Hang gliding early 1980s part 1
This page follows Hang gliding 1978 and 1979 part 3.
Some images on this page are artistic derivations of contemporary photos. See Copyright of early hang gliding photos.
The Gannet was successor of the Gryphon. (See the related topics menu Miles Wings Gulp and Gryphon.) Together with the Sigma (see South downs later on this page) and the Aolus (see the Spectra Aolus page) the Gannett, also known as the Super Gryphon, was the last of the bowsprit-rigged high performance hang gliders.
See Bob England, hang glider designer, for more.
It was then [Summer 1980] that I became acquainted with a peculiar subculture that had sprung up in the factories there. At Electra Flyer [New Mexico] only a small minority of the workers were pilots. The rest treated their relationship with the company strictly as a job, and drove home each night to a life entirely divorced from flying. But in many of California’s hang glider factories, the majority of workers were also pilots, who worked at the factory to obtain the latest gliders at a discount. This tended to raise hob with factory production and delivery schedules, as most of the crew might disappear when the nearby flying site became soarable.
The only similar phenomenon I have ever seen, before or since, was the “hacker” culture that sprang up in the seventies and eighties, a lifestyle that encompassed work and entertainment, where people spent more of their off-hours in the computer lab than they did at home, and where working magic with computers was all they cared about. And it was largely for the same reason: they were creating an industry that had never existed before, and knew that the infancy of that industry was giving them an opportunity that might never come again.
— John LaTorre (12)
Behind the iron curtain making progress was even harder to achieve than in the west. Jerzy Lutkowski, Poland’s representative at the 1975 and 76 world championships at Kossen, Austria, designed and built his own gliders from 1973 to 1981. He emigrated to the USA in 1981, where he could not afford to fly, but he followed progress in hang glider development via the magazines. (14)
Stephan Nitsch lived in East Germany, where he created gyroplanes and hang gliders, among other inventions. The hang gliding world was just one group of people saddened to hear of his death from cancer in 2008.
See Ice man in Hang gliding 1978 and 1979 part 1 for a photo of hang gliding near Moscow.
Taiwan is not behind the iron curtain, but it is perhaps through one of those stylish bamboo curtains… Kris Hartinian was one of the early female pilots. She later married instructor Joe Greblo.
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.
Then, in 1980, La Mouette in France released an apparently unremarkable single surface wing; the Atlas.
During my one flight in the Atlas I had a wing loading of 1.6 in the 175 square foot glider and was easily able to outfly two top pilots from another manufacturer who were test-flying production gliders at a wing loading of 1.3. The glider outperformed their latest hot ship so much it was embarrassing.
— Chris Price writing in Hang Gliding, June 1980
Everyone I knew who could afford a new glider placed orders for Atlases and every other manufacturer raced to catch up with La Mouette’s carefully crafted wing. To this author’s understanding, the Atlas was not the first with alloy battens, the Bennett Phoenix 6B of 1976 designed by Dick Boone had them. An important difference was that the camber high point of the Atlas was farther forward than had been used before — or that was possible with the flexible plastic battens used in most contemporary flex-wing hang gliders. The resulting blend of pitch stability and efficiency was unmatched.
And there was a sense of sharing information among companies that had almost no counterpart in other industries. When somebody found a way to make a glider easier to set up or safer to fly, it wouldn’t be long before those features found their way to every glider on the market. One reason for this was that none of the companies were making enough money to warrant taking them to court for infringement of intellectual properties. But there was also the feeling among many of the designers that such inventions should be shared, because they improved the sport as a whole, and made hang gliding more accessible to greater numbers of people. It was also a way to change the public perception of hang gliding as a high-risk sport practiced by death-defying adventurers who should maybe be prevented from hurting themselves by legislation, the force of public opinion, or both.
Author’s note: The battens on the glider in the color photo were tensioned at the trailing edge with webbing tabs folded over and secured with Velcro. To speed up the rigging process on one occasion, I rigged one side and another pilot rigged the other. As soon as I launched, I had to fight a constant turn. (I headed straight for the dusty landing field.) Unlike most means of securing the battens, whether by elastic or by the newer ‘lever ends’, this method caused the compression of each batten — and, therefore, the chord-wise tension of the sail — to depend on how much force was applied when folding the webbing over the batten end before securing it with the Velcro. Each side of the wing span was under different tension.
