Hang Glider Designer
People laugh at this now, but part of my job description while employed by Geoff McBroom was ‘Hang Glider Test Pilot’. It is important to emphasise that designing and building a really successful state of the art hang glider in the 1970’s was a far from easy task. It was all too obvious during flight testing, sometimes the moment your feet left the ground, when a promising looking new design had failed to live up to expectations. Others were found to be wanting after more extensive trials and some even after they went into production.
I started work at McBroom Sailwings in 1974 and in the following five years that the company traded we never suffered the setback of a recall. Other (sometimes larger) manufacturers were not so fortunate. Geoff is a really top notch engineer with a degree in aerodynamics and McBroom ‘kites’ were always designed and built with safety as a first consideration, consistent with the knowledge available at the time. However, not long before Geoff took me on, he was obliged to offer a ‘kingpost modification’ as it was proven that bracing the kite’s top surface with rigging wires had a very beneficial effect in helping to prevent divergent ‘luffing dives’. Catching up exercises like this were the price to be paid for being one of the first in the UK to produce hang gliders.
From then on, integrity of design and manufacture were synonymous with McBroom machines, which included the Argus standard Rogallo, the very successful Cobra (over 300 sold) the Lynx and the Super Lynx. To deliver such an improved range of kites required not only design flair but a cautious approach to issues that might affect safety. Hang glider development could hold some nasty surprises and progress was sometimes hard won.
True, building a prototype was not that costly in terms of materials or time, particularly if you had the necessary facilities as all the manufacturers did. In fact it was quite possible to build and test fly a newly configured machine in the space of a week. This partly explains the very impressive improvement in hang glider performance during this period. However, when someone with the undisputed qualifications, ability and experience of Geoff McBroom suffered his fair share of disappointments at this endeavour, ‘learning by ones mistakes’ could become an expensive and demoralising experience.
This new art/science of ‘hang glider technology’ tended to be unpredictable when applied to original designs. For instance, before initially flying a prototype, inverting the wing in the workshop was usually the only way to simulate the shape (camber and twist) it might adopt in flight. However gravity often produced different results to actual flight loads. It really was a case of suck it and see. This could be frustrating to a formally trained aerodynamicist as inevitably an element of luck was involved.
Another example of the way in which this contrariness could manifest itself was in the development of different sizes of the same basic type of glider. It is important to match the weight of the pilot to the size of the glider, as wing loading has a marked effect on the control authority available and the best sink rate achievable. Unfortunately simply scaling up or down the dimensions of a good prototype seldom resulted in a satisfactory larger or smaller version of the design. Something often got lost in the resizing process and frequently modifications were required or in the worst case the variant had to be abandoned altogether. We at McBroom Sailwings faired well in this respect but there were some other manufacturers who suffered badly from this syndrome.
Of course the rewards for creating a new a ‘winner’ tempted many to try – myself included. Just to be able to turn up at the hill with something different, that you had made yourself and that would ‘out fly’ other kites, guaranteed a tremendous sense of achievement. This was quite possible for any enthusiast with sufficient motivation, skills and resources and in fact there were notable amateur homebuilders that produced some excellent machines.
For the manufacturer, considerable profit could be made by translating a good prototype into successful series production. The home market was strong for top performing gliders as many pilots were keen to ‘upgrade’ on a regular basis in order to remain ‘top of the stack’. There also existed a very lucrative export market in some countries without indigenous manufacturers.
These powerful incentives further explain the phenomenal rate of improvement in hang glider performance and safety during this period. Although, as Geoff McBroom stated more than once, if this vast progress had been gained in the traditional aircraft industry with all it’s traceability paperwork, quality approval requirements, and rigorous testing it would have taken five times as long or not happened at all.
In contrast, being a new aviation sport, hang glider airworthiness issues were dealt with using simpler, more practical methods. A hang glider manufacturer’s association was formed which laid down minimum standards for hardware to be used and guidance on constructional methods to be employed. A series of flight tests had to be passed before a particular model could enter production. Based on common sense and not overly onerous to comply with, these requirements allowed small to medium sized manufacturers to be relatively free to experiment and innovate, driving development forward at a rapid pace.
The crux of the problem they had to solve was to produce a machine that more closely matched the superior performance of a conventional glider (sailplane) but which would still satisfy the definition of a hang glider – an unpowered aircraft that could take off and land using the pilot’s legs and feet as the undercarriage. Of course there were other considerations; weight, portability, ease of rigging/de-rigging, durability, ease of control, safety and cost. So, this dictated that, while other configurations were tried, the advantages bestowed by the ‘flying wing’ concept of the original delta shaped ‘Rogallo’ was retained together with much of it’s triangulated aluminium tube and steel cable structure and sailcloth wing.
