Birdman and Solar Wings of Wiltshire, England
Birdman was one of the earliest hang glider manufacturers in Britain, starting in 1973. In 1979 some of its personnel left to start Solar Wings, based in the same area. The two companies co-existed for a short time before Birdman closed in 1980. Solar Wings became part of Pegasus Aviation, manufacturing powered ultralights (absorbing Mainair in the north of England) until it too closed in May 2019.
The Ken Russell movie Tommy, filmed in 1974, featured Roger Daltry of rock band The Who apparently launching from a castle tower near Portsmouth, England, in an all-white Birdman standard Rogallo. He flew shirtless and helmet-less while singing a long-forgotten song, thus causing dozens of mods and rockers on the streets below, some wearing World War 2 German steel helmets, to stop fighting and instead break out into spontaneous gyrations while they looked up at him in awe.
In the Tommy video clip on YouTube (see under External links later on this page) Birdman’s Dave Raymond did the flying, but the cuts to close-ups of Roger Daltry of The Who hanging in the glider suspended from a rig were seamlessly edited.
Birdman brought two (I think) Ultralight Products Dragonflies and a Red Tail (Ultralight Products’ easier to fly wing) from the 1975 world championships at Kössen, Austria, back to Britain. I (the original author of this web site) saw the Dragonflies flying at Mere in Wiltshire in the summer of 1975. The handling of the Dragonfly embodied a yaw characteristic that imparted a uniquely graceful motion in the air. Apparently always under perfect control, yet always curving to the right or left… See the Photo by Roger Middleton of Birdmn’s Ken Messenger flying a Dragonfly under External links later on this page.
I assume that Birdman intended to build the Dragonfly under licence, but my information is that they did not do so. However, they took on board UP’s purpose-made hardware and the entire Birdman range was soon unequaled in quality of finish and slickness of fittings.
I am told that the late Pat Fry, who I had flown with on occasion, obtained one of those imported Dragonflies, but his one flight in it scared him so badly he never flew it again. For more about the Dragonfly, see Winter escape: The 1974 U.S. nationals in Hang gliding 1974 part 3 and Dragonfly in Hang gliding 1975 part 2.
The influence of the Dragonfly resurfaced the following year, although only in a prototype of a new wing, but it emerged again three years later, this time in a production glider. Meanwhile, Birdman concentrated on an easier to fly development…
As well as stretching the Swallowtail concept (see Hang gliding 1975 part 2) the Firebird was said to be so quick to rig it opened like an umbrella. Radial battens such as these were straight — because they aligned with the axes of cones that constituted the wing shape — and they rolled up with the sail, so imposing no extra time in rigging and de-rigging. At that time Birdman contracted out their sail-making and, according to one expert insider, the Firebird suffered from a ‘rattly’ sail. (The one I saw flying at Monk’s Down looked impressive, but the sail certainly fluttered more than did that of the Swallowtail, for instance.)
In summer 1976, 18-year-old Roland Lewis Evans worked as sail maker for hang glider manufacturer Kestrel Kites of Poole in Dorset. His reputation was such that Birdman made him an offer he could not refuse. In about July, Roly joined the team in Wiltshire. Their premises, former chicken sheds, had no sail loft initially.
As well as leading the creation of the Birdman sail loft, Roly added a second batten each side to the Firebird, all battens then being chord-wise rather than radial, in the style of late Swallowtail types such as the Hiway Cloudbase. The two battens each side largely eliminated the ‘rattle.’
Ron’s green glider (in the photo) is a Firebird with the new battens. Roly informs me that several Firebird owners brought their gliders back to the factory to have the sail modified with the new batten layout.
Roly’s blue wing was a factory development glider with a shortened root chord and an extra tip batten (each side) that was to be incorporated into an updated version of the Firebird the following year. The author saw Dave Raymond it flying at Kimmeridge on the Dorset coast in early or mid 1977.