However, the day of the single surface wing with exposed cross-tubes or bowsprit cables, as the case may be, at least among top performance hang gliders, was about to end.
Prominent South Downs pilot Nick Regan was editor of the British hang gliding magazine and then the British powered ultralight magazine. Here, he was pressed into service for the British team at a hang gliding competition in 1980 in the USA. He flew with a borrowed prone harness instead of his customary seat harness. In addition, by this time he was was more practiced at flying under power than ‘free flight.’ Those factors and a slight tail wind caused him to stall off the launch ramp, but he got away for a successful flight.
In the mid 1970s Nick flew a Hiway standard Rogallo of 240 square ft sail area, which was much larger than recommended for his weight. One windy day at Mere in Wiltshire he lent it to another pilot of similar weight (I do not recall who, if I ever knew) and — as luck would have it — the wind strength increased. Alarmed, Nick shouted “Go forward!” to the pilot. (The glider, flying as fast as it could with a seated pilot was not more than 50 feet above the ridge top.) Whether he was tipped by turbulence or whether he made a desperate decision, the pilot turned 180 degrees and shot out of sight behind us like a rocket ship. (His airspeed of I guess 25 mph added to the same wind speed caused him to cover ground at 50 mph.) He landed safely in the valley behind the ridge.
For a period in the early 1980s Nick was unable to drive and he happened to live roughly on my route to the south downs, so I often drove him there. He had no glider at the time, but he sometimes cadged a flight in a borrowed wing. I found that he was a capable mentor, encouraging me to fly in the always turbulent south-west wind at Mill Hill, near Shoreham (“You need the practice, Everard”) and I had some great flights in that crowded air despite my initial reluctance to launch.
For a color photo of Nick furling his home-made Seagull III, see Rogallo versus Quicksilver in colour in Hang gliding 1974 part 3 and for a page about him on British Hang Gliding History, see under External links later on this page.
Nick Regan died in June 2021 at the care home he had occupied for many years. (18)
A wonderful bird is the Pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week!
But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican.
— Dixon Lanier Merritt
Ian Grayland designed the Vulturelite Emu, which first appeared in 1979. By October, Grayland had left Vulturelite, which closed in January 1980 or shortly before then. (17)
Foremost among performance flex-wings in early 1980 in Britain was the Southdown Sailwings Sigma, built near Brighton on the Sussex coast of England. (Foremost, that is, along with the Waspair Gannet/Super Gryphon and the Chargus Cyclone, depending on whose opinion you obtain…) Ian Grayland designed the first Sigma prototype while at Hiway Hang Gliders in 1978. Bill Pain helped him make the sail over a weekend when he had just started apprenticing as a sail maker aged 17. (9)
The bowsprit configuration looked set to become the norm, at least for high performance hang gliders. However, in the USA a refinement of an older innovation had been developed, which was to reverse that trend. Together with the Gannet (see near the top of this page) and the Aolus (see the Spectra Aolus page) the Sigma was the last of the bowsprit-rigged high performance hang gliders.
See under External links for some quality photos of the Sigma and Emu.
Bill Pain continued with hang glider design after the Pelican. (Indeed, in 2010 he was in Australia flight testing another prototype.)
See the related topics menu Southdown Sailwings, Vulturelite, and Aerial Arts of Sussex, England.
Roy Haggard, who designed the 1974 Dragonfly and the 1979 Comet, and Ray Morgan developed the Arrow, a conventional glider with three-axis controls, but made out of hang glider materials and fittings. Ray Morgan worked for Sailplane aerodynamicist Dr. Paul MacCready at Aerovironment. He was previously at the Lockheed plant known as the Skunkworks. (8) See the related topics menu Ultralight Products of California and Utah.
In Britain, Len Gabriels created a canard version of this concept; the Orion. See under Hang gliding in Skyhook Sailwings.
The double-surface revolution came with the Comet in 1980, and all the new gliders started looking alike as wild innovation gave way to steady improvement.
— Mark Sawyer (2)
The Ultralight Products Comet of 1980, designed by Roy Haggard, was the first really successful double-surface flex-wing hang glider, where a battened undersurface (not visible from this aspect) encloses the crosstubes. Prior to the Comet, no flex-wing could compete with the popular Fledgling 2 rigid wing. Modern flexwing hang gliders fly better than the Comet, but they look similar.
