invented the flex wing hang glider?
birth of hang gliding as a sport is popularlly seen as a Californian
phenomenon. Few have questioned the notion that Richard Miller, Bill Moyes
and Bill Bennett brought the Rogalto hang glider to the attention of a
receptive American public in the late sixties. But where did they get
their ideas from? Miller's attitude to hang gliding was not as a sport but
as an exercise in freedom. In the days of flower power his visions of
personal motorless flight and 'transcendental aerodynamics' attracted
popular interest. His bamboo and polythene contraptions were a perfect
expression of alternative aviation. Miller's source was directly from the
NASA research documentation. Moyes and Bennett however, were much more in
the mould of the early barnstormers. Both Australians, they came to Europe
and the States to sell 'kites' as a business. But who taught them to fly
and where did they get their designs from? All paths lead back to the
little-known John Dickensons and this is his story.
starting point for the whole saga is the work done by Francis and Gertrude
Rogalto in the late forties. Their aim was to construct a flying machine
with no rigid element or element designed to produce rigidity: a
completely new concept, never seen before, with no model in nature"-
Their early work is evidenced by their 1948 Patent, and the photograph of
a flexible test vehicle, typical of the period seen in the Langley wind
tunnel (see photo).
Rogalto's invention found moderate success when it was privately marketed
as a toy, but it was the space race which began to btossom in the
mid-fifties that caught the imagination of NASA. Francis Rogalto started
in 1936 as an engineer at the then NACA controlled Langley Research Center,
later to take charge of wind-tunnel experiments.
is a clear line of devetopment from the original flexible wing ideas
directly into paragliding. The Pioneer Parachute Co and Irvin Industries
manufactures versions of the type as the Delta 11 Parawing. Domina Jalbert
also took up the flexible wing principle and is now credited by some as
the father of paragliding - but all of these pioneers owe a huge debt to
the original research work of the Rogaltos.
the pace of competitive States/USSR rocket devetopment quickened, Francis
Rogalto adapted and extended the totally flexible principle into
semi-rigid variants. This mainly involved stabilizing the leading edges
with compressed air beam or rigid structures like aluminum tube There was
a great state of creative ideas in this period which culminated in the set
of patents all dated around the mid to late sixties.
was the custom in U.S. Government establishments that once the basic
studies of a devetopment were completed, private companies were invited to
take the ball and run with a series of lucrative contracts. The Ryan
company and North American Aviation were awarded most of these, and very
soon flex-wings of man shapes, sizes and power plant were devetoped. Apart
from flexible re-entry gliders, helicopter towed flex-wings, radio
controlled self-steering cargo delivery gliders, rocket powered escape
rogalto modules, Fleeps and Parasevs abounded. Millions were spent en
research. During this time most of the devetopments were made available
for public consumption, and photographs and articles were not uncommon in
the popular press. Among many others, in 1962 Ryan published a photo of a
Gemini capsule suspended beneath a primitive rogalto wing with pneumatic
leading edges (see photo).
then suddenly the bubble burst and devetopment el flexible wing craft stowed
dramatically. No further contracts were awarded to Ryan or North American.
Capsule re-entry was to be effected by parachute only, into the oceans.
The Shuttle principle devetoped so fast it made all the flexible wing deptoyment,
re-entry vehicles redundant. Finally the military and space agencies tost
interest completely, and the programmed end which millions of dollars had
been lavished, ceased to exist. And that is where it would have stopped
had not severas enthusiasts, spread throughout the world, seen the
possibilities of the Rogalto wing as cheap personal aviation.
1963 John Dickensons was working in electronics, not aviation, and had
just moved to Grafton, New South Wales, Australia with his wife Amy. As a
child John was obsessed with things that fly, But as he grew up
circumstances forced him to train for a more down-to-earth profession.
However, the urge to fly cannot lightly be put aside, and it was on
Woolgoolga beach that John was spotted flying a modified Benson gyro-plane
by officials of the Grafton Water Ski Club. The Annual Jacaranda Festival
was approaching and John, by now a club member, was drafted in it build
and a water ski kite as part of the show. If he could build and fly a
gyro-plane, a ski kite should give him no trouble, The Club expected John
to make a conventional flat-kite, the sort that doesn't really fly but goes
upwards in drag reaction just due to the tow boat speed. This idea was
abandoned when John discovered that every previous kite flyer at the
Jacaranda Festival had been injured, and that was what everybody turned up
for! it was at this time that the Gemini photo was released, and this
seemed to be much more suited to the aquatic environment. John saw it in a
magazine and was inspired.
is precisely at this point that history was made. Armed with only the
photograph. No dimensions. No back up information. John started to make
models based on the flex-wing principle
they flew - really well. By May 1963 he had a half-size model in which he
could be towed. The full size version was devetoped and the maiden flight
was in September 1963. The photo shows it's second flight with Rod Fuller
as pitot. The Daily Examiner of October 1963 records the event for
posterity. Note the weight shift single hang point, the 'A' frame. All the
major innovations that lead directly to hang gliding as we know it today
were devetoped in the space of about 6 months On the 11 th October 1963
John filed for a patent and Provisional Protection was awarded for the
application numbered 36189/63.
