Mark Woodhams writes about the early days of Hang Gliding

The beginning

It is amazing how many of the early pilots into hang gliding in the UK were involved with model aircraft. Certainly I was no different. In 1970 I had borrowed a book on aeromodelling from Brighton Library and had been fascinated by a photograph of a flexible wing aircraft called a Rogallo - named after its inventor Francis Rogallo.

I liked its absolute simplicity; just four poles and a bit of slack material slung between three of them. I took up the basic principle of the Rogallo and made many model variants which were to have led to a radio controlled craft which could happily fly hands off and be virtually indestructible. Problem was, I had very little experience of radio control, and proportional gear was very expensive.

Later on I bought the April 1973 issue of 'Pilot' and read the article that was to change my life. There were the Rogallo wings I had been experimenting with, but instead of being radio controlled, they had people hanging off them and controlling them by moving their weight around. As I read on I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up - of course, I would build my own personal aeroplane and I would be the pilot! All around Britain that day there must have been hundreds of like-minded people all setting off on a journey that would lead some to their ultimate dream of personal flight.

I contacted Geoff McBroom who was featured in the article flying an early version of his 'Arion' at Westbury White Horse. I bought plans and flying instructions from him and I also got hold of plans of Dave Kilbourne's 'Kilbokite', which was the first Rogallo to soar for over an hour, at Mission Ridge, San Jose.

However, things were developing faster than my ability to drill holes and put aluminium tube together. Paul Maurice, a friend from College had actually seen people hang gliding at the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex and reported that one type of glider called a Wasp flew better than the others. We both dashed out to Wilmington, saw Robin and Terry Haynes of Wasp and promptly placed an order for a 229B3 which would be delivered to us two weeks later at a site called Anchor Valley at the back of Brighton. It cost us £175, and split two ways this was a lot cheaper than radio gear.

Wasp 229B3 at Mill Hill

Mark Woodhams flies Mill Hill in 1974 on a Wasp 229B3

A group of about ten proto hang glider pilots arrived at Anchor Valley on a windswept and wet afternoon and were directed to a pile of what looked like rolled-up brightly coloured tents. These had been unceremoniously dumped onto the hillside from the back of a low loader lorry. We handed over the cash and took the brightest bundle we could find.

Terry Haynes of Wasp asked me if I knew how to fly a hang glider and I foolishly said yes. I had read Geoff McBroom's flying instructions from cover to cover and they seemed very clear, and I was so excited that I didn't want any technicality to get in the way of me strapping myself into the machine and gliding off into the wide blue yonder.

It was very windy at the time so Terry advised us to go down the hill where the wind was less strong. Up to this point I had experienced no fear. My expectation was that as I raised the nose and started to run gently into the wind, the hill would fall away and I would fly to a perfect landing at the bottom. The reality was that I raised the nose, but then shot vertically up thirty or so feet into the air. I pulled the bar in out of sheer panic and shot back down to the ground, landing by a complete chance on my feet. Terry and the others thought that this was very impressive for a first flight, but that we should move
to a more appropriate site, because the wind was too strong and off the slope.

We arrived at Mill Hill, but I was already learning fast. I let the others go first. A wise choice as it turned out. Both the person who flew before me and after me, had crashes which damaged both pilot and 'A' frame. My flight, when it came, was good but I still don't really know what I did right. At any rate I landed safely at the bottom having flown over the tops of several trees, and I remember a shouted 'Geronimo' before folding it all up and racing back to the top of the hill to do it all again.

Feelings like this must be common to all who fly for the first time. I had without knowing become a member of the most exclusive club in the world - free flyers.

Formation of the SHGC and the British Hang Gliding Association

The only gliding organisations relevant to us at this time were the NHGA (National Hang Gliding Association) and the BKSA (British Kite Soaring
Association). These two groups were set up supposedly to represent hang gliding at a national level. But what we were beginning to need was a Club that operated at a local level. People were joining the sport at an alarming rate. New pilots would descend on the Downs area with no idea how to behave in the countryside. Gates were left open, crops trampled, permission to fly was not requested. Very soon sites began to be lost and the accident rate began to give us an unsavoury

A group of us got together and hurriedly put the Southern Hang Gliding Club (SHGC) together. We started talking to the farmers, the landowners, the local authorities and the Press. Flying Clubs were being started up all over the country and we were all having the same sorts of problem, but there was no effective central body to correlate our efforts.

