Hang Gliding in Scotland

by Dave Whitelaw and Brian Harrison

Somewhere I heard that hang gliding was taking place at Tinto Hill in Lanarkshire. As someone who enjoyed outdoor activities, particularly if there was an adrenaline buzz about them, I had to find out more. I had been fascinated by flying from as early an age as I can remember, and indeed had enthusiastically flown Chipmunk aircraft with Glasgow University Air Squadron, however finances at the time did not allow a continuation of this nor even of conventional gliding so here was the potential to get in the air at low cost and in an exciting way.

One sunny Sunday saw me driving down to Tinto which was not far from where I lived at the time, and since we, that is my family, often went for a drive on a Sunday if I was not off on some mad outdoor trip, what was more natural?

On arrival it was not long before we spotted gaily coloured gliders on the hill. One of them promptly blew away over and over along the ridge. However one was in the air and coming toward us so when it landed I went over to ask about getting involved. The pilot whom I did not know at the time was Gustav Fishnaller who also taught skiing at Glenshee. His first words to me were "do you really want to hang glide, you know it can be quite dangerous?"

One evening the following week while working in my garden I was approached by a stranger who said "I hear you are interested in Hang Gliding, well there is a club and you are welcome to come along at Tinto". This was Joe Frame and the following weekend I went down to Tinto, met Gordon Murray and Fred Joynes and was introduced to a long orange floppy cloth and tube package which I was invited to carry up the hill.

We arrived at a low knoll which faced the light wind, while others carrying similar loads continued past us up to the top. Rigging the glider, which I was told was a 'Skyhook' came next. The package quickly unfolded on the ground, was bolted together to become a simple contraption of cloth, tubes and wires, with a small wooden plank seat attached by water-skiing tow rope to the middle of the tubes!

I was shown how to lift the machine, and it was described to me how to control it, to take off and to land. Gordon then demonstrated a flight and we followed on foot to help retrieve the glider. Then it was my turn! Face the wind, a few short steps and into the air with much fluttering of the wing cloth, then about 12 seconds later flare out and land! I was hooked!

Tinto became a regular Sunday event from then on! I was still only doing short flights down the hill but had worked my way to the top for take-off. Meanwhile other members were 'soaring' that is managing to stay in the lift band from the wind on the hill and extend their flight. Indeed, one day Fred flew for over three hours which was certainly a Scottish record at the time.

I had managed to get a soaring flight with the Skyhook so the day came when I was entrusted with the club 'Hawk' and joined the soaring members on the ridge. The feeling of freedom was intoxicating and of course while flight times were improving, we all longed for better performance.

It was around this time that an excited member landed after getting high enough and far enough out from the hill to be able to fly a full 360 degree turn!

Enter Brian Harrison. Brian had been an active member of 'Lanarkshire Soaring Club' of which I was now the secretary and was now developing a hang gliding business, Scotkites, based in East Kilbride. The club bought one of his Fireflys which was a fairly standard rogallo wing plan but with a wider nose angle, adjustable tension wires on the leading edges, and fully battened. This was progress and club members who were flying this quickly improved their experience.

Brian's subsequent designs were American in origin and he quickly produced the Cirrus 3, Cirrus 5, Olympus, Nimbus and Dove range developed by Electraflyer Corp. of New Mexico.

These quickly took over on the hill and the older gliders disappeared into sheds and garages never to be seen again.

Gliders from other manufacturers started to appear but Brian's marketing skills and ready accessibility kept his machines to the fore.

Now over to Brian to continue the story...

I got involved in Hang Gliding in 1974 principally because, having spent 9 years in motorsport, increasing family responsibilities were making demands on my time and finance and it was obvious that Hang Gliding presented the potential to enjoy a similar thrilling experience, at much lower cost and at less risk of serious personal injury (sic).

Throughout my school days I had designed and built model aircraft and had also served in the RAF, for National Service, so I was really a potential 'air-junkie' all along.

At this time there were three start-up companies reaching national awareness, these being Len Gabriel's -Skyhook, the Haynes brothers - Wasp, and Ken Messenger's - Birdman.

