Home (contents) → Harnesses
This page consists of the following main sections, each corresponding to one of the basic types of hang glider harnesses:
Like the airframe and sail, harness design is critical to the functioning of the flying machine. That includes safety related aspects. For example, it should be difficult or impossible to get into a harness in such a way that you can fall out or get into a position where control of the glider is compromised. The history of hang glider harness design includes instances of serious injury resulting from designers not paying enough attention to such factors. Nowadays, such problems have been largely ironed out, but we are still working on a completely fail safe method of attaching the pilot to the harness and attaching the harness to the airframe.
Some images on this page are artistic derivations of contemporary photos. See Copyright of early hang gliding photos.
While John Dickenson of Australia is credited with being first with the combination of a triangular control frame and swing seat harness in 1965 (see Flex-wings in Earliest hang gliders) Octave Chanute’s 1897 patent of a hang glider based on Otto Lilienthal’s glider design shows a swing seat arrangement. That is possibly the first record of something like the upright or seat harness commonly used with standard Rogallo type hang gliders of the 1970s. See Lilienthal, Pilcher, and Chanute in Earliest hang gliders.
Completely flexible webbing parachute style upright harnesses were tried in the mid 1970s, but they inhibited circulation to the pilot’s legs. In 1974 British champion Brian Wood set a UK endurance record of more than eight hours using such a harness, but his legs were numb and he was unable to stand for a while after he landed. (See Hang gliding 1974 part 2.) A solid seat, usually made of thick plywood, was a great improvement when flying upright.
See also the Waspair of Surrey, England, related topics menu.
The Skyhook (UK) harness incorporated a solid flat wooden seat that was not only reasonably comfortable in flight, it also afforded some protection to the base of the pilot’s spine in the event of a heavy landing.
Later versions of the Skyhook seat harness were padded for increased comfort.
In July 1977, the first flight of more than 100 miles in a hang glider took place when Jerry Katz covered 103 miles in the Owens valley, California, for an official world record. (See Hang gliding 1977.) By 1977 most competition pilots and those attempting records flew prone, but Katz flew in a Bennett seat harness. (Ref)
Incidentally, the dark objects on the left of the base tube (control bar) are ‘bar mitts.’ An advantage they have compared to gloves is that, in flight, the pilot can pull a hand out to operate the switches on the variometer or even change its batteries without having to deal with a loose glove.
The earliest photographic evidence of a prone harness known to this author is the accompanying photo of Dick Eipper in about 1971. In the photo I assume the harness riser is hidden behind the down tube.
The most obvious advantage of flying prone is a large reduction in the pilot’s frontal area and his or her consequent form drag.
A perhaps less obvious advantage of flying prone is that it imparts a dramatic increase in pitch control. Because your angle of bank in a coordinated turn is limited by the positive (nose-up) pitch rate you can achieve, and the seated flying position confers only a small pitch range, we could only fly shallow turns when flying seated without the turn degenerating into an inefficient spiral descent. When flying upright, the difference in base tube position between flying with the tube against your chest to full arm extension is only about 20 inches (50 cm). In contrast, when flying prone, the difference in base tube position between flying with the ‘bar to the knees’ and pushed right out is about 48 inches (120 cm).
This photo taken by Ed Cesar in Hawaii shows a seated pilot flying in a steep bank, but in this author’s opinion it could only be achieved by diving and using up the excess airspeed to turn the glider temporarily at a higher angle of bank than it is possible to sustain.
The prone flying position affords a greater arm reach and enables the pilot to ‘push out’ more and thereby coordinate a steeper banked and tighter turn.
This photo by Chris Price of Bob Wills flying the prototype Swallowtail at Point Fermin illustrates a coordinated constant steep bank turn only possible with the arm reach provided by the prone flying position. That combined advantage – reduced pilot drag and greater ‘push out’ to coordinate a steeper turn — greatly improved our ability to soar.
Incidentally, that extra pitch range – moving the base tube fore and aft through a greater angle than is possible when flying seated – allows a steeper dive. That posed its own danger in those early days. See Luff in the time of cholera for more about the luffing dive.
The design of the prone harness was beset by problems even greater than those of the upright or seat harness. Clearly, you cannot normally take off and land in the prone position. Exceptions include a high wind a prone launch, possible with assistance, and some modern training hang gliders are built to land on wheels attached to the base tube. Therefore the prone harness must allow the pilot to be upright during take-off and landing.
There were two basic types of early prone harness: Knee hanger and stirrup. Later developments were the cocoon and pod type harnesses.
The knee hanger harness enables the pilot to run more or less freely when launching in a light wind, until the wing starts lifting and hauls up on the harness risers. That causes the pilot to begin rotating head-first into the prone position; his knees being pulled up behind him or her. That might seem like a recipe for tripping and falling, but the effect was proportionate in that, with the wing lifting only slightly, the pilot’s legs are pulled up only slightly and he can continue to run and accelerate the wing to full flying speed. It happens quickly and, in this author’s experience, while it feels rather peculiar on the first few launches, it works well.
Another problem was the same as that which had arisen with the early parachute style upright webbing harnesses: Too tight an attachment of the knee hangers to the pilot’s legs cut off circulation. See Prone in Hang gliding 1975 part 2 for Johnny Carr’s account of his four-hour flight in Miles Handley’s knee hanger harness for the consequences of that oversight. Some knee hanger harnesses incorporated attachments above and below the knees, which presumably reduced that problem.
