Earliest hang gliders
While this history 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.
…any crediting of individuals for innovations will win you more arguments than a politically inspired beauty contest with religious overtones.
— Don Dedera (3)
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.
With Chris [Dawes] on the lengthened nose tether as my only safety back up, I ran hard. The glider responded, climbing 50 ft. I maintained my airspeed, remembering the nose-diving tendency of the model. A couple of seconds later, the glider drifted sideways, heading for the ground. A blur shot across my field of vision as Chris sprinted in the opposite direction. As I flared he yanked the nose round into wind, turning the impact into a gentle ‘arrival’.
— Judy Leden (4)
In 2002, British instructor and world record holder Judy Leden flew a Leonardo hang glider built by Steve Roberts and Martin Kimm of Sky Sport Engineering. (Not to be confused with early American hang glider manufacturer Sky Sports.) Built entirely from materials available 500 years ago (even the control bar landing wheels were made of wood) its only major flaw was that it was un-steerable. Concessions to Judy’s safety — in addition to the ‘tram line’ training system at Sussex Hang Gliding and Paragliding (see also Training aids) — was a modern crash helmet, karabiner, and hang strap. (4)
A scale model was found to be unstable in pitch, so the full size glider’s stability was checked on the BHPA test rig before flight testing proper began. (See also Testing for stability and structural strength.) Da Vinci’s genius was borne out in that the full size glider was found to be pitch stable in normal flight regimes.
If only Da Vinci had developed this idea further, maybe we would have colonized Mars by now.
For another of Judy’s adventures, see Hang gliding 1994 and 1995.
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.
Chanute’s 1897 patent of a hang glider based on Lilienthal’s glider design shows a swing seat arrangement, which is possibly the first record of something like the upright or seat harness commonly used with standard Rogallo type hang gliders of the 1970s. (Leonardo da Vinci’s glider design drawings of 500 years previously do not appear to specify how the pilot is attached.) A swing seat type harness provides greater weight shift control than the then common method of gripping parallel bars under the armpits and swinging your legs for weight shift control. See Harnesses. (5)
In England in 1912, boy scouts built a Chanute type glider and flew it at a local fête. (1)
See under External links later on this page for Tony’s YouTube channel, which includes digitized film of his Lillienthal type hang glider. Also see under External links for more recent flying replicas of Lilienthal’s gliders.
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
On December 17, 1954, I made a thermal flight of more than one hour with the ‘Alita.’ I released at 500 meters AGL [1640 feet] and climbed up to 1200 meters AGL [3937 feet].
— Rogelio Bertolini writing in Vuelo Silencioso, the Argentina soaring magazine, March 1954
In Germany during World War 2, the Horten brothers developed this ‘flying wing’ tail-less glider: See Horten H III F under External links later on this page for this restoration. After designing a tail-less jet bomber with enough range to reach the USA, Reimar Horten fled to Argentina and developed a further series of tailless gliders, at least the first of which, the Alita, was in principle a hang glider.
The pilot of the Alita lay prone in the cockpit. Control was by elevons, with the pilot using a control stick. Later flight tests were launched by aero-tow.
These photos are from the Aviation Archives in Stuttgart, Germany, by whose permission they were used in Whole Air, June 1984.
For notable derivatives of Horten’s work, see Mitchell Wing, about the B-10 Buzzard world record setting rigid hang glider of the late 1970s and other descendants of the Amerikabomber.
See also Horten brothers under External links later on this page.
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.)
…the “modern hang glider” would be defined as the one that put hang gliding out of the hobbyist category and turned it into not only a sport but an industry with manufacturers, dealers, schools, and a worldwide network of associations and clubs. And that would be the one that Dickenson put together, with its combination of the Rogallo/NASA bi-conical airfoil with a hang point that allowed the greatest possible weight shift control. It was easy to build, possible to fly, and not very expensive. That gave its devotees the ability to achieve a critical mass of supporters that would eventually spawn an industry.
— John LaTorre, e-mail correspondence with author in March 2021. See also the John LaTorre related topics menu.
From a 1963 towed ski kite partly made of wood, in 1965 John Dickenson created a glider indistinguishable from standard Rogallos manufactured ten years later.
The leading edges, keel and cross boom were aluminium tube and their juncture was moved to the centre of pressure. The wing was made of modern sailcloth, a swing seat for the pilot hung from the top of the A-frame and the whole structure was rigged with stainless steel wire.
— Mark Woodhams and Jason Board, Flying the world’s first hang glider, in SkyWings, May 2009
See also Harnesses.
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.’ (2) 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.
For Tony’s powered ultralight flying in the 1980s, see Early powered ultralights part 2.
This topic continues in Hang gliding before 1973.
Chanute’s test pilots flew dunes on the eastern shore of lake Michigan, where hang gliders still fly. A major competition was held there in the early days of the resurgence of hang gliding. See Elberta Dune, Michigan, July 1974.
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: Video on YouTube about Reinhold Platz. Narration by prominent European hang glider pilot Bart Doets is Dutch.
History of hang gliding Wikipedia entry
Horten brothers Wikipedia entry
Horten brothers: Alita photos and text (Spanish) on AVEX Asociacion Argentina de Aviacion Experimental Facebook page
Horten H III F tail-less glider in World War 2, in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
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 Dream of Flight by Tony Prentice on The Great Race web site
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
2. The American Experience chapter by Dan Poynter in Hang Gliding by Martin Hunt and David Hunn, 1977
3. Don Dedera, Hang Gliding, the Flyingest Flying, by Don Dedera and Stephen McCarroll, 1975
4. Test flight — 500 years on by Judy Leden, SkyWings, April 2003
5. Chanute swing seat harness: Tony Prentice e-mail communication with the author in November 2021