The photo of Jeff Burnett was taken at the 1980 American Cup competition at Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Burnett was one of the members of the US team that won that year, all flying UP Comets. For more of Jeff Burnett, see Sirocco II in Flying squad, a short history of the east coast U.S. hang glider manufacturer Sky Sports.
If the Raven was the glider to buy for the first half of the year, the Comet wins honors for the last half of 1980.
— Dan Johnson (presumably for the benefit of those who buy a new glider every six months!) 11
An important feature of the Comet was the freedom of its keel tube to shift sideways along with the sail in response to differential aerodynamic force imposed by rolling the glider. (That is termed billow shift.) When you look up at the sail from underneath and manually shift the keel tube from side to side, many people perceive it as the cross-tubes shifting (or floating) relative to the keel tube, the top of the control frame, and the base of the king post. Therefore they regard it as a floating cross-tube. However, the cross-tubes and leading edges are fairly rigidly set on their geometry. It is the keel that shifts, together with the top of the control frame, the base of the king post, and — importantly — the hang point.
This combined the best of previous designs together with ‘floating cross tubes’ (actually the keel ‘floated’) and was really the culmination of much of the effort to improve hang gliders during this time.
— Andy Billingham (15)
Roy Haggard, Pete Brock, Mike Quinn, and Gene Blythe were principal contributors to this minor revolution. (3)
The Comet was the first glider in which the cross spar was restrained aft with a cable that allowed the sail force to position the cross spar vertically. That accomplished two things:
- It nested the cross spar neatly between the upper and lower surfaces to provide an uncompromised airfoil section.
- It greatly improved the pitch stability by allowing the entire root section airfoil to reflex at low angles of attack. (The center of the cross spar would move down nearly a foot and rest on the keel.)
Source: Reference 4
Pete Brock was an automotive designer before (and after) he ran Ultralight Products. He fitted his Volkswagen van with a big engine and welded aerodynamic roof bars, all integrated into the structure for adequate strength. In a documentary video by Jay Leno’s Garage (linked in the UP related topics menu) he says that the success of his team in competitions in the Owens Valley partly resulted from this vehicle, which could carry pilots, hang gliders, and their gear up the steep and rugged fire tracks without overheating.
See the related topics menu Ultralight Products of California and Utah. And see Rick Masters’ web site (linked farther on) for more about the Owens Valley among many other things.
Ironically, the first successful British double-surface flexwing hang glider, the Southdown Sailwaings Lightning, while possibly inspired by the UP Comet, was not a Comet clone, as the following photos illustrate.
Note the rearward raked king post and integral fin. The sail planform is also markedly different from that of the Comet. In addition, the Lightning had no stand-up keel pocket. When its designer Ian Grayland brought the prototype to Mill Hill, near Shoreham in Sussex, I was so astonished at its retrograde appearance (narrow nose angle, short span, broad chord and crosstubes instead of a bowsprit — although those crosstubes were hidden inside the double surface sail) I said, “What’s the idea behind this then?”
On a Sunday in December 1980, soaring conditions prevailed at the Devil’s Dyke, a north-facing ridge north of Brighton on the Sussex coast, and a race was held. Johnny Carr won it flying a Fledge 2 rigid wing, but the Lightning was close behind. Results:
- Manta Fledge 2 — rigid wing
- Southdown Sailwings Lightning — double-surface flex-wing
- Solar Wings Typhoon — double-surface flex-wing
- Another Lightning
- Hiway Demon — double-surface flex-wing
- Moyes Mega 2 — high performing single surface flex-wing
- Waspair Gryphon — high performing single surface flex-wing
Only the Ultralight Products Comet itself was missing from the race, but other flying days had proven it to be about equal to the Lightning, Typhoon, and Demon. (6)
The incoming wind was strong and quartering the rather gradual ridge face, creating a minimum of rather trashy and turbulent lift. Here, Haddon’s Comet displayed a clear-cut advantage. Its turn radius was tighter, and the Virginia pilot was able to scratch and pass the Fledge…
— James Hall (7)
Roly tells me that he still (in 2019) has this Lightning stored in his shed.
