Mid-day lightning in Vermont
“Tom Peghiny is about to launch. Stand by. He is running. He is off!”
— Spoken by commentator over the public address system at Pico, Vermont, in 1978
The Francis Freedland documentary film 1978 Pico Peak International Hang Gliding Meet reviewed by Everard Cunion in December, 2015
This film is a documentary of a hang gliding competition held in Vermont in 1978. Totalling 48 minutes, it is (in 2015) available on YouTube.
The competition, held at the Pico ski area near Killington, Vermont, featured “90 of the world’s best hang glider pilots” and it drew crowds of spectators who paid to watch from beside the landing area. (Pico rhymes with pike, according to
Agent X-Two-Zero the narrator. On the subject of pronunciation, as a reader of the American hang glider magazines, I never really knew how to pronounce Peghiny, Pagen, and some other pilots’ surnames. This film at least provides an opinion on such pronunciations.
Jimmy Carter the peanut farmer (and ex submarine commander) was President and, here in Britain, the Prime Minister was ‘Big Jim’ Callaghan. Flared jeans or trousers were the norm, even when flying hang gliders.
The older brothers of some of the hang glider pilots in this film likely fought in Vietnam and they were spat on and called child killers when they de-planed back in the USA – if they made it back at all. The moon landings had ceased six years before and it was clear that the space program was never going to be big enough to become the ticket to stardom that the foremost young men of an earlier generation might have assumed. In the mid and late 1970s, hang gliding was that ticket. (Or so we thought.)
It seems to me that 1978 was only a few years ago. I find it shocking to realise that the young lady in the accompanying screenshot is old enough to be a grandmother by now (2015).
Stand by for action
In a classic light wind launch accident, the first hang glider to take off stalls right off the ramp and crashes into the forested slope below, fortunately without injury to its pilot. It could have easily turned out much worse. (The stall is where you try to fly too nose-high and the airflow detaches from the wing, causing a sudden loss of lifting force.)
The film provides a rare glimpse of the commercial side of hang gliding. A significant factor is that the competition was organised by the ski lodge owners, who initially put up a total of $10,000 in prize money (equivalent to more than $36,000 in 2015). They recruited air force and airline crewmen who were also hang glider pilots to help run it. Their aim was for hang gliding competitions to fill the hole in their business during the summer, when there is no snow to ski on. (Cash flow, fixed costs, and all that. Yawn.)
In Britain, we simply assume that all business people are cheats and liars, especially if they are successful business people. I found it interesting to see that, even in the USA, in certain quarters anyway, the same assumption seems to hold. The end of the film includes a summary of a related investigation initiated by a New York schoolteacher, who is also one of the hang glider pilots whose fortunes the film follows.
Hang gliders at this time were mostly single surface wings with either flexible plastic or pre-formed aluminium chord-wise battens. Deflexor cables cluttered the leading edges for strength and to keep the lanky tubes from distorting out of shape. Those deflexors created a lot of drag, increased cost of manufacture, and increased the time you spent rigging and de-rigging your wing.
(I wonder if meet director Don McCabe is related to Jim McCabe of the 1976 hang gliding movie Sky Riders. See Paint it black, my review of that film.)
In addition, there are some early double-surface wings in the competition, mostly Sky Sports Siroccos. At least one hang glider pilot was among the spectators there to check out a new version of this wing…
I was interested in seeing the new Sirocco II since I was about to buy one. Malcolm Jones, Tom Peghiny and a few others were flying them. There were a few Sirocco 1s there also…
— Chris Gonzales (communication to the author via this web site)
To see Chris’s Sirocco II and his earlier Sirocco 1, visit Flying squad, a short history of the east coast U.S. hang glider manufacturer Sky Sports.
Double surface wings enclose the cross-tubes between the upper and lower surfaces of the sail. Not only does that eliminate the aerodynamic drag of the crosstubes, the crosstubes’ contact with the lower surface of the sail improves the washout (wing twist) distribution across the span.
