Early powered ultralights


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Early powered ultralights

Broadly, the early days of modern hang gliding (mid- to late 1970s) gave rise to powered ultralights (known as microlights in Britain because of an existing ultralight category). However, powered Rogallos (too heavy to be regarded as ultralights) preceded man-carrying Rogallo wing hang gliders.

Photo by Michel Moussier of the Ryan 'flying jeep' on the cover of a French magazine for insomniacs in May 1961
Photo by Michel Moussier of the Ryan ‘flying jeep’ on the cover of a magazine in May 1961

…Two people where I worked at Aerojet General, in Nimbus, California, came to see me independently and showed me a magazine photograph of Ryan’s first powered flex wing. I don’t know whose light went on or whose buzzer went off, but the conclusion was that a hang glider could be built. I sized up the wing and studied its performance, using a digital computer, in late 1961.

— Barry Palmer quoted by Dan Poynter in Hang Gliding by Martin Hunt & David Hunn, 1977

For more about Palmer’s early Rogallo hang gliders, see 1960s in Hang gliding before 1973. See also the Computing in hang gliding related topics menu.

Art based on a photo of Barry Palmer in a 7.5hp powered Rogallo at Bloomfield, near Hartford, Connecticut, in 1966
Art based on a photo of Barry Palmer in a 7.5hp powered Rogallo at Bloomfield, near Hartford, Connecticut, in 1966

But as you know, ideas are cheap and it’s the doing that counts.

— Barry Palmer quoted by Dan Poynter in Hang Gliding by Martin Hunt & David Hunn, 1977

Art based on a photo of Barry Palmer in a 7.5hp powered Rogallo at Bloomfield, near Hartford, Connecticut, in 1966
Engine above the sail

Art based on a photo of Barry Palmer flying a Rogallo trike powered ultralight in July 1967
Art based on a photo of Barry Palmer flying a Rogallo trike powered ultralight in July 1967

See under External links later on this page for film of this one in action.


Powered VJ-23 Swingwing
Powered VJ-23 Swingwing

In the early days of hang gliding, it was not certain that the Rogallo wing would become dominant and the same question was unresolved when power was added. See the related topics menu VJ dayVolmer Jensen’s hang gliders for more about the VJ-23. Its most successful descendant is the CFM Shadow.


Chris Wills powered Swallowtail at Little Norco in December 1975. Photo by Frank Colver.
Chris Wills powered Swallowtail at Little Norco in December 1975. Photo by Frank Colver.

These photos by Frank Colver document the powering of a higher performing Rogallo: The Wills Wing Swallowtail of 1974. The placement of the engine and propeller places the thrust line closer to the center of mass, negating the problem of the rig pitching over in the event of stalling the wing with full power applied. The horizontal tubes across the control frame presumably help to remind everyone to keep clear of the propeller.

Chris Wills powered Swallowtail at Little Norco in December 1975. Photo by Frank Colver.
Lift off!

I assume that this is one of the Swallowtails that was painted black for the 1976 movie Sky Riders, filmed in Greece in 1975. (See Paint it black, a review of that film.) On their way home after flying for the film, the Wills Wing team stopped by at the British championship at Mere in Wiltshire, England, where Bob Wills was the highest scoring pilot in one of the black-painted Swallowtails. At least one of these gliders, the sail of which had distorted under the hot sun in Greece, was given to a hang gliding school in Britain. The sail of this one appears to be in good shape.

Chris Wills, the first U.S. hang gliding champion, became an orthopedic surgeon and he continued to build and fly powered aircraft.


Powered hang gliding brought problems additional to those inherent in hang gliding.

Meeting between the FAA and power pilots at Wilton, New Hampshire, on 2 April 1977. Photo by Rick Roelke.

Steve Patmont in a powered Mitchell Wing in 1978. Reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.
Steve Patmont in a powered Mitchell Wing in 1978. Photo by Joe Diamond reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.

