Letter from Miles Handley

Many visitors to this web site have made contact with me asking about Mile Handley, as he played such large part in our early history and to helping it become the safe sport that you all enjoy to this day. Information about him is very scarce and I would like to add more if you like to send it in.


The following is a letter that both Jillian and Miles sent me

I have to own up to slightly altering this letter by deleting the name of the Pilot who lost his life, in respect of his family,  Miles and Jillian.

To view Miles photo gallery Click Here


Dear Terry

We have given deep thought to our experiences of hang gliding and the following is a mixture of fact and our memories and we hope you can pick out one or two useful details. Our memory is that our start was 1972 on Miles birthday, but we gather there may be doubt about the year.

We had seen television adverts with these interesting flying objects and had come to the conclusion they were the ‘hang gliders’ that we were also hearing about at the time. I heard of Len Gabriel’s who was starting to build the Skyhook and supplying plans so I sent away for a copy which arrived on Miles’ birthday when he was in bed suffering from a bad dose of bronchitis. Never had anyone got well so quickly and he was very soon building his own machine.

Two of his work mates (Reg Hale and Bill Lehan) were keen to get involved so they came with us on the first launch on the South Downs. We met ‘John James’ (who later turned out to be one of the Wasp Haynes brothers) and he gave us a lot of useful tips. We then realised we had left the harness at home but Bill was so keen he tied himself on to our wing with a length of rope and took off! Miles was horrified as he realised the risks but he managed to borrow harness and flew a short distance. He was hooked but the other two never flew again.

While talking to the other pilots Miles realised hardly anyone was manufacturing at that time was an engineer. The sport was getting a bad press and we realised something had to be done so Miles and I drew up a safety standard. This covered such things as quality of the aluminium and cloth, integrity of stitching on the sails, quality of bolts and wires. We managed to get together the 7 or 8 people then going into production and managed to persuade them to use their experience to add to our draft and subsequently adopt it as an official Safety Standard.

We were told later that production liability insurance became possible when insurance companies realised there was a manufacturing standard and progress in the insurance field was much helped by Reggie Spooner, who gave the hang gliding fraternity a lot of help and advice gained from his experiences in gliding insurance.

Fortunately the motorway net work was then being built across the country. We found Miles was being contacted and asked to test fly new models and give advice and the new roads made it possible to travel at weekends from lands End to John O’Groats. We got Len Gabriel’s permission to adapt the plans and build a bigger Skyhook for heavier pilots and then Miles started designing his own aircraft and trading as “Miles Wings Ltd”. The Gulp was so named as that is what people did the first time they flew it and it was followed by the “Gryphon”.

In the early days a big problem was finding suitable launch sites. This is where I came in as I pointed out that money talks. The farmers who allowed us to fly on their land were being harassed by the police who said we were causing accidents when motorists were distracted on seeing hang gliders in the sky. After losing 5 sites in one week we called a meeting of all the pilots we could contact on the hillsides and pointed out the need for a club to organise the sport and negotiate with the farmers. The Southern Hang Gliding Club was formed and I published a monthly newsletter giving all the up to date info on the sites etc. We charged £25 per annum (quite a sum in those days) and the pilot received an aluminium plate as a receipt for his subscription to be attached to the nose of the glider. The plate was printed with all the details and the colour changed each year to show it was a current one. Policing the hillsides for pirates fell to the club members and we were able to pay the farmers for use of their sites.

Clubs were later formed in other parts of the country but the problems were not as pressing away from the crowded South of England.

While this was happening, John James was publishing the “Flypaper” as the organ of the National Hang Gliding Association which he had started. Later the Association was put on a more formal footing as the British Hang Gliding Association and the Flypaper became the “Wings”

Several schools had been set up over the country and they became responsible for issuing pilot licenses.

Each serious accident had to be investigated by the Air Accident Board and Miles was often called in on these occasions. He was asked to attend several Coroners’ Courts as an expert witness at inquests. It was as a result of his name appearing in newspapers from time to time in this connection that we found ourselves receiving telephone calls from around the world, 24 hours a day. Typically, at 03.00 hours a call from Japan where there had just been a serious accident on a British hang glider and the Police wanted help to contact the manufacturer. We have been ex-directory ever since!

Our worst experience was when a pilot died following an accident on one of our gliders. It was a machine that required a pilot’s license to fly but ….. had got his license, unknown to us, through the “Grandfather” clause. He had also tweaked the machine. Luckily we had complete working drawings, stress analysis and test results for the Air Accident investigation and Miles was even congratulated on the design but that did not bring back the pilot. His father was extremely kind at the inquest and after wards told Miles he realised it was his sons fault and we were not to blame our selves.

Various flying events were being organised around the country and Miles was often asked to act as Scrutineer, checking each hang glider before it was allowed to fly. He was flying in such an event at Pickering in Yorkshire – the commentator was just announcing Miles name and explaining he was the safety Officer – when something happened and he ended up in Scarborough Hospital. Fortunately he only suffered concussion and I was able to drive him back to Surrey the next day – my first experience of driving with a hang glider on the roof.

A league had been started some time earlier and Miles was at about number 11 when we came back from Pickering but he decided he no longer flew for the sheer exhilaration. He had usually been the first to take-off at flying sites as people waited for him to put his toe in the water and report back on conditions but he took to waiting for someone else to fly first and gradually eased his way out and gave up flying. He left in June on year but I was so involved with clubs and organizing I had to continue until the October before I could resign.

MONEY had started to come into the sport some years previously, Until then it had been quite usual for pilots to give up their usual job and take work as postmen and milkmen – both livelihoods with early finishing times each day so they could fly every afternoon. Then sponsorship entered the equation and ordinary pilots found they were competing against “professionals” who could travel to events abroad and fly all day every day.

As we were leaving, motorised hang gliders were appearing and the noise was becoming a problem.

We felt we had been very lucky to enjoy the sport in the early days even though it was not plain sailing and hitches were continually occurring, there was usually an air of light-hearted camaraderie between pilots but this tended to disappear as money was involved.
Before we then took up high-speed sailing we gave all our back copies of magazines to the British Hang Gliding Association, but kept several books on the subject namely

‘Hang Gliding’ by Daniel F Poynter 1973

‘Free Flight Hang Gliding’ by John James 1974

‘Flight handbook for Rogallo Sailwings’ by J Forrest 1975

‘Hang Gliding” by Martin Hunt and David Hunn 1977

1st August 2008


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