About Hang Gliding


The air sport of hang gliding allows pilots to fly a light, unmotorized aircraft which can be launched by foot. At present, the majority of hang gliders are made from aluminium alloy, or a composite framed fabric wing. The pilot is attached to the harnessed which is inturn suspended from the frame of the glider – while being able to control the frame by shifting body weight to and from each side.

The early days of hang gliding only included the ability to soar down small hills on comparatively low-performance gliders. However these days the evolution of technology allows pilots to soar through the skies for many hours, glide cross-country and even perform aerobatic tricks in the air – at their own risk.

The History of Hang Gliding

Most glider designs during the early days did not promote safety in flight. The primary problem was that early flight pioneers did not sufficiently understand the underlying principles that made a bird’s wing function the way that it does to ensure a smooth glide.

Beginning in the 1880s, technical and scientific advancements were made that led to the first  truly practical gliders. Otto Lilienthal built controllable gliders in the 1890s, which enabled him to ridge soar. He rigorously documented his work, strongly influencing later designers. It’s for this reason, that Lilienthal is one of the best known and most influential of the early aviation pioneers. His aircraft was controlled by weight shift and is similar to a modern hang glider, as he was attached to the glider by his shoulders, and swung his feet to control them.

Between the years of 1900 and 1910 much progress was made. Hang gliding saw the introduction of a hardened, flexible-wing hang glider in 1904, when Jan Lavezzari flew a double-lateen, sail hang glider off Berck Beach in France. In April 1909, a how-to article published by Carl S.Bates proved to be a very influential hang glider article, that seemingly affected builders even of contemporary times; as several builders would have their first hang glider made from following the plan laid out in his article.

On November the 23rd  in 1948, Francis Rogallo and Gertrude Rogallo applied for a kite patent. It was for a fully-flexible kited wing, with approved claims for its gliding uses; the flexible wing or Rogallo wing, which in 1957, the American space agency NASA began testing in various flexible and semi-rigid configurations, in order to use it as a recovery system for the Gemini space capsules. The various stiffening formats and the wing’s simplicity of design and ease of construction, along with its capability of slow flight with its gentle landing characteristics, did not go unnoticed by hang glider enthusiasts.

Between the years of 1960 and 1962, Barry Hill Palmer adapted the flexible wing concept to make foot-launched hang gliders with four different control arrangements. In 1963, Mike Burns adapted the flexible wing to build a kite hang glider which he called ‘Skiplane’. Also in 1963, John W. Dickenson adapted the flexible-wing airfoil concept to make another water-ski kite glider; and for this, the World Air Sports Federation (aka, the FAI) honoured Dickenson with the Hang Gliding Diploma in 2006 for the invention of the modern hang glider.

Hang Gliding Instruments

To maximize a pilot’s understanding of how the hang glider is going during a particular flight, most pilots will usually carry instruments. The most basic of these being a variometer and altimeter – often combined. Some more advanced pilots also carry airspeed indicators and radios. When flying in competition or cross-country, pilots may also carry maps and GPS units. Hang gliders do not have instrument panels as such, so all the instruments are mounted to the control frame of the glider, or occasionally fixed to the pilots arm or watch.

Gliding pilots are able to sense the acceleration forces when they first hit a thermal, but have difficulty gauging constant motion. This makes it difficult to detect the difference between constantly rising air and constantly sinking air. A variometer is a very sensitive vertical speed indicator. It indicates the climb or sink rate with audio signals (which let off a beep) or a visual display. These units are generally electronic and often include an altimeter with an airspeed indicator. More advanced units often incorporate a barograph for recording flight data, or a built-in GPS.

Pilots use radio for training purposes and while communicating with other pilots in the air  – particularly when traveling together on cross-country flights. One type of radio used is the PTT (push-to-talk) transceiver, which operates in or around the FM VHF 2-meter band (144 Mhz–148 MHz). Usually a microphone is incorporated in the helmet and the PTT switch is either fixed to the outside of the helmet, or strapped to a finger.

The GPS is a necessary accessory when flying in competitions, where it needs to be demonstrated that pilots have glided through the areas that need to be correctly passed. It can also be interesting to view a GPS track of a flight when back on the ground, to analyze flying technique and plan the next route. Software is also available which can allow for various amendments and route suggestions for pilots wishing to fly unknown areas.

Competitions for Hang Gliding

Hang gliding competitions originated with events where pilots would need to fly for as long as they could, and often included spot landings. As performed increased and technology progressed, cross-country competitions would soon replace them. Generally, two to four waypoints need to be passed with a landing at a specific area. Towards the late 1990s, GPS units with lowered power were introduced and completely replaced photographs of the goal.

Each two years, there is a hang gliding world championship. In 2006, the Rigid and Women’s World Championship was held in Florida, sponsored by Quest Air, while Big Spring in Texas hosted the actual 2007 World Hang Gliding Championship.

In the World Air Games, which is organized by the FAI, hang gliding is included as one of the main competition categories. This organization establishes rules and keeps records with a chronology for the World Hang Gliding Championships. As of 2005, the hang gliding record for ‘free distance’ is owned by Michael Barber who flew a total distance of 704 kms in 2002 at Zapata, Texas.