Who invented the modern hang glider?

Was any one person the “Inventor of the modern Hang Glider”?   Well, that’s debatable, but nevertheless, johndickenson.net claims that the honour belongs to John Dickenson, an Australian engineer whose design in 1963 was certainly the catalyst that sparked the explosion of a formerly fringe activity into the mainstream.

Originally intending to build a “bat wing” design ski kite, John was instead inspired by a photo of an experimental gliding recovery parachute for Gemini space capsules designed by Francis Rogallo to design a more practical, safer and controllable machine using the combination of a wing with conical sails – like the parachute – but braced by spars, a cable braced “A” frame control frame construction and a pendulum harness system.

These days, of course, the wing that John used is long obsolete thanks to the development of higher performing designs with far superior safety characteristics. If you define “Modern” as “Contemporary”, the modern hang glider has come a long way since 1963 thanks to the contributions of many people – with performance in some cases, up to 6 times greater than the primitive wings of the early 1970’s.

Soaring flight, by Orville Wright, Kitty Hawk, NC

Hang gliding in various forms, of course, had been around for many years, (see this Wiki entry) with the first arguably successful machines appearing in the 1800’s, but the aircraft were usually not simple, safe, cheap or adequately controllable, so it had never become a sport for the masses. Even the Wright Brothers flew their prototype machines as hang gliders, even soaring them on the Kitty Hawk dunes, before attempting to add power.

Entrepreneurial folks like Bill Bennett and Bill Moyes used versions of John Dickenson’s ski kites to popularize (and not invent as some web press would have you believe) the hang glider, and they were themselves pivotal in establishing the sport of hang gliding as a popular pastime. Hang gliding was becoming popular in the USA using primitive wings in the late 60’s and early 70’s – the advanced version originally designed by Dickenson and taken up and flown by the Australian showmen was immediately seen as superior and adopted by these free spirits.

What you see in the skies today – the contemporary “Modern” hang glider, is of course, only historically related to Dickenson’s work.

To call today’s hang gliders “Dickenson Wings”, as johndickenson.net wants us to, may be a nice homage to the man, but in fact the wing type itself was designed and used less successfully by others for hang gliding before John adopted it.

Dickenson wasn’t, in fact the original inventor of the wing itself although he may well have reinvented the frame-braced version independently. The rigid frame and delta sail arrangement indisputably existed prior to Dickenson’s version, in aircraft like NASA’s 1962 Parasev (1964 flight shown at right) and even in Australia, courtesy of the Aerostructures Ski Plane.

The cable-braced triangular control bar had also been used in several earlier designs, such as Dr. George A. Spratt’s towed hang glider on floats of 1929. Weight shift, including suspension by harness, had also been used by early glider pilots.

But it was the combination of these things that proved to be the winning formula.

And while many (but not all) contemporary hang gliders still use a wire braced triangular control bar and a weight shift system, there isn’t a great deal of resemblance between the contemporary hang glider and the wing of 1963. Even to the untrained public eye, the wings look very different.

So many people over the last 45 years have contributed significant features to the modern (contemporary) flexwing. Some of these features have been extraordinarily important. Companies and individuals (and this is a far from complete list) such as La Mouette, Manta, Highster, UP, Delta Wing Kites, Wills Wing, Seedwings, Enterprise Wings and Moyes have all added innovations that are now standard on the modern high performance hang glider and stand alongside the harness and control bar as essential and visible design elements.

In many ways, the largest design revolution since Dickenson came with the UP Comet in 1980, when UP bought together a large number of innovations from various sources and put them all together in a wing which in many ways is the instantly recognizable forerunner of all modern double-surface flex wings, even to a layman. Yet these wings are not known as Haggard Wings (though for a couple of years afterward many were known, with good cause, as Comet Clones).

The contemporary hang glider wing is the sum of a large number of important inventions some prior, and some subsequent to Dickenson’s contribution.

Here’s a partial list of subsequent differences between the basic delta “Standard” and more recent flex wing hang gliders.

  • Kingpost
  • Shaped sail
  • Defined aerofoil via rigid battens
  • Folding control bar, folding spreaders
  • Wing Camber at the nose via keel pocket or shaped keel.
  • Wide nose angle, short keel, high aspect ratio
  • deflexors (now not used)
  • Roached sails (external wing area supported by sail tension and rigid battens)
  • Deep keel pocket
  • Tip sticks
  • Curved tips
  • Bowsprit bracing (no crossbar)
  • Strut bracing (no lower rigging)
  • Double surfaced sail
  • Elimination of geometric billow
  • Variable Geometry
  • Enclosure of the spreader inside the sail
  • Luff lines
  • Raised hangpoint
  • Fully cantilevered spreader (no kingpost)
  • Sprogs

Of course there are some “Modern Hang Gliders” that aren’t flex wings at all and some which don’t even use Johns’ control bar or weight shift system.

I fly a Modern Hang Glider myself. The wing itself bears no structural resemblance to the wing John used, but it does use a triangular bar and harness system for control.

John Dickenson made an amazing contribution to hang gliding technology in 1963, and he deserves full credit for his breakthrough design combination of the bi-conical wing, control bar and harness control system resulting in the ski kite/glider that sparked the boom in hang gliding.

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