MANBIRDS: Hang Gliders & Hang Gliding
By: Maralys Wills 1981
Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood cliffs, New Jersey
"THE HANG GLIDING MAYHEM BEGAN"
In 1970 Jack Lambie was principal of Collins School summer session near Long Beach, California, and also taught a class in science and crafts. Always a nut about anything that flew, toward the end of the session Lambie inspired his students to help him build an original twenty-eight-foot biplane. They did-with glue, staples, clear plastic, and baling wire from the local newspaper distributor. Lambie christened their plane the Hang Loose, a name as suggestive of Lambie himself as his biplane. When they took their machine out to a nearby hill, the lighter students actually left the ground with it!
Richard Miller was there, and so was photographer Bob Whiting. Suddenly Lambie found himself the subject of articles in Soaring magazine and
the Los Angeles Times. Men wanted plans for his Hang Loose, and Jack and his brother Mark, half in
jest, created some. More articles were written, and the demand for Hang Loose plans grew.
After an article in Sport Planes called, "The $24.86 airplane you can build
in two weeks," Jack Lambie
came home from a few months out of town to find three shopping bags full of mail
waiting for him.
Jack said, "Many had six-to eight-page letters, often from highly experienced pilots telling of their love of flight and how this seemed to be their long-sought dream. Some were from what were obviously twelve-year-olds.
The letters and orders poured in by the thousands."
Among them was a letter from Richard Miller, suggesting they hold the world's first hang gliding meet on Otto Lilienthal's birthday, May 23. Jack thought it a good idea, and set about organizing it.
May 23, 1971. That is the date, perhaps, that hang gliding officially became a sport.
Before the Lilienthal meet, hang gliding was Bill Bennett towing for fascinated crowds. Richard Miller and a few friends galloping down to the beach.
Satellite flyers with curious wings hopping and skipping down mini-hills in crazy abandon-and sometimes even flying. Hang gliding was the oddballs, the nuts, the screw-loosers, doing their thing. But doing it solo.
Hang gliding was funny. Just watching the earnestness on the faces as
they ran and came to naught was funny.
The movies are as good as films of the early days of aviation. The man who runs pell-mell down the hill under a fat, cumbersome wing ... and runs ... and runs ... and runs ... and runs ... and then at the bottom when his feet are still disappointingly on the ground, makes one tiny, hopeful jump-as if that might finally do it. And the girl who runs under her gossamer-wing glider, her legs churning like a bicyclist without a bicycle, getting a miniature distance off the earth, only to have one end of her wing suddenly collapse downward, like the dropped ear of a dog, taking her plane down with it.
The soloists were all there were.
Now Jack Lambie was bringing them all together as a meet! He thought there might be six flyers present.
Later, the names read like a roster of hang gliding's founding family. Richard Miller. Jack and Mark Lambie. Karen Lambie. Taras Kiceniuk. Bruce Carmichael and son Doug. Lloyd Licher. Joe Faust. Volmer Jensen and Paul MacCready, observing.
For Jack, finding the flyers was easy; finding the site, next to impossible. He says, "At the time it seemed we should pick a site that was not too dangerous and favored low sink and flat glide.
But most of Orange County was owned by the Irvine Company, and getting them to cooperate was like trying to build a house out of marshmallows. You could set it all up, but it kept folding inward. The Irvine people were courteous, fine listeners, interested, but they had this little condition: a million dollars' worth of liability insurance, which Lambie found out from his agent would cost about twelve hundred dollars per day. "Why so much?" he asked. "They're just little featherweight devices that only go about fifteen miles per hour."
"Perhaps," the agent said, "but with no experience to go on we'll just have to put it at the same rate as a motorcycle race."
How were the six possible competitors going to pay that, Jack wondered.
Finally, after days of wandering the hills, and dozens of dead-end phone calls to find owners, Jack and his brother, Mark, found an ideal hill with no Irvine markings and no obstructions. With a single look they both got the same idea. Why not just come here and fly? The hell with trying to find the owner.
Jack says, "Having taught history for some years, I have been
impressed with how whole civilizations have been conquered by just a
few people. The Aztecs and Incas are good examples. Only four
hundred Spanish soldiers did the job, the strategy of which was to
capture the leader through some trickery and get him to surrender the
country. Lesson: The more centralized the organization the easier it is to gain control of the whole. Another analogy: Highly developed life forms-that is, mammals-are dispatched with one well-aimed shot to the central nervous system, whereas some more primitive creatures such as the starfish can't even be killed when chopped into pieces."
The group, Jack decided, would have no "heart." When confronted by the authorities, each man would have to be dealt with separately; there would be no leaders. Just a sort of multiheaded starfish.
On May 23 fifteen flyers-double what Lambie had expected-brought eleven Hang Loose-type craft and three Rogallo shapes. Taras Kiceniuk, a Cal Tech student, flew a version of Richard Miller's Bamboo Butterfly, called The Batso. Richard Miller had moved on to a Conduit Condor and Bruce Carmichael had a jib-sail Rogallo. The rest were Hang Looses.