The NHGA and the BKSA were unable to provide the sort of help that was really needed. The allegiances that were formed at that time were more concerned with the type of hang glider you flew. This factionalism bedevilled the early days of hang gliding. John Malin who operated out of Steyning Bowl was agent for Birdman so those flyers joined the BKSA, but five miles away in Brighton pilots all joined the NHGA because they mainly
flew Wasp and a few flew the emerging Hiway. Yet we were all members of the SHGC. Quite a few of us joined both organisations because we were so hungry for any information related to hang gliding.

Other areas of the country tended to be influenced by whatever make of hang glider was
prevalent in their locality. Len Gabriels in the north with Skyhook, Gerry Breen in the west with CustomKites, and a liberal scattering of Seagull 3 flyers on gliders imported from the States by Critchley Hughes. The two national organisations vied for supremacy and of course the public were utterly confused.

Programme for the 1974 Stella Artois competition

This was the period where sponsored 'meets' would be arranged at major sites up and down the country. The NHGA promoted the 'Stella Artois Open' at Steyning Bowl.

There was the invitational at Rhossili in Wales at which every pilot it seemed in the country attended. The flying fraternity were able to discuss
their problems and it became clear that the two organisations were far too involved in commercialism to be viable independent national organising bodies, capable of representing us.

It was evident that the NHGA leaned heavily towards Wasp, indeed John James the charismatic leader of the NHGA turned out to be a close relative of the Haynes family who owned Wasp. I remember being scandalised by this revelation. Ken Messenger of Birdman was more open about his BKSA connection, but the links between the BKSA and Birdman Promotions, who sold the Albatross and Hawk gliders were commercially too close for comfort.

Coinciding with this struggle, the national press started a hate campaign against hang gliding. The Daily Mirror led with its 'Poison Butterfly' story, and indeed there was a rash of fatal accidents and very little formal response from the hang gliding fraternity to put the record straight or at least put our case.

We needed a national organisation, independent from any manufacturer, promoting good flying practice, disseminating accurate information to the media about hang gliding, agreeing manufacturing standards of excellence and representing all hang glider pilots interests to the various authorities. And we needed it yesterday.

By common consent the NHGA and the BKSA were to be dissolved and a totally new single organisation was to take its place. A mass meeting for all flyers was set up in Coventry on the 8th December 1974 to decide how this should happen. The following are quotations from Newsletter No.1: 'Under the Chairmanship of Ann Welch, a total of 164 members of the BKSA and the NHGA voted a Provisional Executive of 6 members to run the new
society, known as the British Hang Gliding Association. The two original societies are now wound up and membership is automatically transferred to the new association', and 'The new magazine is called Wings! and will incorporate the best of its predecessors. Flypaper and Sailwing.'

The provisional Executive voted in at that momentous meeting were Martin Hunt (Chairman), Chris Corston (Secretary), Mick Hayes (Treasurer), Miles Handley (Technical safety officer), Jeremy Fack (Flying training officer) and Nick Regan (Editor). In fact Dave Tait acted as co-editor with Nick. The area representatives on this first Executive were Jim Haig (Scotland), David Weeks (North), David Miller (Midlands and Pennines), Chris Maidment (Southwest including Hants and Berks), Bob Mackay (Wales including Monmouth and Hereford), John Amor (South Midlands and East Anglia) and Mark Woodhams (London and the Southeast). It is interesting to note that at a subsequent meeting the Scots broke away from the BHGA because they thought they could obtain favourable grants from the Scottish Sports Council. However they returned at a later date I am pleased to say.