As regards performance, an important aspect that needed to be improved was the ability to turn efficiently. Some of the earlier ‘kites’ had respectable sink rates when flown straight, but ‘plummeted’ when banked in a turn. This meant that they could not climb well when circling in a thermal. Greater wing spans and broader wing tips solved this problem as clearly demonstrated by Dick Boone’s Phoenix 6B. Nigel Milnes proved this conclusively in 1977 by being the first in the UK to fly 22 miles straight line distance from the Malvern Hills, mostly by circling his 6B in thermal lift.
Some features from the conventional glider such as increased wingspans, narrower wings (chords), smoother more accurately defined aerofoils, ‘double surface’ wings and the removal drag producing appendages were adopted when the necessary ‘breakthroughs’ in design were made and proven to work.
Being involved directly with this effort, I sometimes wondered how Mr Joe Public perceived the evolution of hang gliders over these short years. Comedian Jasper Carrot likened hang gliding to ‘jumping off Beachy Head attached to a frame tent’. Despite this amusing although uninformed description, the radical difference in shape between a typical 1975 ‘kite’ and the flying wing planform of a 1980’s machine must have surely made some impression on even the most casual outside observer.
Was this obvious transformation achieved by evolution or revolution? Sometimes the new ideas and developments came so thick and fast it felt more like a revolution at the time. Looking back now, the progress made can perhaps be more accurately described as a rapid evolution, characterised by a series of incremental steps forward. These were made by talented individuals answering particular design problems or taking an existing idea and developing it to a further significant level. The role call of honour included: Roy Haggard (USA), Bob & Chris Wills (USA), Dick Boone (USA), Bill Moyes (Australia), Miles Handley (UK) and Gerard Thevanot (France).
Interestingly, Roy Haggards’ contributions featured strongly at both the beginning and end of this 5 year period of development. His early ‘Dragonfly’ design, which had truncated wing tips, clearly showed that the ‘standard Rogallo’ was capable of being improved. He later developed the wonderful UP Comet which became available in its earliest form in 1980. This combined the best of previous designs together with ‘floating cross tubes’ (actually the keel ‘floated’) and was really the culmination of much of the effort to improve hang gliders during this time. The Comet was the ‘benchmark’ against which subsequent 1980’s machines were judged. However without the other vital advances made by the others named in the intervening years, the Comet would not have been possible. As will be appreciated, the above list is far from inclusive and apologies now for omissions, this a purely ‘personal’ take on what is an understandably complex subject.
My question is – does Bob England’s name belong on this list? He was not a prime innovator, so the answer is probably not. However, as being the designer of several genuine, original, successful, state of the art hang gliders I would rate him as being nearly as worthy of acclaim as the above.
Bob’s first entry into the field came relatively late (1978/9) and probably benefited from avoiding the pitfalls and dubious safety characteristics of some of the earlier designs. However, when he first showed me a drawing of what he intended to build my reaction was ‘wow, if he gets that to fly successfully I’ll be amazed’. My second thought was ‘but if it is sufficiently stable and controllable it should have outstanding performance’.
I wished him luck and told him he was probably going to need it. Already named the Gannet it had a cross tubeless ‘bowsprit’ configuration like the Miles Handley Gryphon. Possessed of a very long narrow wing it had an aspect ratio probably higher than any other production glider at the time and a relatively small wing area. The wing extremities were on a similar pattern to Dick Boone’s Phoenix 8 which employed ‘droop tips’ conferring some fin area aft. It did indeed have the appearance of the ‘Horny Beast’ in vogue at the time. One slightly unusual feature which most people commented on was the construction of the keel pocket. Rather than being made from fabric Bob had used a series of knotted chord loops so as to be able to adjust the depth and profile of the pocket. This was actually a sensible feature for a prototype and would have had no detrimental effects on the flight characteristics whatsoever. However, the adjustable chords resulted in the name of ‘Stringbag Gannet’ being used for the glider by some individuals.
Construction took several weeks if not months and it was the sail maker Dave Buchanan who again kindly provided the facilities, guidance and tuition to make Bob’s dream a reality. As with the harness made earlier, Bob’s cutting and sewing were not to the highest standard, but more than adequate for the job. The airframe was built at the High School of Hang Gliding workshop - at this time they were manufacturing the Windskate mini land yacht and so had the necessary metalworking tools and equipment.
In many ways Bob seemed to live a charmed life but it was while using the High School’s pillar drill that he had a setback. He must not have heeded the warnings given by his metalwork teacher at school because he got his long hair caught in the chuck. He failed to hit the stop button before a sizeable clump of hair had got wound in up to the scalp, resulting in a very painful injury. Hospitalised for a short spell, there was some doubt initially if the lost hair would grow again. He dealt with his bald patch (about 9 square inches) by adopting a drastically shortened haircut and wearing a woolly hat for 6 months. Luckily his missing locks did return but never again did he sport the shaggy Barnet of his younger hippy days. At the time this was a sensitive subject for him to discuss – I would not describe Bob as vain but he was clearly conscious of his image and the hurt of losing his hair went beyond the purely physical.
