Marty Alameda and Flight Designs
Time is more complex near the sea than in any other place, for in addition to the circling of the sun and the turning of the seasons, the waves beat out the passage of time on the rocks and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra.
— John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat, 1935. (Clepsydra? An ancient device for measuring time by the flow of water.)
After working with Seagull Aircraft of Santa Monica, California, former ski instructor, pilot, and bull-rider Marty Alameda together with his brother Dan started a hang glider business in his home town of Salinas, a farming community near Monterey Bay.(1) Initially called Pacific Wind Sports (a name that was to resurface with modified wording) it became the Mariah company, then — possibly to avoid confusion when the Bennett Phoenix Mariah was released in 1978 — in December 1978 it became Flight Designs.(13, 14) Flight Designs made harnesses designed by Ron Hess and it distributed airspeed indicators, variometers, and emergency parachutes.(2)
The Clepsydra at right (I am sure it was more modern than that!) might seem superfluous, but a pilot competing in the annual Marina Beach races (see farther on) might need to see how he is doing at a glance.
Note: This page is about Flight Designs of California, which as far as I know has no connection with the later manufacturer of modern rigid hang gliders, Flight Design in Germany.
From sunny Salinas to wet Wales…
Author’s reminiscence: I flew at Merthyr frequently earlier that same year, but I doubt that I was there that day. My younger brother Ed and I were at that time both studying at the Polytechnic of Wales, down the valley a ways.
The Flight Designs variometer of 1979 was identical to the Likek Hummingbird except in its colors and emblem on the dial face, being manufactured by Litek and all repairs being undertaken by Litek of Campbell, California. (12)
On a light wind day at Fort Funston near San Francisco the previous year (1978) New Zealander Graeme Bird soared his newest design, the Lancer IV. He performed 360s and wangs while all other gliders that launched — except one — sank to the beach. The exception was a large Ultralight Products Dragonfly that was more or less ‘parked’ 50 feet above the cliff top. (3)
Flight Designs imported Lancer IV sails from New Zealand and put them on HGMA certified airframes they made in the USA. In mid 1979, Graeme Bird joined Flight Designs as its sail-loft foreman and chief designer. In early 1980, Bird and Alameda’s dealer representative, an energetic French engineering graduate named Jean-Michel Bernasconi, developed the Super Lancer. (2)
The U.S. Lancer (optimized for rigging standing up on its control frame, American style, and built entirely in the U.S.A.) or Super Lancer, was offered in several sizes, with the largest size finding favor among dual pilots. It arguably represented the epitome of flex-wing hang glider all-round performance and handling before two revolutions made the Lancer and all similar designs obsolete:
- The first revolution was the late 1970s deletion of complex and draggy leading edge deflexor systems together with the adoption of aluminium sail battens with a more forward camber than had been used to date. The latter defined the airfoil section more solidly than did flexible battens. The glider that first embodied those changes successfully was the La Mouette Atlas, made in France.
- The second revolution, which transpired in 1980, was the first really successful double surface flex-wing, the Ultralight Products Comet.
In the fall of 1980, Graeme Bird went home to New Zealand to resume his own manufacturing business. John LaTorre, who managed Larry Newman’s Electra Flyer sail loft in New Mexico, started as foreman at Flight Designs. (1)
When I gave Larry my notice, he said dismissively, “I’ll bet you’re going to work for Bill Bennett or the Wills people.” No, I replied, I was going to work for Marty Alameda. Larry regarded me for a moment, nodded, and said, “Good choice.”
— John LaTorre (1)
In January 1981, Flight Designs purchased U.S. manufacturing rights of the Hiway Demon, a British high-performance wing designed by Bob England. (Like the UP Comet, it was a double surface wing.) To pass HGMA standards, the Demon was redesigned by Bernasconi and Hiway’s sailmaker, Bill Pain.(4) John LaTorre comments on its resulting additional weight in Skyhook Sailwings (in the comments/thoughts section).
The FD Demon uses a spanwise sail cut like the Comet, and employs a unique method of batten pocket construction. Only a single seam is used to sew it on, making the batten pockets droop below the wing like a series of tiny keel pockets. Company Prez’ Marty Alemeda says this helps control spanwise flow, and happens to be a dandy, easy way to sew the batten pocket to just the lower surface of the wing.
