country town of Grafton is situated to the North of New South Wales
(NSW) in Australia. During spring they hold their annual 'Jacaranda
Festival'. It's a time when most of the surrounding villagers and
business's all join in on a street parade and other events. A time when
old friendships are rekindled and a good time is enjoyed by all.
Grafton Water Ski Club made the fateful request that would lead to the
creation of the modern hang glider when they asked John Dickenson if he
would build and fly a water-ski kite for their display at the annual
new arrivals in Grafton the Dickenson's had joined the Water Ski Club,
not just for recreation, but also to help them to integrate into the
local community. This really was the strongest force acting upon
Dickenson when he accepted the task. He had no 'dreams of glory', no
'grand plan' to revolutionise aviation, just a simple desire to
contribute to the community in which he lived.
father had taught him how to make five-sided kites when he was a boy.
How hard could it be? Dickenson had never seen a water-ski kite, so he
set about building models, working with the descriptions he was given
by various club members, and his acquired knowledge of kites and wings.
All the versions he came up with worked fine, until he hung a weight
under them, when they all became horribly unstable.
this process continued, Dickenson heard more accounts, not just of the
kites, but of the flights, and all these accounts ended with
spectacular crashes. He began to lose interest in the five-sided kite
idea, and started casting about for a more stable design.
experience, he also knew that powerboats often stopped unexpectedly.
They could run out of fuel, have water or dirt in the fuel, or just run
aground on sandbanks. In a kite, this meant you dropped from the sky
without any dignity. He felt that an ability to glide would be good, so
the pilot could simply fly down and land gracefully and safely. He was
after only a 1:1 glide angle, just enough to get down to the water in
some comfort and style.
this stage Dickenson started to look closely at flying foxes that are
common in many parts of Australia. These creatures are amazing fliers,
being capable of gliding flight, extreme aerobatics, and they can even
began building models based on these wings. One rainy night,
accompanied by his friend Dave Williams, Dickenson cornered and
captured a flying fox in his hen run. Williams' account of this was
hilarious, with lots of slipping over on lots of mud. Anyway, Dickenson
had a very close look at these amazing flexible wings, and the
mechanics involved in them. Batwings are quite complex to build.
Dickenson built models based on these studies and they flew very well
with a good 7:1 or 8:1 glide angle. That was much better than the 1:1
glide angle Dickenson wanted – in fact, it was too good. Such a glide
angle meant that if an emergency landing was necessary, the wing could
end up over land, or worse, in a crowd of people. Better control would
be needed if the wing was to be safe.
It was at this stage that John Dickenson was shown a photograph of a wing NASA was working with.
The photo shown to Dickenson was of a paraglider, a structureless wing
being designed by a number of engineers at NASA. Dickenson was led to
believe, from his one sighting of the article, that the paraglider
shown in it was a successful design, that was actually being used to
return space capsules to earth. This of course turned out to be an
incorrect assumption. This is true for the many articles published
about the NASA / Ryan paraglider program, the Fleep, the Flexwing, the
PARESEV (US N75-70841) and the paraglider were all presented to the
public as successful designs when in fact they were known to have
stability and control problems.
NASA was the acknowledged source of the wing for Dickenson, all
Dickenson took from them was the double conical airfoil. This airfoil
dates back centuries to the Japanese kite, the Tosa Dako. The famous
French artist Jan Lavezzari used the airfoil in his 1904 attempts to
fly. (Note, it is most probable that Jan Lavezzari based his wing on
boat sails, rather than the Japanese kites.) The airfoil was next fully
explored by Ulysses Lee and William Darrah in the USA. The explanation
of the aerodynamics of this airfoil are in their 'Flying Machine'
patent US 989786, filed early in 1910.
airfoil was also used by both Robert Bach, US 2463135, and George
Wanner, US 2537560. It was not, however, part of the Gertrude Rogallo
kite patent, US 2546078.
is also evidence (TV News footage) of this airfoil being attached to
water-ski kite airframes in Indonesia in the mid 1950s, and an article
has appeared in the Cross Country magazine.
thought was that he would need to give it a frame so that it could be
held out of the water, and he came up with an original airframe. Others
had used the double conical wing before this, but their airframes were
substantially different from the elegant simplicity of the one that
Dickenson assembled. His wing was almost a marriage of the Wanner
and Bach kites with a control system added.
fact it was fortunate that Dickenson had not seen photographs of any of
these other rigid-framed machines, or it would have polluted his
thought process. For example, had Dickenson been aware of the hang
glider Barry Hill Palmer built in 1961, he would simply have copied it.
