Jean-Michel Bernasconi and Pacific Windcraft
In a way, this page continues from Marty Alameda and Flight Designs.
Former rock musician, mountaineering guide, and ski instructor, Jean-Michel Bernasconi of Chamonix, France, started flying hang gliders in 1975. He was one of several hang glider pilots who made a living from taking tourists for rides in purpose-made dual hang gliders at that time and place. (The French hang gliding federation was part of the ministry of sports and such commercial hang gliding operations received government support.)(1) He was not just a man of action, however, having earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Grenoble University in 1976. (2)
He moved from France to the USA 1978, working as a dealer representative for Bill Bennett’s Delta Wing Kites and Gliders, Van Nuys, California, and then for Marty Alameda’s Flight Designs of Salinas, California. In the winter of 1981-82 Marty Alemeda sold his business, Flight Designs, to the Pioneer Parachute Company, a government contractor expanding into other areas of sport aviation. Alemeda was killed flight testing a powered ultralight in March 1982…
Marty’s death didn’t stop those plans, but his freewheeling, hands-on management style was gone and the Salinas factory was no longer a pleasant place to work for. Jean-Michel, who had been hired as a dealer representative and was now Flight Designs’s head designer, was appointed interim manager in Marty’s place but was never given free rein to direct the company the way it had been run before. He now had to answer to executives in three-piece custom suits who had no sport flying experience whatsoever…
— John LaTorre (3)
After Marty Alameda died in the crash of a prototype powered ultralight being developed by Flight Designs, his parents were awarded compensation from a life insurance policy provided by Pioneer Parachute Company, which was at that time the parent company of Flight Designs.
When Bernasconi became discouraged by Pioneer’s new management style, he went to a dinner at the Alameda house. Marty’s parents told him that they were looking for some way to use the insurance money to memorialize Marty. Bernasconi told them that he wanted to found a hang glider company that would keep Marty’s dream alive, and proposed that they finance it. Bernasconi then asked John LaTorre exactly how much the sail loft part would cost, including all equipment, tools, and materials for a dozen glider sails. LaTorre gave him a dollar figure and Bernasconi did some calculations of his own for the airframe component fabrication and facility rental and such. When he had that information, he went back to the Alamedas and made a formal request for the funding. They saw the figures and agreed to loan him the money and the manufacturer Pacific Windcraft was started in August 1982. (4, 2)
Bernasconi marketed the La Mouette Atlas in the USA through a company called Sky Lines, a joint venture with La Mouette in France. The Atlas was previously distributed in the U.S.A. by Flight Designs. (4, 8)
Jean-Michel’s wife Natalie handled office duties while he handled design, testing, and dealer relationships. He hired two people away from Flight Designs: John LaTorre, who ran the sail loft, and Calvin Cox, who was in charge of airframe, rigging, and final assembly. (4)
Incidentally, the black wiggly line is a tube running from an air bulb taped onto the control bar to the camera shutter release. It was clumsy, but it worked. Usually.
Because Bernasconi had been a dealer representative for Bill Bennet’s Delta Wing Kites and Gliders for a couple of years, and for Flight Designs after that, he knew every dealer in the US and Canada personally, and he had a ready list of potential customers for a glider of his own design that would be aimed at the novice pilot… the first double surface glider designed for that level of skill.(4) That double-surface intermediate glider was called the Vision, the first production example being completed on September 1st, 1982.(2)
The Vision was a versatile glider for two reasons. First, it was easy to adjust the crossbar and leading edge tensions to give it a looser sail with more forgiving handling characteristics or a tighter sail for better performance. As the developing pilots became more familiar with the glider, they could increase the tension to complement their skills. Second, it employed two types of sailcloth: a stiffer cloth for the main body, and a softer cloth for the double surface. This allowed the lower surface to become more concave at higher angles of attack, effectively increasing the camber of the airfoil for more docile slow-speed flying, while flattening out at higher speeds. (That second feature was my own major contribution to the design.)
