The History of Hang Gliding

Who Invented the Hang Glider?

Hang gliding is a form of aviation that is enjoyed by many people around the world as a recreational and competitive sport. The history of hang gliding has origins in the birth of aviation itself.

There are two basic forms of hang gliders, flex wings and rigid wings. As the name implies, rigid-wing gliders are stiff and offer better aerodynamics than the flex-wing glider. Along with the increased aerodynamics is an increase in price. Gliders of this type are classified by the FAI as a class five or a class two. The main difference between a class five and class two glider is that the class two glider uses a fairing to lower the drag.

Most students learn on flex wings because they offer better flight control and have a predictable landing characteristic. Flex wings are normally less expensive than rigid wings and are more common amongst the recreational pilots. Flex-wing hang gliders are classified as class one gliders by the FAI.

During the last part of the nineteenth century, a German engineer made over 2,000 successful flights on weight shift hang gliders. His name was Otto Lilienthal. The notes he kept of those experimental flights were a major source of inspiration for early aviation pioneers.

Unfortunately, once the Wright brothers achieved powered flight, Otto and hang gliding were largely forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until the late 1940s, when Dr. Francis Rogallo (a NASA scientist) and his wife became interested in gliding. Initially they worked in their spare time developing a flexible wing kite, which they patented in 1948.

In the late 1950s NASA joined the “space race” and conducted a number of tests to see if the Rogallo wing could be used as a steerable recovery parachute for their space capsules.

When pictures of these trials were released, aviation enthusiasts in Australia and America immediately saw the potential of the Rogallo Flexwing for recreational flight. The hang glider was reborn. By the late 1960s, enthusiasts, armed only with pictures cut out from magazines, were building their own bamboo and polythene Rogallos and leaping off the nearest sand dune. With little or no information to go on, initial progress was often slow and hazardous.

Then in May 1971 the Otto Lilienthal Anniversary Meet was held in California. This event attracted enthusiasts from all over the country and really caught the public‘s imagination. One of the heroes of the day was Tom Dickinson, who managed to stay aloft in free flight for 15 seconds, covering a distance of over 300 ft. The meet attracted over 50 pilots and is regarded by many as the real starting point of hang gliding as we know it today.

The first British hang glider was constructed in 1971 by Geoff McBroom, Les Hockings, Steve Stanwick, Howard Holdie, and Tony Gillette, with balloonist Don Cameron making the sail. The glider was designed by Geoff McBroom and had a glide of around 3:1.

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