Hang gliding 1974

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Hang gliding 1974

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To set the context of world events in late 1974, at least from a western ‘first world’ perspective, the last of the moon landings had taken place two years before and, while the Americans had largely withdrawn from Vietnam, Saigon was yet to fall to the Communists. Britain was beset by energy crises and the ‘population problem,’ the definition of which was vague.

Art based on a photo of a standard Rogallo landing in a street

Ted Salisbury flying the Dover cliffs, England, in a Wasp 229-B3

Art based on a photo of a Brock 82 standard Rogallo in flight

Art based on a photo of hang gliders soaring in 1974

The glider above all the others in this picture is a VJ-23 Swingwing rigid hang glider with conventional airplane controls. It was designed and built (largely of plywood) by Volmer Jensen, then in his sixties.

Art based on a photo of Volmer Jensen flying his VJ-24 Sunfun

The VJ-24 Sunfun, like its predecessor the VJ-23 Swingwing, was a rigid hang glider with conventional airplane controls. Unlike the VJ-23, the VJ-24 was built using aluminium alloy tube and hang glider fabric. Volmer Jensen. its designer, reckoned it took half as long to build as its predecessor.

Art based on a photo of Chuck Nyland ground skimming a Pacific Gull hang glider at Sylmar

Art based on a photo of Mike Markowski launching his Eagle III

The image of Mike Markowski launching his Eagle III is based on a photo in Scientific American, December 1974.

Art based on a photo of Mike Riggs in a Seagull V

The Seagull V used a rudder connected by ropes and pulleys to the pilot’s harness. Together with its excessive dihedral, the rudder combined with weight shift provided turn control.

Art based on the Ultralight Products advert in Ground Skimmer, October 1974

Ultralight Products, headed by automotive racing designer/stylist Pete Brock, set the standard for high quality hardware in hang glider manufacture. His son, Hall, who started flying aged nine, was the youngest hang gliding fatality at 12 years old.

Ground Skimmer was the magazine of the Southern California Hang Gliding Association, which became the United States Hang Gliding Association.

Art based on a photo by Pete Brock of a Brock short-keel standard Rogallo in flight

Art based on a photo by Pete Brock of a Brock short-keel standard Rogallo in flight

Dave Raymond as Tommy in the 1975 movie (no larger size available)

The Ken Russell movie Tommy, filmed in 1974, featured Roger Daltry of rock band The Who apparently launching from a castle tower near Portsmouth, England, in an all-white Birdman standard Rogallo. He flew shirtless and helmet-less while singing a long-forgotten song, thus causing dozens of mods and rockers on the streets below, some wearing World War 2 German steel helmets, to stop fighting and instead break out into spontaneous gyrations while they looked up at him in awe.

The point is that, with the advent of hang gliding, you no longer needed to use a multi-million dollar airplane to drop napalm on iron-age villagers in support of a corrupt capitalist regime half a world away (fighting a brutal communist regime) to be a flying hero.

Cover of the Illustrated Monthly Flypaper, September, 1974

Cover of the Illustrated Monthly Flypaper, September, 1974

The ‘official organ’ of the (UK) National Hang Gliding Association was the Illustrated Monthly Flypaper. The September 1974 edition, which I received while I was waiting for delivery of my hang glider, contained a report and photos of an early British hang gliding competition held at Cam Long. (Cam Long had not yet fallen to the Vietnamese Communists. It still hasn’t. Cam Long is in Shropshire…)

Art based on a photo by Leroy Grannis of a hang glider launching at Torrance Beach

Even those who did not fly wanted to be part of this social revolution. This is from a description of a meeting of the Southern California Hang Gliding Association, soon to metamorphose into the USHGA:

The first speaker was a youth in glasses who must have been from Cal Tech because he drew formulas and equations on a blackboard, mumbling abstractly and mostly inaudibly until everyone began stirring.

— from Higher than Eagles, the Tragedy and Triumph of an American Family by Maralys Wills and Chris Wills, 1992 (see my review)

The Skyhook IIIA was a ‘standard Rogallo’ hang glider sold in kit form, originating from the industrial north-west of England. (Mine cost £160 in 1974, equivalent to £1,600 in 2018.) I built it in the autumn while I was studying for a Higher National Diploma in applied physics. The sail was fully made, as was the plastic-coated steel cable rigging. I had to cut the tubing to length, drill holes, and assemble it.