At last the Gannet prototype was completed and flown. I did not witness any of the early flights and found it difficult to accept Bob’s assurance that the glider flew well ‘straight off the drawing board’ requiring few if any modifications. He claimed it handled like a thoroughbred and appeared to have a very promising performance. Several weeks past and the Gannet’s airtime steadily increased – Bob was confident enough to fly his new creation in thermals and rough air. I had to admit after seeing him flying it there did not appear much wrong with the machine and it seemed to ‘go up’ well.
A couple of months past before I flew the Gannet myself. We were at Hatterall Hill, Pandy, South Wales. This is a long east facing ridge with an impressive vertical drop providing a hang gliding experience on a ‘mega scale’ compared to the much smaller hills local to Bristol.
The day in question was overcast with a light North Easterly breeze. The wind was not blowing up the main ridge and there had been a few failed attempts to ‘stay up’ by other pilots resulting in forced landings in the bottom field. By the time I had arrived at the site Bob had already pulled off an enviable task with the Gannet. He had launched from the ‘Common’ adjacent to Mrs Clayton’s farm, flown left along the main ridge steadily losing height, and then turned left again into the north east facing bowl. At this stage he was at least a third of the way down the hill which is over 1000 feet high at this point. He then beat backwards and forwards in the bowl slowly gaining altitude until he was a couple of hundred feet above the top. With a tail wind he was easily able to fly the 2 miles back to the common and then, because the wind was so light, make a safe landing there.
Pilots swapped over and this impressive feat was then repeated by Nigel Milnes. He was clearly delighted by the Gannet and recommended others to give it a try. I remained a little sceptical, my role of ‘Test Pilot’ making me cautious of flying relatively low airtime, non production hang gliders. However, another pilot (Ray Willis?) completed the run to the North East bowl and back and Bob persuaded me to give it a go.
Two steps forward and I was off, a louder than normal whistling sound coming from the unconventional layout of rigging wires. The handling impressed me immediately. The controls had a reassuringly ‘taught’ feel and a turn was easy enough to initiate. Once in the turn there was a slight feeling of inertia taking over but in fact the glider straightened up quite readily with little in the way of ‘control lag’. It did give the impression that it might be ‘a bit of a handful’ in really rough air but in the fairly smooth conditions on the day it sailed along beautifully.
The extended glide to the North East bowl seemed to go on for ever but I finally rounded the corner and ‘tucked in’ close to the hill. Sure enough, after a couple of beats, the climb to the top and above commenced. I was thrilled; this was the first time I had successfully flown this type of task. I had to fly the Gannet accurately and make good decisions on when and where to make my turns in order to maintain the climb. I loved every minute of it and the glider was simply superb.
I completed the flight back to the common and made a good landing. The grin on my face must have confirmed to Bob that he had created something special. Although not for the complete novice, the Gannet was not difficult to fly and had many characteristics sure to please a keen pilot. Few, if any, other gliders managed to ‘stay up’ on this day; the bottom landing field was ‘littered’ with those that had tried and failed. This was as good a demonstration of the glider’s superiority as you were likely to see. There was little doubt that the Gannet really was a cutting edge design in early 1979.
Bob continued to have success with his new creation both in general and competition flying. He made a deal in April 1979 for the London based manufacturer Wasp to build the Gannet under licence as a replacement to the Gryphon. Unfortunately Wasp ceased trading shortly after this and few production Gannet’s were made or sold. So, although Bob did not profit much in financial terms, he had definitely started to establish his reputation as a hang glider designer.
How much of this success was luck? There were many at the time who thought it was nearly all Bob England being ‘jammy’ as usual. Even then, I gave him more credit than that. He had combined the best features of two different designs and ‘stretched’ them a bit further to produce something better than both. He had probably had more than his share of good fortune in achieving this happy outcome, but now I look back, I am convinced that his intelligent approach to the design brief had helped greatly. The Gannet was more like a refinement of some of the best existing machines than a giant leap forward. An advance it surely was, however, and Bob had to a fair extent ‘made his own luck’ with some of the clever design decisions he had taken.
If I had any doubt about his knowledge and abilities in this regard they were dispelled a few months later when he asked me to help him test fly a new glider he had just finished building. It was a straight copy of a La Mouette ‘Atlas’ – a classic single surface glider of the time with really excellent handling and the latest in safety features. He hoped to learn something in copying the design and sell the machine later at a profit.
We used a very shallow slope off the end of Dundry hill just outside Bristol. In fact the slope was so shallow it could hardly be termed a hill, and I had serious doubts if we could get airborne on it at all! Bob soon proved me wrong; the Atlas copy had a glide angle much better than I expected – he reached an altitude of 10 feet in places and flew an impressive distance. It looked so good I was ‘itching’ for a go.
