Space flight and hang gliding

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Space flight and hang gliding

Connections between the two extremes of speed and altitude; space-flight research (fast and high) and hang gliding and paragliding (low and slow) span half a century.


F.M. Rogallo and his daughter Carol in about 1950

F.M. Rogallo getting ready to fly. Photo by Scott.

F.M. Rogallo getting ready to fly. Photo by Scott.

Francis Rogallo worked for the NACA, predecessor of NASA, when he invented the flexwing that became the modern hang glider. (Unlike the acronym NASA, the abbreviation NACA is pronounced as its individual letters, not knacker.)

Francis Rogallo flying a Seahawk hang glider in the late 1970s

Francis Rogallo flying a Seahawk hang glider in the late 1970s. Photo by Scott.

NASA tested a variety of powered aircraft based on the Rogallo flexwing.

Ryan flying Jeep, 1963

Ryan flying Jeep, 1963


The paraglider research vehicle, or Paresev, was one of several research aircraft based on the Rogallo wing that, during the 1960s, were used in the space program.

NASA’s use of the word paraglider is different from what we mean by a paraglider nowadays. These were Rogallo wings — almost identical in shape and structure to hang gliders of the early 1970s.

The Paresev, being unpowered, was towed up either by ground vehicles or aircraft such as a biplane or a light aircraft. Lift off was at about 40 knots airspeed. A normal flight started from the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base and skirted the lake edges to insure a landing on the lake bed in the event of a tow line failure. Release altitude was normally 10 000 to 13 000 feet.

Gus Grissom (left) and Milton Thompson

Gus Grissom (left) and Milton Thompson

This 1962 NASA photo is of the Paresev 1-A with Mercury Astronaut Gus Grissom (left) and NASA test pilot Milton Thompson.

But hundreds of workers are gathered in the main auditorium of the Convair plant to see Gus and the other six, and they’re beaming at them, and the Convair brass say a few words and then the astronauts are supposed to say a few words, and all at once Gus realizes it’s his turn to say something, and he is petrified. He opens his mouth and out come the words: “Well … do good work!” It’s an ironic remark, implying: “… because it’s my ass that’ll be sitting on your freaking rocket.” But the workers started cheering like mad.

— Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1979

Paresev (paraglider research vehicle) in 1968

Paresev (paraglider research vehicle) in 1968

The Paresev 1-B tested the concept of a paraglider designed to enable a Gemini spacecraft to fly to a controlled ground landing instead of a splashdown at sea. After the paraglider was deployed, the Gemini crew would use it to steer toward a touchdown point and to land on three retractable skids.

The ‘paraglider research vehicle’ (unpowered Rogallo wing) flight tested by Neil Armstrong

The making of the 2018 movie First Man funded the restoration of 70 millimetre film stored for years in the NASA archives. The DVD of that film includes extras containing brief clips of the Paresev in flight. See T minus 15 seconds, guidance is internal—my review of that movie.

This still is just before the tow line, connected to an open-cockpit Stearman biplane, is released.

Moonwalker-to-be Neil Armstrong and a fellow test pilot started building their own Rogallo prototype after hours, persuading skeptical NASA superiors to invest in the technology.

Down to Earth by Craig Mellow in Air & Space, January 2019 (in the Easy Glider side bar)

However, because of technical and cost problems, the Gemini spacecraft never used the paraglider. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space flights all ended with ocean splashdowns.

FM Rogallo and Jack Swigert of Apollo 13 (NASA photo)

FM Rogallo and Jack Swigert (NASA photo)

Jack Swigert was one of the Rogallo wing test pilots. He was also one of the three-man crew of Apollo 13, which suffered an explosion on its way to the moon in 1970. That explosion (of an oxygen tank damaged during installation) knocked out the service module including its main engine. They used the lunar module as a space ‘lifeboat’, rounding the moon and returning to earth.

Paul Bikle, Director of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (later renamed Armstrong Flight Research Center) was also a world record holding sailplane (glider) pilot. His position enabled him to act as a hub for Francis Rogallo and several other hang glider pioneers to contact each other, thereby facilitating the birth of modern hang gliding. See Hang gliding before 1973 for more.

Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo

In meetings with the engineers, Schirra would take a strong position on some aspect of spacecraft design, and no one could talk him out of it, even when it was clear that he was wrong. Finally, he would say, “If you’d been there”–that is, in space–“you’d know.” Then he would walk out.

— Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon, the Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, 1994

Photo of astronaut Wally Schirra with hang glider pilots at Torrey Pines

Astronaut Wally Schirra (in tie) with hang glider pilots at Torrey Pines. Reprinted courtesy of Ultralight Flying! magazine.