Even the strange and flawed design of the PARASEV could have altered
the result, had Dickenson been shown a photo of it. He was better off
seeing less, not more, of the strange goings on at NASA.
made models using a simple four-stick airframe. He quickly concluded
that a 90 degree sail cut, with an 80 degree nose angle, gave the most
stable results. There was however one problem - the wing performed
nearly as well as the batwing-based models. Dickenson still needed
is worth considering that it was a lack of adequate control that caused
Otto Lilienthal's fatal crash after nearly 2,500 successful flights.
many people had built hang gliders that flew following Otto
Lilienthal's first hang glider flights, control at speeds below 25
miles per hour was still the real problem. Three-axis-control needs
airspeed to make it work. Until you reach that speed you are out of
control. I have yet to learn of anyone foot launching a Volmer Jenson
VJ23 in still air.
style of weight-shift control used by Otto Lilienthal, and later by
others right up until the 1970s, was so inefficient that the pilot
could not correct for even mild turbulence. You also had to literally
hang on to the glider as well. This is not conducive to long flights,
nor to high flights. Indeed the advice was: 'Don't fly higher than you
are prepared to fall.' It was ground skimming rather than free flying.
Dickenson now had two wing designs - one simple to build, one a real
challenge, but both requiring a means of adequate control.
is well known, the solution came to Dickenson while he was pushing his
daughter Helen sideways on a swing at a park. The swings are gone now,
being considered too dangerous in today's cotton wool world. In 1963
they provided the vital clue to enable controllable low-speed fight.
So now Dickenson had a theory about control, he needed to establish if it could work.
materials scavenged from a rubbish tip, and some banana bag plastic, he
built a half-scale model. This development model was not intended to
fly, indeed it was built small to ensure that it wouldn't, at any
reasonable speed. At 200 mph it could have been an exciting toy, but at
the maximum speed of the club's ski boats it was never going to carry a
test was successful. By swinging his weight John Dickenson was able to
get the small wing to take him from side to side while skiing. The wing
knocked his helmet over his eyes so the trial ended in an inglorious
fashion, but it proved to Dickenson that his idea could work.
Young and a couple of other enthusiastic club members spent some time
after that tearing up and down the river trying to get the little wing
to lift them off the water, but Dickenson was already away working on
the real machine.
was an issue for Dickenson, and the wing was intended to be used only
for the festival displays, and then thrown out. There was no
justification for large investments in this project, and no funds to
make them anyway.
models is one thing. Building a man-carrying wing is quite another.
Even though the stunt was planned to be over water, it was not
desirable to have the wing fold up on launch. Oregon, (Douglas Fir),
wood was used for the main spars, its strength to weight ratio being
comparable to Spruce.
..........Banana plastic was used for the membrane. John tested this to make sure that it was strong enough for the task.
The three wooden spars and a membrane, by themselves would make a
'Flying Wing' kite of the type American Robert Bach patented in 1947.
However, John Dickenson knew nothing about the Bach Patent.
a cross bar, to define the nose angle, is an important step. With the
Bach concept, the wing is free to flex as the leading edges swing in
and out in turbulence. This is fine with a kite, but it is a problem
with a glider. Changing the nose angle and billow also changes the
centre of lift on a double conical airfoil, (note:- this is not an
issue with a cylindrical airfoil.), so the cross bar is an important
aerodynamic component of the double conical wing.
of Dickenson's area of responsibility at Gus Robinson Electrical was
the installation of TVs and TV Aerials. The aerial masts often had to
be quite tall to get a good reception and they were being made of
aluminium tubing braced with wire. While Dickenson did not erect the
aerials himself, he had tested the components, and he had a real
'hands-on' understanding of the strength of both the aluminium tubing
and the wire cable. He had tested the cables, and the method of tying
the wire, to breaking point. Dickenson had access to aluminium tubing,
but it was not strong enough for the main spars, and it only came in 10
foot lengths. There is an obvious transference of technology from TV
aerial to the hang glider airframe.
first task was to establish the size of the wing. Dickenson is very
good at mathematics, and was a wizard with a slide rule. He came up
with a wing size using 16 foot spars and set about to build his water
ski kite substitute.
alone, Dickenson began constructing his wing. The length of the
aluminium meant that the spar / cross-bar had to be forward of the
optimum position, but that limitation was acceptable. This thing was
still only a theoretical device, and it was meant to be disposable.
Dickenson, at this point in time, still had no aspirations for the
wing. His total motivation was simply to meet his commitment to the
water ski club. There was no 'future vision' here, yet. He expected the
wing to do no more than amuse a small crowd of spectators in a rural
town. He did not, at this stage, imagine that he would build a second
wing. He was not thinking that others would copy it. He didn't know if
it would even work, but the mathematics, and the models, said that it
is mathematics involved in the control system as well. The distance
below the Centre of Gravity to position the handle bar and the pilot.
