A Brief History Of Hang Gliding, Paragliding, and Wills Wing

Although often thought of as a newcomer to aviation, hang gliding is actually among the oldest forms of human flight. Before the airplane, the first successful emulation of the birds involved running down a hill with a light weight glider, taking off into the air and gliding down. Otto Lilienthal was the most successful early aviator, and made more than two thousand successful gliding flights in the late 1800’s. After the turn of the century, two bicycle mechanics named Wilbur and Orville Wright made successful flights on gliders of their own design from the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. After developing their aircraft designs and flying techniques using gliders, they fitted a motor to one of their designs and invented the first successful airplane.

Kurt Kiefer flying his Wills Wing Swallowtail at Point Fermin, California, (ca. 1975)

The obvious practical advantages of the powered airplane effectively ended further development of gliding, as intensive effort was devoted to the development of airplanes for both civilian and military use.

Unpowered gliding as a form of sport aviation saw a rebirth after World War I, starting in post war Germany. The treaty of Versailles prohibited the development of powered aircraft in Germany, and pilots who had been trained during the war, as well as people who wanted to take up flying, had no choice other than gliding. As gliding developed as a sport, and as the technology of gliders evolved towards higher performance, the concept of a light weight glider which could be picked up and launched by running down a hill was almost totally abandoned. Pilots of larger, heavier gliders, learned to use the upslope winds along ridges as well as thermal updrafts to extend the duration of their gliding flights, and the sport of soaring was born. Flights of a few minutes became flights of several hours, and cross country flying over distances of hundreds of miles became possible. Over the next forty years, great improvements were made in the design of gliders and the knowledge and techniques of glider pilots, until soaring became an activity available to anyone who wished to pursue it. During that same period, hang gliding, the first form of flying, all but disappeared.

Then in the 1960’s a number of people contributed to a re-birth of hang gliding. One major impetus for this rebirth was the adaptation to hang gliding of a new type of flexible wing, now commonly referred to as the “Rogallo Wing.” In 1948, American engineer Francis Rogallo patented a design for a simple flexible wing. Rogallo worked for NASA, and additional designs derived from the flexible wing concept were subsequently developed and extensively tested by NASA as part of the early US space program.

These NASA designs, which now included airframe components that partly stiffened and supported the wing, in turn inspired adaptations for foot launched hang gliders by people like Barry Palmer and Richard Miller. The most elegant and most successful adaptation of the flexible wing concept to a human carrying aircraft was Australian John Dickenson’s design for a towed water ski kite, which he first flew in the early 1960’s, and which contained all the essential design elements of what later became known as the “Standard Rogallo.” Dickenson’s design was simple, easy to make and easy to learn to fly. When the Dickenson design was scaled up to a size appropriate for foot-launching, the simplicity of design and construction, along with its capability for slow flight and gentle landing characteristics led to an explosive growth in popularity of the “new” sport of hang gliding. Several companies began manufacturing versions of the wing, and for the first time in history simple, unencumbered bird-like flight was available to almost anyone who wanted it.

At the very beginning of this growth period, early in 1973, two brothers named Bob and Chris Wills formed one of the first hang glider manufacturing companies, Wills Wing. The company was born out of their passionate enthusiasm for this magical new form of aviation, and it was founded on two simple ideas: to build the best flying gliders they could make, and to treat each pilot who flew one as a personal friend. Bob and Chris displayed a remarkable talent early on for both flying and designing.

Chris Wills won the first U.S. National Championships in hang gliding in 1973, while Bob took second, and a year later they traded places as Bob won the national championship while Chris took second. In the years since, Wills Wing has maintained a tradition of winning in competition, as Wills Wing pilots have won 19 of the 43 official U.S. National Hang Gliding Championship titles awarded in various competition classes since 1973. Wills Wing pilots have won every U.S. National Championship title awarded from 1992 through 1996. As of the 1996 flying season, Wills Wing hang gliders are the only gliders ever to have flown cross country more than 475 miles.

By Mike Meier

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