So what if it’s freezing cold in the north wind on a bare hillside in the middle of nowhere with a swamp for a landing field — or is that slush and snow? We’re going flying anyway!
The prototype Moonraker inherited the ‘truncated’ fix tips of the Ultralight Products Dragonfly(2). That was the year during which truncated tips were largely discarded in favor of the more flexible concept of a roached tip area supported by battens. Birdman followed that trend with the production Moonraker. At least for the time being…
The wing that Ash is flying in this picture is a production Moonraker with roached tips. See Ash later on this page for more about him.
Dave Weeden was responsible for many of the intricate inlay sailcloth creations, including that sail of Ashley’s Moonraker in the accompanying photo. At this stage, glider design was mainly down to Dave Raymond, with input from the sail loft and R and D where required. Roly Lewis-Evans and Rita Brown machined the sails, and Rupert Sweet-Escott cut many of the sails for the later Moonraker 78. (5)
Nobody putting together such a place for a movie about flying in the old days would ever dare make it as dilapidated and generally go-to-hell as it actually was.
— Tom Wolf describing Pancho’s Fly Inn, The Right Stuff, 1979
Birdman’s Ken Messenger and competition organizer Brian Milton attempted to cross the English Channel in their Moonrakers by first being lifted to altitude beneath hot air balloons. Milton released at 14000 ft and ditched into the channel to be picked up by a Russian ‘trawler.’ (This was during the cold war.) Its crew took some persuading that Milton was a ‘sporting man.’ Messenger released at 20000 ft to land in the same field in France from which Louis Blériot had taken off for the first ever flight across the channel nearly 70 years before. Meanwhile aboard the balloon that had lifted Ken in his hang glider to altitude…
On the way up I got my oxygen equipment tangled up when I was changing cylinders, so I was without oxygen at about 15,000 feet for a while, which gave me a bit of a headache… I was on top of a cloud. It looked so solid… I felt I could get out and walk on it. I had a terrific urge to get out and walk on the cloud!
— Balloon pilot David Liddiard (1)
When Birdman developed the Moonraker with its low-billow sail and chord-wise battens, sail-maker Roly Lewis-Evans took the opportunity to upgrade their ‘intermediate’ level glider, the Firebird. The revised design featured five chord-wise battens each side, resulting in an appearance similar to the Electra Flyer Cirrus 3. (See the Electra Flyer of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Larry Newman related topics menu.) They designated the new version Firebird S.
The Firebird S had much improved performance, but although it retained the center box push-back system of the earlier version, the need to then insert the battens meant that it could not be rigged fully ‘umbrella style’ in one motion like the original Firebird.
During 1977 Andrew Hill read an article by Gary Osoba about ‘diffusion tip’ gliders and, as a result, Birdman modified the fixed tips of the prototype Moonraker. The new tip tubes were extensions of the leading edge tubes with two bends, Roly adapting the sail from the earlier prototype. Andrew says this glider had an outstanding sink rate. It became the model for the Moonraker 78, which unfortunately did not perform as well as the prototype did. (2)
This Moonraker 78, built for Roy Hill(3), has a BHGA logo, designed by Mark Woodhams (who later became a noted hang gliding historian) on its sail.
This author’s experience of flying a production Moonraker 78 was that, in smooth conditions, it provided a low sink rate, ‘floating’ above most other gliders in ridge lift. In turbulence, which necessitated flying faster to retain control, it was not so good.
Roly was Birdman’s first sail maker, but later he was one of a team that included Dave Weeden, who joined in late 1976 or early 1977, and Rupert Sweet-Escott in late 1977 or early 1978. Rupert was then about 16 years old but already a hang glider pilot. Rupert later designed the Nomad prone trike and he went on to set up a unit in Florida building trikes for powered ultralights.
While all other manufacturers went defelexorless, Birdman took a different approach with their Cherokee in that it retained a single deflexor wire in line with the airflow. (For the majority approach, see Superscorpion in Hang gliding 1978 and 1979 part 3.) The aerodynamic drag of that cable was reckoned to be minimal and it facilitated tuning the wing as a whole (tensioning or de-tensioning both sides together using turnbuckles) and you could tune out a turn if one developed by tensioning or de-tensioning just one side.