This is all about leverage and accounting for the pilot's arm reach.
The seat was positioned to duplicate the position of a rider on a
motorbike, Dickenson was an enthusiastic motorcyclist. He needed enough
control, but not too much or he could end up with over controlling
wing at this stage was rigged with fore and aft wires, from the
handle-bar ends, to the front and to the rear of the keel. Steel struts
went from the ends of the handle-bar to where the spacer / cross-bar
joined the leading edges, plus a set of cables going from the ends of
the handle-bar to a point halfway between the rear tip of the
leading-edges and the strut / leading-edge junction.
sail was a huge undertaking, banana bag plastic stuck together with
insulation tape sounds much easier to do than it is in reality. The
banana bag plastic is very slippery to work with.
solution Dickenson used to attach the sail to the frame, clamping the
sail between the leading edges and a strip of wood with nails, was
mechanically the same as the method adopted by Otto Lilienthal, but
John Dickenson's version was crude, while Lilienthal's was a work of
the morning of 7th of September 1963, John Dickenson carried the
machine the two and a half kilometres to the Grafton Water Ski Club
room for final assembly. At this stage the machine lacked the
refinements that would make it easily portable, and easy to assemble.
it was assembled Dickenson tried to get it to fly. He exhausted himself
being towed behind a boat with the wing, but he couldn't get it to fly.
Norm Stamford was next to try and he encountered the same problem.
were made and Bob Clements had a go. Now, strictly speaking, Bob
Clements was the first to fly the wing, however he went up fast, and
down fast, to crash heavily into the water. Part of his problem was
that Dickenson had moved the hang point back too far after the first
two attempts showed it was possibly too far forward. Also, it is
possible that the boat driver over-reacted to the high climb rate and
cut the throttle, thus stalling the wing at a very high nose angle. It
is also possible that Bob Clements over-reacted to the unexpectedly
high nose angle and climb rate. The fact that the glider survived the
crash from about 80 feet demonstrated its structural integrity, as well
as the value of testing over water. It also indicated that the boat had
either stopped, or slowed considerably before the impact, thus reducing
the forces on the wing.
Dickenson made some more adjustments to the C of G, and then Rod Fuller
had a go, "It seemed like a reasonable proposition to me," is how Rod
Fuller explains his willingness to have a go, even after the
spectacular crash. With Pat Crowe as Fuller's chosen boat driver, and
Bruce Young observing, the fourth attempt succeeded, the C of G wasn't
perfect yet, and the strong wind made this a difficult exercise, but
the three men involved made it work safely. Making headlines in the
local newspaper the Grafton Examiner.
Fuller and Pat Crowe have exciting stories of their roles in this
success. Neither Pat Crowe nor Rod Fuller had any idea just how
different this wing would be to a flat kite, but they were up to the
task, neither panicked and they both dealt with their initial shock at
their spectacular success with courage and intelligence. Dickenson had
not been present at the Club house when Rod had finally got the glider
into the air. However, as he was driving over the road bridge on his
way back to the club, he was surprised to see Rod in the air.
this successful flight, and after listening to Rod Fuller's account,
Dickenson made some more adjustments to the C of G, and he also moved
the handle-bar forward. It was quite late when Dickenson finally got to
have another go with the wing and the strong winds encountered by Rod
Fuller had died away. Everything went perfectly, the wing flew well,
there were no surprises and the control worked. Dickenson found that he
could swing to each side and go up and down at will.
was at this point, while up in the air in his creation, that the
enormity of what he had done hit home. He was suddenly aware that he
was in a lovely little aeroplane, and that, inadvertently, he was
continuing the work of Otto Lilienthal.
excitement was almost overwhelming and he immediately set about drawing
up a patent application for his 'Improved Gliding Apparatus'.
everything was different for John Dickenson, aware of what he had, and
suddenly with a vision of the future, he reappraised the glider.
shifting the top of the struts from the leading edges to the keel he
could substantially increase the glider's strength, for no appreciable
gain in weight. This created the first 'A-Frame'. The struts were
replaced with a second set of side wires. The original configuration
had two bolts through the leading edges at the nose plate. By
abandoning the second unnecessary set of bolts, ..........the wing became easier to rig and de rig.
