Hang Gliding

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This page last updated on 02/12/2017.

Copyright 2001-2017 by Russ Meyer

"Never fly higher than you're willing to fall."  - Old Hang Glider Pilot's Adage

The Chandelle

As far back as I can remember, I was interested in flying contraptions of all types.  The first flying machine I ever owned was a rubber band powered balsa and tissue model my Dad and I (mostly Dad) built when I was 9 years old.  Soon after that, I started dreaming of ways I could go flying myself.  I had to content myself with flying models of various kinds until the summer following my Sophomore year in High School, 1979.

For a couple of years, I had been longingly watching the hang gliding craze emerge in California.  Wow, now here was a way to get off the ground, and it seemed within reach for a man of modest means such as myself.  I worked all summer and saved my money.

At the end of the summer, I went to Seattle with my friends Tim, Rick, and Bob.  It was a perfect opportunity to hunt around for a used hang glider.  Armed with a wad of cash from my summer job, I scanned the Seattle newspaper classifieds.  I found a guy selling a Chandelle glider in pretty good shape, and bought it for $400.  It was a very basic glider with a miserable 4:1 glide ratio, but it flew.  The Chandelle company that manufactured it went out of business about a year earlier when first one, then the other founder was killed in gliding accidents.  Victims of in-flight structural failure of the next generation Chandelle glider.

Back in Walla Walla, I had a problem; I didn't know how to fly a hang glider.Russ washing Chandelle glider; April, 1981.  I had read countless books about proper technique, but things were different in real life.  There were no hang gliders in town that I knew of, neither could I find anyone that had even seen one up close.  As far as I could tell, at least in the circle of people I knew, my glider was the first one ever in Walla Walla.  That meant I was faced with teaching myself to fly it.  I knew the basics from books:  1) stand at top of hill, 2) face into wind, 3) run!, 4) nose up to break ground, 5) nose back down to establish glide, and 6) push nose up to flair on landing.  I would soon discover the devil is in the details!

The first problem was ground handling.  Just standing at the top of a hill with the glider facing into the wind doesn't sound that hard, but it is!  The typical hang glider has somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 square feet of sail area.  With the thing balanced on your shoulders, a 10 MPH wind acting on all that sail can knock you around quite a bit.  If you allow the nose to come up any appreciable amount, the force of the wind is enough to bowl you over backward.  If the glider is ever pointed more than about 15 away from the wind, the wind will raise a wing and spin you sideways.  There is absolutely no way to muscle the glider back under control.  If you commit any of these sins in a wind of much more that 10 MPH, the glider will likely be lifted and tossed upside-down, with you still attached of course.  The only way to prevent this is to "fly" the glider continuously, even while just standing there on the ground.  You have to work with the wind, because there is no way to overpower it.  That means you are always doing a little dance side-to-side and are constantly adjusting pitch angle to keep the nose down.  It's a delicate balance and takes some time to learn.  I was painfully ignorant of these little nuances when I had my first "incident."

I had decided to take the glider to a small knoll outside of town to practice handling it and maybe make a few short hops.  The wind was quite variable, sometimes dead calm and sometimes picking up to about 10 MPH.  The glider wouldn't lift off below 18 MPH, and I could only manage to run 10 MPH with it on my shoulders.  Because of this, I had to wait for the wind to kick up before I could try anything.  This waiting was very tedious; I became tired and rather frustrated with it.  It was hot, and I was uncomfortable squatting beneath the glider in my harness waiting for the stupid wind.  It had been dead calm for probably 10 minutes when I decided to take a more relaxed posture.  I let the glider settle back on the tail tube with its nose pointed up at the sky.  Leaning back supported by the harness was like lounging in a lawn chair...ahhhhh.  I sat there, with my eyes half closed, waiting...waiting...  Suddenly, the wind jumped from dead calm to at least 15 MPH.  I felt the nose of the glider start to rise.  I tried to stand up with the glider on my shoulders so I could maneuver the nose down, but the wind had already pushed the glider back about a foot and jammed the tail tube into the soft earth.  The nose continued rising and the slack came out of my harness.  Straining mightily, I quickly realized the tail tube was digging in and preventing me from lifting the glider, so I tried to roll it off to one side to get the nose away from the wind.  Too late!  I was lifted bodily into the air as the glider flipped over backward.  I remember being suspended about 12 feet off the ground looking down, with the nose of the glider pointed straight up.  To my horror, it had actually lofted off the ground and was now drifting backward with the tail tube floating about three feet above the dirt.  "This is gonna hurt," I thought.  As the glider came down, the tail tube dug in once more, pole vaulting me over the top.  Fortunately, the sails caught the air and cushioned the impact.  The crash wasn't bad at all, and I was relieved I hadn't taken a beating.

