Flying Fancy Free
By Ruth Lawrence
Has there ever been a time when mankind did not dream of flight? To soar with birds and breeze has been an eternal goal of our species, bound to Earth by gravity and evolution.
Although Leonardo da Vinci designed beautiful flying machines in the 15th century, it wasn’t until 1891 that the German Otto Lilienthal made a series of soaring flights in his own gliders. By 1896 he had made two thousand flights, launched from foot and controlled by altering the centre of gravity, now referred to as ‘weight shift.’ When the Treaty of Versailles ended engine driven flights in Germany after WW1, Germans designed and flew ever more efficient gliders while discovering how atmospheric forces could allow them to fly further and faster. The dream of flight had now become reality.
In 1951, Francis Rogallo patented a self-inflating wing, which led to the first foot launched Rogallo wing hang glider being flown in California by engineer Barry Palmer. The thrill and freedom of foot launched hang gliding appealed to the experimental culture of the 1970s; British pilots could now build their own gliders from plans and experience the joy of flight for themselves. Sussex based Johnny Carr was one of those pioneering hang gliding pilots and I spoke to him about his early love of flight. “When I was a boy, I’d climb to the top of Wolstonbury Hill and wonder at the thought of being able to just fly off the top,” he remembered. By 1974, he was flying from Steyning Bowl by sheer trial and error. There were no schools in those days and Johnny only knew that “to come down you pulled the bar in and to go up you pushed it out.” He was a determined pilot and after flying for a few weeks, he entered a competition and won the Class 3 event for large gliders. Spurred on, he won the same class in the British Championships
in 1976 and was picked for the Worlds Team in France three years later. After coming second in this competition he became the first British pilot to compete in the American Masters and in 1979 he was on the British team that won Gold in the American Cup in Chattanooga. He competed throughout the 1980s and in 1992 he was flying a Swift, a high performance foot launched sailplane with which he won the silver medal in the 1999 World Championships in Italy.
Johnny eventually broke the British out-and-return record for a hang glider in 2012 by flying 108km from Devils Dyke to Butser Hill and back again, receiving a second silver medal from the Royal Aero Club in recognition of his hang gliding achievements. I asked Johnny how he read the sky to stay airborne over that distance without having to descend, and he described how he uses clouds
as ‘stepping stones’; “When you go into lift using thermals, you circle up and fly out of the top when you are high enough, then look for fluffy white cumulus clouds with dark bases.” He told me how swallows are a good indicator of thermals as they catch insects in rising air and buzzards use air currents to rise. Hang gliding is as much about reading the air and landscape as it is about physical flying skill. A farm is apparently a good source of thermal lift as muddy brown fields create dark areas that warm up, heating air that then rises while factories and small towns create their own thermals too.
Hang gliding has led Johnny to take up wildlife photography after encountering birds of prey at close quarters during flights. He once saw an osprey gripping a fish in its talons while flying over Truleigh Hill; how many people have been privileged to experience flight alongside birds at ease in their own element?
While Johnny has remained dedicated to hang gliding, most beginner pilots will now be encouraged to take up paragliding instead. In the early days, schools taught hang gliding but found a larger uptake of pupils once paragliding became more accessible and so changed to the more popular and affordable sport. Johnny mentioned how some people adapt to both disciplines, hang gliding in stronger winds and paragliding in the lighter winds where it’s possible to launch and maintain height. Although early models of hang gliders were made with ripstop nylon and aluminium struts, they were quite light as there was not much to them. They are still light and much safer today, however paragliders are even lighter and this is an influencing factor for a novice pilot.
I met a pilot who made the shift from hang gliding to paragliding via sailplanes, starting out at the same time as Johnny in the early seventies. Finn Kennedy built his own hang glider from some A5 Xeroxed plans sent over from Californian Bob Lovejoy in 1972. He soon realised he felt more at ease with sailplanes, or gliders; with these a pilot could achieve long distance flight at relatively high speeds. He flew sailplanes until 1980 and then after a gap, took up paragliding which now takes him all over the world in pursuit of his passion for flight. Finn told me how early paragliders were developed from parachutes which required guiding capabilities, eventually evolving into sophisticated pieces of engineering that generate lift from a double skin, inflating while in flight through open internal cells on the wing edge.