Steve Patmont taught retired U.S. Navy pilot George Worthington to fly an Icarus II biplane hang glider to prepare him for the Mitchell Wing rigid monoplane hang glider. (See the Mitchell Wing page.) Patmont had a go in Worthington’s Wing and he then acquired his own. This photo, reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine, was published in the Motor Glider pages of the May 1978 edition of Glider Rider. It shows the profile of the Mitchell wing with its dihedral outer segments. It shows also the control stick, for the elevons, protruding from the underside of the wing ahead of the pilot. This one has no tip rudders, which all but the first few hang glider versions used, and it is possible that, for the powered version, the spoilers of the prototype and early production hang glider variants were used instead of rudders.


American Aerolights Eagle floatplane advert in Glider Rider, August 1980
American Aerolights Eagle floatplane advert in Glider Rider, August 1980. Reprinted courtesy of Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.

In the late 1970s, Hang glider manufacturer Larry Newman branched out into powered ultralights with the Eagle. See the related topics menu Electra Flyer of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Eagle was also manufactured by Scotkites (later EuroWing) led by Brian Harrison in Scotland under licence from Electra Flyer. See under Flight of the Phoenix in Hang gliding 1976 part 2 for more about Brian Harrison.


Art based on a photo of Tom Kardos with a Pterodactyl in 1980
Art based on a photo of Tom Kardos with a Pterodactyl in 1980

The Pterodactyl was based on the Manta Fledgeling 2 rigid hang glider. (See the Manta Products of California related topics menu.)

From the Pterodactyl advert in Glider Rider, January 1980
From the Pterodactyl advert in Glider Rider, January 1980. Reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.
Inside Manta Products premises in 1982
Inside Manta Products premises in 1982

A section of two Pterodactyl powered ultralights refuels at a roadside gasoline station
A section of two Pterodactyls refuels at a roadside gasoline station

The Pterodactyl was based on the early 1970s Fledgling rigid hang glider. (See the Manta Products of California related topics menu.)


Pterodactyl powered ultralight in flight. Reprinted courtesy <em>Light Sport and Ultralight Flying</em> magazine.
Pterodactyl in flight. Reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.

Powered ultralights enabled greater access to the skies than was previously possible.

Pterodactyl at a filling station. Photo by Charles O'Rear, 1983, reprinted courtesy Ultralight Flying! magazine.
Pterodactyl at a filling station. Photo by Charles O’Rear, 1983 reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.
Assembling a powered ultralight in a living room. Photo by Charles O'Rear, 1983, reprinted courtesy Ultralight Flying! magazine.
Assembly shop. Photo by Charles O’Rear, 1983, reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.

Mike Loehie with his 'Aeroplane' at Sun 'n Fun '82. Photo by Tracy Knauss.
Mike Loehie with his ‘Aeroplane’ at Sun ‘n Fun ’82. Photo by Tracy Knauss reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.

The sturdy yet voluminous nature of the biplane found a modern resurgence in powered ultralights. Most if not all biplane ultralights were derived from Taras Kicenuik’s Icarus 2 (see School for perfection in Hang gliding 1973 part 2.).


Tom Price with Eipper Quicksilver MX in early 1983
Tom Price with Eipper Quicksilver MX in early 1983

In early 1983 Tom Price re-joined Eipper Aircraft, for whom he had worked in its days as one of the first three hang glider manufacturers in the world. See Tom Price’s flying machines for more.

Eipper Quicksilver MX advert in Glider Rider, 1981
From the Eipper Quicksilver MX advert in Glider Rider, 1981. Reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.

The Quicksilver was an early hang glider which became the basis of a popular line of powered ultralights. This is a multi-axis control variant incorporating spoilerons for roll control. The original Quicksilver had only a rudder and lots of dihedral. The rudder put the craft into a skid and the dihedral then caused it to roll. Kind of weird, but it seemed to work.

The Quicksilver was manufactured by Eipper Formance Inc. See the Eipper-Formance of Torrance, California, related topics menu.

