Hang gliding before 1973
…there is less margin for error in hang gliding than in almost anything else a person might attempt in life.
— Instructor Ken de Russy interviewed by Carol Price in Hang Gliding magazine, November 1980
While this history of hang gliding concentrates on the rediscovery of the hang glider in the second half of the 20th century, its foundations were laid by pioneers in Britain, Germany, the U.S.A., and other locations during the preceding century. Those foundations are described briefly in Earliest hang gliders.
Most of the images on this page are my artistic derivations of contemporary photos. See Copyright of early hang gliding photos for how and why I obtained them.
I now possessed the world’s cheapest aircraft — the materials cost under 11 dollars.
— Barry Palmer quoted in the British hang gliding magazine SkyWings, May 2011
There is film of Palmer flying an earlier version of this glider in December 1961 in Bill Liscomb’s 2008 documentary Big Blue Sky (see under External links later on this page). He also experimented with engines attached; see Early powered ultralights, which includes a photo of the powered Rogallo that, ironically, inspired the design of his first unpowered hang glider.
I contacted Paul Bikle, Director of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, sending him a film clip and stills of the craft in flight.
— Barry Palmer, SkyWings, May 2011
Paul Bikle was also a sailplane (glider) pilot who held two world height records, one of which still stands as of 2011. One of the projects under his control was a powered Rogallo wing. (See Paresev in Space flight and hang gliding.) Bikle’s position in that pre-internet world enabled him to act as a hub for Barry Palmer, Richard Miller, Francis Rogallo and others to contact each other, thereby facilitating the birth of modern hang gliding.
These kite-shaped wings are known as Rogallos, after Francis ‘F.M.’ Rogallo, the NASA engineer most closely associated with development efforts by the the space agency in putting the bi-conical flex-wing to use. Barry Palmer, Dave Cronk, Roy Haggard, Taras Kiceniuk Jr, the Wills brothers, along with other early adopters of the Rogallo wing hang glider, used the parallel bar hang frame initially. In contrast, Australian John Dickenson built a Rogallo wing and, instead of the parallel bars, he used a swing seat and a cable-braced control frame.
I was running a parachute loft at the Oakland Airport when in walked Miller in early 1964 searching for materials for his ‘Bamboo Butterfly.’ This particularly literate sky dreamer knew where he was going, but I am not sure he knew how he was going to get there.
— Dan Poynter in Hang Gliding by Martin Hunt and David Hunn, 1977
In March 1967 Emil Riesel of Saratoga, California, began a newsletter, Low and Slow and Out of Control. Mentioned in the first issue is Richard Miller flying his ‘Bamboo Butterfly’ Rogallo from the dunes at Dockweiler State Park on January 16, 1966. (1) In January 2004, aged 79, Richard Miller was found dead of pneumonia in his camper van in a supermarket car park.
Most of the photos on this and successive pages about early hang gliding are from Ground Skimmer, successor to Low and Slow (by which time they had gained control and shortened the title accordingly). Ground Skimmer was published by the Southern California Hang Glider Association (SCHGA) which grew from the 25-member Peninsula Hang Gliding Club, founded by Dick Eipper in December 1971(6) and it eventually became the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
On May 23rd, 1971, on a hillside that was part of the Pacific View Memorial Park Cemetery in Newport Beach, a coastal city in Orange County, California, the first organized hang gliding event took place. (The organizers kept a low profile in that troubled time…) For more about this landmark event, see On this hill, May 23, 1971. It includes participants’ recollections and photos as well as links to digitized film.
Jack Lambie sold plans for his Hang Loose in 1971 and he could barely keep up with demand after photos of it appeared in magazines across the USA, and then around the world.
Bill Liscomb became one of the top hang glider pilots of the 1970s. In later life he created the 2008 documentary Big Blue Sky — The history of modern hang gliding – the first extreme sport! I include links to applicable points in his video upload of that documentary on YouTube in the External links sections of these early hang gliding pages.