Having contacted Birdman I was invited to Wiltshire, where, weather permitting, I would get the chance to get a flight. I well remember being strapped into a 'Grasshopper '... the most apt name of any poorly performing hang glider, ever... running down the hillside without taking off, ending up in a heap at the bottom of the hill, much to the amusement of the Birdman team and several spectators. Determined not to cause myself the same embarrassment again, on my second attempt, I managed to push out the A-frame bar further as I ran, made a reasonable ground-skimming flight and landed, on my feet, at the bottom of the hill. This was for me. I had flown! I found the 'tug' on the harness as I left the ground to be an all-encompassing experience. There's a big sensory and emotional rush, and then you find yourself floating along the hillside over the ground. When I ran a school, the first thing I said to people was "now remember, for thousands of years millions of people have looked up and envied the birds. You are now at a time and place when you can actually achieve the flight our ancestors could only dream of!" That's how I approached hang gliding.

So, now the proud owner of a Grasshopper, I then found that a friend had just completed building a Skyhook and had formed a syndicate to fly at Tinto in Lanarkshire, south of Glasgow. This quickly became a Centre of flying activity mainly for residents of Glasgow and Edinburgh and clearly there was a potential to provide instruction and sell gliders to those seeking to get involved with this new, and lowest cost ever, form of flying.

Since my educational and occupational experience were in the areas of Product Design and Development, and Marketing, I quickly realised that here was a new product, addressing a new sports market segment and creating enormous interest wherever it appeared. Clearly this was a business opportunity, so in partnership with fellow flyer Peter Mayo, Scot-Kites was formed, located in an Edinburgh workshop, and became a sales agent for Birdman selling their Hawk and Albatross gliders, producing some of their promo material, and setting up a weekends-only school.

In 1975 the first World Championship in Hang-Gliding (Drachenfleigen) took place over a snow-covered mountain landscape at Kossen in Austria and all the major manufacturers and pilots from around the world attended. This was the very first meeting of major importance and turned out to be a real 'game changer'. With sponsorship from Cutty Sark Whisky, I attended as the only Scottish competitor and, flying a Birdman Hawk, a standard Rogallo wing, my best time to fly the mountain descent (seated) in nil-wind was 4.5 mins. A better time I may say, than some of the Germans and Austrians who were flying with skis! Some of the Americans, including Tom Peghiny in his Peregrine, were still cruising in the valley mist (prone) 20mins after take-off! That was a real shock. Obviously the pace of development in the USA with superb flying weather and a huge market to satisfy, had been meteoric over recent months and USA manufacturers with superbly finished and excellently performing gliders were poised to capture a large share of the world market. It was also obvious that flying prone, rather than seated, was a key to better performance

There was immediately a lot of wheeling and dealing going on in the bars and hotels in Kossen over several evenings and Birdman tied up with UP whilst others secured agreements with Eipper, Seagull, Wills-Wing, Moyes, etc.

Shortly after Kossen, I negotiated a European distribution and licence manufacturing deal with Electra-Flyer Corp. of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Not only was this company employing professional people to design their aircraft to keep 'ahead of the game' in design and development, it was also being well managed and promoted by owner Larry Newman. The company's capacity for cutting-edge development and testing promised it could maintain market leadership for several years with high performance and structurally sound aircraft.

At that time several customers appeared who became completely besotted with hang gliding, so, from a manufacturer's point of view that was an asset because you always had people wanting to fly your aircraft demonstrate them, go to competitions, and free-flying meetings We could use that enthusiasm to promote our products and we made several trips to venues in Austria, Germany, France and Spain enjoying excellent flying in weather and mountain conditions which we could never experience in Scotland .

Having concluded the Electraflyer agreement, Scot-Kites proceeded to manufacture and sell Electra-Flyer designs as they developed, into such countries as the UK, Eire, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain.

The early 'hectic' development period which saw big changes in both the structures and aerodynamics of hang-gliders was between 1974 and 1980. The Cirrus 3 was the first glider that we got from Electraflyer. Initially we bought in the complete aircraft, then only the sails, and latterly, because of delivery delays, we arranged to have the sails made in the UK.