And so, by the time the Jacaranda Festival arrived, the wing, to all
intents and purposes, possessed all of the desirable qualities that
would lead eventually to it being cloned in the thousands, all over the
and Dickenson continued to fly the wing after the festival, but
Dickenson was already working on the second wing. This time he used an
all aluminium airframe, but his lack of welding skills resulted in a
rectangular frame to position the handle-bar. Dickenson again utilized
the banana bags, and used contact adhesive to attach it to the
airframe. The main spars were reduced to 14 feet, he wanted to increase
the take-off and landing speed to harmonize with the speeds that water
skis work well at. The big wing wanted to fly before the pilot was able
to ski properly. This Glider, that we call the Mark 2 , flew well, but
the contact adhesive was not up to the job and so the wing was quickly
next wing saw a return to the wooden spars so that the banana plastic
could again be attached using nails. The wing was reduced in size
yet again as the 14 foot wing was still flying at a slower than
desirable speed for water skiing.
found a bent steel bed-head at the rubbish tip, by simply increasing
the bends he was able to return to the triangular A-frame of the Mark
I, without needing welding skills. It is interesting how many people
copied that 'Bed-head' bent base bar design, indeed it was still being
produced in the late 1970's, even though it is an inferior structural
flew this wing in many places, attempting to sell it to finance the
next one. Then in Late 1963 the Grafton examiner published an article
on the Dickenson Wing and Rod Fuller. The quality is very poor but at
least it has survived and can be read. Although the exact date is
unknown at this time.
Dickenson’s invention is a milestone on the road of human evolution.
John Dickenson did not invent hang gliding, nor did he build the first
hang glider and when he set out on the project he did not even intend
to build a hang glider.
thing is that John Dickenson built the best hang glider ever witnessed
until that time. John had the complete package. The Dickenson Wing did
not boast the highest performance but it had the following
Superiority: The wing flew well with exquisite handling
characteristics, it was safe, and it was easy to fly. The Dickenson
Pendulum Weight-Shift System provides exquisite feedback so that flying
quickly becomes instinctual. This gives the pilot the opportunity to
relax and enjoy the experience.
..........User Friendly: It was easy to pack up and even easier to set up.
Convenient: It was light; easy to move when set up, and even easier to move when packed up.
Friendly: It was easily car top-able and it could be stored in a
hallway or bedroom. Many lived under houses and in car sheds.
and Durable: It was robust, how many aircraft could handle stalled
take-offs and nose-ins, plus botched landings, and then still be
flyable with at most a control bar upright needing replacement.
to Fly: It was that simple to fly that people were able to teach
themselves to fly. Not all were successful, but many thousands were.
Eventually people who figured it out started schools and the rest is
to Build: This was something of a problem because although the design
was simple to build, there were the rules of physics to be obeyed at
all times. Many efforts to home build, and even at times some
commercially built designs were dangerous.
By the time Aerostructures stop manufacturing the Skiwings, the glider
was a complete aircraft. Aerostructures is another part of this story.
Both Bill Bennett and Bill Moyes purchased off the shelf Skiwings from
Aerostructures. Many early builders copied these two wings, thinking
that the idea came from Bennett and / or Moyes.
"In 1964 a Brisbane newspaper published a picture of John Dickenson’s
creation. 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 aeroplane 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 Centre. In just about every detail the craft described
in the drawings is identical to what became known throughout the world
as the Standard Rogallo, a type of glider which would not become
obsolete for another ten years. Unquote. Taken from the book 'And The
World Could Fly' by Stéphane Malbos. Book No ISBN: 2-9508644-5-7.
Rogallo replied to John on 29th January 1965. He wrote: "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." These letters are displayed on
the John Dickenson website.
incident that happened during 1964 shows just how easy it was to leant
how to fly a Dickenson Wing. John sold the third glider he had
made (Mk3) to Rex Beroth at the Ski Lodge Tweed Heads NSW for £65. It
was handed to the skiers of the water ski show, and told to sort it out
who could fly it, as John had left no instructions. Ron Nickel took up
the challenge and taught himself to fly the glider within a few days.
He flew it four or five times a week during the summer for about
five years. The glider is still in existence and a bill of
receipt being looked after by Ron's wife. While Graeme finds a
home for it. Sadly since then Ron has also passed away and I last saw
his wife at Ron's memorial service that was held at Tweed Heads.
Awards of Significance
back over all the information Graeme and Myself gathered and
accumulate over the years. It's worth noting that very slowly John
Dickenson's name gradually started to appear around the world by the
honours others started to bestow upon him.
1993 British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association: Life Membership.
1993 Hang Gliding Federation of Australia: Life Membership.
1995 The Space Technology Hall of Fame.
1996 Order of Australia Medal. OAM.
2006 Hang Gliding Federation: Certificate of Recognition.
2011 United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association: Presidential Citation.
2012 Hang Gliding Federation of Australia: Acknowledgment of invention
modern hang glider.
2012 Fédération Aéronautique Internationale's (F.A.I.): Gold Air Medal.
2013 Royal Federation of Aero Clubs of Australia: Oswald Watt Gold Medal.