— John LaTorre (3)
Despite the Hiway logo on the stand-up keel pocket in the color photo (slightly out of shape because I stored the glider bag in there) Hiway Hang Gliders imported the sails from the Salinas, California, factory and added them to airframes it made in Wales. Hiway was not the only manufacturer building Visions under licence from PacWind, so were other factories in France, West Germany, Australia, and east coast USA. (6)
The Vision had an enclosed crossbar, preformed ribs, and a floating crossbar tethered to a cable that ran through the kingpost and onto a retainer at the aft end of the keel. It was made in three sizes indicated by its size in square meters: the Vision 16, the Vision 18, and the Vision 20.
(Later, the cross-tubes were tethered to twin cables that ran each side of the king post, as in the photo.)
Most contemporary Australian and American hang glider manufacturers simply disregarded Brits’ and New Zealanders’ need to rig flat on the ground. Rigging a hang glider standing on its control frame can be almost impossible on a bare hillside in a 20 knot wind. Bernasconi was an exception and he designed the Vision with the ability to rig flat. However, its geometry did not allow it to ‘naturally’ rig flat, so the control frame apex was fitted with a tang that went into a slotted bracket on the keel. After the wing was tensioned on the ground, you lifted the glider, the tang went into the slot, and you secured it with a pip pin. (Later gliders including the Wills Wing Ultra Sport used a similar system.) That fitting with a slot presented a problem however, because it also had a row of holes for hang point adjustment. When it was found that some people were putting the pip pin into one of those holes, rather than the hole that secured the control bar to the keel, that bracket was re-designed to have only one hole, and the hang point was adjusted in a different way. (4)
The UK-built Hiway Vision used a different method for rigging flat on the ground: The side flying wire on one side (only) had a shackle that, when undone, added a couple of inches to its length so the glider could be rigged flat. It had a short ‘bypass’ cable paralleling the shackle just in case the shackle failed.
I remember Jean-Michel having a long conversation with us, right there at the twilight of the landing field, about our responsibilities as fabricators of hang gliders. Our gliders had to be as perfect as we could make them, he said, because people’s lives literally depended on them. If there was a way that the glider could be set up incorrectly, we had to re-design the glider to make that method of set-up impossible. I always remembered that.
— John LaTorre
Author’s note: I still have an Airwave Magic 4 (the wing I owned after my Vision) that can be rigged apparently ready to fly, but without the pip pins in securing the base tube to the down tubes. E.C.
Bernasconi’s sales pitch was five-fold: (4)
- First, he would continue Flight Design’s policy of never discontinuing a glider, allowing dealers to sell stock gliders more easily.
- Second, he offered a one-year warranty on all gliders.
- Third, he guaranteed a delivery date, with rebates to the dealer for every day that the ship date was exceeded.
- Fourth, he had a glider that a novice pilot could continue to fly as his or her skills improved.
- Fifth, he would never sell gliders factory direct to anyone (with the exception of company employees).
Pacific Windcraft was so successful that Bernasconi and his wife Natalie paid back the Alameda family startup loan within a few years. (4)
This section is by John LaTorre. (4)
The Vision Esprit was Pacific Windcraft’s advanced/competition glider. It featured a higher aspect ratio than the vision, a different airfoil, a partially detached double surface, and a floating washout tube enclosed within the double surface tip. It was also the first glider to have a hang point on the king post rather than the keel, resulting in greater roll authority. Although its handling characteristics were very forgiving, it did not have the glide at top speed that its competitors did, and as a result it did not find favor with the top competition pilots. Instead, it was bought mainly to intermediate pilots who put a higher premium on easy handling than on top performance.
See also the Hang glider sail art related topics menu.
In 1984, Bernasconi and Gerard Thevenot created a company named Skylines to import the La Mouette Profil, effectively replacing the Esprit in Pacific Windcraft’s product line. Skylines also imported the La Mouette Atlas hang glider and a series of motorized trike powered ultralights to use as aero-tugs.
