The First Ten Years


It's well established that Geoff McBroom and a small group of close friends built and flew the very first hang glider in the United Kingdom. What follows is an article from Geoff on how it all came about.

Geoff McBrooms article

Late in 1971 Anne Welch made one of her regular visits to our gliding club at Nympsfield, in the Cotswolds. She’d recently been in the US and showed us some photographs and newspaper cuttings of youngsters in California gliding down hills in what looked like very primitively constructed Rogallo wings. I was familiar with the Rogallo concept and had built several flying models in previous years, but the thought of it being used as a lightweight man carrying glider had never occurred to me.

Anne’s chat generated considerable interest and six of us immediately decided we just had to make one for ourselves.

The group comprised Don Cameron, Tony Gillette, Lez Hocking, Howard Johns, Steve Stanwix, and myself. Being in the Aero dept of British Aerospace put me in the ideal position to come up with a design as I had ready access to NASA papers giving the characteristics of the many variants of the Rogallo wing that had been considered as a gliding parachute for the Apollo space capsule. In reality the aerodynamicist bit may have sounded reassuring to the group but was irrelevent as nothing I’d ever worked on did less than Mach 2 or lasted longer than 14 seconds.

The Nasa data sheets showed that a high aspect ratio wing (keel = 1/2 length of LE) would give the best glide angle and stability, but the reduced wing area would lead to faster and more injury prone take-offs and landings. The version with a keel longer than the LE appeared to be only marginally stable without the pendulum effect of the payload. We chickened out of the extreme options and went for the version with equal length keel / LE, and set about bolstering our confidence by constructing large numbers of little balsa and tissue models with plasticine ballast.

We first considered building the full size machine from bamboo poles given away by carpet dealers, but they were too short and variable in diameter, leaving us no option but to use alloy tubing. I was rather cautious regarding the structural strength and chose to use 2” x 16g tubing. This was a serious mistake, leading to our hang glider being unnecessarily heavy – it was some time before we stepped down to a more sensible 1.5” dia.

Biting the bullet we ordered the tubing, and with the exception of Don Cameron, put in £10 each. Don offered to make the sail as his contribution. Don was just starting his very successful business designing and manufacturing hot air balloons.

I remember the “seating arrangement” being the only source of mild disagreement during the design stage. Lez wanted the pilot supported by his armpits on two longitudinal poles, as per Lilienthal, while the rest of us prefered to have him dangling in a seat using the A-Frame to control the attitude. This wasn’t our idea - we’d just seen a picture of a waterski kite controlled this way (almost certainly a Bill Bennett machine). Lez was beaten into submission, but we agreed to revert to the bars if the seat didn’t work. Incidentally, I’ve seen reports that our machine was a copy of Bill Bennetts. This is incorrect. Apart from the hanging seat it was all the result of our own model tests and the NASA Data sheets. However, I’d be the first to admit we’d probably have got off to a better start had we copied Mr Bennett’s wing.

The craft (never named) was built in the gliding club workshop in the winter of 1971/2, and when completed was suspended from the hangar ceiling to give it a strength test. I’ve seen a photograph of this somewhere, with one of the small Rogallo models floating past.

Don made an excellent job with the sail, made from the same lightweight ripstop nylon as his balloons. Unlike the monstrously heavy airframe the sail weighed nothing and could be packed into a small bag.

We flew it in early 1972, on the side of Camlong Down, near Dursley.

None of us can remember the date of the first flight, but it was extremely cold with no leaves on the trees. I’d guess it was probably March. It must be appreciated that none of us considered our activities to be significant, we were doing it for a lark and it was only some 35 years later that people have become interested in the precise date.

Considering we had no instructions whatsoever on how to fly the craft I think it went pretty well. We all managed to leave the ground, at least momentarily, and ended up invariably on our backsides somewhere down the slope.The exception to these erratic and painful performances was Lez Hocking. Lez was brilliant – he was the only one able to take off, float down the slope and flare out at the bottom just like a stork – every time. Needless to say there was no more talk from Lez on being suspended by our armpits.