The glider came to rest upside-down on its king-post at about a 30 angle.  Sprawled on top of the glider, I wanted to get unhooked and inspect the damage.  I reached up to unlatch the D-ring that connects the harness to the glider, but couldn't get to it; it was about 10 inches out of reach.  I tried climbing up, but there wasn't anything to grab on to.  I tried to get a fistful of Dacron sail cloth, but it was too slippery.  Hmmm, this was a problem.  I kicked and rolled around until I exhausted myself, all to no avail.  About mile away, a farmer in his truck rolled to a stop and surveyed the scene.  How embarrassing...junior bird-man stuck like a fly on flypaper.  After a couple of minutes, the guy rumbled off, and I was relieved to be alone again to work out the problem.

Sheezh...there just had to be some way to pull myself up to that D-ring.  I reached around behind my head and grasped the harness webbing.  Well, I could try pulling up with that, but I couldn't get the webbing out in front of me.  The only way to pull myself up was to grab behind my head and lift.  I tried this, and although it worked, it was very difficult; it took all my strength.  Just try it sometime; try lifting yourself off the ground by hanging on to a rope behind your head.  Anyway, with Herculean effort, I managed to pull myself up high enough to grab the cross tube.  Suspended there by one arm, I fumbled with the D-ring using my other hand.  Pushing back the spring loaded latch and slipping the harness out with one hand proved very difficult, but I eventually managed it.  I slid off the sail and landed in the dirt with a thump.  I sure learned a painful lesson in ground handling!  Turns out the tail tube was bent pretty bad.  I took the glider home, disassembled it, bent the tube back into position, and kept flying.

While learning to launch the glider, I kept "running" into another problem.  As I ran downhill, everything would be proceeding very well until the moment of liftoff.  As my shoes left the ground, the glider would nose over viciously and slam into the dirt, abruptly ending the takeoff run with a loud and painful crunch.  I couldn't understand what was going on.  After several weeks of trial and error, I finally figured it out.  As the glider lifted off the ground, I would instinctively hang onto the control bar.  Because the bar is mounted forward of the harness, this shifted the center of gravity forward, pulling the nose down causing a crash.  I had to consciously train myself not to cling to the bar and let the harness do the lifting.  After this little lesson, I was able to fly without problem.

I think the best flight I ever had in the Chandelle was when I caught some ridge lift.  I went up into the foothills of the Blue Mountains with my friend Craig and his brothers, Dirk and Reid.Russ flying Chandelle from reservoir levy; March 1981.  The wind was blowing a steady 15 MPH.  We set up the glider and got ready to launch.  I was a little apprehensive because I had rarely launched into this much wind.  I got into position and began my run; in two steps I was off.  The glider seemed to levitate into the air.  My forward motion over the ground was only about 5 MPH.  I looked down and saw Dirk trotting below.  The glider was rising fast, and he seemed to just recede beneath me, getting smaller and smaller.  "How is it?," he yelled.  "Great!," I replied.  I tried a couple of gentle turns, being careful not to turn too far away from the wind for fear it would blow me back against the hill.  My altitude probably peaked at about 150 feet.  I flew straight ahead, landing far down the hillside.  Wow, that was great!  I wanted to try it again, this time paralleling the hill to stay in the zone of lift.  Right about this time, a couple of farmers pulled up in a truck and yelled for us to get lost.  We disassembled the glider and went home.  Getting permission to fly over someone's land was proving to be one of the bigger problems with this kind of activity.

I flew the Chandelle quite a bit and had a lot of fun with it.  It was amazingly durable; I can't believe the beating it took.  Eventually, I sold the glider to a couple of other guys in my High School for $600.


The Bamboo Butterfly

In early 1982, during my Freshman year of college, I began to long for some means to leave the ground again.  My hang gliding books showed pictures of a class of early gliders called Bamboo Butterflies.  They were made of bamboo and plastic sheeting.  They didn't look too expensive to build, so I decided to try.  I had no information on how to construct such a craft, so I carefully examined the photos.

The very early gliders used a Warren truss as a cross member.  This created a lot of drag.  I found that later versions used a different way of bracing the cross tube, avoiding draggy trusses.  I soon understood the basic geometry of the machine; now about its dimensions.  I had a couple of photos of people standing next to Bamboo Butterflies.  Guessing the person's height at about 5 feet 10 inches gave me a scale factor for the photos.  On the photos, I measured dimensions of structural elements with a ruler and scaled them using the derived scaling factor.  This put the overall planform at generally the right size.  I then fine tuned the final dimensions of the craft so the wing loading would come out right.  Most hang gliders at the time ran wing loadings around 1 to 2 pounds per square foot, so I scaled mine accordingly.  I also tweaked the aspect ratio a bit.  The gliders in the photos generally had nose angles from 60 to 80.  I opened the nose angle of my glider to 90.  This would make it more pitch sensitive, but hopefully yield a better glide ratio.  Before constructing the thing, I made a scale model that flew successfully.  Below are the plans I drew up, plus a couple of other photos.

