Hang gliding 1975

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Hang gliding 1975

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Photo of hang glider transported by bicycle

Ready to set out for my local hill…

From some time in early 1975, instead of carrying the de-rigged glider on my shoulders the whole way (about a half hour) to the slope, I added some padding to my bike and wheeled it there.

Hang glider launching St. Catherine's Hill, Christchurch, Dorset, UK, in 1975

Another to-to-bottom at my local hill in February 1975

My local flying site was a public walking, biking, and radio control glider flying area. Crowds accumulated on warm spring flying days. Despite the simplicity of the standard Rogallo, I used a written check list when rigging it. One gent with a walking stick insisted that, “If you were in the army, you would have to remember all that.” Another chimed in, “If you join the RAF, you can do this for free.” (One difference between then and now is that I bought the kit-form Skyhook with money left over from my student grant.) Still another earnest fellow: “Why don’t you join the navy?”

I did not have a car, but I met two men at my local hill taking it in turns to fly a hang glider made by Kestrel Kites of Poole, of whom I had never heard. They introduced me to the local hang gliding club and they gave me lifts to new flying sites. I no longer always flew alone.

Photo of an early 1970s hang glider in flight

Flying the Skyhook IIIA standard Rogallo hang glider in early 1975

Although no scenery is in view, this was taken at Monk’s Down in 1975, which I still fly 40 years later (2015).

The counter-culture rejected ties with traditional society, and felt that suburban living in tract houses was the epitome of everything it despised. This was, of course, because most of the pilots had grown up in the suburbs.

— Quoted from an article by Richard Seymour in Hang Gliding & Paragliding, July, 2004, about the Sylmar/Kagel Mountain flying site in California

Hang glider flying in February 1975

Flying at my local hill in February, 1975

The best pilots were starting to fly in prone harnesses, which created less drag and allowed much greater range of pitch control, enabling steeper coordinated turns. This is my a cobbled together modification of my Skyhook seat harness worn the wrong way round! Although it might look as though the rope goes around my neck, those lines went all the way to the thick plywood seat (worn on the front, however).

Experimental prone harness in March 1975

Experimental prone harness in the back yard, March 1975

I flew it at Monk’s Down and I was shocked at the way the glider just climbed. How was I ever going to land in that tiny field at the bottom!

Incidentally, the piece of fabric stitched between the rear rigging wires by the keel was my half-hearted attempt at a device known as a sail feather. Standard Rogallos were known to become unstable in pitch in a steep dive because, with the air flowing parallel to the airframe, the sail deflated and ceased to provide lift, which is essential for control in a weight-shift controlled aircraft. The idea was that the fixed sailfeather, small though it was, would act as an up-elevator, preventing such an extreme situation developing.

Appliance of Science

Cover of Scientific American, December 1974

Cover of Scientific American, December 1974, painting by Ted Lodigensky

After a bleak day’s flying at Melbury hill, near Shaftsbury in Dorset, in February 1975 I sat in a car with other hang glider pilots. Darkness fell while we waited for others to finish de-rigging, and the December 1974 edition of Scientific American was passed around. On the cover was a Ted Lodigensky painting of Mike Markowski’s Eagle III, the ‘Princeton sailwing’. Inside, pages of aerodynamic explanation, photos, and diagrams were to be read and ‘inwardly digested’ by all young men not wanting to be left behind.

Mike talks about his life on the Michael A. Markowski page of video interviews on the Harrisburg living legacy web site (linked farther down).

Photo of a hang glider in 1975

Training flight at Monk’s Down in north Dorset. Photo by Dave Lewis.

Roger Platt of Kestrel Kites flying at Monks Down in 1975

Roger Platt of Kestrel Kites flying at Monks Down in 1975

Kestrel Kites was based in Poole, on Dorset’s coast, in a building subsequently demolished during construction of, ironically, a highway flyover.

Photo of an early 1970s hang glider launching

A Birdman Grasshopper launches at Monk’s Down. Photo by Dave Lewis.

Photo of a man carrying a fully rigged hang glider up a hill

Having landed in the field at the bottom of the hill, you then carried it back to the top. Photo by Dave Lewis.

Which was more dangerous; flying it or carrying it back up like this?

Sky Riders

Hang glider launching in 1975

Launching in my Skyhook IIIA at the British Championships at Mere in Wiltshire, August 1975

I was one of about 300 competitors flying for the crowds and television cameras at the British championships at Mere, Wiltshire, in August 1975.

Photo of hang glider in Pilot magazine, March, 1976

Photo of me in Pilot magazine, March, 1976

Pilot was (and is) Britain’s main light aviation magazine. The March 1976 edition featured hang gliding and it included this photo of me taken by Len Gabriels, the brains behind Skyhook hang gliders, at the British championships in August the previous year. (Coincidentally, long time Pilot editor James Gilbert watched me and my comrades hang gliding on the Spanish island of Lanzarote in the early 1990s.)

Miles Wings Gulp flight test in 1975

Miles Wings Gulp flight test in 1975

I seem to recall that this photo of the Gulp, which its designer and constructor Miles Handley (who had no formal education in aerodynamics) sent me as a print, was of the second flight of the prototype.

