Hang gliding before 1973
…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 magazine, November 1980
I started hang gliding in late 1974, so this page pertains to before my time. The images here are my artistic derivations of contemporary photos. See Copyright of early hang gliding photos for how and why I obtained them.
I now possessed the world’s cheapest aircraft — the materials cost under 11 dollars.
— Barry Palmer quoted in the BHPA magazine SkyWings, May 2011
There is film of Palmer flying an earlier version of this glider in December 1961 in Bill Liscomb’s 2008 documentary Big Blue Sky (link farther on). He also experimented with engines attached; see Early powered ultralights in Powered flight.
I contacted Paul Bikle, Director of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, sending him a film clip and stills of the craft in flight.
— Barry Palmer, SkyWings, May 2011
Paul Bikle was also a sailplane (glider) pilot who held two world height records, one of which still stands as of 2011. One of the projects under his control was a powered Rogallo wing. (See Paresev in Space flight and hang gliding.) Bikle’s position in that pre-internet world enabled him to act as a hub for Barry Palmer, Richard Miller, Francis Rogallo and others to contact each other, thereby facilitating the birth of modern hang gliding. For more about the inventors of modern hang gliding, see my painted history of hang glider design.
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.)
Jack Lambie sold plans for his Hang Loose in 1971 and he could barely keep up with demand after photos of it appeared in magazines across the USA.
…my brother Mark was asked by another FAA person for the entire list of participants so they could begin proceedings against them for low and slow flying in the vicinity of spectators, flying unlicensed aircraft, not reporting the crashes, flying after the crashes in the same aircraft, and so forth. They were serious.
— Jack Lambie, The Future of Hang Gliding in Ground Skimmer, Jan-March 1974. (Mark Lambie was an FAA flight controller.)
Bill Liscomb became one of the top hang glider pilots of the 1970s. In later life he created the 2008 documentary Big Blue Sky — The history of modern hang gliding – the first extreme sport! I include links to applicable points in his video on YouTube in the External links sections of these early hang gliding pages.
A bowsprit and cables to hold the wings spread is clearly a lighter structure than cross-tubes on a very wide nose angle flex-wing.
Bamboo and polythene might be adequate for ‘low and slow’ flight, the mantra for which was “Don’t fly higher than you are prepared to fall.” However, heights attained by Rogallos launched behind power-boats with the aid of tow lines and water skis demanded stronger materials. Australian Bill Bennett’s Delta Wing Kites and Gliders, of Van Nuys, California, and Dick Eipper’s excruciatingly named company Eipper-Formance, of Lomita, California, were among the first manufacturers of quality hang gliders.
Even though equipped with wings made of strong materials, the northern California fliers, notably Donnita Holland and brothers Dave and Rich Kilbourne, took obvious risks soaring in strong winds high above inland ridges starting in 1971. In contrast, the activities of the southern California fliers, centered on the beaches in the Los Angeles area, looked benign. Regardless, tragedy was bound to strike sooner or later.
In the late summer of 1972, Ed Gardia became the first fatality of modern hang gliding, while flying at Slide Mountain near Lake Tahoe. (There had been a fatality — possibly two — in auto-tow launches of Rogallos, one in May 1972, but Gardia was the first ‘free flight’ fatality.) During the years that followed, the development of this new way of flying caused the loss of some of the most courageous and innovative individuals of their generation. Many of them were still in their twenties when they died (Gardia was 22) and some were younger than that.
Dick Boone went on to become the hang glider designer most sought-after by manufacturers in the USA.
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. However, even before World War 2 (1941) Volmer Jensen of Glendale, California and aerodynamicist Irv Culver, designed, built, and flew hang gliders.
For Jensen and Culver’s next creation, the VJ-24, see Fun in the sun in Hang gliding 1973 part 1.
While working for General Motors in Detroit, Californian Bob Lovejoy was encouraged by a former World War 2 Luftwaffe pilot who shared his ambition to build an inexpensive and lightweight glider. In contrast, after Lovejoy moved back to California and consulted senior engineers at his workplace about the possibility of building such a craft, they informed him that, if it was possible, it would already have been done.
Then he saw a photo of an early hang glider in the Los Angeles Times and, in 1971, he set about designing, building, and flying his own advanced hang gliders, culminating in the Quicksilver. He eventually teamed up with Dave Cronk and the Eipper-Formance factory and they brought it to production standard. (*)
Later, east coast manufacturer Sky Sports became a distributor for the Eipper-Formance Quicksilver.
The Quicksilver was made out of the same materials used in production Rogallo wings; sailcloth, aluminium alloy tube, and steel cable. It used a rudder connected to the pilot’s seat harness to initiate turns. That placed the glider into a skid and the high dihedral then caused the craft to bank.
Was this the future of hang gliding?
For more of the Quicksilver, see under High-performance in Hang gliding 1974 part 3.
This topic continues in Hang gliding 1973 part 1.
Barry Palmer’s early 1960s Rogallo: Hang Gliding, 1960’s style video on YouTube
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 on YouTube of a young pilot (passenger is more accurate) being towed up into a stiff breeze in a biplane rigid hang glider
Ken de Russy YouTube channel of the instructor who runs a hang gliding museum
Otto Lilienthal Hang Glider Meet, May 23, 1971 low resolution digitized film on YouTube. Some of it is used, in higher resolution, in Big Blue Sky (see farther on) but this version is longer and more comprehensive. The owner’s comments are informative too.
Otto Lilienthal Hang Gliding Reunion on or before 2015 video on YouTube, featuring several who attended the original event in 1971
Big Blue Sky video external 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, Bill Liscomb narrating, then Mark Lambie (Jack’s brother) and then Olympic high jumper Joe Faust, with Dr. Paul MacCready contributing
- Volmer Jensen flying the VJ-23: Big Blue Sky starting at 35 minutes 17 seconds
Playground in the Sky video external 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
Evolution of the Quicksilver by Bob Lovejoy, Ground Skimmer July-September 1974