A bowsprit and cables to hold the wings spread is clearly a lighter structure than cross-tubes on a very wide nose angle flex-wing.
Bamboo and polythene might be adequate for ‘low and slow’ flight, the mantra for which was “Don’t fly higher than you are prepared to fall.” However, heights attained by Rogallos launched behind power-boats with the aid of tow lines and water skis demanded stronger materials. Australian Bill Bennett’s Delta Wing Kites and Gliders, of Van Nuys, California, and Dick Eipper’s excruciatingly named company Eipper-Formance, of Lomita, California, were among the first manufacturers of quality hang gliders.
Even though equipped with wings made of strong materials, the northern California fliers, notably Donnita Holland and brothers Dave and Rich Kilbourne, took obvious risks soaring in strong winds high above inland ridges starting in 1971.
In contrast, the activities of the southern California fliers, centered on the beaches in the Los Angeles area, looked benign. Regardless, tragedy was bound to strike sooner or later.
In the late summer of 1972, Ed Gardia became one of the first fatalities of modern hang gliding, while flying at Slide Mountain near Lake Tahoe. His glider clipped tree-tops, causing it to stop flying and dive to the ground.(4) There had been two fatalities in auto-tow launches of Rogallos prior to that, but Gardia was the first ‘free flight’ fatality. (*) During the years that followed, the development of this new way of flying caused the loss of some of the most courageous and innovative individuals of their generation. Many of them were still in their twenties when they died (Gardia was 22) and some were younger than that.
Chris Price was an old school friend of the Wills brothers, who played a large part in early hang glider development.
Dick Boone went on to become the hang glider designer most sought-after by manufacturers in the USA.
There was a energy level within the HG community, you witnessed it at the monthly meetings of the SCHGA at the Gas Co. Building on Flower downtown L.A. In that one location we could all come together & be the members of a real man flight organism of humans. Volmer would show up wearing his ‘uniform’ always shades of Powder Blue.
— Neil Larson (8)
Modern hang gliding has its roots in the 1960s American space program and the efforts of pioneers such as Barry Palmer, John Dickenson, Richard Miller, and Jack Lambie. However, even before World War 2 (1941) Volmer Jensen of Glendale, California, designed, built, and flew hang gliders.
Self-taught aerodynamicist Irv Culver, who designed the thick airfoil section of the VJ-23, had worked with Albert Einstein. (5) For more of Jensen and Culver’s work, see the VJ day — Volmer Jensen’s hang gliders (related topics menu).
This image, cropped from of a group photo taken at a pilots’ briefing in 1973, is the only photo of George Uveges that I know of.
While working for General Motors in Detroit, Californian Bob Lovejoy was encouraged by a former World War 2 Luftwaffe pilot who shared his ambition to build an inexpensive and lightweight glider. In contrast, after Lovejoy moved back to California and consulted senior engineers at his workplace about the possibility of building such a craft, they informed him that, if it was possible, it would already have been done.
Then he saw a photo of an early hang glider in the Los Angeles Times and, in 1971, he set about designing, building, and flying his own advanced hang gliders, culminating in the Quicksilver. He eventually teamed up with Dave Cronk and the Eipper-Formance factory and they brought it to production standard. (2)
Bob could run ideas through his work at Mattel Toys, make a couple phone calls & do a consult with a half dozen aircraft machine tool & die shops & then spend an afternoon on the beach with any number of Tie Dyed Beautiful People.
— Neil Larson (8)
The Quicksilver was made out of the same materials used in production Rogallo wings; sailcloth, aluminium alloy tube, and steel cable. It used a rudder connected to the pilot’s seat harness to initiate turns. That placed the glider into a skid and the high dihedral then caused the craft to bank.
Was this the future of hang gliding? For more about its development, see Dave Cronk, Bob Lovejoy, and the Quicksilver in Cronk works.