See the related topics menu Southdown Sailwings, Vulturelite, and Aerial Arts of Sussex, England.
Several pilots on the South Downs (Sussex) in 1980 used the speed of the earlier bowsprit-rigged Sigma in a dive to pull up and over in a loop. It scared the bejeezus out of me watching these stunts. Then, one day, Clive Betts, flying a Lightning at the Devil’s Dyke broke his Lightning in a failed loop attempt. Amazingly, he top landed without injury, although one leading edge was broken inboard of its junction with the cross-tube. The cause, he said (as I recall) was the different roll handling of the Lightning compared to the Sigma, which prevented him from turning the loop into a wang when he realized that he did not have adequate speed. (16)
Here is a quote from the anonymous Ann Landings column in Hang Gliding, June 1980. (It immediately precedes Lauran Emerson’s Birds Eye View in the mag.) I hope its author does not mind me reproducing it here:
How about them glider loopers,
Ain’t they a sight?
Looping them gliders
Mornin’ and night.
Loopin’ them high ones,
Loopin’ them low,
Goin’ in fast
And comin’ out slow.
Loopin’ in the blue sky,
Pink smoke trailin’,
Hopin’ them wing tubes
Won’t be failin.’
Wanna be a glider looper?
Ain’t nothin’ to it;
Just grab hold of your brain
And unscrew it.
Not a Comet clone, but said by some to have inspired the Comet, the ASG-23 was ahead of its time in its combination of technologies. See ASG-23 in Tom Price’s flying machines.
The Moyes Mega was one of the last single surface flex-wings (with exposed cross-tubes) to be competitive after the release of the Ultralight Products Comet. Former US Navy pilot George Worthington gained world record distance in Owens Valley in a Mega(13), although he was more famous for his world records in the Mitchell Wing rigid hang glider.
Nevertheless, by the following year, Moyes of Australia had developed their own ‘Comet clone.’ See also the Moyes Delta Gliders related topics menu.
The evolution of the flex-wing hang glider is not straight-forward. This single surface design, which I think is a Seedwings (California) Sensor of the late 1970s, pre-dates the discarding of draggy deflexor cables in favour of stronger and stiffer leading edge tubes. However, the Seedwings trade mark curved tip, configured with a tapered glass fiber extension of the leading edge bowed by sail tension, was ahead of its time. (Seedwings of California is a separate entity from Seedwings in Europe.)
Running a major hang gliding competition in the USA was a complex endeavor.
…the organizing committee began wading through the streams of township, state, insurance and health department regulations. Additional acreage was leased and prepared for the landing field and spectator areas… Hot air balloon rides, parachute jumps, ultralight demonstrations, sailplane displays and frisbee contests were ready when needed for slow times during the competition. E-Z Wider provided banners, signs, financial support and $500 first place prize money. The U.S. Army Reserve brought in a sound system, drinking water, support equipment, a med-evac helicopter and personnel.
— Lars Isaacson, Hang Gliding November 1980
Wills Wing did not, at first, jump on the double surface (enclosed cross-tubes) bandwagon. Instead, they refined the single surface hang glider, which resulted in the Harrier of 1980. It reputedly handled better than the Comet, but its glide at speed was not as good. Wills Wing manufactured 978 Harriers. See Wills Wing glider production history.
In November 1980 Wills Wing started development on an enclosed cross-tube design, which they did not release until more than a year later.
See the related topics menu Sport Kites/Wills Wing of California.
The Seagull Sierra was designed by Tom Peghiny. (See the Tom Peghiny related topics menu.) It was deflexorless and featured Mylar stiffeners inside the leading edge pockets. Battens were constructed from three parts: Aluminium, Lexan, and aluminium again, for maximum up-elevator effect in the event of ‘blow-down’, while maintaining fixed camber and reflex in normal flight. (10)
The original photos were by Don Whitmore.
The Sierra was Seagull’s last hang glider.
Within a very few days, the apparently well executed plan had shut down Seagull, sold off all remaining assets to Kitty Hawk Kites, and opened the factory to its new lessee, a trucking firm. A bunch of the respected Seagull names are left with salaries still due, and several dealers within the industry will have to close their accounts with the epitaph, “bad debt.”