— Dan Johnson (16)
Successful Hang glider manufacture is (judging by this history) almost always a team effort. Bill Pain had worked with Bob England for a while at Hiway in Abergavenny, south Wales…
With regard to the Demon, Bob was not a sail maker and ran into difficulty developing the Demon. I was invited to come and sort it out as Hiway was desperate. My input was a complete re-design of the sail, totally new lay up. I increased the size to 175 from 165. Basically every seam and curve was changed. The only thing kept was the airframe and tip shape and double surface amount. I then went forward and developed the 195 and 155 – Bob had left for the USA. I was a cocky 20 year old and Bob was most gracious in retrospect.
— Bill Pain (17)
About the differences between the Hiway Demon and the Flight Designs Demon…
These two gliders both offer some very fine flying characteristics, but are really quite different.
— Flight Designs communique in Glider Rider May 1982
…as well as the flying there was plenty of partying going on, and one of our favorite watering holes was a converted church renamed the East of Eden, quite clever, with John Steinbeck being one of Salinas’s favorite sons. There was always a slight hint of guilt tearing it up in that church, being hang glider pilots and all.
— Graeme Bird (8)
American Marty Alameda, Frenchman Jean-Michel Bernasconi, New Zealander Graeme Bird, American of Italian descent John LaTorre, and British sail-maker Roly Lewis-Evans were among the hang glider pilots who spent non-flying time at East of Eden.(8, 9) See under External link later on this page for a photo of the place taken in 1979.
A half century after the setting of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and 13 years before the MGM movie, British hang glider sailmaker Roly Lewis-Evans arrived in Salinas by Greyhound bus — doubtless more modern that the example in this screenshot, but the cheapest way to travel in the USA at that time. He stayed at Marty Alameda’s place, sleeping on a couch. (18) See also the Roly Lewis-Evans, sail maker related topics menu.
High performance wings like the Demon were not to everyone’s taste, however. The lightness, simplicity, and nimbler handling of single surface wings ensured a continued market for such designs then, as now. In the winter of 1981-82, Flight Designs’ Jean-Michel Bernasconi created a new intermediate-level wing. (2)
See also the Hang glider sail art related topics menu.
The Javelin was an improvement on the Super Lancer. With an increased double surface, deflexorless leading edges, and an airfoil defined by preformed alloy battens (ribs) it represented a marked increase in performance and handling. The Javelin was produced in two sizes and proved popular with novice and intermediate pilots. It remained in production until Pioneer closed down the Salinas factory and discontinued the model. (5)
I replaced my [Electra Flyer] Spirit with a Flight Designs Javelin, a single-surface glider designed by Jean-Michel. Based on a design he’d been working on before he came to the United States, the Javelin was was the first design of his produced in the US, and was positioned to compete with the Atlas.
— John LaTorre (1)
The deflexorless Javelin with aluminium battens effectively replaced Graeme Bird’s Super Lancer in the Flight Designs product line. However, Flight Designs continued to keep the Lancer in its catalog so their dealers did not have ‘discontinued’ gliders in stock, which are harder to sell. (1)
Alameda was notorious for proposing dreadful color schemes for stock gliders, based mostly on what colors of cloth they had in stock. Graeme Bird was able to rein him in and, when John LaTorre took over the Flight Designs sail loft from Graeme Bird, “…he told me to never, never, never let Marty pick the colors.” Marty Alameda, it turned out, was color-blind… (5)
Pioneer is the major supplier of military parachutes in the free world, and contracts to NASA for Space Shuttle program descent systems. Impressive to the tune of 18 million Dollars in 1980 sales, their desire and action to buy a hang glider manufacturer can only mean a significant new investment, which Pioneer officials indeed confirmed.
— Dan Johnson (15)
In the winter of 1981-82 Alemeda sold Flight Designs to the Pioneer Parachute Company, a government contractor expanding into other areas of sport aviation, particularly ultralights.
They walked side by side along the dark beach toward Monterey, where the lights hung, necklace above necklace against the hill. The sand dunes crouched along the back of the beach like tired hounds, resting: and the waves gently practiced at striking, and hissed a little. The night was cold and aloof, and its warm life was withdrawn, so that it was full of bitter warnings to man that he is alone in the world, and alone among his fellows; that he has no comfort owing him from anywhere.