This section is mostly by John LaTorre. (4)
The Eclipse, introduced in 1985, was the first novice double-surface (enclosed crossbar) glider with no keel pocket. In its place, the sail was connected to the keel by a webbing strap, and to the rear top wire by a cambered rib mounted permanently inside the sail to define reflex. It was also the first production glider to meet modern dive recovery standards without the use of defined (washout) tips, and the first U.S. glider to make extensive use of 7075 alloy tubing. It was also the first glider to offer the Safedge unique down-tube (upright) in the U.S. as an option. This tubing consisted of an aluminum front section and a tapered rubber rear section, combining airfoil performance with a safer break mode. (In a landing crash, it is better that the down-tubes break, absorbing some of the energy of the impact, than the pilot’s arms.)
Designed by Bob England and Jean-Michel Bernasconi, the Eclipse was known for its extraordinarily light handling and its resistance to stalling. It came in two sizes, the 17 and the 19 (again the area in square meters). It was built in the Pacific Windcraft factory in California and at another facility at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.
It had amazingly docile stall characteristics. One could be flying it at the most ragged edges of minimum sink and still turn it with ease; while other gliders would suddenly stall a tip or become skittish in their handling in similar circumstances, the Eclipse might give a little shudder to indicate it wasn’t happy, but it would complete the turn with its customary light bar pressure.
— John LaTorre (3)
The Vision Genesis started life as the Eclipse 14, but when it went into production, it was renamed the Vision Genesis. This was solely the design of Jean-Michel Bernasconi. After the Vision Mark IV was released, the Genesis was fitted with that glider’s hardware, and some of the prototype Eclipse 14s were also retrofitted.
The Vision IV, introduced in 1987 by Jean-Michel Bernasconi and Bob Schutte, was produced in two sizes, the 17 and 19. Although its planform resembled that of the Eclipse, every part of its construction was re-designed and it shared no major components with the Eclipse. It differed from the Vision Eclipse in airframe, sail camber, airfoil, and hardware. It had a flat keel pocket and relied solely on its floating crossbar for lateral flexibility. Like the Eclipse, it needed no washout control other than its luff lines (reflex bridles).
The Vision 4 became the ‘go to’ intermediate glider of its time. So ubiquitous was it that it is still commonly referred to simply as the ‘Mark 4’, as in “I fly a Mark 4” with no need to mention the manufacturer or glider model.
The Airwave Calypso was the British-made variant of the Vision IV (17 square meter version only). It was fitted with Airwave Magic hardware. The red streamer on the king post in the photo indicates that the pilot has less than 10 hours air time since coming out of the hang gliding school. (In this case, as is common in recent years, he was an experienced pilot returning to hang gliding after many years away.)
In 1987, PacWind partnered with Airwave Gliders, a manufacturer in England making a big dent in the industry with its high-performance Magic 3 and then the Magic IV. Bernasconi ran the new company, Pacific Airwave. PacAir manufactured high performance Airwave gliders in the States, Bernasconi also handling the certifying of those gliders with the Hang Glider Manufacturers Association, making them easier to sell in the USA. In England, Airwave manufactured the intermediate rated Vision 4. Airwave renamed it ‘Calypso’ because, by then, Hiway in Wales (an offspring of the original Hiway, which had closed) was already manufacturing its own derivative, which it called the Vision 5.