Lambie says, "We had a brief meeting. No one was to say who any of the other competitors were, and there was no one in charge. A bevy of cute girls from the University of California, Riverside, were to time an measure distance ... on their own, of course.
Lambie's portrayal of the day is a classic.
"The mayhem began. Many had never flown their gliders before this
day. Launchers would grasp each wing tip. Another would hold the tail
boom and the group would stumble down the hill. The tip men let go,
the tail man kept shoving, and the machine climbed. The higher it
got, the steeper the angle of attack, with the tail man still gamely
shoving until he could shove no more; the glider was now in a full
stall. The pilot was running and kicking as the machine flopped to
the grass. In another variation one wing man would hold on and
continue shoving after the other stopped, resulting in a spectacular
ground loop. After a couple of stalls, ground loops, and backslides,
the wiring became so tweaked that the out-of-rig biplane was insured of a curving flight no matter how deft the launch crew had become."
Taras Kiceniuk later wrote, "The Bamboo Butterflies demonstrated [that day] that this design was capable of excellent control in the hands of a skilled pilot-and very limited in aerodynamic performance. The gliders ... showed the opposite face of the coin-acceptable aerodynamic performance and practically no control!"
The hill, clearly visible from the road, attracted spectators,
and soon hundreds-then thousands-of people strolled over to see the
strange goings-on. Among the spectators was Paul MacCready, with a
doctorate from Cal Tech and a lifetime enthusiasm for aviation. But
what MacCready saw hardly qualified as aviation, for he remarked
pleasantly, "What good is it? It's like rolling down-hill on a bicycle with the steering locked and seeing who can go the farthest before crashing."
Volmer Jensen also felt it was all a little mad, funny but mad, especially the Rogallos. With the flyer dependent on his body and his buddies for everything-starting, steering, stability, and stopping-Jensen figured flight had gone one giant step-backward! He saw no future in weight-shift control-nor has his opinion ever changed: "Nobody who understands aeronautics would fly one of those things." Volmer Jensen's response was to go home and build his own VI-12 hang glider, conventionally controlled from aileron to elevator. But he still grins when he thinks of the Otto Lilienthal meet.
In due time both the owner of the land and the police showed up, in that order. The landowner, cajoled by a friendly Russell Hawkes (writer, TV producer, and fellow Hang Loose builder), finally decided it was OK to proceed with the "good clean fun" about the same time a police helicopter appeared overhead and began bawling from the skies, "Will the organizers of the meet please report to the squad car at the bottom of the hill." Over and over the command blared from heaven.
Finally Joe Faust ambled down, but his peculiar brand of funny-speak only confused the police.
At last the landowner more or less convinced the authorities that every-thing was OK-and anyway, the police had been unable to pick even one genuine culprit from the mobs of people.
Defeated, the police gave up.
Jack wrote, "Mark and I took turns flying, and after one smooth launch Mark floated the length of the hill for 13 seconds, the meet's duration record. Taras made 23 seconds on a towed flight, including the towed portion, but this was not considered 'self' launched flight, so it wasn't counted for the self-launched prize. We had a batch of certificates of participation printed up-collector's items now-for each pilot and crew, with notation of the achievements.
"We picnicked under the wings of our planes and laughed and laughed at
the flights and crashes. At one moment, forever frozen in my memory,
one ship climbed straight up, stalled and collapsed in slow motion;
another cartwheeled in the background to the left, while another spun to the right.
"Although the Hang Looses did not turn in the flights I had expected, everyone was having such a good time it didn't matter. The simple joy of leaping into the air was enough."
Jack Lambie's little meet became front-page news, television news, the
subject of fourteen breathless phone calls the following week from
writers and photographers asking when the next meet would be held for
their benefit. The story was told by National Geographic, Popular Science, Soaring, and Science once Mechanics. In Germany, England, and France this crashingest meet stirred great excitement.
Interest in the event remained as strong with the participants as everyone else. "Two weeks later," lack says, "When all our film was developed, a gathering was held in Mark's recreation room for movies and plans for the future."
That first meeting was followed by others. From that day on, whenever flyers gathered to fly, they assembled later to talk about it. After a while the group gave itself a name: Coast Hang Gliding Club. In time the name changed, first to Southern California Hang Gliding Association, finally to United States Hang Gliding Association, but a little of the original purpose always remained -to refly in one's chair the best of what had already been flown off the hill.
Only three months later Lambie helped promote the Montgomery meet at the site of the John J. Montgomery Memorial in San Diego. But a second meet, so soon after the first one, brought an inquisitive shark from deeper waters. "The FAA called Mark and wanted a complete list of participants so they could charge them with flying unlicensed aircraft, flying close to people, flying after major structural damage and repairs without inspection, no type ratings for Some of the flyers, et cetera. Mark said he had no idea who the People were and our own ship was tethered at all times, bringing it under kite regulations. We heard no more from them."
For months afterward, shrewd hang glider pilots kept useless strings dangling from their craft to prove, if necessary, that they were nothing more than kites.
