Hang gliding 1973 and before
…there is less margin for error in hang gliding than in almost anything else a person might attempt in life.
— Instructor Ken de Russy interviewed by Carol Price in Hang Gliding, November 1980
Modern hang gliding has its roots in the 1960s American space program and the efforts of pioneers such as Barry Palmer, John Dickenson, Richard Miller, and Jack Lambie.
I started hang gliding in late 1974, so this page pertains to before my time. Most of the images on this page are my artistic derivations of contemporary photos by a small number of photographers, principally George Uveges.
Hang gliding in the 1960s and up to 1972
Barry Palmer made this glider using clear polythene taped to aluminium tubing. This image is a screenshot from Bill Liscomb’s 2008 documentary Big Blue Sky (link farther on).
The following black-and-white art images are based on photos by George Uveges:
In March 1967 Emil Riesel of Saratoga, California, began a newsletter, Low and Slow and Out of Control. Mentioned in the first issue is Richard Miller flying his ‘Bamboo Butterfly’ Rogallo from the dunes at Dockweiler State Park on January 16, 1966. (Source: Vic Powell in Hang Gliding, September 1991.)
If you knew what you were doing, you could build your own machine for a few dollars and, in the course of a day, teach yourself how to soar… It looks like their whole day cost less than five dollars including lunch, gas money, and the glider.
— Bill Liscomb in the narration of his 2008 documentary film Big Blue Sky (linked farther on)
This photo illustrates a technique used by some pilots of the early Rogallo wings: That of using your feet to spread the rear wires and bend the keel tube–and the root area of the sail–into a camber. That increased the lifting efficiency of the wing, but it also reduced its pitch stability. Likely not a problem when flying straight and level in calm air.
If you are over thirty and want to feel like a senior citizen, just join a crowd of hang glider pilots.
— William Le Mer describing hang gliding in the early 1970s in the USHGA magazine Hang Gliding, September 1983
William Le Mer, then in his fifties while most hang glider pilots were in their twenties (how times change!) was a glider pilot in World War 2. He was the only one to make the landing zone in his first hang gliding competition, at Escape Country, California, which he ascribed to luck. However:
So, what made me pound on the steering wheel every few minutes, all the way home, and shout out the window of my ratty old pickup at amazed passersby: “I WON, I WON!”
The original photo of Chris Wills landing at Sylmar was taken by Bill Allen, who was one of a handful of the early photographers and columnists who documented hang gliding in the 1970s.
Then we’d talk and laugh about it all around a campfire, drinking hot-spiced wine and roasting hot dogs while John Denver wailed “Rocky Mountain High” on the radio of an old VW bus… That was hang gliding in 1973.
— Mark Sawyer 1
Chris Price, who is checking the security of the gliders on his Volkswagen in the image, designed the first popular prone harness for hang gliding (that is, lying down Superman style).
In 1973, you stood and walked with your left arm angled out a ways and thumb hooked through a belt loop. Notice also the photographer in the middle.
The parking lot was jammed with cars and RVs, and as we reached the flying site, colored pennants formed into long lines and cheerfully waved at the crowd. Cameras were everywhere: carried by hand, slung around necks, and the oversized variety, bearing the letters NBC, CBS, and ABC, riding sidesaddle on human shoulders.
— Maralys Wills and Chris Wills in Higher than Eagles, 1992. See my review.
Automotive designer Pete Brock (of the Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe and Corvette Sting Ray) turned his engineering talents to the manufacture of hang gliders at a workshop in El Segundo, California. Trading as Ultralight Products, he led the field in quality of hardware and purpose-designed machined fittings.
For more of Brock, see my threads page Ultralight Products of California and Utah.
The Whitney Portawing featured cable leading edges instead of leading edge tubes. Unfortunately the wing was discovered to be unstable in pitch.
U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom pilot Rich Finley designed, built, and flew the Windlord series of Rogallo wings. The Windlord 4 eventually metamorphosed into the popular Cirrus 3 made by Electra Flyer of New Mexico. For more about the Cirrus series, see my threads page Electra Flyer of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Stephen McCarroll not only photographed hang gliders from the ground. He was one of the early hang glider pilots who experimented with cameras mounted on his glider. A few years later, he had Wills Wing build him a hang glider purpose-made for aerial photography.
Chris Wills, younger brother of Bob, became the first ever U.S. hang gliding champion, in 1973. Annie Green Springs was a wine label of the commercial sponsor of the competition held at at Sylmar, California.
