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.


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

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.

— Quoted from The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, 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.

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

Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo

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.

Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronaut Wally Schirra 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.


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.

— quoted from 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. He 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.

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

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.)

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, Why Can’t We Get A Handle On This Safety Thing (link farther down).

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.

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.”

— quoted from 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.’

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

Mark made the first rocket powered flight test of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo on April 29th, 2013.

Photo: Galactic

Photo: Galactic

Mark’s co-pilot on that test was Mike Alsbury, who was killed when SpaceShipTwo broke up in flight on October 31st, 2014. 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.

— quoted from 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.

Although Mark switched from hang gliding to paragliding a while ago, 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.


Hang gliding and paragliding are, arguably, spin-offs from the space program. 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.

X-38 photo by Tony Landis

X-38 photo by Tony Landis

The X-38 was built to help develop technology for an emergency crew return vehicle from the international space station. The X-38 is made by Scaled Composites, Inc., Mojave, California.

Internal links

Instructions for building and flying a paper Rogallo wing

Powered flight

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

Correcting History, Who Invented The Modern Hang Glider—free e-book by Graeme Henderson and Terry Aspinall

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.

Ultralight Flying! magazine by whose permission i re-used some photos on this page

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 of Wills Wing

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