In one memorable day the Flying Clubs themselves effectively wrested power from the manufacturers and established the way forward for a truly open and democratic organisation. The first ever meeting of the new Executive was held at the White Horse services on the M4, which was thought to be the most central venue for Clubs. Wings! magazine started to bring all flyers together and gradually we all came to accept the BHGA as
the rightful and proper national governing body. The press started to leave us alone, and we became accepted as just another sporting group. Air worthiness standards and Schools registration began to work and the accident statistics eased. We all learnt a lot very quickly.

First records

A Wasp 229 B3 was a Standard Rogallo, had a best glide or around 4.5:1 and the sink rate of a grand piano in free fall. To stay up reliably we needed about 18 mph of wind coming straight up a steep ridge. There was no local club at that time, but the really good thing was that whenever and wherever the wind was on, all your flying mates could be relied on to be there as well. Weekdays as well as weekends. And soaring flight was the drug that drew us there. In those days success was measured by how long you could stay up for. Since most flights ended up at the bottom of the hill, you were considered an expert if you could ridge soar for any length of time.

The first duration record was established in 1972 by Geoff McBroom, flying an Arion for seven and a half minutes. By July 1973 the hour had been broken by Gerry Breen on a Quicksilver rigid hang glider, to be followed in December by Ken Messenger on a Birdman Standard Rogallo flying for 1 hour 18 minutes. In May 1974 Gerry Breen, Rob Haynes and Tony Beresford all logged flights of over 2 hours on the NE face of Hay Bluff with Tony taking the record to 2 hrs 20 mins on a Wasp 229 B3. The amazing Brian Wood of the SHGC then flew for 3 hrs 38 mins at Beachy Head in September – only to take it to an unbelievable 8 hrs 26 mins at Rhossili Down on the Gower peninsula the very next month, again flying a Wasp 229. The world record was set in September off the cliffs at Waimanolo, in Hawaii by American Harvey Melcher at 10 hrs 47 mins. By August 1976 Kev Jordan established the UK duration record at 12 hrs 15 mins on a Hiway Cloudbase. The world record went to over 15 hours, but by that time it was recognised that duration flying only proved that in some parts of the globe strong wind blows reliably up cliffs for long periods of time. Duration flying had become pole squatting. There were other flying challenges that were much more interesting and were greater tests of flying skills. Height was the new goal.

Thermals and height gain

A number of hang glider pilots and BHGA personnel had already had some experience in conventional gliding. Ann Welch was a founder member of the London Gliding Club at Dunstable and had received many honours for her contribution to that sport. Indeed it was precisely because of her gliding experience that she was approached to lend real clout to the new British Hang Gliding Association. Not only did she bring a calming influence to the excitable free-flying Council members but she wrote inspirational articles in Wings. Gerry Breen, recently out of the RAF was already an accomplished glider pilot, so he brought a wealth of relevant experience into his flying and hang glider manufacturing business. He also wrote articles about flying techniques.

But there were plenty of new pilots who had no previous experience of gliding flight and to who height gain and mastering thermal lift was a totally new experience. In July 1975 Wings ‘Soaring those thermals’ by Graham Hobson, he said … “we were soaring a small 150 ft local ridge in a 22 mph wind with clouds forming on the other side of the valley 3 miles away. which when they arrived often hefted us up to about 1000 ft … I sometimes feel a bit imprisoned by the fact that I must stay in a relatively narrow air space (when ridge soaring) in order to maintain lift … I must admit I’ve been looking for a free-er form of flying – and now perhaps I’ve found it! … I have felt that more freedom can be experienced by gaining height in a thermal and then flying cross-country”. Graham was describing how he and Bob Calvert of the Pennine Hang Gliding Club developed their thermalling skills by their direct flying experience. And remember this was being done on very primitive flying machines. It was totally new and the conventional descriptions of thermals as doughnut rings around which you effortlessly circled was a far cry from the fairly chaotic air found in a thermal forming close to the ground on a windy day. Sailplanes entered thermals at greater height where the thermals have had a chance to organise themselves into more discrete areas of lift. This sort of flying had never been experienced before.

