was one of the early pioneers of hang gliding and along with two
friends Greg Thompson and Rod Pace formed the very first hang gliding
club in East Anglia during the early part of 1975. Mike became the
Technical Safety officer, while Greg was voted Flying Safety Officer
and Rod the Secretary, the minimum regiment at that time to become
affiliated with the BHGA. Mike along with his two friends and Paul
Whitley then pioneered most of the very early sites along the North
Norfolk coast and a couple in land. Being constantly frustrated by
winds that blew from the wrong directions, meant that they could not
fly many weekends of the year. Therefore, Mike, Greg and Paul tried to
take hang gliding to its next generation, Towing. Towing would mean
that it did not matter which direction the wind blew they would be able
to get into the air most weekends during the year. The opening up of
this new form of flying was greeted with great enthusiasm by most of
the other member who by now had joined the Norfolk club. However, most
stayed in the background leaving the task to just a few dedicated
people who gave up most of their spare time, spare money and anything
else they found to be spare trying to perfect the idea.
The following article is by Mike Lake and explains step by step how
Towing was perfected by this small dedicated bunch of Norfolk hang
1974 I watched with fascination a news article from the USA about some
'birdmen'. Wow I thought this looks good. I made some enquiries over
the next few weeks and eventually (no Google remember) I found some
information on this 'Hand' gliding. I bought a set of drawings from Len
Gabriels of Skyhook Sailwings. I was soon the proud owner of an all
white kite with two blue squares, one on each wing. This was the limit
of my artistic flair. We (Cousin Roy and I) took this to Cromer to test
(this would be late summer ‘74). Not from the top I hasten to add but
inland towards the golf greens. So so naïve. Roy wanted first 'go' he
picked up the glider and instantly flipped over, breaking the A frame a
leading edge and all Roy’s enthusiasm. The first crash at Cromer I
believe. As a ‘lone’ birdman, I fixed the kite over the next few months
and by the beginning of ’75 I was ready to go again. I needed to find
some other dreamer with enthusiasm to help get me into the air so I put
a small add in the EEN.
made contact with ROD PACE who was as surprised as I was that there was
someone else with a hang glider attempting to fly. We met up one
weekend and made our way to Weybourne where we had heard there was a
big hill!!! We were both stunned to find a third madman fighting with a
big orange kite. This would be none other than Greg Thompson.
three of us met up a few weeks later in my kitchen (because I lived the
closest to Cromer) and formed the Norfolk Hang Gliding Club. A
Secretary, a flying safety officer and a technical safety officer being
the minimum required to become affiliated to the BHGA. The club
exploded over the next few months.
became the driving force behind the club for many years. He pushed
forward Hang Gliding in Norfolk (and in some ways the UK) by bullying
and getting things done. I could write a book about his exploits. He
flew everything and anything and still flies an aeroplane.
flew this white kite for a year or so and had a break for a while when
my first daughter was born. I flew another homemade (deflectors battons
etc.) then a Skyhook Sunspot (known as a SunSplat after some had
crashed) then my beautiful Skyhook Sabre, one of the first CFX gliders.
Along with Greg and Paul Whitley (never a club member) and a (very) few
dedicated others we did much of the founding work with towing by both
pushing forward the work of our predecessors and by developing our own
system. Our work including the time when towing was frowned upon and
was ‘banned’ by the BHGA, all seems to have gone unsung. This saddens
me and will be addressed next.
In the beginning Towing….
club continued to grow and our pilots explored the area around the
Norfolk coast. Some inland ‘humps’ were experimented with but basically
we were reliant on somewhere around a NE wind. We had long long periods
of flying droughts and when we could fly we were stuck to a cliff.
Proper inland sites, all several hours drive away, were by now catching
thermals and generally having a good time. The Norfolk club despite its
suburb coastal cliffs was a hang gliding backwater.
The first wave. Frame towing.
information about the practice of tow launching started to filter
through and a glimmer of hope was realised by some of the club members.
A national tow meet was organised for the 25-26th August 1979 and held
at little Snoring Airfield in Norfolk. This was designed to bring
together all the various techniques that were springing up around the
country. Once again it was Greg who was the brain child for this event
one …but no one in the whole of the UK had more of an interest in
exploring this launch technique, although, at this time, we had taken
no part in its development. The meet was well organised and attended
and, despite one incident, it was a huge success. Shame there doesn’t
seem to be any video footage, probably because cameras at the time
weighed a ton and cost a fortune. Although I believe that now somebody
has come up with a little footage
The systems demonstrated were.
(Photos from Don Liddard of the event).
winch. This winch was mounted on a truck and worked very well. There
was no bridle at all instead the A frame was modified with a release
system in the middle of the bottom bar.
Today’s tow pilots, with their relatively tranquil and stable launches, can have no idea of the severity of this system.