— Dan Johnson (11)
It does not require much ability at ‘reading between the lines’ of Dan Johnson’s brief report to see that, to the fat men in suits, Seagull Aircraft was viewed as just another business in financial difficulty to be asset-stripped.
See the related topics menu Seagull Aircraft of Santa Monica, California.
Hiway of Tredegar, south Wales, was by this time the largest hang glider manufacturer in Europe. (Their move from Brighton in Sussex in the 1970s was funded by government grants.) After Hiway co-founder Steve Hunt started his own powered ultralight manufacturing business, co-founder John Ievers brought in Miles Handley, Bob England, Bill Pain, and Keith Cockroft to drive further developments. They came up with the the Alien, a flex-wing, and the Explorer, a collapsible rigid. Both of them failed to reach production and Hiway Hang Gliders ceased trading in March 1983, at least in the form of a company with large premises and consequent ‘overhead’ costs. (1)
Upon Hiway’s closure, La Mouette of France, led by Gerard Thevenot, immediately became Europe’s largest hang glider manufacturer.
See the related topics menu Hiway of Sussex, England, and Abergavenny, Wales.
In 1980, the Spectra Aircraft Corporation (of Concord, California) offered hang glider pilots a radical looking new wing: The Aolus. See Spectra Aolus for more.
This topic continues in Hang gliding early 1980s part 2.
Bill Pain flying a Vulturelite Emu photo by Don Liddard
Bill Pain flying a Vulturelite Emu; another photo by Don Liddard
Crosstubes Can’t Float by Bob Fisher, Wings, July 1980 (BHGA magazine) on British Hang Gliding History (Acrobat PDF document)
Nick Regan by Terry Aspinall on British Hang Gliding History
Rick Masters, guru of the Owens Valley, California. His web site documents a whole world of adventure and creativity.
Southdown Sailwings Sigma photo by Don Liddard
1. Stan Abbot article about Miles Handley in Wings magazine, December 1982 and report on Hiway’s demise in Wings, March 1983
2. Mark Sawyer, The History of Hang Gliding; a Personal View of a Collective Experience in Sky Adventures, Legends and stories About the Early Days of Hang Gliding and Paragliding edited by Jim (Sky Dog) Palmieri and Maggie Palmieri, 1998
3 & 4. Roy Haggard letter in Hang Gliding July 1993
5. No longer applicable
6. The Great Clone Race by Tony Fuell, Wings magazine, January 1981
7. James Hall, Comet Vs Fledge — a Shoot-Out, describing world champions Rex Miller and Tom Haddon flying a one-on-one race at Ellenville, in Glider Rider, November 1980
8. Ray Morgan: Roy Haggard via e-mail, March 2020
9. Southdown Sailwings topic on British Hangies Facebook group
10. Seagull Sierra: Dan Johnson, Whole Air magazine, July-August 1980
11. The need to change gliders every six months: Product Lines by Dan Johnson, Whole Air magazine, November-December 1980. I though Dan was exaggerating, but see Roger Middleton’s statement to the same effect in this topic on the British Hangies Facebook group.
12. My Life as a Hang Glider Maker by John LaTorre on his blog No truth to the rumor
13. Moyes Mega advert in Glider Rider, January 1981
14. Jerzy Lutkowski: Whole Air No. 42, June 1985
15. Bob England by Andy Billingham, 2009, in British Hang Gliding History
16. Clive Betts: Wings (BHGA magazine) March 1981
17. Ian Grayland and Vulturelite: Wings (BHGA magazine) October 1979 and January 1980
18. Nick Regan by Mark Woodhams, SkyWings, July 2021
[I copied this from the actual feedback, which, because I split the original page, ended up on the wrong page.]
Bill Pain says:
July 5, 2010 at 10:16 am
Hi Everard. Stumbled accross your web site. Thoroughly enjoyed. Could not help noticing the pic of me flying the Pelican. I have nothing from that era and would love a copy. It was a lovely glider to fly incidently.
I am still working on hang glider designs as well as flying sail planes. Living in Australia now. All the best Bill.
July 5, 2010 at 7:19 pm
The Pelican sure was a good-looking wing. Glad to hear that you are still designing the things.
I will send you a bigger copy of the photo (without my copyright mark on it).