The original Miles Wings Gulp had no battens, but — extraordinarily — the thick sailcloth maintained an airfoil section, as if by magic, even when the wing was rigged flat on the ground. It had just enough dihedral (and the sail was cut precisely) that span-wise tension together with the curved join of the two semi-spans at the root ensured its 3-D form. Nevertheless, the Gulp was reputed to be hard to turn, a problem likely magnified by that dihedral.

I heard also that it suffered from a minor pitch control problem (a phugoid) because the changed airflow at different pitch angles (so-called angle of attack) caused the high point of the airfoil curve to move forward and back, countering the pilot’s control inputs. To resolve that problem (which struck my own later experimental glider more seriously) the next version of the Gulp featured chord-wise airfoil shaped fixed battens spaced evenly across its entire span.

Brian Wood flying a Miles Wings Gulp 130

Brian Wood flying a Miles Wings Gulp 130

Brian Wood, the first British hang gliding champion, did not do as well as expected in the 1975 competition, but he demonstrated the Miles Wings Gulp 130 monoplane flex-wing one calm evening. Having launched from the ridge top, instead of gliding down to land at the bottom like every other hang glider, he flew straight out, losing barely any height until he touched down in a field far out from launch.

…the late, great low-speed aerodynamicist, Dr. Paul MacCready, once told me that he felt the hang gliding design evolution had progressed further through a semi-educated trial-and-error process than what would have been achieved in the same time span by classically educated aerodynamicists.

— Lt. Col. Mark Stucky USMC (call sign Forger) in Hang Gliding & Paragliding, January 2008

Brian Wood riding moto cross

Brian Wood on a 400cc CZ at Canada Heights, Swanley, Kent

Brian Wood, incidentally, was the first and only British hang gliding superstar, often appearing on radio, television, and press. Previously, like his American counterpart Bob Wills, he rode moto cross.

Painting of a 1975 hang glider

A Swallowtail derivative, the 1975 Hiway Cloudbase (painting)

The highest scoring pilot at the 1975 British Championships was American Bob Wills flying an all-black Sport Kites Inc. Wills Wing Swallowtail. Examining the glider from under its expanse of sailcloth I noticed that the sun highlighted brownish streaks criss-crossing the fabric. Wills explained that the sails of these gliders were originally white (or multicolored in some cases) and they were painted black for an upcoming movie which they had just filmed in Greece. The film was Sky Riders, starring James Coburn, Susannah York, Robert Culp, and Charles Aznavour. It was in cinemas/movie theaters the following year.

Hang gliding in 'Sky Riders,' 1976

Wills Wing Swallowtail, 1975, from the 20th Century Fox movie ‘Sky Riders’

Meanwhile, I was building a world-beating hang glider of my own design. Simpler than the Miles Wings Gulp, but with a larger control frame to accommodate the pilot in a prone harness for less drag. I designed it with pencil and paper and I built it in the back yard and garden, occasionally carrying out strength testing on some parts by hanging a heavy weight (me!) from a tube with the required degree of leverage.

My V-tail mono-wing hang glider that I designed and built over the winter of 1975-7

My V-tail mono-wing hang glider that I designed and built in autumn 1975

My V-tail mono-wing hang glider

Side and front elevations

The huge control frame was to accommodate the pilot in a prone position.

Experimental hang glider under construction in a back garden in December 1975

Engineering flight test division, December 1975

Experimental hang glider crash at Monk's Down in December 1975

Moment of impact at Monk’s Down

Experimental hang glider crash at Monk's Down in December 1975

At rest

The modified harness was OK but, unfortunately, in this configuration the new glider barely rose off the ground before dumping me back to earth.

While I had (and I believe I still have) an intuitive grasp of basic physics, my lack of full understanding of induced drag was evident in this project. Having said that, aerodynamic effects are not as hard to understand as many aerodynamicists would have you believe. Don’t take my word for it:

If anybody ever tells you anything about an aeroplane which is so bloody complicated you can’t understand it, take it from me: it’s all balls.

—  R.J. Mitchell, designer of the Supermarine Spitfire (World War 2 fighter aircraft)

So it was back to the drawing board or, rather, to an unheated upstairs room where, over the winter of 1975-6 I sat at my desk, pencil in hand, while wearing so many layers of clothing that, if I went down stairs and back up again, I overheated. The redesigned glider flew better after Roly the sail-maker and I rebuilt it accordingly.

Everard Cunion readying to launch his redesigned monoplane hang glider in 1976

Readying to launch my redesigned monoplane hang glider…

Internal links

Duck à l’orange — my Airfix 1/76th (OO) scale DUKW with scratch built hang gliders

Hang gliding 1974

Hang gliding 1976

Paint it black–my review of the 1976 movie Sky Riders

Skyhook Sailwings, a short history of the early hang glider and powered ultralight manufacturer based in the north of England

External links

Michael A. Markowski page of video interviews on the Harrisburg living legacy web site

Miles Handley photo gallery on British Hang Gliding History

Miles Wing Gulp photos by Don Liddard on flickr