I had flown a ‘proper’ Atlas previously and I knew almost as soon as it lifted me into the air that this copy was just as good. It felt very similar to fly and there was nothing lacking in its performance. I questioned him on the methods he had used to replicate the sail camber. It was very obvious from his replies that he had a thorough understanding of the techniques employed and ways in which desirable profiles and twist could be introduced into the wing. It was then I thought ‘this boy has got it; he really does understand how to shape a hang glider sail from root to tip’. His grasp of the subject certainly exceeded mine and I felt slightly in awe of his abilities.
The Atlas copy was sold to the Bristol University Hang Gliding Club later I believe, so this exercise proved to be profitable in both the ways he had intended. It probably also helped him get his first ‘real’ full time job with Hiway Hang Gliders over in Tredegar, South Wales. Hiway was the largest and most successful UK manufacturer at the time, run by the late Steve Hunt with partner John Ievers.
They were wise to give Bob his chance. The result was the Demon, a much liked ‘double surface’ machine that sold well for Hiway. Steve Hunt’s style of running the company probably meant that the Demon was at least in part a collaborative effort. I am unaware of the full detail of Bob’s total contribution to the project but what is undisputed is that he was employed as a designer and the Demon was developed shortly after he joined Hiway. The outcome spoke well for his team working abilities if these had been required because the Demon was to become available in small, medium and large sizes and all three had a very sound reputation with hang glider pilots.
I never congratulated Bob on the Demon but I certainly should have. It was just the type of glider I would have wished to have designed myself, and truth be known, I was jealous of his achievement. Based loosely on the world beating UP Comet, it had a different plan form with distinctive rounded wing tips. The typical aerofoil section was deeper particularly at the root and the peak camber further forward on the wing. It had been also well ‘productionised’ with several really practical features such as medium density foam inserts in the leading edges rather than the Mylar sheet more commonly used. This lasted longer without crinkling and acted as padding to help protect the aluminium leading edge tubes during transport.
In terms of performance the UP Comet was thought to have a slightly better glide angle. In every other respect the Demon was equal to or better than its rivals at the time. The handling was particularly ‘sweet’. Double surface hang gliders generally have tighter, stiffer wings than those with a single surface and this often increases the control effort required to roll (turn) them. In fact those pilots that came into the sport later might well have been amazed at how nimble and easy to turn some of the earlier single surface machines were. A classic example of this was the Hiway Super Scorpion, which although large in wing area, was as near effortless to fly as you could imagine.
The Demon was a true successor in this regard, the control forces required being particularly light for a double surface glider. The sink rate was a match for all of its competitors and it circled very efficiently. All in all it was an excellent cross country machine of its day, safe, and sure to inspire confidence in those that flew it. I got my chance to fly one about a year after they entered production (the small version). By that time I had owned and flown a Comet ‘clone’ (Solar Wings Typhoon) for several months and so was able to make a direct comparison. The Demon was everything that was claimed for it. Like Bob’s previous two efforts it was really delightful to fly, he should have been very proud of this creation.
It was Bill Bennett over in California who had the next call on Bob’s talents. Both Bob and I had previously worked for Delta Wing, Bill Bennett’s Los Angeles based company of repute, as airframe assemblers. Bill’s original designer, Dick Boone, had left the business and Bob managed to land the job of his replacement. The fact that he already knew Bill would have helped and of course he had some impressive background and experience with which to dazzle his prospective employer by this time.
My knowledge of events in America following his appointment is somewhat sketchy as we did not keep in touch regularly. Early reports centred on his efforts to gain a valid ‘work permit’ which would be necessary to have a long term career in the US. I’m not sure that he ever did achieve this while he worked for Bill Bennett, but at any rate he did design and develop at least one successful hang glider for Delta Wing before he moved on to pastures new.
Named the Streak, this glider was advertised in the American hang gliding magazines and I did hear a first hand report of its handling and performance from fellow Avon HGC member Bill Niblett, a very experienced and accomplished pilot. He had just returned from an extended holiday of several months over in California and had actually purchased a Streak to fly during his visit. Predictably he liked the glider and was obviously pleased with the choice he had made.
Dick Boone would have been a hard act for Bob to follow, being one of the prime innovators of the sport in these formative years. However, although none of us knew it at the time, the days of the ‘quantum leap’ in hang glider performance were over, at least as far as flexwings were concerned. Glide angles had improved by some 150% in the five years up to 1980. They would only improve another 20%-30% in the next ten years. This gradual increase was achieved by companies such as Airwave on the Isle of Wight by further developing and refining the UP Comet design. Being the perceptive person he was, Bob was likely to be one of the first to recognise this trend. He would also realise that in future hang glider design would become a more pedestrian occupation – one could almost say it might become boring.
