Hang gliding 1980s

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Hang gliding 1980s

Hang gliders: Birdman Cherokee 170, Cunion Crossbow, La Mouette Atlas, and Pacific Windcraft/Hiway Vision 1
Harness: Modified and strengthened 1970s stirrup harness
In-flight camera: 110-format compact film

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.


Aerial photo of hang gliding at the Devil's Dyke in 1980

The Devil’s Dyke is a few miles north of Brighton, Sussex, England.

I took this photo with a 110-format camera taped to a downtube of my Birdman Cherokee in 1980. I digitized it by using a digital camera to photograph the print.

Photo of a 1980 hang glider

The Gannett, flown here by its designer Bob England in 1980, was successor to the Gryphon.

Bob England went on to create the Hiway Demon, after which he moved to the USA and created the Streak. I read that he was killed about the turn of the century flying a paraglider at Torrey Pines.

Birdman Cherokee hang glider

Flying the Birdman Cherokee

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.

Photo of a 1980 prototype hang glider

The Pelican of 1980 was designed and built by Bill Pain.

Bill Pain continued with hang glider design after the Pelican. (Indeed, in 2010 he was in Australia flight testing another prototype.) His most successful hang glider was the Offpiste Discovery, which in 1995 pioneered a reversal of the trend towards greater weight, complexity, and cost in hang gliding. The Discovery is almost as quick to rig as a paraglider.

See Hang gliding 1977 to 1979 for Bill’s input on this subject, which I have yet to figure out how to move to this page. (The other page originally included the content of this page.)

Experimental hang glider launching

Launching in one of my experimental hang gliders

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 history of Skyhook Sailwaings.

1977 Skyhook Canard. Copyright © 2001 Len Gabriels.

1977 Skyhook Canard. Copyright © 2001 Len Gabriels.

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.

Fly Navy

From my desk diary, Tuesday, March 30th, 1982:

R.N. Air Medical School.
07:50 a.m.

Seafield Park,

The event was a disorientation and decompression course organized by the BHGA and run by the Royal Navy School of Aviation Medicine at a mansion requisitioned during World War 2. 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) Judy L excelled.

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. (She might even have been one of those there that day! It did not occur to me to ask.) I digress…

Arrial view of Royal Navy School of Aviation Medicine at Seafield Park

Seafield Park at an earlier time

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.

Sea Harriers shortly before war broke out in the south Atlantic

Sea Harriers shortly before war broke out in the south Atlantic

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 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.

Art for art’s sake

Photo of a dual hang glider launching about 1980

Dual hang glider launch about 1980. Reprinted courtesy of Ultralight Flying! magazine.

I based one of my hang glider paintings on this photo. Reprinted courtesy of Ultralight Flying! magazine.

In January 1989, after five years off, I resumed flying by joining an expedition to Lanzarote, one of the Spanish Canary Islands, 60 miles off the west coast of Africa.

Hang glider skydive crew, Lanzarote, January or February 1989

Hang glider skydive crew, Lanzarote, January or February 1989

These guys have seat harnesses and the one on the right is wearing a skydiving parachute. His hang glider harness has a quick release…

Hang glider skydive launch, Lanzarote, January or February 1989

Hang glider skydive launch

The glider they used for this event is a Moyes GTR. On this occasion, at Mirador, they failed to gain adequate height for the drop, but I heard they succeeded the following day.

Hang glider preparing to Launch at Mala, Lanzarote, 1989

Preparing to Launch at Mala, Lanzarote, 1989

The accompanying photo is of me about to launch at Mala. The glider is an Atlas, a single surface wing made in France. It was comparable with my old Birdman Cherokee and it belonged to the hang gliding school (Lejair) that organised the expedition.

And, in September 1989, I went to mainland Spain for two weeks’ flying.

Hang glider rigging area at Ager in September 1989

Rigging area at Ager in September 1989

Hang glider launch line at Ager in northern Spain, September, 1989

Launch line at Ager in northern Spain, September, 1989

I worked in central London and a colleague, an American, happened to have a hang glider for sale. As luck would have it, it was exactly what I wanted; an intermediate performance double surface wing. (The sail includes an under-surface that encloses the cross-tubes.)

My first flight in it was from the top of a ridge 3 000 feet (1 000 metres) high!

Hang glider launching in Spain in 1989

Launching my Pacific Windcraft/Hiway Vision

We had one day of dust devils in the rigging and launch area, in which pilots from Britain, Spain, Germany, and France readied for flight. Those mini tornadoes were invisible because it was just rock and scrub there, but they picked up gliders, bags, harnesses, and anything not held down. The day after after that, for amusement, I threw my glider bag into the air and yelled. Everyone rushed to their wings to hold them down. Then, seeing my glider bag collapse onto the ground with me grinning beside it, they just glared at me…

Internal links

Hang gliding 1977 to 1979

Hang gliding 1990 to 1993

South Atlantic Star, my review of Hostile Skies by RAF Harrier pilot David Morgan, 2006, who flew by Seafield Park in a Sea Harrier on his way to the Falklands War just a few days after the hang gliding disorientation and decompression course there

2 Responses to Hang gliding 1980s

  1. Scott Whittet 214 223 1859 says:

    In the early 1980s, I purchased an Electra Flyer Spirit glider that had been tree landed, repaired it and we had some excellent flights on it at Buffalo Mtn., Okalahoma and early test flights with center of mass vehicle static tow launches in Dallas , Texas. The Spirit was easy to coordinate turns, launch and land compared to our truncated tip Albatross Sailwings and pointed tip Wills and Sunbird kites. I think the Spirit was a design project of both Kieth Nichols of Albatross and Larry Newman of Electra Flyer. Also I read somewhere that Australian Bill Pain manufactured under license the Spirit. Does anyone have some history on the design evolution and characteristics of flight? The performance and launch and landing seemed to represent a combination that could have been good enough for most typical hang glider pilots!
    Scott Whittet USHGA # 7473

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