Planform & general dimensions.

Miscellaneous construction details.

Planform photo.

Sideview photo.

It took two days during semester break to build the glider in the basement of my dormitory.  It was made of 4 mil plastic sheeting, duct tape, inch hardware store bolts, flat washers, wing nuts, lock nuts, and of course, bamboo.  About $120 worth of materials.  I test flew it a couple of times, and everything seemed OK.  It would lift off at about 14 MPH.  These test flights were really just short 60 to 80 foot hops, but enough to know that it could fly and was controllable.  I was ready for a longer flight.

In March, the weather had improved enough to try flying the glider a bit more.  I took it and a few of my friends, Lance, Dave, and Serena, out to Kamiak Butte.  We hiked to the top and assembled the glider.Craig Nelson kiting the Bamboo Butterfly; May, 1982.  I thought I would launch, fly down contouring the ground, and land at the bottom.  On launch, I took two steps into the 10 MPH wind and was off.  About 10 seconds later, I looked down and was astonished to see 30 foot pine trees and jagged rocks floating serenely beneath my feet.  I was a good 80 feet in the air.  This was not the plan at all!  I was way higher than I meant to be.  Well, nothing was actually wrong, but I was afraid the flight would last longer than expected.  One deficiency of the glider was that it didn't have a harness.  Two parallel bars of bamboo caught you under the armpits and held you aloft.  This worked OK, but I found I couldn't hold on like this for more than about two minutes, especially while swinging my legs about to shift weight and maneuver the glider.  I looked down again and discovered the ground even further away than before.  It now appeared that I was at least 150 feet in the air.  Yipes!  I needed to do something because my armpits were already starting to ache; I had to descend.  Kicking my legs forward and holding them there put the glider into a shallow dive.

In the dive, the airspeed increased and revealed an unnerving aerodynamic problem.  The glider began an uncontrolled right roll.  I kicked my legs out forward and to the left and held them there.  This just checked the roll; the bank angle wasn't getting any steeper, but I was still turning.  At least I was coming down fast now.  The descent took about one minute, which doesn't sound very long, but was an eternity to be holding my legs out straight like that.  My armpits were on fire, and it occurred to me that in a very short while, I would be unable to hold on any longer.

Finally, with the ground rushing up to meet me, I dropped my legs and held them back to flair.  The glider pitched up, parachuted down the last 10 feet, and thumped hard on the ground.  The landing was so hard that I punched myself in the face with both my kneecaps...ughhh...I was bruised, but alive!  Wow, what a flight; I landed a good mile down the side of the butte.  I also landed across the slope of the hill thanks to the 90 right turn made while in the uncontrolled bank.

I thought about that weird rolling behavior of the glider for a while and finally realized what had happened.  When I built the glider, I had set the billow in the sails based on a few measurements and by "eye-balling" it.  This billow essentially controls the shape of the airfoil.  Although the sails on both sides looked identical, they apparently had somewhat different shapes.  The two sides had pretty much the same lift and drag characteristics at low speed.  However, when I put the glider into a dive and went faster, the slight difference in the sails created an asymmetric drag.  This cause the glider to yaw to the right, inducing a roll.  As long as I kept the speed down, everything was fine.  We flew the glider several more times that day, but from a point much lower on the butte.  We were able to keep the glider flying slowly and near the ground, so we never got into that ugly situation again.  Both Lance and Serena flew it that day.  Lance hopped about 600 feet down the side of the butte, never more than about 15 feet in the air.

In April, Lance and I took the glider to Steptoe Butte.  On its flanks we found a wonderful gently sloping hill about mile long.  It was covered with knee-high grass, and dotted with occasional shrubs 3-5 feet high.  Perfect for a bit of flying.  After a couple of glides, I discovered I could fly along with my feet just grazing the tops of the grass.  Accompanied by the tickety-tick of grass stems on my sneakers, I would aim at one of the shrubs, and, carrying a bit of speed, at the last moment pitch up and zoom over it.  Sometimes I'd drag my sneakers through the topmost leaves.  A dive back down to grass height with a slight turn towards the next unsuspecting shrub would have you set up for the attack.  The hill was long enough do this maneuver 2 or 3 times before landing.  Man it was fun!  That's the most fun I've ever had in a glider.  Lance and I spent all afternoon taking turns flying.  Life was good, very good.