John LaTorre had branched out and started his own manufacturing business in 1986, but he encountered insurmountable difficulties until the summer of 1987, when Bernasconi hired him again. LaTorre relates an additional reason for that partnership: By then, most of the major sailcloth makers were reluctant to sell their product to hang glider manufacturers. This was because, if a person was injured on a hang glider, that person’s lawyers could sue not only the manufacturer of the glider, who typically owned nothing of value to collect, but also the companies who supplied that manufacturer. Sailcloth manufacturers’ deep pockets made them tempting targets for lawsuits. LaTorre’s own company, Dragonwing, made prototypes for sailboard sails. (It had also made prototype sails for a water-ballast sailboat that Bernasconi had designed.) So LaTorre was routinely buying thousands of yards of sailcloth, which he turned around and sold to Pacific Airwave. Because Dragonwing did not appear on the lists of hang glider manufacturers, the sailcloth suppliers could say in their defense that they had no idea that their product would end up being used in aviation sails, and that they couldn’t be held liable. (4)
While training a new crew and foreman for the sail loft, I made the patterns for the Magic and re-designed the sail for easier manufacture without compromising the glider’s performance. Later, I did the same thing for the Magic Kiss and the other K series gliders. I also made the prototypes and patterns for the Formula, an intermediate glider that shared the same planform as the Kiss but was easier to fly; the Double Vision, a large single-surface glider designed specifically for tandem flight; and the Vision Pulse line of gliders that replaced the Mark IV.
— John LaTorre (3)
(The PacAir Formula was broadly equivalent to the Airwave Magic 6 in Britain. See farther on.)
Perhaps an indication of how successful was PacAir, in 1986, the manufacturer of the extraordinarily successful Comet, Ultralight Products, sold its inventories and parts distribution to Pacific Windcraft. Calls to UP at Temecula were forwarded to PacWind. (6)
This sub-section is by John LaTorre. (4)
The Magic 4 was essentially the same in flying characteristics on both sides of the Atlantic, although the frames were different, the American versions using fittings developed for the Vision Mark IV. It was produced in three configurations (Standard, Cross-Country, and Full Race) and three sizes (155, 166, and 177 square feet in planform). A smaller Magic 4 Full Race 133 was also produced. The Standard had more flexible leading edges, less double surface, and fewer ribs than the Full Race. The Cross-Country was essentially a Standard sail on a Full-Race airframe.
Prior to 1988, all sails were made in the U.K. After that, Full Race sails continued to be made in the UK while Standard and Cross-Country sails were produced in the United States. The airframes for all these gliders were made in the USA, differing from their British counterparts in their use of hardware developed for the Mark IV.
The British and American versions of the Magic Kiss were almost identical, although the American version offered the option of the Safedge composite uprights used on American-built gliders, and in a difference in the construction of the leading edges. In the US, only the 154 size was made. When Airwave UK made changes in the construction of its version (most notably in the method by which the sail was attached to the airframe at the ends of the leading edge for “trimming” purposes), those changes were incorporated into the American versions as well. (4)
In 1990, the Kiss was re certified as the Kiss XC/Full Race with several modifications in the leading edge tip configuration, top rigging, and a fourth double-surface batten. In that year, there were also a few Cross Country Kisses that lacked top surface half-ribs. (4)
Author’s trivia/funny story: Some pilots were rigging a new demonstration Magic Kiss in a concrete revetment in the village of Ager, northern Spain, in 1989. I stopped by and asked about it. A chap explained a quirk concerning its rigging procedure, the details of which I have long ago forgotten. Much later in the day, after I had been up the mountain (I do not recall whether I flew that day) the same people were still there, but they were de-rigging the glider. However, they were stuck. (Bear in mind that they were likely hot and dehydrated from carrying out a fairly physical task in that sun-baked concrete square for several hours.) I spotted the problem. They had explained it to me that morning, so I merely explained it back to them. They were then able to continue de-rigging. They thanked me; the expert on the finer details of Airwave’s new hang glider! E.C.
The Formula, produced in 1989, was a version of the Magic Kiss for the advancing pilot. It had fewer ribs (with a different airfoil), no crossbar trimmer, and lighter sailcloth. It was produced in two sizes, the 154 and 144. At the same time, Airwave UK released the Magic 6, with a somewhat different airframe and sail cut, as its version of the Formula for the European market. It was not as well received by that market as its American counterpart was, possibly because of either design differences or differing expectations on the part of customers. (4)
This sub-section is mostly by John LaTorre. (4)
In England, the K2 was developed as a smaller version of the Kiss, which remained in production. In the U.S., it was designed to replace the Kiss with a more advanced glider, and was released in a 155 square foot as well as a 145 square foot size. The American K2 had its own line of hardware developed from the Formula, as well as an internal luff-line compensation system not found in the original Kiss.