In the photo of Roly (Roland Lewis-Evans) launching from Kimmeridge, the view angle shows the deflexor post in line with the angle at which the sail meets the leading edge tube. Therefore, the cable was in the largely ‘dead air’ pushed along by the leading edges. (In this photo, the deflexor post obscures the forward leading edge.) Incidentally, although it might look as though he used the flat-rigged hang glider as a launch trampoline, I am sure that is an optical illusion!
The crosstube fairings (made by a different manufacturer as an add-on) were intended to reduce drag and possibly even provide a small amount of extra lift. However, I suspect their main effect was aesthetic.
Birdman’s rigging method of ‘opening like an umbrella’ was a bridge too far, in my view. Setting up my Cherokee at Beachy Head, Sussex, the wind caught it before I secured the crosstube centre box to the keel with wingnuts. The wind lifted the wing (and attached keel tube) from the crosstube centre and thereby broke the crosstubes (or crushed the ends maybe). I guess I was trying to ‘buy in’ to the umbrella idea, leaving the nose wires attached so the thing stood up on the control frame when I pushed the centre box back, spreading the wings at the same time. (It was a while ago and I don’t recall exactly.) What I do remember was the more than 40 GBP repair bill, but I upgraded to newly devised plug-in crosstube ends.
After the repair and modification, each crosstube was ‘cut through’ about 18 inches short of the leading edge. (Each crosstube was made in two parts is what I mean.) A sliding sleeve joined the two parts with a spring-button thing, so it was completely secure. You left the centre box fully attached at all times, the wing nuts (butterfly nuts) being replaced by self locking nuts.
Although hang glider development had progressed greatly in the five years since its modern resurgence in Australia and the U.S.A., pressure of competition between designers and manufacturers led inevitably to compromises in the tension between innovation and risk.
An example was when Roly Lewis-Evans, sailmaker for Birdman, launched in a prototype Cherokee with a shorter chord than that eventually used. His estimate of the trim hang point was off and he stalled on take off, resulting in a smashed glider and back pain for two days until he was able to see a chiropractor.
In late 1979 Roly left Birdman and traveled to California where the hang glider manufacturers he visited included the following:
- Wills Wing in Orange County (see the Sport Kites/Wills Wing of California related topics menu)
- Seagull (see the Seagull Aircraft of Santa Monica, California related topics menu)
- Bill Bennett’s Delta Wing Kites and Gliders, of Van Nuys, California (related topics menu)
- Flight Designs at Salinas (see Marty Alameda and Flight Designs)
While in California he also visited Roger Platt, formerly of Kestrel Kites, Poole, Dorset, for whom he worked as sailmaker in the mid 1970s. See Hang gliding 1974 part 4 for Roly’s remarkable color photos of Roger struggling to fly his first hang glider. Possibly because Britain did not provide opportunities for such go-ahead individuals as Roger, he had emigrated to the USA. Roger settled in San Luis Obispo where, perhaps coincidentally, a new hang glider of distinctive construction came about. See Spectra Aolus for more.
In the winter of 1979-80, Dave Raymond, Mark Southall, and Cliff Ingram left Birdman to set up Solar Wings, also in Wiltshire. That left Ken Messenger, John Penry Evans, and Rita Brown in the sail loft at Birdman. They came up with the Comanche. Like the Solar Wings Storm, the Birdman Comanche featured a wider nose angle (125°) with a flatter sail than the Cherokee. After some refinement of the flexible outer tips in the first two they made (the elliptical tip design of the example shown here was abandoned) the Comanche was found to have better performance than the Cherokee and the Storm. Main battens were pre-cambered aluminum at the front and flexible glass fiber at the back. Likely copying the example set by the Mouette Atlas, designed by Gerard Thevenot in France, the maximum camber point was farther forward than had been usual up to that time. (For more about the Atlas, see under Cherokee, Storm, and Atlas in Hang gliding early 1980s part 1.)