The Cirrus 3 was the first step from the standard hang glider which had an 80 degree nose angle with keel and leading edges all the same length. At Electraflyer they had opened up the nose angle to nearly 100 degrees, and sewn pockets into the sail to hold plastic battens and maintain the aerodynamic profile. The keel was shorter, and there were adjustable wire stays on the leading edges to allow control of the shape. With these improvements the performance was more than 100% better than with the standard glider. Enthusiasts were amazed at how this glider flew, and we were delighted because, not only were Scotkites' customers soaring around the hills of Scotland, we were also selling Cirrus 3's into Europe as quickly as we could produce them. We had a sales edge with this glider and this was strongly reinforced when Gerry Breen recorded the first significant UK cross-country flight of over 30 miles in one.

The next model was the Cirrus 5 and it had an even greater nose angle which increased the span, it also had more battens. It was around this time that the problem of luffing appeared. This could occur when the glider was pitched down and gathered speed. At this point the sail could start fluttering, the aerodynamic profile was lost, and the glider would lock into a terminal and fatal, dive. The Cirrus 5 dealt with this by having washout rods (reflex) built into the wing tips and also anti-luff wires were attached from the king post to the trailing edge to ensure dive recovery. Later on, when engines were added these critical features were even more essential to ensure positive pitch and several other designs, where luffing had not been fully researched, tucked (a fast forward somersault) and broke up with fatal consequences for the pilots. I had the unfortunate experience of being co-opted by the CAA to investigate one such accident where a Soarmaster unit had been imported direct from the US and bolted by the owner, to a glider on which little attention had been given to luffing.

Other models followed, the Olympus, (high performance) the Nimbus, (medium performance) and Dove (trainer) all proving popular at the time.

Initially there was no involvement of the Civil Aviation Authority, but as the whole industry matured, people did want standards and latterly, after the time that we were involved in manufacture, standards were produced, and standard testing and compliance introduced, and that still applies today. In our day, there were no standards. However it was easy to do testing that was required for strength and stability. Pilots could pull 3.5G in flight so to do a load test to 4G and assuming a pilot and airframe weighed 90kilos, we would load test to 360kilos.We would get sandbags and put them on the suspended upturned wing and load it up to see the distortion and whether anything snapped or broke. That was very simple and you would know that you were within safe limits. Fortunately most of the testing was done at Electraflyer and because they employed aerodynamicists and structural engineers, they could 'run the numbers' as they say. They were the first to address luffing in a technically competent manner and they did this by putting the prototype glider on a specially designed structure on the roof of a truck, driving down a straight road in New Mexico, and changing the pitch of the glider to find if there were any 'soft spots' at various speeds throughout the pitch range. Subsequent changes to tip and trailing edge reflex would then be made and further testing undertaken until a constant upwards pitch pressure was maintained throughout the speed range. Only then would the new Glider design be released for sale. This testing technique is now an industry standard and is still employed to this day.

As pilots achieved cross country flights at altitude and in more turbulent conditions there was increasing demand for parachutes. These were carried on the chest of the prone harness and in an emergency could be detached from the Velcro straps and thrown clear of the glider where deployment could take place and, hopefully glider and pilot would descend safely to earth. Several well recorded 'saves' took place mainly in the US

Changing from the swing seat to flying prone was a quantum step in hang gliding. We designed two harnesses which we called Proneweb. These sold internationally and were used on many different marques of hang glider. They were so comfortable that you could hang under the glider for hours. These were manufactured for us to a very high standard by Troll Mountain Equipment. There was an initial mental challenge in changing to prone. When flying seated you could look up at the sky, up at the wing, see all around, but in the prone position YOU are superman! You could not see your wing, it was on your back, and you just related to the bar in front of you and flew around the sky. 'Going prone' was quite a different way to fly but it was wonderful because you were really then 'the man in the sky'. Drag was reduced and glider performance improved by changing over to this position.