Poor Harold was probably the least successful and repeatedly let the wing overtake him and dive into the ground during his takeoff run and became quite badly cut. In his defence it must be said that he was shorter, rounder and older than the rest of us. In fact, looking at how the load in the side wires was taken across the control frame just above head height, it’s a wonder nobody was garotted. Luckily all of our injuries were minor, even Harold’s, and mostly resulted from not immediately appreciating how essential it was to have the craft trying to lift the pilot throughout the take-off run.

There have been several mentions of our first hang glider on the internet, saying the glide angle was 3:1. It was much better than this and would gain height while floating down this slope which was about 5:1, though flying in the ground effect helped the efficiency.

We returned to the Camlong Down site several times, now accompanied by quite a few gliding club members keen to see how deranged some of their more senior colleagues had become. Most of us were instructors and, particularly embarrasing for me, I was the club Safety Officer and Deputy CFI. Its hard to believe, but during all of these local outings not a single club member ever asked if they could have a go on our machine.

There’s no doubt the first flight must be attributed to Lez Hocking, but credit for the UK’s first cross country flight goes to Tony Gillette on a day we were flying the west facing slope beneath Uley beacon. Following a particularly good takeoff Tony cleared the hedge at the bottom and landed in the next field.

Naturally we kept in touch with Anne Welch, and met her at Milk Hill on the Marlborough downs to show off the device. Anne was very keen to have a go, but after all she had done to spur us on it was rather cruel luck that, after a nice float down the hillside, she had a rather heavy landing, giving her backache for some months. She invited us to an event commemorating the early days of conventional gliding at Ditchling Beacon on the South Downs, where Lez and I both made short soaring flights of about 2 minutes going slowly backwards in a howling gale. For our efforts we received a cup from Anne during the prizegiving for demonstrating the spirit of the early gliding pioneers.

Our little enterprise was only undertaken for enjoyment, but a request from an ex RAF Hunter pilot to build him one indicated commercial possibilities. Furthermore, features in the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Express drew in over 4000 enquiries, many wanting to either build or buy a hang glider. Inevitably, sometime late in 1972 I left British Aerospace, rented a small workshop and went into production.

Looking back nearly 40 years later, I realise just how enjoyable and exciting these early days were.Thanks to a passing conversation with Anne Welch we were just lucky to be in right at the start of this amazing sport in the UK.

© Copyright Geoff McBroom 2010


Upon her return from the USA in 1971, Anne Welch also brought news of Dave Kilbourne, while flying a Dickenson shaped wing, became the first American to take off from the side of a hill. It was later established that he had purchased his first gliders from Bill Bennett who, at that time, was selling copies of Aerostructures (Dickenson Licensed Product) Wing. Later Dave started building his own gliders and its believed his first soaring flight was on one of these own built gliders, (Based on Bennett's gliders) that he soared.

There are many articles by Anne that were published in the 'Flight International' magazines about hang gliding in the USA and UK that are all displayed on this website.

When asked if Geoff had met Bill Bennett. Geoff: "I've never met Bill Bennett. Lots of gliding club members were bemused by our strange activities and used to bring us all sorts of information. Somebody told us about the Bennett machine having been recently demonstrated by Bill at the South Cerney flooded gravel pits and then bought by one of their spectating club members in a Toad of Toad Hall moment. Unfortunately he never got around to flying it but was keen to show it to us. (I think he was hoping we'd put in an offer for it). It had polystyrene floats and was beautifully engineered. It was very small though, possibly 12 to 13ft booms and certainly not a machine for unassisted foot launch from a slope".

(Sounds like it might possibly have been a 'Skiwing' manufactured by Aerostructures, an Australian company owned and run by Mike Burns and Dick Swinbourne. Bill Bennett being an Australian would have known this and it's quite possibly he could have owned one.)

Geoff's glider had a wing span of 26 feet, a leading edge of 20 feet, and a 280 sq-ft sail area. Notably it had no king post. It’s calculated performance consisted of a takeoff speed of around 15 mph with a minimum sink rate of 6 feet a second at 20 mph.