As far as this author knows, the Comanche was the last Birdman hang glider. I photographed this one at the BHGA annual general meeting held at Warwick University in March of 1980. Some months later Ken Messenger closed down Birdman Sports.
In the winter of 1979-80, Dave Raymond, Mark Southall, and Cliff Ingram left Birdman to set up Solar Wings, also in Wiltshire. The firm manufactured hang gliders, harnesses, and powered ultralights for nearly 40 years.
Solar Wings’ first hang glider was the Storm; a deflexorless (naturally) flex-wing with a slightly wider nose angle than the Birdman Cherokee.
Roly’s bid for stardom in California did not work out. After three months, he returned home and joined the Solar Wings sail loft in March 1980. Solar Wings became one of the world’s foremost hang glider manufacturers.
Sail shape and construction are more important than any other factors in glider performance, and this is where the sailmaker’s skill comes into play.
— Gib Eggen, Whole Air, August 1986
Even today (2021) a hang glider, unlike any other flying machine, is normally kept at the pilot’s home, in a garage (which might need to be extended) or even inside the house. And it can be conveniently rigged for inspection and maintenance in a garden or yard of adequate size. (A paraglider can be laid flat, but it cannot be ‘rigged’ in its flying shape, and most powered ultralights are more conveniently stored at the airfields where they are based.)
Technical: The fixed exposed strut in the photo is an anti-dive strut. It plugs into the leading edge tube. (The two tubes are connected with a bungee and cable inside.) With the glider at rest on the ground, as here, the slack sail rests against the end of the tube. In contrast, in normal flight, during which the sail is inflated by the airflow, the wing tip rides clear of the strut. However, in an extreme nose-down pitch rotation, which could happen in severe turbulence where the airflow is parallel to the wing or even blowing down on it, the dive struts hold the wing tips up, where they act as up-elevators (they are behind the centre of mass) providing a countering nose-up pitch force.
The Solar Wings Typhoon was a popular ‘Comet clone’ from the early- to mid-1980s. (See Lightnings, Comet clones and pod people in Hang gliding early 1980s part 1.) The Typhoon became the core of ubiquitous Pegasus XL powered ultralight.
Roly made seven trips to the continent, delivering Typhoons in 1981 and 1982. That’s Roly’s mother helping out in the yard. She died in August 2020.
During the 1980s, Solar Wings became part of Pegasus Aviation, the company manufacturing hang gliders and powered ultralights. Murray Rose, formerly of Chargus, was Managing Director in 1989 and the early 1990s (and possibly before and/or after that time). In early 1989, when Solar was developing the Rumour — to rival the Airwave Magic Kiss — other personnel included Darren Arkwright, about whom more later, Graham Slater, and Paul Haines. (4)
During the 1980s, the stirrup harness with its lines exposed to the airflow and creating drag, was largely replaced by ‘pod’ types that fully enclosed the pilot except for the head and arms. However, all such harnesses compress the spine, which can become painful after hours in the air. Several manufacturers developed pod harnesses that incorporated back plates of carbon fiber or metal tubes to relieve that compression. Those harnesses are even more streamlined than earlier pods.
In 1994, Solar Wings’ hang glider designer Darren Arkwright (he had previously worked for Airwave) developed the Edge harness. Like all such form-fitting harnesses, it was made to the pilot’s individual body shape. (The gaps around the pilot’s shoulders in the photo result from the absence of normal flying clothing.)
Ash, son of novelist Dianne Doubtfire, operated a hang gliding school, later including powered ultralight instruction, near the Birdman factory and the later Solar Wings factory. In the early 1980s he was hospitalized with a mental condition and — an event that shocked society as a whole as well as the hang gliding world — he died as a result of inadequate care and supervision, as reported in a television documentary.