Bob was never one for getting bored, and although I never did hear the full story, I would guess that when he realised the excitement had gone out of the business, he would redirect his talents elsewhere. As I understand it, he became a ‘Realtor’ (estate agent), with the intention of earning substantial sums of money. He had decided to make California his home, and was aiming to consolidate his position; chiefly by minimising the chance that he might have to return to the UK, broke. So ended his career as a hang glider designer – by anybody’s standards he had done extremely well. As someone more closely involved and in a good position to gauge his progress, I can assure you his success was truly commendable.
In order to have made his mark, a strong sense of self belief and a deep felt enthusiasm for the sport would have been as important as a technical ability, although he had that too. Bob was not arrogant; he was always ready to learn from others. However he exercised good judgement when discriminating between useful information and the inevitable ‘dross’ that surrounds a technical subject. On reflection, he possessed virtually all the attributes that make a good designer.
To me, perhaps his most surprising personal quality was the application to the task he demonstrated, once he had started. My observations of his ‘fallow’ years as a student in Bristol lead me to believe that that he lacked the appetite for hard work and the dedication that would be required. I honestly didn’t think he had it in him.
He fooled me completely!
© Copyright Andy Billingham 2009
Pilot and competitor
Bob’s flying skills were beyond question. Like nearly all the top flyers that I have seen, he became ‘as one’ with his glider the second he picked it up and started his takeoff run. His decision taking in the air was usually very sound; often resulting in superb flights while others (like me) could only look up from the landing field and curse.
An important aspect of his flying was his positive attitude towards the conditions on any given day, and the means by which they could be exploited. He was a pilot who worked on the basis that there was nearly always a good flight to be had and that being the case; he was going to have it. Some claimed he was just lucky but I have noted that other top pilots appear to make their own good fortune in just the same way.
His Midas touch could often rub off on those who accompanied him on hang gliding trips. Conditions frequently proved better than expected when Bob joined the entourage. In fact it was almost worth foregoing his share of the petrol money to have him tag along. Of course, it was Bob who often had a strong influence in the choice of destination site on these occasions; his intelligent analysis of the meteorology on the day dictated when and where the best flying was to found. So, even this beneficial effect was unlikely to have been pure fluke.
All this meant that his recreational flying was to an above average standard. Like most of the top pilot’s, he flew as often as he could and his accumulated airtime was impressively high. He achieved some notable cross countries. Along with Nigel Milnes and Jerome Fack he was a member of the trio in 1979 that took the unofficial UK distance record on a flight downwind from Pandy. Nigel’s 22 mile record from the Malverns had stood since 1977. Finally, their 34 mile effort surpassed this by a significant margin.
On this flight Bob was flying his own designed Gannet and together with the others reached an altitude of 6,700 feet. All this must have been very satisfactory to them, but personally I was intensely annoyed, as it was me that found the nice big thermal that started them on their way! The Phoenix 8 I was flying had a hard ‘pull’ to the right which made the prospect of a long flight unappealing. I already felt worn out after struggling with the out of tune glider for an hour and I knew a downwind flight was likely to last beyond my endurance. In hindsight I wish I had gritted my teeth and carried on because I missed out on an epic adventure in the sky and the chance to be a joint record holder.
This emphasises two qualities important to the really successful hang glider pilot. These are courage and determination. It was surprising how often pilots admitted after a long and potentially exceptional flight it was not the lack of lift that dictated their time of landing. The sky was still working but they found one of a whole range of excuses to terminate the flight.
Mental fatigue was actually the most likely cause of this syndrome. Having to make one important decision after another, to be patient when necessary, to navigate and avoid controlled airspace, to monitor and make allowances for wind direction and strength, to always have in mind a ‘plan B’ which would take you to a safe landing area and having to cope with occasionally very turbulent air at the same time – these all took their toll.
Often the hazards considered were more of the imagination rather than actually present, but air movement is virtually invisible, and when lacking any other indicators, it was frequently felt to be better safe than sorry. So, even without the more physical reasons to bring a flight to an early finish (and these could certainly exist and be valid) I believe it was frequently the ‘strain on the brain’ that brought these pioneering flexwing cross country aviators back to earth.
Of course it all felt different when you were safely back on the ground. Even the most difficult flight usually had periods of easy progress that could be thoroughly enjoyed in a way that only flying can. Added to this was bathing in the glory of your achievement and the intense satisfaction of realising what you had so wonderfully accomplished. However, there was so often the question to ask yourself; ‘why did I take that final decision that prematurely finished the flight?’
The answer was often brutally simple. Hang gliding of this pioneering type could be mentally and physically very demanding and required deep reserves of sheer guts in order to excel. Powerful self motivation certainly helped as well. Needless to say, Bob outclassed me comprehensively in these departments. I was a comparative ‘wimp’ when it came to the time to ‘go for it’.