In this photo, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronaut Wally Schirra confers with hang glider pilots Burke Ewing (left) and W.A. ‘Pork’ Roecker at Torrey Pines, San Diego, in the late 1970s. Reprinted courtesy of Ultralight Flying! magazine.


The European Space Agency’s Spacelab, not to be confused with NASA’s Skylab of the mid 1970s, was a module carried to orbit aboard space shuttles in the 1980s.

SpaceLab crew Ulf Merbold, Wubbo Ockels, hang gliding instructors Don Guess and Dick Heckman, with Spacelab astronaut Claude Nicollier in 1980

SpaceLab crew Ulf Merbold and Wubbo Ockels, hang gliding instructors Don Guess and Dick Heckman, with Spacelab astronaut Claude Nicollier in 1980

What was interesting to me as an instructor was how much information they absorbed about the glider and their own sensations and responses on each flight.

— Dick Heckman writing in Hang Gliding, November 1980

Wubbo Ockels aboard SpaceLab in 1985

Wubbo Ockels aboard SpaceLab in 1985 (Dutch Wikipedia photo)


Art based on a photo by his father Paul of Mark Stucky learning hang gliding near his home town of Salina, Kansas, in 1974

Stucky walked into Virgin Galactic’s large beige hangar. He is fifty-nine and has a loose-legged stroll, tousled salt-and-pepper hair, and sunken, suntanned cheeks. In other settings, he could pass for a retired beachcomber. He wears the smirk of someone who feels certain that he’s having more fun than you are.

— Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker, August 20th 2018

Early on in the Eclipse project someone said he wasn’t sure you could aero-tow a delta wing. The project’s test pilot, Mark Stucky (call sign Forger) spoke up. “I know you can because I’ve done it.” He explained that he had aero-towed in hang gliders.



The results gleaned from the tow tests were aimed at developing a series of low-cost, reusable space launch vehicles to be aero-towed as the first stage of the journey to Earth orbit.

Mark Stucky started flying hang gliders in Kansas at age 15 in 1974. The first mention of him that I have come across is in an article by Robert V. Wills, chairman of the USHGA accident review board, in an article in the March 1975 edition of Ground Skimmer, in which he introduced the term intermediate syndrome (which we still use). Wills cited the contributions of a handful of pilots who sent in incident reports, the 16-year-old Mark Stucky among them. (See Appliance of statistics for a short piece about Wills’ work in that regard.)

Mark joined the Marines while still at college. A graduate both of the navy’s Top Gun and the Air Force Test Pilot School, in Operation Desert Storm (the Gulf War) he flew the F/A-18 Hornet.

At thirteen, he was captivated by another National Geographic story, about Californians who had taken up the new sport of hang gliding… [Snip] …Stucky persuaded his dad to split the cost of a glider. He made his first flight on May 15, 1974, near Wilson Lake, Kansas.

— Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker, August 20th 2018

Art based on a photo of Mark Stucky in a KC-135 'vomit comet'

Art based on a photo of Mark Stucky in a KC-135 ‘vomit comet’

Interviewed by Roy Haggard (designer of the 1979 UP Comet) in Hang Gliding magazine, July 1998, Mark states that when he first started flying high aspect ratio hang gliders he had a problem with pilot-induced oscillations. He subsequently carried out testing of the Wills Wing HP AT and, together with Wills Wing President Mike Meier, made a presentation to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. (Mark was a test pilot in the marines at the time.)

Major Mark Stucky USMC and Mike Meier of Wills Wing at the SETP conference on September 26th, 1992

Major Mark Stucky USMC and Mike Meier of Wills Wing at the SETP conference on September 26th, 1992 (no larger image available)

Incidentally, Mike Meier of hang glider manufacturer Wills Wing received the Jack Northrop award for the most outstanding technical paper presented at the 45th Annual West Coast Symposium of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. The paper was derived from Mike’s article for Hang Gliding magazine (link farther on). For more of Mike Meier, see my related topics page Sport Kites/Wills Wing of California.

F-106 under aero-tow

Spring loaded to the laser firing position…

No, that’s not a laser beam in the photo. It is a tow line connected from the nose of Mark’s F-106 to the tug aircraft, an air force C-141A transport, on its first tow up, on December 20th, 1997. (See Forger’s F-106 in 1/72nd scale for a model of this exact aircraft.)

As a NASA test pilot he has flown a variety of types including the Goodyear blimp and the Mach 3 SR-71. When not flying for NASA, he flies paragliders and occasionally flight tests hang gliders and ancillary equipment for the benefit of readers of the USHPA magazine Hang Gliding and Paragliding (now USHPA Pilot).

Stucky’s superiors were impressed by his piloting skills; an evaluation said that he had “no apparent weak points.”

— Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker, August 20th 2018

Mark employs a number of techniques to improve his in-flight safety. ‘Too many paraglider pilots are still trying to reinflate their wings until the moment before impact,’ he says. ‘Below 400 feet AGL I am spring-loaded to get the chute out for anything other than a momentary collapse.’

Mark Stucky (Forger) in his paraglider

Hang in there: Forger in his paraglider (no larger image available)

Forger is well qualified to provide insight into hang glider flight safety. An attempt at tow-launching in Kansas in 1978, using a team of athletes with ropes to haul him into the air, went wrong:

The sound of that aluminum [tube] sliding along a thumb-sized electrified steel steel cable is not a sound I ever want to hear again.

And here he uses the abbreviation TIWTIWGD for ‘There I was. I thought I was going to die’:

Final score was five TIWTIWGD incidents in the span of about twenty seconds, which equates to a rate of 900 per hour.

— Mark Stucky in Hang Gliding & Paragliding, May 2008

Photo: Galactic

Photo: Galactic

Mark made the first rocket powered flight test of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo on April 29th, 2013. His co-pilot on that test was Mike Alsbury, who was killed when, on a later mission, SpaceShipTwo broke up in flight. Despite the setback, Mark finally gained his ‘space wings’ when he flew SpaceShipTwo to more than 50 miles high, into the blackness of space, in December 2018.

By February, 2016, construction on SpaceShipTwo was largely complete, and Branson wanted to celebrate. He and his family, several publicists, a production crew, journalists, and such celebrities as Harrison Ford and Sarah Brightman gathered at the hangar, which had been transformed into a club.

— Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker, August 20th 2018

That’s Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, Harrison Ford of Star Wars (1977), Blade Runner (1982) (and the 2018 Blade Runner movie) and Sarah Brightman of the 1970s British television pop dance troupe Hot Gossip and her song I Lost My heart to a Starship Trooper.

Mark switched from hang gliding to paragliding a while ago, but in 2015 he made a comeback to the dark side with a ‘full race’ specification Wills Wing Falcon 4. The Falcon 4 is a low speed and easy handling lightweight hang glider with a single surface sail. (To my knowledge, hang glider manufacturers do not normally recommend ‘race’ sailcloth for single surface wings.) However, the Falcon 4 meets Mark’s demanding in-flight handling requirements.

The Falcon 4 page on the Wills Wing web site (link farther down) contains Mark’s report of his first flight from Walt’s Point in the Owens valley for 20 years and an in-flight photo.


X-38 photo by Tony Landis

X-38 photo by Tony Landis

Hang gliding and paragliding are, arguably, spin-offs from the space program. More recently technology transfer has gone in the other direction. The NASA space station lifeboat, a space-capsule paraglider (in the modern sense of the word paraglider) uses a line release developed for hang glider aero-tow.

Internal links

Early powered ultralights in Powered flight for an air-to-air photo while shooting the space shuttle runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida

Instructions for building and flying a paper Rogallo wing

Smilin’ Al, of the Cape—my review of Light This Candle, The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America’s First Spaceman, by Neal Thompson, 2004

Saving Major Tom—my review of the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, 1967, which includes real film of a Titan II Gemini launch, possibly crewed by Wally Schirra

Space suits and frocks on the box—my review of the movie The Right Stuff, 1983

Spring loaded to the freedom position—my review of Hammer from Above, Marine Air Combat over Iraq, by Jay Stout, 2007

The importance of proofreading in Technical writing and programming, which describes the potentially disastrous effect of an inadequate release note about a software update for a gyro aboard Virgin Galactic SpeceShipTwo

Whisky Kilo Two Eight tells all—my review of Trailblazers, Test Pilots in Action, by Christopher Hounsfield, 2008

External links

Armstrong Photo Gallery—collection of photos at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (previously known as the Dryden Flight Research Center)

Behind the scenes of Virgin Galactic’s first space mission—Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky flies into space; article in The New Yorker, December 14th 2018

Falcon 4 page on the Wills Wing web site. It contains Mark Stucky’s report of his first flight from Walt’s Point in the Owens valley for 20 years and an in-flight photo. Scroll down to the set of tabs near the bottom and click the Comments tab.

Francis Rogallo learns to fly his invention under the instruction of Pete Brock of Ultralight Products at Torrance beach (notice the RPG fences at the top of the bluffs): Playground in the Sky, 1977, by Carl Boenish on YouTube (low resolution) starting at 40 minutes 29 seconds

Virgin Galactic First Space Flight – VSS Unity short video on YouTube. (Did somebody call out “Fire!” over the radio net?)

Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man The ace pilot risking his life to fulfill Richard Branson’s billion-dollar quest to make commercial space travel a reality — about Mark Stucky in The New Yorker, August 20th 2018

Why Can’t We Get A Handle On This Safety Thing by Mike Meier on the Wills Wing web site

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