Notice the trademark curved leading edges of the Seagull. That is an ingenious way of controlling washout distribution, but the 1978 Seagull was nevertheless a single surface wing with exposed cross-tubes and a bunch of draggy deflexors.
Back to the future
Unfortunately, the early double surface wings suffered from various problems and it was not until the Ultralight Products Comet was developed by Roy Haggard that those problems were solved. The documentary includes two UP Comets in film taken (according to John Sillero in this topic on hangliding.org) at the 1980 US national in Ellenville, New York, two years after the Pico competition. (That is pretty confusing. However, given that Comets appear in the film, albeit out of place, I discuss the design here briefly.)
Like later single surface wings, the 1980 UP Comet used stronger and stiffer leading edge tubes instead of deflexor systems. For comparison, the Sky Sports Sirocco had eight more drag-inducing wires (as I count) than the UP Comet.
“The French don’t even have a word for entrepreneur.”
–Quotation popularly ascribed to George W. Bush, former jet fighter pilot, oil businessmen in 1978, and future president of the USA
Jean-Michel Bernasconi, a Frenchman visiting the USA as a full time hang glider pilot, is interviewed periodically throughout the film. (He is remarkably cheerful considering his precarious financial position!) He flew one of the early double surface flex-wings, the Phoenix Mariah, which – it was later discovered – suffered from pitch divergence: It would not recover from a steep dive. An addendum to the film follows up Bernasconi a year and a half later. Subsequent to that, he went on to lead Pacific Windcraft (later Pacific Airwave) of California.
As thermals rising from the ground during the heat of the day cause the air to become more turbulent—a natural phenomenon intrinsic to hang gliding—landing approaches become more erratic. A glider clips a tree and drops just far enough before hitting the ground to injure the pilot. Ski resorts, as businesses, depend on natural phenomena (principally snow, which precipitates from clouds that result from thermals) and the invisible wheels of the conflict that is inherent in this project start to turn…
Then another hang glider crashes into the trees beside the landing area. Neither the pilot involved in that or the previous crash was seriously hurt.
The pilots call a meeting and, after they cancel two days’ flying on grounds of safety, the conflict surfaces. Many of these hang glider pilots were in their early 20s (much younger than most hang glider pilots nowadays*) most with little or no business experience, and they are trying to cope with an unfamiliar situation, arguing with experienced business owners, with no guidance from anyone.
* They are much younger than most hang glider pilots nowadays partly because many are the same individuals, now older.
Nevertheless, this part of the film demonstrates that Americans (and, it seems, the French) are more used to organising themselves and arguing their case in public than us Brits.
But the sponsors were right in claiming that the fliers had not done their part, too, in flying. Both sides were right. Both sides were angry.
— Quoted from meet director Don McCabe writing in Glider Rider, July, 1978
(We Brits would just mumble resentfully among ourselves over pints of mulled ale and then throw a rock through a big window before departing. I read that, whatever the shortcomings the US education system might have, it teaches public speaking from an early age, which maybe accounts for the difference. I digress…)
Anything can happen in the next half hour
The weather is better the next day and the competition resumes. This section of the film features a one-versus-one duel in the air between Peghiny and Bernasconi, who launch in quick succession and try to stay up in morning the air as long as possible before being forced to land. (Gliders have no engines and rely on rising air to climb or maintain height.)
In the accompanying screenshot, Bernasconi has deployed a drag chute (much smaller than an emergency parachute). Its purpose is different from that of a military jet airplane’s drag chute, which is for braking after touch-down. A glider’s drag chute is deployed when overhead (or nearly overhead) the landing area, and the pilot then flies extra fast to increase drag still further. The result is a steeper approach than can be made otherwise. A steeper approach is both easier to judge correctly and is less likely to result in an overshoot into spectators (see the film) or into parked vehicles, trees, or buildings. However, hang glider drag chutes embody dangers of their own, as a result of which they are not widely used nowadays.
