantic and Britain was at war.
I was given a quick brief on deck operations and pointed at XZ 450, the Sea Eagle missile trials aircraft that had been hurriedly retrieved from British Aerospace at Dunsfold. It had no radar warning receiver and had been fitted with the Sea Eagle launch panel… Along the coast from Lee [on Solent] was Seafield Park, a minor country house on the beach appropriated by the navy during the war, which still housed the School of Naval Aviation Medicine.
— from Hostile Skies by David Morgan, who flew by Seafield Park on his way to the Falklands War just a few days afterwards. That lack of a radar warning receiver was at least partly responsible for it being shot down early on in the war. See South Atlantic Star, my review of Hostile Skies.
I sold my Birdman Cherokee to finance further development of my experimental canard hang glider, but I bought a Moonraker 78, an earlier design, to fly in the meantime. (I modified it.) In 1983, I was still short of money, so I continued to fly the modified Moonraker 78, in which I had sustained a crushed vertebra a few years before.
I took the photo of Adam Jefferson flying at Monk’s Down in April 1983. He was killed at Ringstead later in the year.
“I’ll tell you what Gordo did at Edwards. He was in engineering.” The way engineering was pronounced, you would have thought Gordo had been a quartermaster or a drum major or a chaplain.
— Tom Wolf referring to astronaut Gordon Cooper’s time as a test pilot at Edward’s air force base in The Right Stuff, 1979
(The magazine cover photo by Leroy Grannis is of Rick Lesh in an Eipper Antares over Yosemite valley in 1978.)
Lack of money caused by unemployment prevented me from flying from 1984 until 1989.
Personal note: The Massanutten Ridge photo by Skip Brown was the centre-spread in the May 1987 edition of Hang Gliding. I showed it to my mother at her usual place standing at the kitchen sink in June or early July of that year. (We received the USHGA magazine late in Britain.) It was the last such photo she saw before suffering a semi-paralysing stroke either in July or August, shortly after I moved to London to take up an offer of a job after a long period of unemployment.
Skip this bit if you are uninterested in language…
He is there, like a ghost, turning when I turn, climbing when I climb. I get a little pop flat-turn as best I can, and he’s there, getting more out of the same air. He goes straight and rises even higher, and I’m forced to follow lest I get too much below him. And so it goes.
— Jim Lawrence in Hang Gliding, October 1978, describing flying an American Seagull 10.5 Meter in one-on-one competition with Jim MacDougall flying a British Gryphon at Grouse Mountain, Vancouver, Canada
The author who first used the phrase ‘so it goes’ to impart his message, American of German descent Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) was taken prisoner by the Germans in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, a few months after his mother ended her own life. He was sent to Dresden, where he escaped death in the RAF night-bombing during February 1945 by hiding in an underground meat locker.
Coincidentally, Vonnegut appears briefly in archive film of a television interview in the 2018 docudrama about Neil Armstrong First Man. (See my review.)
This topic continues in My return to hang gliding, 1989.
Marty Alameda and Flight Designs in Hang Gliding History
Pilot-induced oscillation (PIO) and Dutch roll: Sunspot, Moonraker, and Scorpion on Hang Gliding History
Why was Neil Armstrong chosen to be the first man on the Moon? on the BBC World Service