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Bob England, hang glider designer
Bob England spent his early years on Guernsey, an island close to the northern coast of France, but mostly the folks there speak English. (3)
Some images on this page are artistic derivations of contemporary photos. See Copyright of early hang gliding photos.
He was a top pilot in the 1970s. For example, flying a Birdman Moonraker 78 he placed second in ‘class 2’ (flex-wings) of the 1978 European open championships at Kössen, Austria(9). See a film clip of him launching there under External links later on this page.
The Gannet, which as far as is known to this author was Bob England’s first design, was successor of Miles Handley’s Gryphon, although it also resembled Ian Grayland’s Sigma, which, although designed in 1978, reached production in 1980; the year after the Gannet did(10). Together with the Southdown Sailwings Sigma and the Spectra Aolus (Flexiform Sealander in Britain) the Gannet was the last of the bowsprit-rigged high performance hang gliders.
This photo was taken at Pandy, south Wales, on Sunday April 15th, 1979.(8)
On an overcast day in 1979 at Hatterall Hill, Pandy, South Wales, there had been some failed attempts to soar in ridge lift, resulting in forced landings in a field at the bottom of the hill. However, Bob flew a difficult route in the Gannet and top landed. He then lent the Gannet to two other pilots, who were amazed to be able to do the same. Then Andy Billingham reluctantly clipped in to the Gannet…
Two steps forward and I was off, a louder than normal whistling sound coming from the unconventional layout of rigging wires. The handling impressed me immediately. The controls had a reassuringly taut feel and a turn was easy enough to initiate. Once in the turn there was a slight feeling of inertia taking over but in fact the glider straightened up quite readily with little in the way of control lag. It did give the impression that it might be a bit of a handful in really rough air but in the fairly smooth conditions on the day it sailed along beautifully.
— Andy Billingham (1)
Billingham completed the flight back to the common and made a good top landing. He relates that everyone there at that time realized that Bob had created something special.
The knotted chord loops on the prototype Gannet — instead of the stand-up keel pocket usual at this time — facilitated adjusting the depth and profile of the root chord.(1)
Author’s reminiscence: On the day on which I took the photo of the yellow Gannet, which according to my log book was in May or July 1980, some of my work colleagues came along to watch. We sat in the car, parked just along from the rigging and take off area on the hill top at Mill Hill near Shoreham on the Sussex downs, and watched Bob in the Gannet hanging high in the sky, almost motionless. (A result of flying directly into a strong wind created by thermal lift.) One of my friends said, “What’s he making use of there?”
“His hang glider,” I replied. (Kind of almost like humor.) I like to think I expanded on that a bit with some theory of ridge and thermal lift, but I don’t recall. It was not a silly question though. A hang glider — unpowered — barely moving high above the hill and well out of the reach of ‘mechanical’ ridge lift imparts a sense of other-worldliness that demands explanation.
Although not for the complete novice, the Gannet was not difficult to fly and had many characteristics sure to please a keen pilot.
— Andy Billingham (1)
Waspair of Croydon, south London, manufactured the Gannet as the Super Gryphon and they continued to do so after their relocation in 1980 to West Sacramento, California.(7) See also the Waspair of Surrey, England related topics menu.
Note the more usual (for that time) sailcloth stand-up keel pocket.
Incidentally, the bowsprit configuration, while not competitive at the top of the performance range after 1980, confers some advantages. Bautek of Austria continued making Bowsprit gliders until that factory closed in 2020.
Bob described the scenery from a hang glider pilot’s viewpoint on a cross-country flight in early 1980:
The intense richness of the Wiltshire and eventually the Dorset countryside was very vivid from the air. Smooth textured farmland was bejewelled by a procession of stately homes, and ye olde villages sprouted mushroom-like with tufted thatched cottages sewn amongst snug hollows and copse strewn valleys.
— Bob England writing in the Avon Hang Gliding Club magazine, May 1980
He made that flight in a borrowed Atlas; a type made in France that surpassed the Gannet and its rivals before it too was superseded at the top level of hang glider performance by the Ultralight Products Comet. All in 1980!
Inspired by the aforementioned UP Comet, Bob went on to create the double-surface enclosed cross-tube Hiway Demon. (See the Hiway of Sussex, England, and Abergavenny, Wales related topics menu.)
I worked with him at Hiway in their South Wales factory for a short time. We made an extra large Demon as I remember, for a heavy customer. Bob drew out the sail and I did all the machining. They then got me to test fly it on a trike. Think someone flew it before my flight, but remember it was getting late. They had a short strip outside their Tredegar factory. Anyway got pretty high and remember cruising around for ages. Happy days.
— Roly Lewis-Evans (2)
The Demon was built under licence by Flight Designs of California. See Marty Alameda and Flight Designs, which includes more about the Demon and the flying at Marina Beach near Monterey.
Bob went to California before Hiway Hang Gliders of Abergavenny, Wales, ceased trading in March 1983. Bob’s next successful design there was the Bennett Delta Wing Kites and Gliders Streak. The Streak featured an under-surface that was detached from the upper surface at its trailing edge.
Not only was he British hang gliding champion at one point, but he was an influential designer as well. Think of all the designs he had a hand in: the Gannet, the Demon, the Streak, the Eclipse, and a few that never saw production… what made his story more complicated was that he made all these designs (or modifications) for different companies…
— John LaTorre (6)
The Streak was an excellent glider that pilots continued to fly fifteen years after the glider first appeared. Bill Bennett donated six of the hang gliders made by his company, including a Streak 130, to the National Air and Space Museum in 1984.