First, the object of the launch was to get away from the ground as soon
as possible. A good idea, but there is a difference between scratching
your bum and tearing it to pieces! This was taken to the extreme.
The truck would accelerate down the runway the winch brake would be
applied and the glider and pilot would be yanked into the air, remember
the line was attached to the base bar so the glider at takeoff was
doing its utmost to pitch up. The pilot was a sort of hanging on
Once the initial takeoff was over the pilot was
treated to a ride that was continually trying to tip the glider over to
one side or other. If you want to know what this feels like ask Greg,
he still has nightmares.
There was infact a top leg that helped keep the nose down on t/o. This had a seperate release.
this, many launches of about 1500 feet were made, cumulating in Brian
Woods catching some lift and doing a short cross-country. This was a
first from a tow in Norfolk and probably the UK. If there was ever
anything that gave us flatlanders some hope it was this flight.
I think this similar system was also demonstrated but he had some
technical problems however, the system was successfully demonstrated
was a neat device about the size of a small generator it easily fitted
into a car boot. The small engine was simply incapable of pulling too
much tension so, baring a cable snag, the danger of the glider folding
around your ears did not exist. The attachment to the glider was by a
three-cable bridle, one to each corner of A frame and one to the
heartbolt, a release was mounted where these three met. The effective
tow point (because of the top leg) was somewhat higher up than the base
bar. The takeoffs, as compared to the BAKER’S system, were tranquil and
eerily silent with the winch being some distant away. However, the
inherent instability during the tow remained.
This was a simple system with a cable connected directly to a vehicle
with I think a weaklink. gary was flying a Falcon IV. At the glider end
a single cable was attached just forward of the heart bolt. A cable ran
from nose to tail through the hang point. The release was on this cable
giving an effective tow point as described. This tow point would have
given a slightly better ride in terms of roll & yaw, but introduced
a bit of a problem. The tow force was constantly trying to tuck the
glider.. and this is exactly what happened. I had to look away but I
can still hear the thud. I think several people lost interest after
(An article of the event by Brian Pattenden and Terry Aspinall was published in the #58 'Wings' magazine that came out in November 1979).
Video taken of the Meet.
The Norfolk club purchased a static winch from Len and towing had arrived.
meeting was arranged for 26th September 1979 at the Fleece in Suffolk,
to discuss the way forward. It was well attended and many issues were
had one valuable member, Brian Pattenden. He had studied tethered
flight in some detail. He had also been appointed a tow technical
adviser with the club.
During discussions he described his theory that some part of the tow force should go through THE PILOT.
You may wish to reread the above. What was being described was C of M towing. I believe this was a first, worldwide!
It was a radical suggestion at the time and was greeted with silence. However, the seeds had been sown.
at the same meeting, when asked for his advice on safe towing his
answer was ‘DON’T DO IT’. This was not what several dozen flight
starved pilots wanted to hear. His short reign as tow technical advisor
came to an abrupt end. And Brian disappeared from the hang gliding
scene never to be seen again.
this point things were at a high but were about to take a drastic turn
for the worst. There was a serious accident after just a few tow
launches, enthusiasm plummeted and the winch and all towing activities
were put into cold storage. Ken Coles from Norwich suffered a classic
lockout while flying a Wills Swallowtail. With the power of hindsight
Ken was a complete novice and should never had been given a chance to
fly on that particular day.
The first towing wave had come to an end.
The Brooks Bridle.
about this time trikes appeared on the scene and the club became
fragmented. Interest in towing was at zero. One day I decided to drive
to North Walsham to collect the winch and try to regain some
enthusiasm. Along with Greg and Paul Whitley we had several tows around
Norfolk, We found, and were given permission to use, a couple of old
air strips at Heveringland and Flixton and, to satisfy his Triking
needs, Greg got his own airstrip (yep) just outside Norwich. This was
tried one or two different techniques, modifications & ideas
including (with the help of Peter Hammond) a remote control link from
glider to winch. However, frame towing always felt like, and was, a
disaster waiting to happen.
trickle of information about a new bridle that promised a more stable
tow came to our attention and a group of us were invited to go
(somewhere or other) to see it in action. We took all our kit and met
Bill Brooks and Howard Edwards. What we were treated to was a
revelation. Our winch and another winch pulled gliders into the air all
day, including some fairly new and intermediate pilots. Every flight
had the look and feel of being in control. Our frame bridles never left
the car and were cut up and cannibalised the very next day. If ever
there was a piece of equipment that took the tow launching of hang
gliders out of the Stone Age it was the Brooks Bridle.
demo of the Brooks Bridle was at Quainton in November 1981 – I was
there and was towed on my Cyclone. Quainton was a training slope near
Aylesbury / Buckingham. Dave Simpson and Howard Edwards used it for
their school. Lots of people there, Simon Murphy springs to mind.