— John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat, 1935
Marty Alemeda was killed while flight testing a powered ultralight on March 4th, 1982. (6)
John LaTorre summarizes his experience of working for Marty Alameda…
No employees ever feared his wrath; they only feared that they might disappoint him somehow. He was as generous with praise as Larry had been frugal with it.
— John LaTorre (1)
After Alameda died while testing a prototype powered ultralight, Pioneer ‘streamlined’ manufacture of the Demon, introducing the technique of cutting panels ten at a time and sewing the sails with straight stitching, which were standard practices for making parachutes. That resulted in a glider with greatly impaired stability and flying characteristics. Jean-Michel Bernasconi, who had left Flight Designs by then, repudiated the design, and very few of these Demons were sold as hang gliders. Instead, they were used for the motorized Jetwings, of which perhaps a hundred were sold before Pioneer discontinued its manufacture to concentrate on a rigid powered ultralight. (5, 10)
The wing in this photo is likely a Javelin.
Marina Beach. Deep in Steinbeck country. Five miles up the coast from Monterey, a hundred south of San Francisco. The Long Valley hits the coast between the Diablo Mountains (4,000ft) and the Monterey Peninsula Range, both running off parallel to the south-east. To the local inhabitants, this valley means vegetables, and lots of them, but to pilots it acts as a giant suction pump. It warms up on hot summer days and draws in marine air to form a very predictable sea breeze.
— Dennis Thorpe (11)
Thus, in good conditions a pilot may soar the entire ridge from Marina south to Sand City, a 12-mile round trip.
— Jim Johns, Glider Rider, April 1982
Dennis Thorpe worked in the Salinas Flight Designs factory in the summer of 1983, putting Pioneer-manufactured sails on to frames. The sails were stack-cut, the way they made parachutes, which resulted in variations. Thorpe and Brian (BJ) Harrison, who had worked for Hiway in the UK, took them out to Marina Beach and rigged them for the late Dan Murphy and Ron Hess to flight test them to see which sails were beyond the pale, wrinkle-wise. (They were paid $6 per rig.)
A bunch of Pioneer suits visited while we were there and it was obvious to us they were planning on shutting the place down, but Dan & Ron wouldn’t believe it. Happened the following year as I recall. Happy times at the beach, though.
— Dennis Thorpe (7)
This topic continues in Jean-Michel Bernasconi and Pacific Windcraft.
Bob England, hang glider designer, including several anecdotes by John LaTorre of flying at Marina Beach near Monterey
Electra Flyer of Albuquerque, New Mexico and Larry Newman
John LaTorre related topics menu
La Mouette Atlas: Cherokee, Storm, and Atlas in Hang gliding early 1980s part 1
Seagull Aircraft of Santa Monica, California related topics menu
Ultralight Products of California and Utah related topics menu
East of Eden Restaurant, LH562 ©1979 Billy Emery in SalinasPublicLibrary on flickr
1. My Life as a Hang Glider Maker on John LaTorre’s blog No truth to the rumor
2. Whole Air No.28, January 1983
3. Of Lancers and Sharks Part 2: Double-surfaces, Vampyres and Sharks, Graeme Bird, SkyWings (BHPA magazine) January 2021
4. Hiway Demon: Letter by Jean-Michel Bernasconi (Flight Designs) in Glider Rider May 1982
5. John LaTorre e-mail correspondence with the author in March 2021
6. Industry News, Whole Air No.24, May 1982
7. Dennis Thorpe comment on British Hangies Facebook group in April 2021
8. Graeme Bird e-mail correspondence with the author of this web site, March 2021
9. Roly Lewis-Evans e-mail correspondence with the author of this web site, March 2021
10. Bernasconi repudiated the Demon and Javelin as made by Pioneer: Whole Air, March 1984
11. The Beach Boys! by Dennis Thorpe, Wings (British hang gliding magazine) February 1984
12. Flight Designs variometer vs. the Likek Hummingbird: Glider Rider, June 1980
13. Glider Rider, April 1982
14. Flight Designs advert in Glider Rider, December 1978
15. Product Lines by Dan Johnson in Whole Air, July-August 1981
16. Demon batten construction: Dan Johnson, Product Lines in Whole Air #18 March 1981
17. Bill Pain’s reply to this post by the author of this web site on the British Hangies Facebook group
18. Roly Lewis-Evans telephone conversation with the author in July 2021