Skyhook IIIA airframe, November, 1974

Skyhook IIIA airframe, November, 1974

In November 1974 I carried it on my shoulders up the street from home and, thirty minutes later, I arrived at a heather-covered slope where I taught myself to fly it. Not recommended. (It is the same hill we used for many years for off-road biking and — in a north-east wind — others flew radio control gliders there. It is also inside Bournemouth airport controlled airspace!)

Even by late 1974, not everyone had heard of hang gliders. One fellow, eyeing the skyward pointing king post, said, “Have you tracked any satellites yet?”

I am sometimes asked what my first flight felt like. I cannot answer because I do not know how to distinguish between mushing and flying on my first attempts, in which I left the ground briefly with the wing largely stalled — and therefore not really flying — before either it dumped be back onto the slope or I careened into a bush or small tree. My first attempts consisted of running with the wing down a slope that was too shallow. Then I did the same on a steeper slope, but without enough wind… Eventually I discovered that I needed much more airspeed than I had imagined, whereupon I glided down the slope about a metre above the heather for a few seconds before flaring to a stop where the slope became shallower.

Preparing to launch in a hang glider flying St. Catherine's Hill, Christchurch, Dorset, UK, in 1975

Preparing to launch

My most memorable flight there was when I was alone, strapped in to the seat harness, with the wing parked nose-down below the top of the heather-covered slope. With a cold 20-knot north-east wind bearing down on the sail, I had to haul back on the top of the control frame to get the nose off the ground, then carefully raise it to a position where the sail rattled and banged with the wind passing equally over and under it, shaking the airframe. While maintaining that pitch attitude, I picked up the wing by the control frame, the harness straps alternating between tight and loose as the whole rig jerked about. I took a quick look around — nothing seemed wrong — and I raised the nose a degree or two more, whereupon the sail went taut and it catapulted me skywards as I held on, pulling in for speed and shifting sideways first one way and then the other to counter the turbulence trying to turn me. I was levitated upwards, initially making no forward progress, but fortunately holding station against the wind. I was too overwhelmed to be terrified.

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

Winter flying was all I knew in 1974

The accompanying photo shows the same slope as that over which I made my first flights in 1974, but this photo was taken in February 1975.

At the apogee of that three-minute sub-orbital lob, I took a moment to look around. Immediately below and to the right, the tan and sandstone red quarry that was one of our main motorcycle and bicycle trials riding patches, with the main access track leading off along the top of the hill lost among trees towards home. To the left, the rest of the forested hill with its several saddles, separated from its farthest ridge by the new A338 dual carriageway with its tiny vehicles and, beyond that, the airport’s rectangular yellow school of air traffic control and its runways. Then I looked behind me. New houses had been built on what used to be a series of tree-covered ridges and farther down, partly hidden by trees alongside it, the main road into and out of Christchurch, almost as busy then as it is nowadays.

Meanwhile, in the USA, similar things were happening, but on a grander scale. An example was during the US nationals, held in December 1974 at a hill in the Santa Ana range near Los Angeles, Califirnia:

Soaring conditions were the best ever; the flatlanders loved it as they rose effortlessly like ashes in a column of smoke a thousand feet above Edwards Canyon.

— from a description by Dan Poynter in the USHGA magazine Ground Skimmer, January 1975

About my taking a quick look around before launching: I knew even then to search for the unexpected. On more than one occasion — fortunately when there was little wind — when rigging the Skyhook IIIA, I accidentally caught a fold of sailcloth between the plastic saddle washers where one cross-tube end joins the leading edge. (In retrospect, the rigging procedures of those things were not well designed!) It all looked OK, but when I launched, the glider turned me into the hill and I slewed to a standstill in the forgiving heather. Had such a thing happened on launch into a 20 knot wind, the result would likely have been dire.

I became aware that hang gliding was not like off-road bike riding where, if you came off, your chances of being seriously hurt were slight. I had already been hospitalised before even getting off the ground. Have you ever seen the workings of a knee joint — your own — between the exposed thick skin and muscle of a horizontal gash? I do not recommend it.

Downwind by Larry Fleming. (The wing in the photo is a late 1970s design.)

To illustrate the point, here is an excerpt from Larry Fleming’s delightful little account of the early days of hang gliding in the USA:

Sometimes pilots attempt a three sixty in front and below the cliff and end up misjudging the distance. They would plow into the sheer wall with a twenty-five mile an hour wind pushing their thirty mile an hour glider at fifty-five miles an hour ground speed. It was like a fly hitting a windshield on the freeway. The pilot’s body took most of the impact, the wing tore and slid down the cliff side in a twisted mess of broken tubing and flapping sail with not even a scream coming from the pilot above the noise of the pounding surf because his brain had been smashed.