Ground Skimmer was the magazine of the Southern California Hang Gliding Association, which became the United States Hang Gliding Association. Dave Meyers was Art Director for Ground Skimmer during its early years. He ran West Wind School of Hang Gliding and gave beginner lessons at Dockweiler Beach off the end of the L.A. International Airport runways. He also sold hang gliders for Seagull Aircraft. (Source: E-mail correspondance.)
Bob Wills features in subsequent pages of this history of hang gliding. This image is a screenshot from a segment in Bill Liscomb’s 2008 documentary Big Blue Sky where Bob flies in front of crowds at the Coyote Hills near San Francisco. The glider is a Sport Kites Inc Wills Wing standard Rogallo, which he designed and built with his brother Chris Wills and their old school friend Chris Price.
In December of 1973, schoolteacher Mike Meier arrived in southern California from New York…
My interest at the time was motorcycles, and while riding along the cliffs of Palos Verdes one day I spotted two men bending over a long yellow bag with the words “Sport Kites” stenciled on the side.
— Mike Meier 2
Mike watched as one of them flew several passes along the cliff and touched down lightly on the beach. Mike then obtained the address of Sport Kites and Bob Wills from the second man, and then he rode home.
For more about the Wills family and Mike Meier, see my page Sport Kites/Wills Wing of California.
This topic continues in Hang gliding 1974 part 1.
Correcting History, Who Invented The Modern Hang Glider—free e-book by Graeme Henderson and Terry Aspinall
Doug Carmichael Recalls May 23 1971 on the US Hawks Hang Gliding Association web site: Jib-sailed Rogallo that Richard Miller gave to Carmichael
Hang gliding pioneers video on YouTube with Francis Rogallo, John Dickenson, and Bill Moyes in conversation in 1988
Hang Loose Hang Glider Home Movie video on YouTube of a very young pilot being towed up in an early biplane rigid hang glider. The piano accompaniment shifts this old film sideways into a Richard Bach vintage parallel universe.
Ken de Russy YouTube channel of the instructor who runs a hang gliding museum
Big Blue Sky external video links
These are links to Big Blue Sky — The history of modern hang gliding – the first extreme sport!, 2008, documentary by Bill Liscomb on YouTube:
- Dave Cronk describes how he started: Big Blue Sky starting at 17 minutes 33 seconds
- Dave Cronk (more): First World Champion, 1975, David Cronk in Big Blue Sky starting at 44 minutes 21 seconds
- Early Soaring Flights, David Kilbourne in Big Blue Sky starting at 19 minutes 33 seconds
- First to Fly, Barry Palmer in Big Blue Sky starting at 5 minutes 11 seconds
- Innovative Designs, Taras Kiceniuk in Big Blue Sky starting at 21 minutes 15 seconds
- Mystical Visionary, Richard Miller in Big Blue Sky starting at 6 minutes 29 seconds
- The First Meet, May 23, 1971 in Big Blue Sky starting at 14 minutes 19 seconds
- Volmer Jensen flying the VJ-23: Big Blue Sky starting at 35 minutes 17 seconds
Playground in the Sky external video links
These are links to Playground in the Sky, 1977, by Carl Boenish on YouTube (low resolution):
- Dave Cronk flying his Cronkite, followed by Vomer Jensen in the VJ-23, then Taras in the Icarus 2 and Icarus 5…: Playground in the Sky starting at 25 minutes 19 seconds
- Francis Rogallo learns to fly his invention: Playground in the Sky starting at 40 minutes 29 seconds
Wings of the Wind external video links
A mid-1970s documentary on YouTube
- General flying and rigging: Wings of the Wind starting at 3 minutes 13 seconds, including Jack Schroder rigging his Quicksilver
- Jack Schroder and his Quicksilver again: Wings of the Wind starting at 16 minutes 41 seconds
- Point Fermin cliff: Wings of the Wind starting at 19 minutes 28 seconds, for Jack Schroder in his Quicksilver and, later Taras Kiceniuk narrating
- Point Fermin cliff: Wings of the Wind starting at 22 minutes 55 seconds to see an in-flight movie camera on the glider’s base tube
- Taras Kiceniuk Jr. interview: Wings of the Wind starting at 5 minutes 4 seconds, …while driving an open-top vintage car
- Volmer Jensen interview: Wings of the Wind starting at 11 minutes 12 seconds
The following are in Sky Adventures, Legends and stories About the Early Days of Hang Gliding and Paragliding edited by Jim (Sky Dog) Palmieri and Maggie Palmieri, 1998:
1: Mark Sawyer, The History of Hang Gliding; a Personal View of a Collective Experience
2: Mike Meier, Wills Wing–The Early Years