Howard’s winch was a Honda CB350 motorcycle minus its rear end mounted
on a trailer. Also present was (my flying mate) Laurence Bourne flying
a Vortex and John Sharp of the Northampton club with his Mk2 Cyclone. I
have some photos, but they are not very good, too overexposed – maybe
with a lot of Photo shopping…..) information from Dave Forty.
Brooks Bridle simply towed a pilot from their hang straps. There was a
spreader bar in front of the pilot and two cables one routed either
side of the pilot’s head. A bungee cord wound this all out of the way
after release. Within a few weeks just about everyone with a towing
interest had one, including me.
made fantastic advances in a very short space of time and, with the
newfound knowledge that we would not actually be pulled through the A
frame and hit our heads on the keel, we also began to explore the
principles as proposed by our (short lived) tow technical advisor in
the late ‘70s.
apparent that towing from any part of the pilot, pilot/glider
combination was an order of magnitude better than frame towing. I
remember hanging from my shed and, with a broom handle for a bottom
bar, Peter Hammond and I explored all sorts of combinations. One,
suggested by Peter, was a heart-bolt to pilot cord with a pulley to
evenly distribute the load. Sound familiar? Dismissed though because we
thought the bottom bar got in the way at various line angles.
this time I tried to design a bridle that required zero modifications
to the harness or glider. This was both for my own convenience, I did
not like wires and stuff flapping around my face, and also to try to
tempt some other pilots to have a go, as it removed one very good
attachment that consisted of a strap, spreader bar and cord release
attached to the pilot’s chest was devised. This pulled highish up the
pilot and was a good compromise.
I believe that this type of bridle is in use today and I like to think
that I can take some if not all the credit for it. We had a full
working, flying unit during the very early Eighties, just as soon as I
had solved the under/over bottom bar problem.
I modestly called this the Lake bridle.
was intensifying. Some of our other club members were taking note and
the Suffolk boys were making their own progress. Things were buzzing.
player about this time was Oxford Guy (I believe his name was Andy
Brough). He had a beautifully built payout winch mounted in the back of
a Austin Maxie. His bridle was a release around about the hip area this
meant that the towline was routed under the base bar on take off.
Takeoffs were a bit severe but he had a good complete working system
with spectacular height gains.
Oxford Guy arranged a Tow meet at an airfield near err Oxford. This was
a two-day event and was well attended. Only on the first day could I
attend and it was fantastic. There was a thick air of optimism. The
Norfolk and Suffolk boys all shared ideas, made plans and had a good
time. This was it, towing was about to boom.
two the 6th of June (not sure of the year but the day will always be in
my mind) one of the Suffolk boys known as Woolly was killed during a
fixed line tow demo. From what I can remember of the reports he
whip-stalled when a weak-link broke.
Airfield was at Oakley, a little to the NE of Oxford. Richard Gibbs and
Andy Brough also flew at this meeting. It is still used as a microlight
strip, but try as we may, we could’t get an aerotow operation there,
they remember the fatality from all those years ago.) Information from
heard this news I was devastated. The Suffolk boys were in a state of
shock and the shockwaves reached the whole of the hang gliding
community. The BHGA instantly put a ban on ALL towing activates.
The second wave had come to an abrupt end.
The third wave.
The dark ages and the light at the end of the tunnel
towing ban by the BHGA had little effect on the rest of the non-towing
community so there seemed very little urgency to lift the ban. Despite
the fact that our group were active and probably had at least as much
experience as anyone else at that time, we were never asked to
participate in finding a way forward or even asked to share our
experiences. The backwater image persisted.
flatlanders had no choice. We tow or we scratch about waiting for a
NEish wind to take us up and down the same bit of coast (all be it and
a long bit of coast and lots of fun).
group persisted but frankly, to some, half the fun of flying is the
overwhelming need to share the experience. There was almost no interest
from our own club, (and many had gone powered) there was, apparently,
no interest from the rest of the UK and it took a while for the
devastated Suffolk boys to regain their enthusiasm. There was also an
article by (I think) Southdown Sailwings, a leading manufacture of the
time, that gave all sorts of reasons why towing was no good and never
would be. The negative press was depressing and, to boot, as far as the
BHGA were concerned we were flying illegally anyway. I think it is fair
to describe this as a low point.
was a going nowhere situation. Something was needed and we reckoned
that we might as well push on, despite the BHGA ban. There was an
agreement to try to take things on to the next level.
This was made between three pilots.
Paul was to design build a payout winch.
Greg would finance the cost of the winch and provide a car.
I would develop the bridles and supply the towrope.
All three would be test pilots winch operators etc.
was only loosely a club venture However, Paul had finally decided to
became a club member although we had no blessing from the BHGA.