When we taught people it was purely and simply 'you do this at your own risk' you had to approach it as a hazardous pursuit, and we, by careful explanation of what could go wrong and how to overcome it, managed to get them flying without any great difficulty. Tandem hang gliders did not exist so learning to fly was a solo affair from the start. Some people would take to it like a duck to water, and others would freeze, the emotional and sensational hit taking all the control away from them. We had an indoor rig. We used to go to an hotel, show films then put students into this indoor rig and talk them through the control movements and what to do and when. We would then go out onto the hill and what we did latterly was to put students up in hang gliders tethered on ropes, kite them about the hill, not flying down, but making them hover in the wind above our heads. Now they could be as low as four feet above my head and I could talk to them, tell them what to do, and we could easily keep them up in the air for ten or fifteen minutes. Of course the conditions had to be right and sometimes I would anticipate a really good school one weekend but, with the arrival of adverse weather, get no flying at all. That is where the frustration would come in. We did teach people to fly in Scottish conditions and some we had soaring on the ridge before they had flown down the hill which was most unusual. Previously, most students learned by repeated short flights down the hill followed by an exhausting recovery. Our method was safe because they were static, but got a lot of airtime flying above our heads. Very simply, we had light ropes attached to each leading edge and to the nose, with three handlers on the ground. The nose was the most critical control as I could pull the nose down and the glider would fly forward and then let it up and it would fly backwards so I could control the pitch and we could keep them into wind with the other two helpers. The frustration was that there was no radio in those days so we had to shout to each other and by the end of a weekend I was completely hoarse.

During this time, production was relocated from Edinburgh to East Kilbride and funding for expansion was obtained from both East Kilbride Corporation and The Scottish Development Agency.

In 1978 there was another 'game-changer' moment when Larry Newman phoned to say he had obtained the distribution rights for a bolt-on power system developed for hang gliders by Soarmaster of Phoenix, Arizona. This had been successfully tested on both the Cirrus 5 and Olympus designs and ''did we want one?'' Did we? Having spent the past 4 years climbing hills throughout the UK, just to get flying, the prospect of taking off on flat ground was a revelation and two weeks later we collected our first unit from the airport, bolted it to a Cirrus 5 and then ran-in the Chrysler motor. We took the glider to a small hill and Andrew Fawcett our production manager, fired up the motor, strapped in, ran forward, and took off and flew for 30mins without difficulty. By all accounts this was the first powered hang glider flight in Europe and heralded the beginnings of microlight aviation in the UK.

Shortly after the arrival of the Soarmaster, and realising the powered hang glider concept had limited market appeal, Electra Flyer developed the Eagle, a canard design employing hang glider technology but, unlike other powered designs, having no hang glider origins. It was designed specifically to employ the Soarmaster and a full 3-wheel undercarriage. A much safer concept and a very simple and forgiving aircraft to fly. Basically this was the USA's first microlight design. Scot-Kites now re-named Eurowing, did not manufacture Eagle airframes, but imported over 20 Eagles for UK sale.

With the arrival of the Eagle, Soarmaster, and other power systems, it was obvious that another new era in aviation was about to commence and consequently Eurowing focused on this potential market by negotiating a licence to manufacture the Goldwing, a foam/composite ultralight canard designed by American Craig Catto. At this point all hang glider production ceased and the company expanded into a larger production unit. Electra-Flyer also changed its market focus, changed its name to American Aerolites, and set up a programme to develop further ultralight designs.

This, of course, was the end of both companies' involvement in hang gliding and with British and European manufacturers developing more sophisticated designs, the American dominance of international markets was over.

Eurowing went on to manufacture over 60 Goldwings before the emphasis changed to two-seat designs and discussions took place with a view to manufacturing Dave Cook's Shadow. However, instead, it was agreed that Metal Fax would purchase Eurowing's assets and transfer production to Suffolk where I was employed to assist in setting up production systems for the Shadow.

Finally, may I pay tribute to the many friends and employees who contributed to Scotkites/Eurowing success and to making this dream possible, amongst whom were:

Peter Mayo, Andrew Fawcett, Paul Coppola, Jim Penman, Jimmy Potts, Billy Boreland, Angus Pinkerton, Jim Scoular, Kenny Arbuckle, Noel, and several others whose names I've forgotten (apologies)

Wonderful times.

Now Dave takes up the story again...

Scotland now had several Hang Gliding Clubs each with their own carefully negotiated access to hills and landing areas. This question of access was at times a thorny problem with land owners and farmers understandably cautious of the idea of a group of mad fliers regularly invading their peaceful land, especially sensitive at lambing time.

We were lucky at Tinto as there was only one who was hostile to us and since this was affecting the east side which was not the prevailing wind anyway, we left him out. Regularly every New Year Gordon and I would take the rounds with the club gift of a bottle of whisky to each farmer and landowner and we were always welcomed generously.