Rotec Rally 2B advert of 1982
Rotec Rally 2B advert of 1982
Ted Rhudy in a Quicksilver receives a briefing from Virgil Reiners in 1981
Ted Rhudy in a Quicksilver receives a briefing from Virgil Reiners in 1981. Reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.

Ted Rhudy was partly paralyzed in a car crash, but that did not prevent him from learning to fly. See also Ability in Hang gliding 1990 to 1993.

Eipper Quicksilver advert, 1982
From the Eipper Quicksilver advert, 1982. Reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.
The Ultralite Soaring Inc. Wizard of 1981 looked a lot like a Quicksilver.
The Ultralite Soaring Inc. Wizard of 1981 looked a lot like a Quicksilver. Reprinted courtesy Light Sport and Ultralight Flying magazine.

The dream of personal powered flight from a field near your home became reality with the invention of powered ultralights. However, because of low flying rules in most countries, flying from a field as close as this to your home is, for most people, not a realistic aim.


Tony Prentice in a trike-powered Southdown Sailwings Sigma in 1981
Tony Prentice in a trike-powered Southdown Sailwings Sigma in 1981

While some lines of powered ultralight development became more like lightweight conventional airplanes, the power ‘trike’ brought back the barnstorming days of the beginnings of aviation, but with the increased safety and efficiency of hang glider technology.

View from a powered ultralight in 1981
View from Tony Prentice’s Sigma powered ultralight

Tony Prentice designed and built flex-wing hang gliders in the 1960s. Here, he takes advantage of the high performance of the Sigma bowsprit-rigged hang glider under power, flying with the Wealden Microlight Club in Kent.

Southdown Sailwings Sigma with powered hang glider
Tony Prentice’s Sigma with power trike

The red cylinder mounted on the keel at the back is a Skymaster emergency parachute.


Tony Prentice in a Waspair Falcon 4 with a 90cc back pack engine in 1982
Tony Prentice in a Waspair Falcon 4 with a 90cc back pack engine in 1982

For this experiment, conducted on the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England, Tony reverted to a 1970s hang glider of Super Swallowtail type design owned by Pete Scott and Derek George of the Britten Norman Skysurfers Club. (Britten Norman made the Islander series of light transport aircraft.) They made Tony Prentice an honorary member of the club.


Roly flying a Southdown Sailwings Lightning with a trike power unit
Roly the sailmaker flying a Southdown Sailwings Lightning with a trike power unit

In the following air-to-air photo, a flex-wing powered ultralight (middle left) shoots the space shuttle runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was taken by hang glider sail-maker Roly in about 1999. He writes, “…you could call up NASA radio and get permission to run along it and return, not below 500′.”

A flex-wing powered ultralight (middle left) shoots the space shuttle runway in Florida in about 1999
Over the space shuttle landing zone

According to the wiki, it is one of the longest runways in the world, at 4,572 metres (15,000 ft), and is 91.4 meters (300 ft) wide.

Why the 500 foot height rule? Who knows? However, that stretch of water reminds me of these words:

About a week before the launch of Apollo 14, Cernan was flying a helicopter over the Banana River, enjoying the clear air and the smooth, mirrorlike water — so smooth, in fact, that he misjudged his altitude and crashed into the river. The chopper exploded in flames, and Cernan had to dive into the water to escape being burned to death.

— Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon, the Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, 1994

NASA Vehicle Assembly Building, Florida
Vehicle Assembly Building photographed by Roly aboard a powered ultralight

At the time of writing, the Vehicle Assembly Building, which contained the Saturn V moon rockets and space shuttles while they were assembled, is the largest single-story building in the world.

Related

Chargus of Buckinghamshire, England, related topics menu containing links to photos of the 1977 powered Midas

Space flight and hang gliding

External links

Early Trike by Barry Hill Palmer; digitized film from the 1960s on YouTube narrated by Palmer himself

The following are videos on Dan Johnson’s YouTube channel Light Sport and Ultralight Flyer. Dan provided much hang gliding industry information in the early years, some of which is drawn on in the hang gliding history pages. These are just a few vintage powered ulralight videos in the list:

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