The other type of early prone harness was the stirrup type, which is still used by some pilots because of its simplicity and lightness. When the pilot is semi-upright with his weight taken by the leg loops, as when launching or landing, a metal stirrup connected to the harness apron dangles between his legs. To prevent it flailing about in a spirited launch run, often it is secured to one leg with a loop of elastic.
After launching, the pilot catches the stirrup with one foot and pushes it aft. That pulls the harness apron down his front (rearwards) causing the rear-most risers to become taut and the aft-part of the apron to pull up on his thighs. The leg loops go loose at that point.
The design of the harness that Roly is using here dates back to 1975. Chris Price of Sport Kites/Wills Wing developed it. It was manufactured initially by Simpson Safety Equipment of Torrance, California, and subsequently by Wills Wing as the Price prone harness. It was widely copied.
A variation on the basic stirrup harness was the addition of a plastic thigh support that, when the pilot ‘kicked’ into the prone position, slid down to just above the pilot’s knees, supporting the weight of the legs. Unlike the Simpson harness, where the upward force supporting the thighs is accompanied by a squeezing together of the legs, the plastic support cancels the squeezing.
The harness in the photo of Nick Regan was made by Hiway Hang Gliders of Sussex, England.
Here, the pilot has come out of prone ready to land. The harness has slid upwards until the leg loops go tight. Although Dean Tanji flew for Sport Kites/Wills Wing (and here he is flying a Sawallowtail) this harness was made by Ultralight Products of El Segundo, Los Angeles, California.
A problem with all these prone harness designs is that they compress the pilot’s spine. People vary in their sensitivity to that compression, but this author has a crushed vertebra and at the end of his longest ever flight, of 2.5 hours, he was in pain.
The earliest attempt at alleviating the problem of spinal compression known to this author was the ‘Rigid prone harness’ of 1975, which employed a rigid front made of metal tubes. It did not catch on, possibly because of its radical appearance.
The Ultimate Hi ‘Bar harness’ of 1979, which featured both knee hangers and a stirrup, appears to attempt to alleviate the problem by incorporating lengthwise metal bars into the apron. However, the pilot’s spine was still under compression from the knee hangers and shoulder straps.
Some manufacturers made harnesses with lateral spreader bars, which reduced squeezing of the joints, but did not help with the spine compression problem.
A derivation of the stirrup harness is the cocoon harness…
In the cocoon type harness the stirrup is deleted and the body of the harness extended to enclose the pilot’s feet. It is more streamlined and warmer than the stirrup harness. Because the harness is all fabric, the pilot can go into a crouch when diving for extra speed, thus moving his center of mass farther forward than is possible in inflexible pod type harnesses (see later) which is why cocoon harnesses are still used by aerobatic pilots.
The pod type harness encloses all but the main riser in the hump, tidying it and providing greater protection for the pilot from the cold. Additional complexities included zippered ‘bomb doors’ on its underside for the pilots’s legs to protrude for take-off and landing. The doors are operated by pulling on two chords; one for opening and one for closing, necessitating removing a hand from the control bar for a few seconds before starting your landing approach.
During the 1980s, several manufacturers developed pod harnesses that incorporated back plates of carbon fiber or metal tubes to relieve compression of the pilot’s spine. Those harnesses are more streamlined than earlier hump-back pods.
Flying prone is unnatural and this author, who has a crushed vertebra, finds it necessary to employ an extra riser to take the weight of his head and shoulders. It attaches via a pulley to a chord around the back of the helmet, allowing his head to turn easily. See Head support in Hang gliding equipment for more details.
Modern pod harnesses with internal longitudinal and lateral compression struts are more streamlined, more comfortable, stronger, and easier to use than earlier harnesses.
The seated flying position is considered more comfortable and safer in a crash than the prone harness. Broken legs are better than a broken neck. The supine flying position combines the safety of the seated position with something approaching the reduced drag afforded by the prone harness.
The Sky Sports supine harness of 1976, developed by parachute harness maker David Aguilar and hang glider designer Terry Sweeney, was manufactured for Sky Sports by Aguilar’s Odyssey Sky Industries. See also Flying squad, a brief history of the east coast manufacturer Sky Sports.
Modern high-performance hang gliders are so sensitive in pitch that not much fore-aft physical movement of the control bar is needed to achieve high rates of pitch rotation, so the limited amount of fore-aft arm movement afforded by the supine flying position is not the handicap that it was in the days of standard Rogallos with their greater resistance to rotating in the pitch axis. Nonetheless, it occurred to some designers to fly supine inside the control frame…
Steve Dyer of Seattle was the first known to this author to manufacture a supine harness designed for flying inside the control frame. That obviated the need for curved tubes enclosing the main risers (as in the Sunbird supine harness) so they did not contact the base tube, which here is below the pilot. Drawbacks include the need to step over the base tube when getting fully into the harness after launch and the need for rigid handles projecting aft of the control frame down-tubes.
Nowadays several paraglider harnesses of this type are available.
A variation on this theme is a harness that can be flown both prone and supine, the pilot being able to change position in flight. Long-time sail-maker and hang glider designer Bill Payne’s Morph harness is a modern example.
Harness in Hang gliding equipment
Harnesses in Hang Gliding History topic in the British Hangies Facebook group (linking to this page) which includes replies describing serious incidents resulting from inadequate harness design.
Jeyy Katz 100 mile flight and Bennett seat harness: See Frank Colver’s replies to this topic on Hanggliding.org