However, there was also a small core of willing helpers who persisted
with us. Mike Pulford reliable nearly always present, especially on
Hammond. I can safely say that he was, at one time, the most
experienced winch operator in the UK (Ok the only one, but he was good).
Helped as a ground crew member.
'Snowy' Allan Snowling (and some of the other Suffolk boys) drifted in for a look, to help and the occasional flight.
I am sorry if I have missed anyone but I think that was about it.
The winch was built by Paul in just a few weeks and worked better than we could have hoped for.
Originally this was mounted in the back of a Maxie but we soon bought a
trailer, cannibalised Greg’s Maxie and fitted the seat for the winch
man. This was a good move as it made the kit a bit more universal. Any
car with a tow-bar could become the tow vehicle and, with a cover, we
could chuck all the kit in the back and trundle it anywhere.
one and only accident was a bizarre incident. Paul, using the Brooks
bridle, had a perfect launch and climbed several hundred feet. We
watched for a while and were curious as to why Paul was having such a
tame flight. Anyone who knows Paul will know what I mean. He managed a
perfect landing 10 feet from the trailer as usual, but he didn’t emerge
from under his wing. When we investigated we found an almost
unconscious blood splattered Paul. He had released under a bit of
tension and the bridle spreader bar had recoiled and hit him full in
the face. We knew that Paul was lucky and we knew that this must never
the BHGA ban a report was produced (something like ‘The Taylor Report’
or the ‘Watson Report’ I can’t remember). BHGA guy’s report was a set
of recommendations for a safer towing system.
As far as I am
aware we were the only group in the UK attempting to address the issues
raised in this report. One of BHGA’s guy’s criteria was that the glider
should have some assistance to help control any pitch up problems at
designed the Step-Up bridle specifically to satisfy this BHGA
requirement, keeping in mind the problem of the pilot getting a face
full of equipment. (By the way it was never called a ‘Leg bridle’ I
don’t know where that name came from, possibly a mix-up with the
completely different Lake bridle),
Step-Up bridle was a simple but, for some reason, a misunderstood piece
of kit. There was a fixed length top leg connected to the heart bolt
area and a bottom leg connected to the pilot hip area in such a way
that this bottom leg was long or short depending on the pilot’s
position, gorilla or prone. The rest of the bits were just a way to
wind the whole thing up against the keel and stop anything hitting the
pilot in the face. This worked well and takeoffs were so smooth and
easy and then you would ‘step up’ to climb away. A good few pilots,
including some very early trainees, used this with great success. I
would guess that this bridle might even hold it’s own today and at one
time, for novices, it was thought to be superior to the (I think
current) 50/50 bridle, all be it a bit more complicated.
I read an article from the US recently that said (if I understood it
correctly) that some training schools have started to use a fixed top
leg to assist new pilots on takeoff! Nothing is new.
Ideas were explored, for example, the Slip-Link (a weak link that did
not break but slipped and dispersed excessive tow loads). Some were
practical some were not.
pressed on and spent much of our free time trying to get it right. Some
times there would be just the three of us, one in the car, one in the
trailer and one flying. We would all then swap around. No chance of
flying too far, as this would rob the day of one third of the ground
Most of the time however, we could rely on Mick Pulford to help.
sometime between the start of the BHGA’s ban and arrival of ‘new blood’
Tony Webb, we had it sussed. Gradually test flights became fun flights.
Takeoffs and tow-ups became automatic and natural. We started catching
lift and actually going UP. Soon after, XCs, a dream started in the
70s, became a reality. Try to imagine what a mind numbing exhilarating
time this was. After such a long wait we, us, the flatlanders, circling
over our own countryside.
reports I have read over the years have given the impression that
modern day tow launching in the UK arrived some time after this. This
is totally incorrect and the subject need addressing, Now!!.
At this time we had automatic low-tension tow equipment, safe usable
bridles, experience, techniques, procedures and control. Importantly,
it was both practical and easy, with a tow turnaround time of just a
few minutes. A bit rough around the edges perhaps, but, allowing for
20+ years of perfecting, it was only superficially different from the
systems in use today.
am not claiming that our group were responsible for modern day tow
launching, far from it. I see its development as a big jigsaw puzzle
started long before we even got involved and contributed to by
individuals & groups over the years. However, we did do a
good-sized chunk of this jigsaw and brought it to the point of safe
fledgling XC flying. Which was, after all, the whole point of the
Our contribution at the time was well known but over
the years it seems to have been a bit downgraded to something that
happened before ‘proper’ towing. This does our group no justice at all.
winch tow procedures drafted for the BHGA late '83. The towing ban, for
our group, was later lifted then also for the rest of the UK.
The above Wings cover photo clearly shows the FRAME tow system was still in use during September 1981
Both the above appeared in the 1981 edition of wings and were sent in by Andrew Hill
The last paragraph is of interest to all who have and will in future be towed into the air