The cheerful Frenchman Bernasconi, whose life’s ambitions centred on winning the competition, led the contest at that point, just beating Peghiny. Unfortunately for them both, conditions then improved, which benefited those who launched later in the day.
Dennis Pagen, author of the most prominent hang gliding books and authoritative magazine articles to this day, did not win the Pico competition outright, but he became US national champion that year (1978).
The documentary catches up with Peghiny, LaVersa, LaMarche, and Bernasconi at another hang gliding competition a year and a half later. Even in that short time, some of the hair is shorter and beards are neater, but one of the three has a patch over an eye. Bernasconi achieved his ambitions, although not in the way he initially imagined.
For those of a certain generation of Brits, the narrator’s voice bears an unfortunate similarity to that of Agent X-Two-Zero in Stingray, the 1960s Gerry Anderson puppet sci-fi series that preceded Thunderbirds. However, that narration is only occasional. (Much of the commentary is provided by the pilots themselves and by the announcers over the Pico public address system.)
The documentary includes film of two UP Comets taken at the 1980 US nationals in Ellenville, New York, two years later, which is pretty confusing.
The camera does not work well in the darkness of a thunderstorm on the hilltop. I doubt that anyone could have done anything about that. Camera technology in 1978 was not what it is today.
At one point, an insect crawling on the lens dominated my attention. That is really the only part, just a few seconds long, that I feel would need to be deleted if the film was ever broadcast on television. (I do not know if it ever was.)
Some of the incidental music seems to me a bit naff and it includes a girl singing a wobbly song about blackbirds.
This film has as its subject a unique event, which it examines in depth.
The filming from the ground of airborne hang gliders in this documentary is excellent. The zooming and panning (hopefully I am using the correct terminology) keeps the gliders smoothly in view. In addition, it shows expert pilots landing those hard-to-fly* hang gliders in a restricted landing area, usually successfully. Their landing skills were better than is common nowadays, almost certainly because they made many more landings than we do when flying modern hang gliders, which even in half reasonable conditions can stay up for hours. Even so, some of those gliders, including the Sirocco, seem to touch down as slowly and as light as a feather (given half a chance).
* Were they really hard to fly compared to today’s wings? I believe so, if you compare modern beginner and intermediate wings with these old gliders. However, as long time instructor Ken DeRussy points out, thousands of pilots learned to fly in standard Rogallos and their early derivatives in the 1970s, so they cannot have been that hard to fly!
Some of the Siroccos are flown supine (seated, like a modern paraglider) and the rigs they use for that are also worth seeing in this extraordinary documentary.
Apart from some of the incidental music, the background sound effects are exceptionally well done. Like good writing, you likely don’t notice it unless you are (like me) writing a critique. Birds singing (hey, maybe blackbirds…) followed by the rush of airflow as a hang glider passes close overhead constitute the perfect accompaniment to some of the film.
The discussions and conflicts that emerge in the film are, arguably, as engaging as the flying.
Hang glider pilots are restoring more old film of the early days while it is still there to be rescued. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the results varies. 1978 Pico Peak International Hang Gliding Meet by Francis Freedland is about the best I have seen.
Jean-Michel Bernasconi died of a stroke on April 2nd, 2016.
Hang gliding 1990 to 1993, the first few photos on which are of my Pacific Windcraft Vision, designed by Jean-Michel Bernasconi and made under licence by Hiway in Abergavenny, South Wales
1978 Pico Peak International Hang Gliding Meet video (digitized film) part 1 (of 4) on YouTube
1978 Pico Peak International Hang Gliding Meet topic on hanggliding.org
For some clearer photos of the Delta Wing Phoenix Mariah, see the Hang glider PHOENIX MARIAH page on Delta Club 82. Click the photo to see more photos of this unique wing.
Jean-Michel Bernasconi – R.I.P. on HangGliding.org