At this time in the Southeast we often had what were known as ‘big ups’ which were exactly what Graham was describing. When these odd height gains came through it freed us to ‘360’ the height back down to ridge level. In our Standard Rogallos we were hardly ever able to do 360s in ridge lift alone for fear of hitting the hill. A 360 on a Standard Rogallo covered quite a lot of ground and lost a lot of height. You had to be in exceptional lift to be carried upwards through a complete circle and the idea of connecting with a second thermal downwind was not a practical proposition.

I first met Johnny Carr at Steyning Bowl in Sussex when I was learning to fly my Wasp 229B3. He hadn’t started flying yet, but had got the bug already to the extent that wherever it was flyable, a yellow E-type Jag announced his presence as spectator whilst waiting for delivery of his first glider. In typical Johnny fashion he bypassed the need to start on a Standard Rogallo and went straight on to one of Wasp’s CB240 more advanced offerings. In a matter of days he taught himself to fly, to soar and to stay top of the stack. From that day on John was on a mission to fly the best glider he could get his hands on. He cut his competition teeth by placing first in the Advanced Rogallo Class at the International competition at Cam Long Down in August 1974. By May 1976 he and Graham Slater were instructing at the Southern School of Hang Gliding and at the Embassy Nationals at the Hole of Horcum he again placed first in the Advanced Class, this time on a Miles Wing Gulp. At the Kossen International in September 1976 John placed a creditable tenth flying against the best in the world, this time on a Gryphon 1. In 1977 Miles Wings launched the Gryphon 2 and Johnny started his cross-country flying for real. In the first two flights out of testing the prototype at Steyning Bowl John notched up over 20 miles.

Competitors at the first hang gliding league

The 1977 League pioneers (SHGC members in bold): (left to right, back row) Peter Day, Chris Coleman, Graham Slater (hidden), John Hudson, John Fack, Micky Maher, Julian Thomas, Lester Cruse, Ashley Doubtfire, Mick Evan, Norman Milhouse, Mike Atkinson, Roger Black, Paul Baker, Dave Lyne, Dale Clother,Frank Taryjanyi, Roger Middleton, Chris Johnson, Roger Wates, Ken Messenger, Dave Weedon, Graham Leason, Mark Southall, Dave Worth, Miles Handley and Jeremy Fack.
(front row) Tony Fuell, Tony Beresford, Bob England, Johnny Carr, Brian Wood, Bob Calvert, Bob Bailey, Graham Hobson and Brian Milton.

The basic complexion of hang gliding changed for ever in just a couple of months in the spring of 1977. Distance became the new goal in Club flying. I was fortunate enough to be the Editor of the SHGC’s Windsock throughout this period. The March issue covered Miles Handley’s Ditchling to Offham out and return on his new Gryphon 2. By the May issue Mike (the Golly) Robertson had followed a cloud street out from the Dyke on a Hiway Scorpion up to 2000 ft and along to Ditchling. Only 4.5 miles but no one had left the Dyke by the front door before. On Easter Monday Roger Sylvester climbed to 4000 ft above the Dyke to 360 forty consecutive times back to earth on his Wasp Falcon 4. It was reported that Mark Southall had flown 12 miles to Abergavenny and Gerry Breen’s Tredegar record breaking flight was reported as 20 miles. Bob Wisely flew from Beachy Head to Cuckmere Haven trying to repeat the out and return flight recently completed there by Johnny Carr, Miles Handley, Paddy Monroe and Steve Goad.
Then to cap it all, Ray Sigrist and Graham Slater completed the Newhaven to Brighton cliffs out and return for the first time. On 1 June Johnny Carr on Gryphon 2, Geoff Lowery on SST and Paddy Monroe on Scorpion flew from Ditchling Beacon to Shoreham Airport, Worthing and Steyning respectively, overflying the Dyke en route. On 26 June Dave Roberts flew the 11.5 miles from the Dyke to Peacehaven topping out at 4650 ft. It was the most exciting time in free-flying that I can ever remember. And it was happening all over the country at the same time in most of the other Clubs. Flying would never be the same again.

© 1996-2007 Mark Woodhams