Hang gliding before 1976

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Hang gliding before 1976

To set the context of world events in late 1974, at least from the British perspective, the last of the moon landings had taken place two years before and, while the Americans had largely withdrawn from Vietnam, Saigon was yet to fall to the Communists.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.

Hang glider in Wales, 1975

Hang glider in Wales, 1975

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 the first British hang gliding championship competition, held at Cam Long.

(Cam Long had not yet fallen to the Vietnamese Communists. It still hasn’t. Cam Long is in Shropshire…)

Skyhook IIIA airframe, November, 1974

Skyhook IIIA airframe, November, 1974

Photo of hang glider transported by bicycle

Ready to set out for my local hill...

In November 1974 I wheeled the Skyhook IIIA on my bike up the street and, twenty minutes later, I arrived at a heather-covered slope where I taught myself to fly it. Not recommended. (It is the same hill used for many years for off-road biking and — in a north-east wind — for flying radio control gliders. It is also inside Bournemouth airport controlled airspace!)

Photo of an early 1970s hang glider in flight

Everard in his Skyhook IIIA standard Rogallo hang glider in early 1975

The Skyhook IIIA was a ‘standard Rogallo’ hang glider built in the industrial north-west of England. Although no scenery is in view, this was taken at Monk’s Down in 1975, which I still fly 40 years later (2015). I did not have a car, but I met two men at my local hill taking it in turns to fly a hang glider. They introduced me to the local hang gliding club and they gave me lifts to new flying sites. I no longer always flew alone.

The counter-culture rejected ties with traditional society, and felt that suburban living in tract houses was the epitome of everything it despised. This was, of course, because most of the pilots had grown up in the suburbs.

— Quoted from an article by Richard Seymour in Hang Gliding & Paragliding, July, 2004, about the Sylmar/Kagel Mountain flying site in California

Appliance of Science

Cover of Scientific American, December 1974

Cover of Scientific American, December 1974, painting by Ted Lodigensky

After a bleak day’s flying at Melbury hill, near Shaftsbury in Dorset, in February 1975 I sat in a car with other hang glider pilots. Darkness fell while we waited for others to finish de-rigging, and the December 1974 edition of Scientific American was passed around. On the cover was a Ted Lodigensky painting of Mike Markowski’s Eagle III, the ‘Princeton sailwing’. Inside, pages of aerodynamic explanation, photos, and diagrams were to be read and ‘inwardly digested’ by all young men not wanting to be left behind.

Mike talks about his life on the Michael A. Markowski page of video interviews on the Harrisburg living legacy web site (linked farther down).

Photo of a hang glider in 1975

Training flight at Monk’s Down in north Dorset. Photo by Dave Lewis.

Roger Platt of Kestrel Kites flying at Monks Down in 1975

Roger Platt of Kestrel Kites flying at Monks Down in 1975

Kestrel Kites was based in Poole, on Dorset’s coast, in a building subsequently demolished during construction of, ironically, a highway flyover.

Photo of an early 1970s hang glider launching

A Birdman Grasshopper launches at Monk's Down. Photo by Dave Lewis.

Photo of a man carrying a fully rigged hang glider up a hill

Having landed in the field at the bottom of the hill, you then carried it back to the top. Photo by Dave Lewis.

Which was more dangerous; flying it or carrying it back up like this?

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 (link farther on).

Sky Riders

Hang glider launching in 1975

Launching in my Skyhook IIIA at the British Championships at Mere in Wiltshire, August 1975

I was one of about 300 competitors flying for the crowds and television cameras at the British championships at Mere, Wiltshire, in August 1975.

Photo of hang glider in Pilot magazine, March, 1976

Photo of me in Pilot magazine, March, 1976

Pilot was (and is) Britain’s main light aviation magazine. The March 1976 edition featured hang gliding and it included this photo of me taken by Len Gabriels, the brains behind Skyhook hang gliders, at the British championships in August the previous year. (Coincidentally, long time Pilot editor James Gilbert watched me and my comrades hang gliding on the Spanish island of Lanzarote in the early 1990s.)

Brian Wood flying a Miles Wings Gulp 130

Brian Wood flying a Miles Wings Gulp 130

Brian Wood, the first British hang gliding champion, did not do as well as expected in this competition, but he demonstrated the Miles Wings Gulp 130 monoplane style flex-wing one calm evening. Having launched from the ridge top, instead of gliding down to land at the bottom like every other hang glider, he flew straight out, losing barely any height until he touched down in a field far out from launch.

The original Gulp, designed by Miles Handley, had no battens, but — extraordinarily — the thick sailcloth maintained an airfoil section, as if by magic, even when the wing was rigged flat on the ground. It had just enough dihedral (and the sail was cut precisely) that span-wise tension together with the curved join of the two semi-spans at the root ensured its 3-D form.

Brian Wood riding moto cross

Brian Wood on a 400cc CZ at Canada Heights, Swanley, Kent

Brian Wood, incidentally, was the first and only British hang gliding superstar, often appearing on radio, television, and press. Previously, like his American counterpart Bob Wills, he rode moto cross.

The highest scoring pilot at the 1975 British Championships was American Bob Wills flying an all-black Sport Kites Inc. Wills Wing Swallowtail. Examining the glider from under its vast expanse of sailcloth I noticed that the sun highlighted brownish streaks criss-crossing the fabric. Wills explained that the sails of these gliders were originally white (or multicolored in some cases) and they were painted black for an upcoming movie which they had just filmed in Greece. The film was Sky Riders, starring James Coburn, Susannah York, Robert Culp, and Charles Aznavour. It was in cinemas/movie theaters the following year.

Internal links

Duck à l’orange — my Airfix 1/76th (OO) scale DUKW with scratch built hang gliders

Hang gliding 1976

Easy riser, my review of the movie Fly Away Home, Columbia Pictures, 1995, which includes more of the Icarus II, both as a glider and as a powered ultralight.

Off-road biking

Paint it black—my overview of the 1976 movie Sky Riders

Skyhook hang gliders

Exnternal link

Michael A. Markowski page of video interviews on the Harrisburg living legacy web site

8 Responses to Hang gliding before 1976

  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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