When Jack Lambie thinks about the great excitement generated by his
first meet, he becomes philosophical. A licensed pilot himself, he
says, "After World War II many thousands of people learned flying and
the advanced era of personal flying came of age.... But now that
everyone who wanted to was flying, there was a sense of
disappointment. The kind of flying we were doing wasn't exactly what many of us had in mind. Grinding around in a light plane talking to center or the tower every few minutes-or sitting in an airliner watching a movie-wasn't it.
"The idea of launching oneself, running into the air like a bird, feeling wing lift body physically with the wind in one's face was more like it. The flyers were ready for that kind of flying. The days of purposeful flight had been achieved. Now it was time to get back to pure flying. The immense media coverage of the little meet attracted the attention of millions who had dreamed of self-flight.
OUT OF THE COCOON CAME... A ROGALLO HANG GLIDER!
The dust raised by the first two hang gliding meets soon settled out in one of two camps-with the fixed-wing enthusiasts or the Rogalloists. Almost everyone aligned himself with one mode of flying or the other, and there were arguments for both.
Volmer Jensen looked on the Rogallo flyers-as something akin to
upstarts-"They even took our name," he said ruefully-and he still
feels that way today. Though he admits, "We couldn't have done what
we did with the rigid wings if the kites [Rogallos] hadn't come up
with all the publicity and promotion," he still shakes his head in
wonder at the number of people flying such obviously unmanageable craft. Without movable surfaces he is sure the Rogallo kites are little more than predestined accidents. "Not that we can't get hurt or killed in a rigid wing ... but we stand a better chance. I'm real conservative. Irv Culver, John Underwood-all the fellows that have
flown my ships-they wouldn't buy the kites. My friend Irv Culver-he's one of the top aerodynamicists in the United States-he just shudders when he sees those kites fly."
To Jensen, control by weight shift alone is as archaic as it is unreliable. "I mean, when you can sit there and take the control stick and move it this much for all the maneuvers you want to make ... why fly by weight shift?" But Jensen is also fair-minded. "The Rogallos ... it's another type of flying, I'll admit."
To Volmer Jensen the hero of rigid-wing construction is young Taras Kiceniuk. Although Taras appeared at the Lilienthal meet with his
Batso and flapped down the hill on a diamond-shaped bamboo frame
covered with plastic, by the Montgomery meet three months later Taras
had constructed a graceful, tailless biwing. He named it Icarus. In
October 1971 Taras and his Icarus cruised back and forth above the
cliff at Torrance Beach, California, an event seen on television.
By January 1972 Icarus had made the cover of Soaring magazine.
The advantages of his biwing, and later the single-wing Icarus V, were obvious: In light or no breezes the Icarus could stay up and soar above the ridge, and the eight-to-one glide angle it boasted meant flights of long duration. The Icarus, and eventually Bob Lovejoy's Quicksilver, were simple, graceful planes that stood midway between
conventional gliding and Rogallo hang gliding. Uncomplicated, easy to build at home, they could be launched by running down a hill. They left behind forever the necessity of finding a plane to launch a plane.
Yet there were disadvantages.
When Jack Lambie noted, "The very slow speed Hang Loose was not to be the hang glider of the future," he could have been speaking for other fixed-wing craft as well-at least for the next six years. For while the Icarus and Jensen's VJ-12 series offered long, graceful flight, and Kiceniuk even caught a thermal in late'72, they hadn't solved the problems of portability, easy assembly, crash resistance, and restricted landings. They had left some of the problems of conventional gliders behind, but not all.
In the beginning the Rogallos had another advantage. They were different. What had failed to ignite enthusiasm when it looked like a familiar glider seemed to turn everyone breathless when it looked like a child's kite.
On this ... this aberration, men were running down the hill-and flying! It was all so unexpected it somehow set people alight. It was like arriving on a flying saucer. While everyone accepted calmly the flight of a wing that looked like a wing, this funny, diamond-shaped contraption had all the crazy fascination of a flying umbrella!
So the early Rogallos got press that the fixed wings didn't get.
Volmer Jensen could have told reporters thirty-five years earlier that it was possible to run down a hill hanging by your armpits and fly. Only he didn't.
Now a different kind of man with a different kind of flying toy finally turned people on. The Rogallo shape ... the promoters ... and hang gliding ... had arrived!
THE AVALANCHE ROLLED DOWN SEVERAL FACES
The Rogallo hang glider caught on incredibly. While the excitement it generated was not entirely reasonable, its practical success could be explained, which Jack Lambie did in part when he said, "Their secret was the hang-bar control and great crashability. The tyro could learn to fly before his glider was demolished."
There were other things: The tyro didn't need to buy a trailer to haul his machine; he didn't need a tool kit for final assembly, nor a baseball field for landing. A Rogallo was truly a personal flying machine.
Potential flyers were quick to see these advantages, and by the end of 1972 and early 1973 the Rogallo rush was on. When something begins everywhere at once it is often impossible to know who was first of the firsts. In Australia, in northern California, in Canada, in ...