It’s more than likely that the information and plans Geoff saw from NASA were the very same plans that John Dickenson had sent Francis Rogallo way back in 1964 while Rogallo was working for NASA. During that time, Rogallo was bound by loyalty clauses to NASA with everything he was working on, something he mentions in one of his letters to John (these are on display on web site). Therefore it might be assumed that Dickenson's information was passed around freely. This links Geoff's hang glider back to John Dickenson and the Dickenson Wing in Australia, whether it is via NASA, Dave Kilbourne or by Bill Bennett as all three sources were using the same information.

It’s further believed that NASA also had copies of what have become known as the 'Kilbo Plans' drawn up by Dave Kilbourne and based on one of Bill Bennett's gliders. These detailed plans were distributed free as an attachment with the 'Low and Slow' magazine #6 published about August 1971 and became the starting point for all other plans, especially in the USA. The magazine displayed a page of photos of the Kilbro glider and also acknowledged that they were based on Bill Bennett's glider. Bill Bennett had been introduced to Dave Kilbourne upon his arrival in the USA in 1969. During July 1972 Bill Bennett applied for a patent on a water tow glider, calling it a 'Passenger Carrying Glider'. 

However, many people over the years have come to believe that the above paragraph could be incorrect. The 'Kilbo Plans' were actually published in the 'Low and Slow' magazine #14 (not #6) and were published in June 1972 (not August 1971). If this were true it means that Geoff McBroom was flying well before they were published.

Nick Regan who first flew during the latter part of 1972 has stated publicly that he was the owner of a 'Low and Slow' magazine and did use information  taken from it. Nicks first flight was during the end of 1972.

America’s top hang gliding historian Ken de Russy: "Joe Faust (Low and Slow editor) regularly reprinted previous 'Low & Slow' issues months or years after the original date of first publication and even added or deleted content to improve the issue. The result is that it is nearly impossible to determine with certainty whether specific content was original or added later. There are some clues that suggest the Kilbo plans were added to issue #6 after May of 72. If this is correct, then some of the dates and details mentioned earlier might be incorrect.

In order that you can see how gliders have evolved, in such a short period of time, one need only to look at a page from the Eagle Book of Aircraft Published by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ltd Aylesbury and London in1953. It shows that only 18 years earlier conventional gliders where still using ridge lift while flying.

An acknowledgment list has been added of people involved in helping with advice and material to set up this website. Jason Board from the British Hang Gliding Museum has agreed to join forces and we have linked the websites. Jason is concentrating on collecting and the displaying of the early gliders, and undertaking video interviews with as many of the early pioneers as possible. Later this footage will be added to one of the websites, and Jason hopes to bring out a new documentary DVD on the subject. There is a short video of Jason asking for people to donate their old gliders to his museum, while he also explains what happens to them.

David Cook was also a hang glider builder during 1971. However he chose to branch out in a completely different direction and helped pioneer the three axis controlled ridged wing hang gliders. David went on to design and build the famous 'Shadow' Microlight, an amazing aircraft that was liked and loved by all who flew it. In all 415 Shadows were built, and during the past 30 years there has not been one fatality while flying a 'Shadow'. If you would like to read his latest book 'Flying From My Mind', it describes how David was involved in the early development of the hang glider in the United Kingdom and, later, how his ideas on powered hang gliding spread around the world.

It's worth mentioning at this point that in using the term 'Dickenson Wing', John Dickenson is receiving the credit for his design and invention, as he rightly should. However, what most people do not realise is that after John Dickenson, Norm Stanford and Bob Clements had all unsuccessfully tried to fly the wing, it seemed that the wing was a failure. After John Dickenson had left the Grafton water ski club house, Rod Fuller took up the challenge, insisting that the club's most respected boat skipper, Pat Crowe drove for him. As John was returning to the club house he saw Rod airborne above the river, and arrived just in time to hear Rod's account of the success. Thus John was inspired, with Rod's help, to change the centre of gravity and, later that same evening, John had a successful flight. Had it not been for the strength, skill and bravery of Rod Fuller, and the knowledge and cool under pressure attitude of Pat Crowe, it is doubtful that the glider would have ever been flown.

The definition of a 'Modern Hang Glider' is that it has an 'A-Frame' and 'Swing Seat' to control its flight.