The American K2 155 used the same frame and rigging as the Kiss XC/FR, with a slightly modified sail. The K2 145 was a smaller version of this glider. In fact, the very first K2 145s were also marketed as small Kiss XC/FRs.
The British K2 was essentially a different glider. Although it was developed concurrently with the American K2 145, its hardware and rigging were almost completely different.
Author’s note: The British created a version they called intermediate composite; the K2ic. The term referred to the construction of the battens (ribs). As far as I recall, the front part of each was metal and the rear portion glass fiber. The K2ic also employed ‘half ribs’ (short metal battens) between the regular battens at the leading edges to provide a more consistent camber.
My one flight in a borrowed K2ic scared me so badly that, after soaring it for a few brief minutes during which I rose higher than all the other gliders on that ridge, I flew it out to the largest and flattest field I could find. It felt so spirally unstable that I liken it to balancing on a golf ball. E.C.
The K3 was released in the fall of 1991 as a larger (160 square feet) version of the K-series gliders. At first, the U.S. version differed from the British version in its upper rigging, cross-tube cable, and some hardware. In 1993, when the K4 and the K5 were introduced, these differences were eliminated, so the 1993 U.S. version is virtually identical to its British counterpart. (4)
The K4, released in 1992, replaced the original Kiss in England and the K2 155 in the United States. Again, the American version originally used upper rigging, cross-tube cable, and hardware which differed from British counterpart. In January, 1993, a modified version called the K4+ 155 replaced the K4 155; the British and U.S. versions were virtually identical. (4)
Released in 1993, the K5 replaced the K2 145 in the Pacific Airwave product line. Like the K4+, it was produced identically on both sides of the Atlantic. It was 148 square feet in planform. (4)
Author’s note: Somewhat warily — because of my scary experience flying its predecessor the K2ic — I borrowed a friend’s K5. I cannot report on its flight characteristics because I recall nothing about it, being rendered unconscious in the landing crash that broke the glider. (My usual wing at this time, also when I had a go in the K2ic, was an Ultralight Products TRX-160.) E.C.
This was the last version of the Vision made by Pacific Airwave. It was introduced in 1991 in two sizes, the 10 Meter and the 11 Meter (the numbers refer to the span of the glider). In 1992 the 9 Meter was added to the line-up. The Pulse represented a further refinement of the Mark IV, using a new airfoil and extensive use of lighter and stronger 7075-T6 tubing. It also utilized hardware designed for the Formula and K-series hang gliders. (4)
The Double Vision, also released in 1991, was created in response to a demand from hang gliding schools for a glider designed specifically for dual training. At 215 square feet, it was the biggest glider ever made by Pacific Airwave, and it was the only single-surface glider ever produced by the company. When loaded to its design maximum of 400 pounds (180 kg) it responded to the same control inputs as a single-place glider flown by one person, making it the best training tool available at the time. (4)
Most of this sub-section was written by John LaTorre. (4)
In 1991, Bernasconi left Pacific Airwave, although he continued to work with it as a consultant until after the Vison Pulse and Double Vision models were certified by the HGMA. He was replaced by Ken Brown at that time. About a year later, Natalie Bernasconi also left the company, and Julanne Wilson (Brown) took over most of her managerial and fiscal duties. John LaTorre, hired as sail loft foreman after Bob Schutte resigned, trained Jeff Williamson as sail loft manager. While running his own company of Dragonwing, LaTorre continued to work for Pacific Airwave doing the production engineering of the prototypes as they were developed, and training the sail loft in their manufacture. He also took over some office duties, first as purchasing agent, and finally as production manager of the factory, until he too left in 1994.
