Earliest hang gliders
This is a sub-page of Hang gliding before 1973. 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 in the preceding century. Moreover, Chinese kite technology was ahead of western aerodynamic knowledge centuries before that.
Thanks to hang glider historian and pioneering designer and pilot Tony Prentice for much of the content of this page.
The word invention is too liberally used especially in the field of aviation. Nature got there long before man even existed and many man made “inventions” can be seen in the fossil records of flying pterosaurs and current day birds, bats and insects. The principle of the sailwing was developed to propel boats thousands of years ago, probably more by trial and error than by invention. Kites were also developed in China hundreds of years ago using the same principle.
Sir George Cayley in the first half of the 19th century created a manned glider that flew and he laid down the fundamentals of flight.
Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal designed, built, and flew a series of gliders in Germany during the last years of the 19th century.
Percy Pilcher (Britain) flew at about the same time as Lilienthal and designer Octave Chanute (U.S.A.) worked with volunteer test pilots in carrying on Otto’s work.
See under External links later on this page for Tony’s YouTube channel, which includes digitized film of his Lillienthal type hang glider.
Lilienthal’s book Bird Flight as the basis of Aviation shows the typical cruciform kite with a crossbar that holds open the wing. The crossbar interferes with the sail, preventing the aerofoil from forming properly. Lilienthal was aware of this and illustrated a kite without the crossbar, which then permitted the aerofoil to form properly and improve its efficiency. It formed the same double conical shape that NASA engineer Francis Rogallo suggested shortly after World War 2, half a century later.
When Orville and Wilbur Wright added engines and propellers to their 1902 glider the following year (the 1903 Wright Flyer being more practical than Hiram Maxim’s giant steam-powered airplane a few years before) they effectively killed hang gliding for the next half century and more. Two world wars and, immediately following the first of those, a virus pandemic that killed more people than were killed in both wars combined, together with the subsequent great economic depression doubtless contributed to humankind’s ingenuity being diverted away from hang gliding.
Ironically, the world’s longest established hang gliding school operates from this site. See the Kitty Hawk Kites page of this history.
A few individuals kept alive the dream of running into the air and flying. One was Frenchman Jan Lavezzari, who flew a double lateen sail hang glider from the sand dunes at Berck-sur-Mer in 1904. Another was Volmer Jensen of Glendale, California, who designed, built, and flew hang gliders before World War 2.
Volmer Jensen, of Volmer Aircraft, built and flew his first hang glider in 1925, long before most of today’s birdmen were hatched.
— Paul Wahl writing in Popular Science, June 1972
NASA engineer Francis Rogallo was interested in developing the simplest possible aircraft and a fully flexible wing that could be put in the boot (trunk) of car was his aim. His 1948 patent showed just that with a membrane wing with cords and no solid structure. The idea was then put to NASA that such a wing could be used by space vehicles during re-entry instead of parachutes. The wing could then be steered to a landing area rather than wherever it might land out — usually at sea. The time scale to develop it exceeded that of the need for the space launches so it was dropped. All the development that had gone into these flexible wings was then published, including the rigid framed versions, photos of which went around the world and were seen by many would-be fliers.
That might be why it is called a Rogallo wing rather than a Lavezzari, Lee & Darrah, Dickenson, Palmer, Wanner, or Bach wing (for example).
John Dickenson in Australia saw the NASA photos and he identified the Ryan powered aircraft in his letter to Rogallo as the one he saw before building his own towed ski kite. It has the rigid frame and weight shift control used in the Ryan research aircraft wing and used the trapeze bar from existing “flat” tow ski kites of the day. The result was a bi-conical sail with rigid leading edges, a triangular control frame, and the pilot in a swing-seat harness. (See Rogallo wing definitions and diagrams.)
Meanwhile, in a retrograde step, the early hang glider experimenters in California such as Barry Palmer used the parallel bars type hang cage, which afforded much inferior control. Nonetheless, Palmer’s next glider was fitted with a ‘ski lift type of seat’ attached to the keel with a home-made universal joint. ‘A single stick projected down from the wing and carried the structural support.’ (*) That T bar structure was the equivalent of a triangular control frame for weight shift control.
This photo shows the ‘standard Rogallo’ flex-wing hang glider with a triangular control frame and the pilot in a harness that allows full weight-shift control. Modern flex-wings are refinements of this concept.
The wing in the photo was the first that Tony Prentice made with metal tubes. His previous hang gliders were all made from bamboo, the first being around 1960. Although he is reluctant to make any such claim, that makes Tony possibly the first to design and build a working human-carrying Rogallo wing. See under External links later on this page for Tony’s YouTube channel, which includes digitized film this wing in flight.
Author’s note: The term Rogallo wing is used on these pages in its retrospective sense, meaning a bi-conical wing (or bi-cylindrical or semi-cylindrical) that keeps its aerodynamic shape as a result of the airflow around it. Therefore, using that definition, the 1910 patent — two years before F.M. Rogallo was born — is a Rogallo. Tony Prentice built his first such craft in 1960 with no knowledge of Rogallo’s work.
This topic continues in Hang gliding before 1973.
A History of Hang Gliding: How the sport started and spread across the world by Mark Woodhams (Amazon search)
Big Blue Sky – The history of modern hang gliding – the first extreme sport! — 2008 video by Bill Liscomb on YouTube starting at 3 minutes 3 seconds
British Hang Gliding History by Terry Aspinall
Correcting History, Who Invented The Modern Hang Glider—free e-book by Graeme Henderson and Terry Aspinall
Hang gliding Wikipedia entry
Hanggliding/Zeilvliegen part 1: Reinhold Platz with Bart Doets, video on YouTube (narration is Dutch)
History of hang gliding Wikipedia entry
Lilienthal and Wright gliders flying together for the first time in history! on Kitty Hawk Kites YouTube channel
Lilienthal-Gleiter: Fliegen wie vor 125 Jahren | Gut zu wissen | BR video on YouTube
Otto Lillienthal biplane replica 2019 (video)
Otto Lilienthal’s First Film video on YouTube
The Jacaranda Festival 1963 and the Fight of the first Modern Hang Glider by Graeme Henderson and Terry Aspinall
Tony Prentice YouTube channel including digitized film of his 1960s and 1970s hang gliders
The American Experience chapter by Dan Poynter in Hang Gliding by Martin Hunt and David Hunn, 1977