On careful consideration though, I am of the opinion that if there was a chink in Bob’s hang gliding armour then possibly he lacked the ‘push on regardless’ attitude of some of the top pilot’s at the time. I think he felt more at ease when there were others in the air nearby. These can often give valuable indications as to the best areas to fly and also help alleviate the sense of isolation that that can be felt when flying alone over unfamiliar terrain.
This could partly explain why Bob usually did well in hang gliding competitions, as you were seldom alone with other pilots to fly against. I must own up now: I was never really interested in competitions at the time and did not pay much attention to hang gliding League results. I found the type of tasks they often flew i.e. slalom then spot landing, completely uninspiring. They seemed to spend too much time bickering about the rules and lodging protests. This would have spoilt the enjoyment of hang gliding for me. It was only after club cross country competitions were introduced (and this was after Bob departed for California) that I ever felt the urge to compete myself.
However in order to do Bob justice, I recently dug out some of my old ‘Wings!’ magazines in order to research his competition record. My collection of these publications (the official organ of the British Hang Gliding Association at the time) is far from complete so what follows may contain omissions if not errors.
Brian Milton started the British Hang Gliding League in 1977. The concept was to run five or so competitions from spring through to autumn each year, centred at different areas of the country for each event. There were a set number of members in the League for each year (approximately 60). After the final competition of the year the bottom scoring 25% would be ‘dropped’ to allow new pilots to enter for the next. The competitions each comprised a long weekend (three days) of varied tasks set to match the sites flown and the weather conditions.
The aims of the League were to raise the standard of competition hang gliding in the UK; to give an (even further) incentive for manufacturers to improve their glider designs and provide a means by which to select teams to compete in international events. Organisation and rule setting was under the control of the Competitions Committee and everything was run on a voluntary (unpaid) basis.
Despite my rather dismissive attitude towards it during this period (and I was not alone, many average club flyers felt the same way) the League succeeded in meeting all these aims. Great credit must go to Brian Milton for having the idea in the first place and for all his hard work in bringing it to fruition. To say Brian was a controversial character in hang gliding would be a huge understatement but what he achieved along with some very talented and dedicated helpers should never be forgotten.
Bob took to the League immediately. He really enjoyed taking part and in the first year (1977) finished in 6th place. He didn’t brag about it at the time (he probably wanted to be overall winner) but in retrospect this result really was another one of his amazing achievements. His opposition included those such as Brian Wood, Johnny Carr, Bob Calvert, Robert Bailey, Graham Slater and Graham Hobson. This result placed him up with the very best. These pilots would go on to win medals and trophies galore in the years to come.
Some of these individuals became to be known, almost affectionately, as ‘animals’. They eat, slept, drank, peed and pooed hang gliding. Their single minded concentration on succeeding at their chosen sport became legendary.
In contrast I admired Bob for doing as well as he did without sacrificing his other interests and activities. He would call himself a hang glider pilot first and foremost but he definitely had a life outside the sport. I believe his was a more rounded and interesting personality altogether, as much of what I have observed in the other sections of this account will testify. Bearing this in mind, it is remarkable that his contest performance appeared so consistent.
The League results published in ‘Wings!’ were rather haphazard in their presentation and frequency and several of my magazines from this period are missing in any case. However in general terms he rarely dropped below 10th place in the standings and the best result I found for him was for the final score of 1980 which put him in 4th place overall, flying an Atlas.
I have no record of him winning a League competition, which when you consider how highly he placed at the end of each year is puzzling. There are certainly records of him winning individual tasks and placing well flying his own designed Gannet. However this apparent lack of a competition victory might (regrettably for him) be an actual fact. I cannot ever remember him claiming an outright win. Bob was quite modest, but surely he would have been sufficiently chuffed to let his mates know if he had come out on top in a League event.
Was this failure uncharacteristic bad luck? I’m afraid I am just not sure. What I am surer about was that his impressive habit of placing well in the League tables meant he got himself noticed by the international team selectors and also by the hang glider manufacturers. In 1978 he was chosen to be in the team that contested the first American Cup, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
This competition has become part of hang gliding folklore. The ‘Brits’ entered as underdogs as we were thought to be outclassed in terms of both piloting skills and ‘kite’ technology. When it came to it we trounced the Americans. The British pilots flew mainly British Hiway Super Scorpions, further proving our superiority. Brian Milton cleverly orchestrated this overwhelming victory – he was the Team Manager and coach.
I well remember discussing this with Bob after he returned. Two topics made a clear impression. The first was that Brian Milton had the British team dress up in a smart ‘uniform’ of grey slacks, white shirts and Blazers. This was to ‘psyche out’ the scruffy disorganised ‘Yanks’; apparently this tactic worked! Bob was a confirmed jeans and jumper (or guernsey) man as most of us were, so it must have been quite a shock to his system to change into this attire.
