Ken Messenger


Ken was in at the start of the hang gliding revolution, and is best known of the company he form "Birdman Sports' and for the many records and firsts he notched up during those early years. Most of which are listed below or else where on this site. The following information comes from Kens personal web site, which is well worth a visit, as it also covers his years of motor bike and car racing, and later of his horses breeding, and off road racing. Ken has also given me permission to use the information. Ken

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After stopping motor racing which incidentally Barbara for the first time had not felt very happy about and enjoying a few years of water skiing both on the sea and more seriously on local lakes I met a guy called Bill Bennett, an Australian living in California who visited our local ski club and demonstrated a new man carrying kite which he could tow behind a boat and climb to a good height then release to glide back onto the water. It looked terrific and I wondered if it would be possible to glide from our local hills near Marlborough. Bill kindly agreed to show me it could be done and the next day we visited a suitable local site for the demo. Unfortunately the wind was far too strong and all I saw was a 10 second flight on a slope close to the bottom of the hill. I later realized that Bill had been pretty brave doing even that short flight.

Once again hooked on something new I ordered a kite from Bill for early delivery and spent the journey home wondering what to tell Barbara. After an agonizing wait a trip to Heathrow and the collection of a long thin package the adventure was about to begin.

With no specific instructions but a long standing background interest in flying and a good understanding of the dynamics of flight I set out to learn.

All went well and soon flights lasting minutes were being achieved from 4/500 high feet local downland. News spread rapidly and local newspapers took up the story of the mad person flinging himself of hills, the name Birdman soon took hold. An appearance on Nationwide the 6'0'clock show in those days resulted in an enormous postbag of nearly 2,000 letters from people wanting to know all about it. This was an opportunity not to be missed and  I was soon involved in importing kites from California and set up a Company called Birdman Sports Ltd. There were  some problems however when they would arrive with vital parts missing etc. so a change was made and we started to manufacture here in the U.K.

Getting publicity was easy in those days and a flight from the summit of Snowdon was planned. Lucky with the weather perfect conditions prevailed and I took off in front of the Nations press and TV to record a 3 mile flight into the valley. It was puzzling to see a rescue helicopter overhead whilst walking out of the valley. It appears the local Hotelier had got a little over excited and called them out anticipating an emergency. I heard afterwards there were people praying on the summit. Barbara and I learned something about the press that day when they were trying to get her to plead with me not to do it. Her cool reply  was,"If Ken thinks it will work it's O.K. by me"

The manufacturing business was doing well and we moved to a new factory of 10,000 square feet. The staff also increased to 30 when we opened our own sail loft. Over this period the "kites" became "gliders" with improved performance and the name Hang gliding crossed the pond to be the name of our new sport. Early days sadly claimed lives and led to proper training methods becoming established. New adventures beckoned when I heard that Bill Bennet had dropped from under a hot air balloon at 12,000 feet a world record. I rang Bill to ask how it was done and he just said,"Tie the glider under the balloon on a 20' ski line, make sure the pilot has a sharp knife and there you go" Not liking this ultra simple arrangement my engineer Dave Raymond and I sorted out a method of quick release controlled by the glider pilot and then set out to find a willing balloon pilot to give us the lift. We first approached Don Cameron at Bristol who turned us down flat.

A lot of balloon flying went on near us at Newbury and during a visit to one of their meets I met David Liddiard a farmer of a very practical persuasion who agreed to think about it and during the coming weeks came out to see us flying concluding we knew what we were doing David agreed to help us. This led to a series of balloon drops from ever increasing heights. First from 2,000 feet then 6 /8/10,000 feet. The trickiest part is the moments immediately after release when the glider is hanging in still air moving in unison with the wind and the resulting initial drop is heart stopping. It became noticeably longer above 10,000 feet in the thinner air.

This turned out to be a remarkable experience and a great triumph for teamwork involving numbers of people as diverse as cameramen, helicopter pilots, balloon pilots, weathermen, boat crews etc. The idea was first mooted during a late night telephone conversation I had with Brian Milton, a dynamo of a man with a forceful personality and a flair for organization. Brian started to say,"How high would you have to go- -  To cross the Channel" I was able to complete the sentence by some instinct. We agreed to go into the possibilities and when we discovered a top American by the name of Wayne Mulgrew was planning the same thing it suddenly became very urgent.

I was fortunate in that Brian and Fiona his wife agreed to do all the boring stuff like getting the neccessary permissions and organize sponsorship etc. whilst all the Birdman crew had to do was what we did best and that is to build and prepare two gliders for the job in hand complete with special sails bearing our sponsors names. J&B Whisky for Brian and Olympic Holidays for me. Weather conditions have to be exactly right for this kind of operation and after several false starts we finally drew the teams together and got the O.K. to go.
Takeoff was from a field near Canterbury and we climbed out on the north westerly wind towards the channel. Shifting air currents took us some miles apart but David and I could still see Brian and I was surprised when when we were at 14,000 feet to see him release from the balloon.

I did experience a moments anxiety when I felt something drop onto my glider from the balloon. "What was that?" I called to David. "Only my flag"he replied. I did not know at that time what it was but learned later that it is a safety devise not unlike the two plates of metal soldered together on oil fired boilers which part when the temperature exceeds a set level shutting off the oil supply, in this case a similar setup attached to a flag is mounted inside the balloon to warn of overheating. We continued to climb and I recognized Lydden race circuit underneath, directly over Dover Harbour at 18,000 feet I warned David that I was about to release. He allowed the balloon to descend and when the glider which had been slowly rotating under the balloon faced France I pulled the release lever and set out. The initial drop seemed to go on for ever in this the thinnest air we had experienced. The accumulated speed enabled a climbing pullout and I set course using my wrist compass. We had climbed through a thin layer of cloud at about 3,000 feet on the way up and it  now obscured the channel. My view was exactly the same as that which you get from the window of a cruising jet plane. I felt a tremendous loneliness and a sense of awe at the enormous space around me. The cold was biting and I began to worry about my hands which were rapidly loosing any feeling. I know this will sound strange but I became aware that this was the very airspace that those young men fought and died in all those years ago to save our country during the Battle of Britian and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. 

I crossed the coast on target with 7,000 feet to spare and was able to fly down the coast to  Calais and back to our planned landing ground near Sangatte where Blerio first flew to England. One of those silly things happened when I came in to land. Naturally it is essential to land into wind which I did. The only problem was all the Photographers were looking in the opposite direction out to sea. I had passed over earlier too high to be seen.

A helicopter shot of the first people to greet me arriving in the inevitable 2CV.

A nice greeting from Barbara and Fiona Brian's wife.

I had lost sight of Brian and couldn't think where he was. Fiona was naturally worried and I thought that he must have overflown the landing sight because of the cloud cover. It turned out later that he had encountered severe sink in the middle of the channel and had made a wet landing. Typical Milton he was picked up by a passing Russian trawler who's crew had great difficulty in understanding what this mad Englishman was doing swimming around in the middle of the Channel fully clothed. 

My thanks go to everyone who helped in this endeavor, especially to David Liddiard who's dogged determination ensured I was able to succeed. 

I would recommend a look at Brian's website especially the round the world info.

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