first gliders had wood leading edges, aluminum cross-booms, iron 'A'
frames and the sails were made from blue plastic sheeting- Total cost $24!
and construction problems had been sorted. John's Ski Wing, for that is
what it was called, was now made entirely out of aluminum, except for the
mild steel 'A' frame, part-battened sails out of nyton and the rigging was
wire cable. He had designed the nose plate so that the leading edges swung
into the keel, and the cross-boom pivoted, fore and aft, for quick knock
down and car-top transport. And most importantly, although launch was
still being towed behind a boat, the landings were often made off the tow
line in true free-flight. lt is interesting to note that work on personal
Rogaltos in the states was still a year or so off, and when it did start it
would go the bamboo, plastic and parallel bars route.
Rogalto and Dickensons
1964 a Brisbane newspaper had published a picture of John Dickenson's
creation and a man called Robin Bishop had seen it and wrote to his friend
Francis Rogallo in Virginia, USA, explaining that an Australian had
independently developed the Rogallo principle into a perfectly viable
man-carrying aeroplano for so little money it was laughable.
Understandably interested, Rogallo wrote to John in September 1964
requesting information. On the 24th November the entire plans and general
specification of the Ski Wing were sent back to him at the Langley Research
Center in Virginia. In just about every detail the craft described in the
drawings is identical to what became known throughout the world as the
'Standard Rogallo' and latterly 'Bog Rog'. We had to wait for another ten years
before this type of hang glider started to become obsolete.
Francis Rogallo's reply to John dated 29th January 1965, he says, and 1
quote directly: "To get back to your glider design, I hope to make
some copies of your drawings and perhaps have some individual or groups
build a glider like yours locally ... Your design looks better than other
ski kites that I have seen and I wish you great success with it."
This is praise indeed from the master-
1964 the publicity surrounding the Ski Wing was beginning to create a
demand and John started making and selling the glider to water ski enthusiasts.
Rod Fuller now drove the boats, John did the demo flights and people like
Ruy Leighton bought the early examples. However for one reason or another
the business of marketing the hang glider as a tow launched craft was
were flying a lot of exhibitions and everyone was very enthusiastic, but
converting interest into sales was an uphill struggle. John thinks that it
was the dare-devil publicity that made people wary. After all the work,
they had a complete system to sell and John wasn't making any money out of
it. He was beginning to wonder if it was all worth while.
1966 a move to Sydney and a meeting with Mike Burns seemed to open up new
commercial possibilities. Mike was a graduate aeronautical engineer who
had independently developed a Rogallo type tow glider called the Ski
Plane. His company Aerostructures now started to build the Dickensons Ski
Wing whilst John demo'd it and taught people to fly-
this time John set an Australian 2 hour endurance record and people like
Bill Moyes, Bill Bennett and Gelignite Jack Murray began to sit up and
March 1967 Moyes and Bennett signed up for trial flights. John duly taught
them both to fly and Bill Moyes bought a kite from Aerostructured. Shortly
afterwards the company went broke owing John all the commission from the
wings that had been sold.
Moyes and John became good friends. John willingly donated the design
constructional information of the Ski Wing to Bill, and in the years
between 1967 and 1969 a great deal of collaborative work was carried out
in the search for bigger performance. lt seems that Bill was a fearless
flyer and his chase for records aild hang gliding publicity created an
enormous press following. Bill Bennett was similarly motivated and
altitude records sec-sawcd between the two barnstormers. In 1969-70 Bennett
moved to the States with some gliders based en John Dickensons designs and
set up a manufacturing business in California. Moyes was already set up in
Australia and beginning to make it pay. lt is ironic that at a time when
hang gliding started to fire the public's imagination world-wide, John Dickensons
should begin to retreat from involvement with it's future. Pressures at
work, the financial implications of the move to Sydney and trying to
salvage a Diploma in Management at the job all contributed to his
withdrawal. By late 1969 John had stopped flying and building, and by 1973
the collaboration with Bill Moyes was over, though they are still good
place in history
is undoubtedly true that many people from many countries made very real
to the development of the hang glider; The phenomenon of parallel
development has clearly operated to a great extent. Richard Miller in the
States was blissfully unaware of the work of John Dickensons in Grafton as
was Mike Burns in Sydney. lt appears that Tom Purcell Jr flew a Rogallo
tow vehicle in 1961,and Jim NatlandandBar Palmer were also pioneers in the
all the efforts of these visionary engineers, the name of John Dickensons
must stand alone as the man who created the first completely developed
flexible wing hang glider, with all the features we now take for granted.
He did it in 1963, way ahead of anything that was going on in the States. He
did it in a small town in Australia away from the so-called centers of
learning. He did it in a small town in a starting point, and he even had a
provisional patent for it.
whole process was complete in a ridiculously short time at hardly any
cost. ironically he never made any money out of his invention.
all this, his contribution is not generally recognized. Not even in
Australia. Surely John Dickensons rightful place in history is alongside
Dr. Francis Rogallo.