— National Air and Space Museum (5)
Bob left Bennett in early 1984 and rented independent space at the Pacific Windcraft factory in Salinas, California(4). There, fortunately for this history, he encountered sailmaker, manufacturing manager, and writer John LaTorre.
I remember Bobby as an impish, devilish character, full of fun and surprises, but with a heart of gold. His impression of Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was unforgettable.
— John LaTorre (6)
On one flight test day at Marina Beach, John LaTorre lost his wallet…
The wind gods were kind to us that day, so we could go the entire three miles of ridge line that we had been flying. (If I remember correctly, the red flag was flying to show us that the firing range at Fort Ord was “hot” and we weren’t permitted to fly farther than that). We flew back and forth across that stretch, flying only feet or even inches off the ground. That may sound extreme to anybody but a beach pilot, but we were doing that all the time at Marina Beach anyway. I eventually saw a brown lump in the sand, landed, and found my wallet. Bob was somewhere overhead, wondering if I was all right. I held up the wallet, and he waved and returned to the parking lot.
I took my glider up to the next dune, relaunched, and joined him there a few minutes later. The fact that Bob had taken so much time to help me look for my wallet meant a lot to me but, in retrospect, I think he would have flown with me, skimming across the ground, just for the fun of it.
— John LaTorre (6)
Designed by Bob England and Jean-Michel Bernasconi, the 1985 Eclipse was known for its extraordinarily light handling and its resistance to stalling. It was built in the Pacific Windcraft factory in California and at another facility at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. (Pacific Windcraft effectively succeeded Flight Designs as the hang glider manufacturer in the Salinas valley.)
And when Bob flight tested the Eclipse…
He’d fly around for a while, land, and do a modification of the airfoil, but … here’s the kicker… he’d do it on one side only, and leave the other side as it was. When I questioned him about it, he replied that this was his favorite way of testing airfoils. If the modified side flew better than the other one, inducing a turn in the opposite direction, he knew he was on the right track. And he could tell which side wanted to stall first. I never would have thought of that.
— John LaTorre (6)
See also Eclipse in Jean-Michel Bernasconi and Pacific Windcraft.
Sometime around 1990, he showed up at the Pacific Airwave factory with a new design he was working on. It was a “bow wing” that had two fiberglass leading edges that were plugged into a nose socket at the front of the keel. The leading edges were bent into a bow shape and the sail was connected to their tips, resulting in a glider with a nearly flat, highly tensioned trailing edge. There was no crossbar. (I didn’t think to ask him if he’d ever heard of the ASG 23, a similar design by Tom Price back in the 1970s, but since nobody else outside Electra Flyer or Tom’s circle had never heard of it, my guess is that Bob came up with the idea on his own.) Preformed ribs were slid into the sail, the control bar (A-frame) was attached, and “Bob’s your uncle.”
It never flew really well, and Bob wasn’t really out to make a high-performing glider, but one that anybody could buy for peanuts and have a little fun with on a convenient hill or sand dune. Anyway, Jean-Michel [Bernasconi], Bob, a few other people, and myself had a blast doing sled rides off the ramp at Marina Beach.
Bob or Jean-Michel would take out the ribs and bend them this way and that, and off we’d go again for another round. For just that moment, I remembered what flying “standards” fifteen year ago used to be like… a lot of people taking sled rides down a hill and having the time of their lives.
— John LaTorre (6)
Bob England was killed in 1996 flying a paraglider at Torrey Pines. (1)
John LaTorre related topics menu
Miles Wings Gulp and Gryphon related topics menu
Roly Lewis-Evans, sail maker, related topics menu
Skyhook Sailwings: John LaTorre comments on the Flight Designs Demon, a licence-built version of the Hiway Demon, in comments/thoughts section
South downs in Hang gliding early 1980s part 1 for the Sigma
Bob England launching in a Birdman Moonraker 78 at Kössen, Austria, filmed in 1978 by John Hunt (video titled kossen on Haydn K’s YouTube channel starting at 3 minutes 13 seconds)
Bob England testing the prototype Gannet; filmed in 1979 by John Hunt (video titled kossen on Haydn K’s YouTube channel starting at 21 minutes 33 seconds)
Prototype Gannet photo by Roger Middleton. Info accompanying the photo (as of June 2020) states that it is the similar Southdown Sailwings Sigma. However, several experts agree that it is Bob England in the prototype Gannet.
1. Bob England by Andy Billingham, 2009, in British Hang Gliding History
2. Roland Lewis-Evans e-mail correspondence with the author, May 2019
3. Conversations with early hang glider pilot and noted paraglider pilot Jeremy Calderwood in the mid-late 2010s, and Whole Air No. 23, March-April 1982
4. Bob England left Bennett and rented independent space at the Pacific Windcraft factory: Product Lines by Dan Johnson in Whole Air No. 36, June 1984
5. Text accompanying this Streak photo page on the National Air & Space Museum web site
6. John LaTorre e-mail correspondence with the author in March 2021
7. Waspair Super Gryphon advert in Glider Rider, October 1980
8. Wings (BHGA magazine) No. 53, June 1979, pages 13 and 24 or 25
9. Bob placed second at the European open championships at Kössen: Wings (BHGA magazine) October 1978
10. The Gannet reached production before the Sigma: Wings January 1980