The other story he told made me absolutely green with envy. Apparently the Southern ‘Belles’ were offering hospitality to the British pilots far in excess of that you might normally expect. Bob didn’t go into any intimate details, probably to spare Beverley’s (his girlfriend’s) feelings. He did tell of a car ride he was given by some girls who had formed a close harmony singing quartet. They sung him some songs as they drove along, and they were very good. The lucky, lucky pup! We both agreed that an unexpected and unbidden experience like this is what can make life really worth living.
Ken Messenger of Birdman Sports provided a brand new Moonraker 78 for Bob to fly in the League for the remainder of the season for 1978. This was quite a ‘big deal’ and obviously reflected Bob’s growing reputation as a competition pilot. Diplomatically Bob never criticised the ‘Moony’ outright. I got the impression that while the performance was reasonable, the handling could be difficult. In hindsight it may have been his experience with this ‘kite’ that prompted him to start work on the Gannet.
To put it bluntly, he might have thought he could do better himself. As it transpired, he was perfectly right. 1979 brought him the opportunity to enter more international competitions and I believe he flew the Gannet in at least one. These were the Owens Valley Cross Country Classic, USA and the World Hang Gliding Championships at Grenoble, France.
Although I flew several of the Californian sites I never did get as far as the Owens Valley in the Nevada desert. Everything I have been told and have read about this place convinces me that it is about as different as can be imagined to the Small World cosiness of Bob’s native Guernsey. Owens Valley has a massive reputation in every sense of the word. Over 100 miles long and very sparsely populated, the skies above it can churn with tremendous amounts of thermal energy providing ‘ear popping’ climbs, and for the skilful and brave the meteorological ingredients to fly hang gliders long distances at high average speeds.
George Worthington took the official hang gliding World Distance Record of just over 95 miles flying the Owens in 1977. I believe it was George that instigated the Cross Country Classic that Bob competed in during 1979. This would probably have been regarded as the hang gliding equivalent of the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races. By this time there had been fatalities flying this fearsome area. The two main dangers were severe turbulence causing ‘tucking’ (the nose of glider violently rotating downwards through the vertical flipping it upside down) and out landings and/or crashes. These would typically be caused by very large areas of extreme sinking air resulting in forced ‘arrivals’ in treacherous gullies or canyons as the American pilots called them. Often comprised of steep rocky terrain in very remote, inaccessible places they presented a daunting range of hazards. Assuming the ‘landing’ was survived, there was still the problem of walking out to help, or being found and rescued as the Owens Valley is a desert area with the very high temperatures and the lack of water that you might expect. Desperate stuff indeed!
By 1979 reserve parachutes had become essential equipment for this type of flying and they had proven to save lives. Deployed such that they brought down the pilot and hang glider wreckage together they definitely gave you a second chance in the event of a tucking incident were structural failure had occurred. However, given the shock loads often placed on the ‘kite’ as it slammed upside down, pilot disorientation and the difficulty of throwing the parachute deployment bag clear meant a happy outcome was far from certain. Hang gliders more resistant to being flipped inverted were what were required and these did not become available until the following year with the UP Comet.
This, then, was not a competition for the faint hearted. Just to fly at the Owens Valley and survive was an achievement. Judging by his account of the event on his return, this in effect was how Bob treated the challenge. Very sensibly, in my opinion, he forgot the heroics and was content enough to arrive at the bottom of the mountain in one piece, preferably not too far from the road! He joked that whatever task was set his own personal goal was to land at Janie’s Ranch some 70 miles distant. This was a legalised brothel in the State of Nevada and was reputed to have the best looking whores in the whole of the USA.
He did make some telling comments about the sheer vastness of the Owens. He said the only signs of human activity for miles and miles were disused and derelict mine workings, abandoned decades previously. These just served to increase the sense of desolation and provide a scaling factor that made the mountains feel even larger. He also mentioned the sky which looked impressively high. With cloud bases often over 12000 feet above sea level this was not just an optical illusion. The sky’s ‘ceiling’ was that much further up than we are accustomed too.
There are no details that I can find in ‘Wings’ of the kite Bob flew in this competition or of his scores. It is possible that he had the Gannet freighted over for the event but it is more likely that he used an alternative machine. The Owens Valley Cross Country Classic was probably one just to put down to experience - but what an experience!
As a footnote I feel I must add this: Being just an average club pilot I would never have even considered flying at the Owens Valley myself. There was some controversy at the time regarding the wisdom of flying any hang gliders at this potentially hazardous venue. Personally, I am glad they did. Much was learnt about improving the machines we flew and the precautions that could be taken when ‘pushing the limits’ in this type of environment. The carrying of two-way radios, oxygen, distress beacons and adequate amounts of water improved the chances of survival in subsequent Owens competitions. I’m not sure I would have relished the prospect of the takeoff run carrying all that extra weight, however!