There were regular visits to other sites. And of course other clubs and pilots came to fly with us. Gradually as performance of glider and pilot skills improved and soaring and thermalling with regular cross country flights being achieved, competition became significant.

The social side developed too and the Lanarkshire Soaring Club annual fly in and barbeque, held at Tinto with the social event under canvas in the landing field became a very popular event. When the conditions were right you could see at times a flock of gliders in the air, all following the standard soaring pattern with some catching thermals and disappearing off on a cross country flight.

As across the whole UK, glider designs progressed with the evolution to the double surface Comet clones driving everything else to extinction.

I had been flying one of Brian's gliders, the Nimbus, which was a good soaring, easily handled single surface machine. I had many good long flights and took it to the Alps a couple of times.

After a short experience with a second hand Demon bought from Richard Armstrong, which was much too big for me, but in light winds no one could get up near me, I then bought a Magic 3 from Stan Moodie.

This was the most fantastic glider I had experienced, it handled beautifully, very accurately, soaring and gliding performance excelled. I had many great flights on this both at home and in France, some exceeding five hours in duration.

The 'Scottish Hang Gliding Federation' comprising of all the clubs in Scotland, had been formed. From this came the 'Scottish Cross Country League' where pilots entered up their best three cross country flights for the year. (One year I had the dubious pleasure of coming last but I also managed a third, and a fourth place) and there was the annual 'Scottish Open' held at Glenshee were lots of the big names in hang gliding came to get thrashed by our locals! (Just kidding)

Results from this and of course other articles appeared in the SHGF magazine 'Scotwings' which came out regularly and was a welcome addition to the BGA magazine.

Brian by now had changed to a microlight flying school based at Cumbernauld airfield which at that time was just a grass field with no facilities. When the weather was such that going down to Tinto would be probably a top to bottom flight we would go up to Cumbernauld instead and cadge flights on Brian's trikes. In this way I had my first Flight and first solo on a single seat flexwing microlight. A move to Oban in '84 brought me more involvement with microlighting and into conventional gliding. And gradually my hang gliding diminished till one day several years later I took my equipment and the Magic 3 to the show at Telford and sold them. I instantly regretted this and have done so ever since.

So ended my hang gliding career. Highlights of my flying? A fantastic five hour cross country triangle on my Magic 3 at the west end of the Verdon gorge air in the evening so smooth that it seemed impossible not to stay up! Soaring over the top of Tinto and top of the stack, having taken off lower down and along the ridge then hearing the sound of Merlin engines followed by seeing a wartime Mosquito aircraft pass along the hill beneath with the pilot looking up at me. Seeing the look of amazement, incredulity, jealousy and desire as an elderly gent who had walked up the hill to see the flying, watched as I took off and climbed over his head and along the ridge! Falling out of three successive thermals at a Scottish league event at Glenshee, each time almost down in the landing area and then climbing above Cairnwell before catching the cracker which took me to over 7,000ft but still only made it to a clearing in the Queens ground at Balmoral where I was assisted by two kindly but firm security gents! Taking off from the brow of a hill behind the town of Embrun in France to work the lift and soar above the alpine peaks in the company of two conventional gliders. Many many days flying with the Tinto pilots, all great companions who never hesitated to help others and had a fantastic enthusiasm for hang Gliding. I still meet with some former pilots from time to time, most have given up but a few continue in microlighting and conventional gliding as the desire for flight never really dies, I know of one however who still hang glides at Tinto!

PILOTS from memory
Lanarkshire Soaring Club:
Gordon Murray, Fred Joynes, Brian Harrison, Angus Pinkerton, Donald Mackenzie, Richard Armstrong, John Thompson, John Rankin, Heidi Fawcett(nee Brogan) Andy Fawcett, Jimmy Potts, Bill Walker, Ken Murieson, Jim Penman, Laurence..., Kenny..., ?

Other clubs:
Stan Moodie, Ian Trotter, Donny Carson, Pete Milward,

Sorry to have missed names - it's an age thing! It would be great if any other Scottish experience pilot who read this and could add their story, got in touch with the webmaster and arranged that.

Dave Whitelaw, Former Chairman Lanarkshire Soaring Club. Member 1975 to 1984

 

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