The glider finally met its demise when I was trying to teach Rick's brother, John, to fly it.  We went out on a hill and practiced some short hops.  John was having trouble getting the nose down after breaking ground on take-off.  He was allowing the nose to come up into a stall.  On one particular attempt, he got the nose quite high, stalled it, slid backward, and landed on the tail.  The rear section of the bamboo keel tube snapped off.  After this, I realized the bamboo had dried out and become somewhat brittle.  It didn't seem wise to repair it and continue flying.  It would be better to replace all of the bamboo.  That would mean rebuilding the whole thing, and I just didn't feel up to it.  Thus ended the life of that glider.


The Easy Riser

During the summer of 1982, between Freshman and Sophomore years in college, I bought an Easy Riser hang glider kit from Ultralight Flying Products.  The kits were on sale for $800, marked down from $1200.  I was working 7 days per week putting in 12 hour shifts on a farm.Final assembly of the Easy Riser; August, 1982.  Despite this, by the end of the summer, I managed to accumulate the 300 hours required to construct the glider.  The Easy Riser was by far the most sophisticated glider I had ever owned.  It was a flying wing biplane with a rigid wing; not like the simple, flexible dacron/plastic sails of my earlier gliders.  It had internal spars and wing ribs.  It had drag rudders for lateral control, but pitch control was still accomplished by shifting your weight fore and aft.  It had two parallel bars for pilot support.  Just like my Bamboo Butterfly, they caught you under the armpits.  You could fly the thing without a harness for short hops, but it also included a provision for mounting a harness.  The pilot was seated supine when a harness was used.  It had an amazing 10:1 glide ratio and a minimum sink rate of 180 feet per minute.  Astounding compared to my earlier machines.  It weighed about 50 pounds, almost twice that of the Chandelle.

When I finished the craft, my friends Dave and Tim helped me truck it out to a little knoll outside of town.Ready for launch, Easy Riser maiden flight; August, 1982.  I set it up and tried to get used to the ground handling.  It was very different from anything I had flown before.  The thing seemed tail heavy and wanted to squat down in back.  It took a while to get used to holding the tail off the ground until there was sufficient airflow for it to float on its own.  The drag rudders were useless for ground handling; they had absolutely no effect.  It didn't matter anyway, because it took two hands just to hold the thing up; I didn't have another hand free to manage the rudder controls.  I discovered that you had to start your takeoff run by holding the rear of the parallel "hang tubes" until the wing started flying, then rapidly move forward to keep the nose down and prevent a stall.  This took a lot of coordination and I had to practice about 30 minutes before I figured it out.

After a couple of abortive take-off attempts, I managed to get it in the air.  It seemed to have a very flat glide.  I flipped the drag rudders a couple of times and found the craft quite responsive.  Very positive control; it felt like the machine was on rails.Easy Riser maiden flight; August, 1982.  A far cry from the wallowing characteristics of the Rogallo style gliders I had been flying up until then.  The hill was not long and I wanted to be sure not to overshoot the landing area, so I kicked my legs forward to point the nose down.  As the airspeed increased, the machine started flying even better.  The glide seemed almost horizontal.  Wow, this was really great.  I realized it had just been mushing along before at the slower airspeed; now that it was going faster, the little craft really wanted to keep flying!  But I couldn't keep going, I had to come down soon or I'd overrun the landing zone.  I opened both drag rudders simultaneously to kill the glide ratio.  The glider responded and the angle of descent increased sharply.  Nearing the ground, I retracted the drag rudders, and the little ship immediately leveled out.  A bit of a flair and I landed without incident, although touchdown was a little fast; almost faster than I could run.  Wow, that was cool.

Unfortunately, that was my one and only significant flight.  I later became much too busy in school to fool with gliders.  The next few summers I spent taking classes or working for the Southern Baptists in San Francisco.  After I got out of college in 1986, I immediately began taking flying lessons and no longer really felt the urge to fly the Easy Riser.  Besides, a lot of this kind of gliding basically boiled down to 45 minutes of dragging the thing to the top of a large hill, followed by 3 minutes gliding back down.  It was mostly just huffing and puffing.  I could have found ridges to soar, but I wanted to go places now, and the power plane was the way to do that.

I still have the glider.  It's hanging in the rafters of my Dad's garage in Walla Walla.  The only problem is I'm down here in Texas.  Ah well, I think my hang gliding days are over anyway.  Just doesn't seem worth the risk now that I have four kids.  My bones aren't as flexible as they used to be either.