Coincidentally, Bob Lovejoy and Joe Faust, who organized several early 1970s hang glider meets, had competed against each other in high jump. Lovejoy was also an aviation illustrator and some of his work adorned a beach cafe (Orville & Wilbur’s Steak House) where they held a couple of early organizational meetings(3, 8). Bob Lovejoy was killed flight testing a powered ultralight of his own design in 1982. (7)
Bob resurfaced in about 1980 and had a small ultralight aircraft under development. During a test flight there was a hardware failure which led to a control problem. Not much is known except it cut his life tragically short.
— Dave Cronk, e-mail correspondence with the author, June 2020
This topic continues in Hang gliding 1973 part 1.
Eipper-Formance of Torrance, California related topics menu
Barry Palmer’s early 1960s Rogallo: Hang Gliding, 1960’s style video on YouTube
Doug Carmichael Recalls May 23 1971 on the US Hawks Hang Gliding Association web site: Jib-sailed Rogallo that Richard Miller gave to Carmichael
Early Hang Gliding digitized film by John Elwell on YouTube
F-0838 Free Flight Systems Hang Gliding, 1972, a series of adverts by what was almost certainly the largest hang glider manufacturer in the world at the time, in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives YouTube channel
F-0841 Hang Gliding: The New Freedom, 1972, by Ronald B. Underwood, in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives YouTube channel
F-0057 Soaring – Frank Allen filmed at Imperial Beach, California, by Channel 10 KOGO NEWS, in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives YouTube channel. This pre-dates the similar Hang Loose by ten years.
Hang gliding pioneers video on YouTube with Francis Rogallo, John Dickenson, and Bill Moyes in conversation in 1988
Hang Loose Hang Glider Home Movie on YouTube of a young pilot (passenger is more accurate) being towed up into a stiff breeze in a biplane rigid hang glider
HG Retrospect : 40 Years After Day One by Neil Larson on the US Hawks forum
Ken de Russy YouTube channel of the instructor who runs a hang gliding museum
Kitemen, 1972, by Cypress Gardens on the Moyes YouTube channel
Orville & Wilbur’s Restaurant, Manhattan Beach (now closed) on Facebook
Quicksilver: 70s and 80’s Hang Gliding digitized film by Majic Man on YouTube starting at 9 minutes 11 seconds
Big Blue Sky video external links
These are links to Big Blue Sky — The history of modern hang gliding – the first extreme sport!, 2008, documentary by Bill Liscomb on YouTube:
Early Soaring Flights, David Kilbourne starting at 19 minutes 33 seconds
First to Fly, Barry Palmer starting at 5 minutes 11 seconds
Innovative Designs, Taras Kiceniuk starting at 21 minutes 15 seconds
Mystical Visionary, Richard Miller starting at 6 minutes 29 seconds
Volmer Jensen flying the VJ-23: Big Blue Sky starting at 35 minutes 17 seconds
Playground in the Sky video external links
These are links to Playground in the Sky, 1977, by Carl Boenish on YouTube (low resolution):
Dave Cronk flying his Cronkite, followed by Volmer Jensen in the VJ-23, then Taras in the Icarus 2 and Icarus 5…: Playground in the Sky starting at 25 minutes 19 seconds
Francis Rogallo learns to fly the invention that bears his name: Playground in the Sky starting at 40 minutes 29 seconds
1. Vic Powell in Hang Gliding, September 1991
2. Evolution of the Quicksilver by Bob Lovejoy, Ground Skimmer July-September 1974
3. Text accompanying a print of a photo of Lovejoy flying the Hightailer; a predecessor of the Quicksilver
4. Ed Gardia discussion on US Hawks forum
5. Skunk Works’ Irven Culver Dies by Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1999
6. Peninsula Hang Glider Club and SCHGA: Dan Poynter writing in Hang Gliding by Martin Hunt and David Hunn, Pelham Books, London, 1977
7. Bob Lovejoy fatality: Product Lines by Dan Johnson in Whole Air No. 27 November-December 1982
8. Neil Larson: See under External links earlier on this page.
Nowadays we use winches, vehicles, and powered ultralights to launch hang gliders, but in those days the SCHGA considered auto-towing too unsafe and discouraged it.