Reading the air is crucial to successful flight; Finn outlined some of the different air patterns that may be encountered and utilised as a paraglider pilot. Thermal flight is possible when the sun warms some areas more than others, creating thermals which may manifest as a simple column of air or one that is blown sideways in wind, breaking contact with the source. Once the pilot finds a thermal they can fly in a circle, entering it on the strongest part of the thermal, called the ‘core’, where the air is rising quickly. Pilots can glide from one thermal to another to travel across country, gaining enough altitude within one thermal to progress to the next.
‘Restitution’ occurs in hilly areas in the evening when cool air runs down hills and warm air leaves the valley and travels upwards; Finn has experienced this in the Alps and South Africa. ‘Convergence’ is when two airflows from different directions meet at the same height and rise simultaneously; more common here as sea breeze fronts meet in a convergence zone. ‘Wave lift’ occurs when air travels in waves up to ten times the hill height and sailplane pilots can utilise this to gain high altitudes from which to travel long distances.
Although most people assume that flying is the difficult part, Finn mentioned that ground handling is initially harder to master; you face into the wind and run or walk forward before filling the wing with air by pulling on it. At this point, the wing is above, catching airflow; it’s then that you can run down the slope while the wing gently rises, lifting you with it. A backward launch is when you start with the wind behind you, turning round when the wing is up and then starting to run. Although this all sounds straightforward, it can be overwhelming for a beginner, unfamiliar with the lines to control and the wing catching you off balance. “You have to go to a school where you can have a taster day and get your feet off the ground,” Finn told me. “It usually takes a week to learn how to fly solo.” He said that although Herculean strength is not required, energy and determination are needed in abundance and you must be certain to remain in control and not allow your attention to wander. One interesting fact is that although humans can sense acceleration, they cannot detect the difference between rising or sinking air. This requires a ‘variometer’, an instrument that indicates sink or climb rates with short audio signals and can display altitude either above sea level, takeoff or flight level. The paraglider is controlled by brakes – lines connected to the trailing edge of the left and right sides of the wing. These adjust speed, steering and the ability to ‘flare’ during landing.
A paragliding wing and harness is not heavy; a beginner’s set up would weigh around 15 kilos and this partially accounts for the rise in popularity of paragliding over hang gliding. A paragliding pilot can bundle their wing into a portable bag and carry it up a hill again and again, whereas a hang glider has to be de-rigged and is often too heavy to be carried any distance without help or transport. A reserve parachute can be carried when flying above 60 feet, below which it would be useless and a helmet and cushioned harness minimise risk when landing.
Beginners practise how to control the glider on the ground, learning take offs and controlling the wing over their head. Low gentle hills provide the first flights at very low altitudes; next lessons involve higher steeper hills and practice in turning and turns, spot landings and other more advanced techniques. Training should be taken at a BHPA (British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association) registered school; the Elementary Pilot award is the first qualification of the BHPA Pilot Rating Scheme.
Many people assume that disabled people will be unable to fly but this is completely untrue; the BHPA run a disability initiative called Flyability which promotes hang gliding and paragliding to anyone with a disability. Flyability’s original co-ordinator, Steve Varden learned to fly hang gliders despite having athetosis cerebral palsy and within the BHPA are a number of pilots with more or less severe disabilities. The message from the free flying community to anyone with a disability is “you can fly!”
Watching videos made by pilots is a great way to visually catch a taste of the huge appeal of unpowered flight.
Like Johnny, Finn also had his own childhood dream of flight; the reality has turned out to exceed even the dream. “There’s no roaring engine, you’re like a bird because the wing becomes part of you,” he told me before describing six days in the Himalayas where he flew with eagles and vultures in the solitary silence above the earth.
We are lucky to live in an age where unpowered flight is finally possible. Whether following a dream, inspired by birds or seeking thrills, hang gliding and paragliding offer a chance to escape the bonds of earth and for a time, experience a truly different way to be alive.
Visit www.bhpa.co.uk for more information.