On a misty day in south Wales in late 1976, two hang gliders bore down on the low hill where I was instructing. I do not recall from where they launched. Maybe the hill was lost in the fog. One of the pilots was BHGA training officer Alvin Russell flying a Phoenix 6B, made by Bennett Delta Wing of California, and the other was Ash flying a Cirrus 3 made by Electra Flyer of New Mexico. Both those wings looked like space ships compared to the kite-shaped standard Rogallos most of us flew.
Ash was an instructor at another school in south Wales, although by then I think he was setting up independently. He was as impressive in real life as he looks in the photos, yet he had a self-deprecating manner that enabled him to get on well with just about everybody. I never heard anyone say a bad word about Ash.
At an instructors’ gathering in Wiltshire, we discussed a record-setting attempt – I forget who or what exactly – which resulted in injury to the pilot concerned. Ash observed, “It’s not just what you do. It’s how you do it.”
Of course, a memorable name helps with publicity. I recall one television announcer – I think commenting on the British championships held at Mere in Wiltshire in 1977 – say with a wry grin, “…Ashley Doubtfire, no less.”
The human brain is of course an unfathomably complex network of inter-dependent specialisms and, unsurprisingly, it can – and does – go wrong. I read that Ash ended up in a mental hospital where he died in early 1983. A television crew investigated and the evidence of neglect they uncovered was aired in a documentary. (I had largely stopped watching telly by then, so I did not see it.) It strikes me that it was only because Ash was so well known that such an investigation was carried out and improvements made in the health care system as a result.
Incidentally, Ash’s mother Dianne Doubtfire was an author of ‘teenage novels’, at least one of which features hang gliding, and she also wrote books about how to write.
Airwave of the Isle of Wight, UK (Solar Wings’ principal British rival in hang glider manufacture)
Chargus of Buckinghamshire, England
Early powered ultralights part 2 (includes some photos from Roly flying in the U.S.A.)
From our house to bunkhaus in Hang gliding early 1980s part 2 for more hang glider factory images
Kimmeridge Khmer Rouge for more photos of Roly flying a Cherokee at Kimmeridge in Dorset
Roly Lewis-Evans, sail maker, related topics menu
Skyhook Sailwings, the hang glider manufacturer in the north of England
Ultralight Products of California and Utah
Birdman Comanche in Delta Club 82. Click the photo to display two photos in a new browser window.
Birdman team at the first world championship, Kössen, Austria, 1975: RR7513B AUSTRIA WORLD HANG-GLIDING CHAMPIONSHIP video on YouTube by AP Archive starting at 6 minutes 3 seconds: Dave Raymond (having re-grown his beard after the filming of Tommy), Dick Bickel, Ken Messenger, Terry Nicholls, and Brian Harrison of Scot Kites.
Ken Messenger, of early British hang glider manufacturer Birdman, in British Hang Gliding History. It includes Ken’s link with farmer, balloonist, and airship pilot David Liddiard (not to be confused with hang gliding photographer Don Liddard) of Newbury, Berkshire, whose autobiography I (the original author of this web site) acquired when I worked as a technical writer in nearby Hungerford…
Motocross in Off-road bikes on Brave Guys and Beautiful Dolls for an image of Birdman founder Ken Messenger in his off-road bike championship winning days
Photo by Roger Middleton of Ken Messenger flying an Ultralight Products Dragonfly at the British Championship in August 1975
TOMMY (1975) Sensation [1080 HD] video clip on YouTube
1. Farmer, rally driver, balloonist, and airship pilot David Liddiard interviewed for Barley & Balloons, David Liddiard remembers, by Jennifer d’Alton, 1998
2. Andrew Hill communication to the author via Facebook Messenger, November 18th, 2020
3. Moonraker 78 built for Roy Hill: Reply by Roy Hill on British Hangies Facebook group
4. Solar Wings personnel early 1989: Jes Flynn letter, SkyWings, August 2021
5. E-mail communication with Roly Lewis-Evans in October 2021