In comparison, the World Hang Gliding Championships at Grenoble in France must have been far less fraught. Again, the reporting of the event in ‘Wings’ is somewhat sketchy. It does appear that Bob competed in Class 2. I would guess this might be for non production machines and prototypes. If this
was the case it is very likely that he flew the Gannet on this occasion.
A full table of results is unavailable but it was reported Bob was in 10th place towards the end of the competition and survived the ‘cut’ to fly in the final. Consistent as ever, he was in front of many of the other ‘top’ British pilots and appears to have put in a creditable performance. The La Mouette Atlas flown in this event by some of the French pilots proved hard to beat. Bob probably realised his treasured Gannet had reached the end of its competitive life. The rate at which designs improved in those days meant that its period as a top performer was likely to be relatively short.
I do have one other distinct memory of a story told on his return from another competition abroad. I’m sure he related of an event he had entered in South America; maybe Venezuela, Chile, Guatemala or Argentina. The pilots were ferried to the top of the mountain in army trucks. The accompanying soldiers carried machine guns to counter ambushes by bandits! What a range of experiences had hang gliding brought Bob. These competitions had provided him with the means to become literally a man of the world.
It occurs to me that if a childhood spent on the small island of Guernsey had induced the symptoms of claustrophobia, Bob had certainly found an antidote – and a very powerful one at that! When we were on holiday on Guernsey recently, I noticed a travel agent down by the harbour in St Peter Port that specialised in emigration to Australia, Canada and New Zealand. So, in some respects Bob was following a well worn path for those that wished to escape the island. However, it is very unlikely that anybody from Guernsey before had ‘liberated’ themselves in the same way as Bob did. He had far reaching ideas and ambitions at the right time and the talent and motivation to make them a reality. He had grabbed his chance to maximum effect.
Given his competition pedigree, I am left to identify the ingredients that made him a force to be reckoned with during this period. This requires some imagination on my part as I did not attend a single League event in which he took part. All the same, I knew Bob well, and feel able to make some applicable observations and comments about his qualities away from the competition circuit. One that springs to mind was watching him play chess with Nigel Milnes. They battled it out on several occasions back at the flat after an evening in the pub. Bob’s enthusiasm was obvious and he appeared to have an excellent temperament for the game. He strongly wanted to win but if the moves did not favour him, he seemed satisfied to learn from Nigel’s superior tactics or from his own mistakes. His enjoyment shone through right to the finish; win, lose or draw. It would be easy to deduce that his well suited temperament for playing such games would transfer readily to competing in hang gliding competitions.
Similarly, the positive attitude he displayed in his everyday life would have been of great benefit when taking part in these events. To be able to put a poor result behind you and continue competing to the best of your ability is a vital asset for the top sportsman. I am sure Bob was made this way – he didn’t let worries or doubts spoil his next effort. He was not a grumbler – he just got on with it.
For those that have read all the sections of this account, they will have been left with the impression that Bob, in his own way, was a very clever chap. Clearly he was able to bring his intellect to bear when competing at hang gliding. He would have gained more than most by analysing the performances of other pilots. Able to conceive strategies and tactics of some refinement his was an agile and inventive mind. He was nearly always receptive to new ideas and practised in adapting them to his own ends.
Also, if the subject interested him, he was a very quick learner. Bob didn’t need to be told twice. Possessed of a good memory, recalling situations from his previous experiences would have helped him deal with new challenges. He was definitely a ‘thinking man’s’ pilot and competitor.
While researching in my ‘Wings!’ magazines I came across a report of an interview with Brian Wood, who dominated the British competition scene in the earlier years. In it he makes a statement to the effect that if he ceased winning competitions, he would give up hang gliding and take up another sport.
When I describe Bob’s attributes that would have made him good at competitions, I am aware that others were similarly endowed. In some of these competitors their abilities exceeded his. Bob was certainly a top pilot but there were others that were better. However he would never have subscribed to Brian Wood’s view that flying was only worth doing if you were winning. Bob flew because he loved flying and this is something I very much identify with myself.
Whereas his career as a hang glider designer confounded me and made me envious, his competition success came as no surprise at all, and I was genuinely pleased for him. He had established his credentials as a gifted pilot right from the very early days. Similarly, when his Mother told me that he had won several paragliding championships in the USA in later years this was no more than I would have expected.
It is clear to me that Bob flew and entered hang gliding competitions with absolutely the right attitude and for all the right reasons. I feel he should have done better than he actually did. He showed great potential and this was plainly recognised at the time by those that really knew him and what he had achieved.
© Copyright Andy Billingham 2009