Shortly after that, the company moved its factory from Salinas to the Fort Ord Military complex airfield which had just transitioned the decommissioned airstrip to the City of Marina. This positioned Pacific Airwave on an airport for glider vehicle testing (see Vehicle-based testing in Hang gliding 1978 and 1979 part 2) and within five minutes of the Marina Beach test flying site. Efforts to use the airport for truck payout towing or aero-towing gliders were met with insurmountable opposition of entrenched bias from the airport management.
In 1996, after attempts to consolidate sales territories around the world with respective manufactures and realizing the limited sales potential of the two fabrication plants, Airwave UK closed the US factory and shipped raw materials and tooling back to the U.K.
…I lost track with him for many years until a brief encounter around 2004 when he was living in Spreckels just out side Salinas, and working as a representative for West Marine, America’s largest marine parts supplier, based in nearby Watsonville. To say Jean Michel was energetic is a understatement, I have not met anyone else like him. He he was also very sharp and had a great sense of humor. When together we were always laughing and kidding around.
— Graeme Bird (7)
Jean-Michel Bernasconi died of a stroke on April 2nd, 2016.
Airwave of the Isle of Wight, UK
Hiway of Sussex, England, and Abergavenny, Wales (related topics menu). Hiway manufactured the Vision under licence in Wales.
Francis Freedland documentary external links
These are links to the Francis Freedland documentary 1978 Pico Peak International Hang Gliding Meet in four parts on Robert Cordier’s YouTube channel.
Bernasconi clipping in to his Phoenix Mariah and launching in 1978 Pico Peak International Hang Gliding Meet 14:51 starting at 6 minutes 53 seconds (“Watch out your head.”)
Bernasconi approach and landing, carrying across the LZ, followed by a couple of interview snippets in 1978 Pico Peak International Hang Gliding Meet 14:51 starting at 8 minutes 45 seconds
Bernasconi interview continuation in 1978 The Pico Meet PART II starting at 5 minutes 46 seconds
Bernasconi brief comment on how he gave up most everything else after his first hang gliding experience in 1978 The Pico Meet PART II starting at 12 minutes 27 seconds
Bernasconi versus Tom Peghiny, finishing with Bernasconi landing with the aid of a drag chute (and Jerry Felice simultaneously landing behind him) in 1978 The Pico Meet Part III starting at 5 minutes 25 seconds
Bernasconi commenting on conditions while he de-rigs his wing in 1978 The Pico Meet Part III starting at 11 minutes 13 seconds
Bernasconi gets into his VW bus at the end of the competition in 1978 The Pico Meet Part III starting at 14 minutes 7 seconds
Bernasconi drives away after the competition and, with the aid of still photos, the narrator summarizes Bernasconi’s life over the next year and a half in 1978 – The pico meet Part IV (starting at the start)
Bernasconi and fellow competitors at a competition in Ellenville, New York, a year and a half later in 1978 – The pico meet Part IV over the end credits starting at 2 minutes 59 seconds
Other external links
Bernasconi landing his Phoenix Mariah with the aid of a drag chute in 1978 Pico Peak meet on bobbylangs’ YouTube channel at 1 minute 3 seconds
High school student Rob Bond interviews Bernasconi in the fall of 1979 at Ellenville, New York, in The Silent Wings of Freedom on YouTube starting at exactly 5 minutes
Jean-Michel Bernasconi – R.I.P. on HangGliding.org
1. Jean-Michel Bernasconi interview by Hank Syjut, Glider Rider, March 1980
2. Whole Air No. 28 January 1983
4. John LaTorre e-mail correspondence with the author of this web site in March and April 2021
5. In Memoriam — Jean-Michel Bernasconi on John LaTorre’s blog No truth to the rumor
6. Industry News, Whole Air No. 48, May 1986
7. Graeme Bird e-mail correspondence with the author of this web site, March 2021
8. Atlas advert in Glider Rider, March 1980