— from Downwind, a True Hang Gliding Story by Larry Fleming, 1992

School for perfection

The Icarus II was an early rigid biplane wing hang glider designed by Taras Kiceniuk, who went on to develop the Icarus V monoplane. In Canada, Val Lapsa and some friends built and flew an Icarus II.

Val Lapsa and the Icarus II

Val Lapsa and the Icarus II

Resting on his shoulders was a great frail set of snow-linen wings, thirty feet from tip to tip and casting a transparent shadow on the grass. He took a breath in readiness, reached forward, and gripped the adhesive-taped bar of the main wing beam. Then all at once he ran forward, tilted the wings upward, and lifted free of the hillside.

— quoted from School for perfection by Richard Bach, 1968

Launching the Icarus II

Launching the Icarus II

Val Lapsa and friends with the Icarus II

Val Lapsa and friends with the Icarus II

Val’s glider eventually crashed and was unrepairable, which was one of the drawbacks of these higher performing but more complex wings.

The Icarus II was further developed by Ultralight Flying Machines and renamed Easy Riser, in which guise it became popular as a powered ultralight. See Easy riser, my review of the 1995 movie Fly Away Home for more of the Icarus II, both as a glider and as a powered ultralight.

Art based on a photo by Alan Nelson of Bob Thornburg flying an Icarus V in Hawaii

Art based on a photo by Alan Nelson of Bob Thornburg flying an Icarus V in Hawaii

The Icarus V was a monoplane equivalent of the Icarus II. Like its predecessor, it was cumbersome to transport, not being foldable like a Rogallo.

Art based on a photo of Mike Markowski carrying the Eagle III

Art based on a photo of Mike Markowski carrying the Eagle III

Mike Markowski’s Eagle III was an attempt at achieving the performance of the Icarus combined with the portability of a Rogallo.

Art based on a photo of Mike Markowski flying the Eagle III

Art based on a photo of Mike Markowski flying the Eagle III

Internal link

Hang gliding 1975

External link

TOMMY (1975) Sensation [1080 HD] Video clip on YouTube from the 1975 Ken Russell movie Tommy. Birdman’s Dave Raymond did the flying, but the cuts to close-ups of Roger Daltry of The Who hanging in the glider suspended from a rig were seamlessly edited.

8 Responses to Hang gliding 1974

  1. This is fascinating–are you still hang gliding? It’s a sport I have always wanted to try. The only true flying that we humans can do, it would seem. I love its simplicity, its cleanliness. I can imagine a push-off, then lift, then…the surrounding. Being enveloped in whole new medium of yaw and pitch and roll, but without those words.

    Would I wind up killing myself if I just up and bought a glider?

    • “Would I wind up killing myself if I just up and bought a glider?” — Yes! You need to get trained at a hang gliding school. You can find a list on BHPA.co.uk. Paragliding is easier to learn and is more popular than hang gliding, but I stopped paragliding a couple of years ago to concentrate on hang gliding, which is where I started really.

    • Al Courtines says:

      I taught myself to fly back in those years. I learned on sand dunes at the beach. I believe it is the ONLY place to learn! My present craft is a Solairus ATF.

  2. Richard says:

    Wow, memories. I flew a Ridge Rider on the south downs, was at the Minto championships, and later had a Chargus Vega. Happy days.

  3. Russell says:

    Brilliant pics and history. Russell

  4. Chris Gonzales says:

    In regard to pitch problems in 70‘s gliders, in my experience the most common one was that there was simply too much, leaving two usable speeds for a prone pilot: trim and elbows locked.

    In my early days on a Sky Sports Lark (a “standard”: Low Aspect Ratio Kite) preflight did include sighting down the keel for a certain amount of reflex, and if lacking, a twist of turnbuckle could bring it up to spec.

    My one occasion flirting with pitch divergence was when I sent my Sirocco II off for an upgrade ostensibly to improve handling. Standing keel pockets were in vogue and Sky Sports had come up with a retrofit that bent down the keel, added a small post where a keel pocket would be, and put two pulleys on the out and down deflexor wires at the nose. The bent keel required shorter flying wires to the keel. Well an error was made on my glider where they used the length of the smaller size Sirocco. End result was a glider that flew with negative bar pressure and was quite terrifying. My instructor was skeptical – that is until he flew it!

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