Episode 80 – The History and Future of Hang Gliding


Hang gliding is arguably the first “extreme sport” in human history and its influences radically changed the world. Drawing inspiration from Leonardo Davinci, Otto Lillienthal built the first foot-launched hang gliders in the late 1800’s. His wings inspired Octave Chanute and his assistants to make thousands of flights at the turn of the last century on the shores of lake Michigan which led to the Wright Brothers’ remarkable inventions- and humans take to the skies. Orville and Wilbur Wright’s flights in the early 1900’s are still hard to wrap your head around. Imagine picking up a 150 pound glider built out of bamboo, balsa and muzzen cloth in 30 miles per hour of wind and actually soaring! Their flights in 1911 wouldn’t be matched until the early 1970’s! Their passion for flight lead to the rapid development of powered aircraft which had a massive impact in the devastating air campaigns of World War I and World War II. Interest in unpowered flight returns after the Wars and the arrival of Francis Rogallo and his genius leads to Hang gliding as we know it. Suddenly we can chase the birds, fulfilling a shared dream that has existed from the beginning of human history. The sport goes crazy in the early 70’s, over a hundred manufacturers get into the game, performance gains go through the roof, but then so do the accidents. In the late 70’s the Hang Gliding Manufacturers Association creates a certification process and the sport becomes more interested in safety than just getting off the ground at any cost. Gliders continue to innovate at an insane pace and incredible distances are flown- the first 100 mile flight goes down, then Larry Tudor flies 200 miles, then 300 but as wings get more and more sophisticated and fast, they also get more difficult to fly and importantly- to learn. In 2012 Dustin Martin flies an unbelievable 475 miles in Texas, the farthest anyone has flown on unpowered aircraft but the future of hang gliding is anything but encouraging. What’s next for the sport, and has what’s happened to hang gliding foretelling of paragliding’s future? This is a remarkable tale told eloquently by the legendary Bruce Weaver from Kitty Hawk Kites, the president Wills Wing Steven Pearson, the former president of USHPA and former world record holder David Glover, the “Dark Prince” Larry Tudor and the current world record holder, Dustin Martin.


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Show Notes:

  • KittyHawk kites and the beginnings
  • Otto Lillienthal and then up to the Wright Brothers. The first “hang gliders”, taking from Divinci and Lillienthal
  • “Sacrifices must be made!”
  • Octave Chanute carries on the legacy of Lillienthal and the Wright brothers take notice
  • Wright Brothers Innovation and inspiration- thousands of flights go down before they add engines!
  • Changing the course of mankind
  • First time soaring- on a 150 pound glider, in 30+ mph wind with bamboo and a kitchen curtain!
  • Francis Rogallo- the lightbulb goes off. NASA and the space race
  • National Geographic and the birth of Wills Wing under Bob and Chris Wills
  • Wills Wing- from the Boom to accidents to the decades of decline
  • The space race and how it affects Hang gliding and free flight
  • David Glover and Rogallo and the “Killer van”
  • Steven Pearson and the birth of Wills Wing and the crazy boom of Hang Gliding in the early and mid 70’s
  • Hundreds of manufacturers form around the world, performance increases and the accident rates goes through the roof
  • Distance flights starts to hit, and the Dark Prince- Larry Tudor flies 200 miles, then 300 miles…
  • Zapata “fucking” Texas- chasing the longest flights on Earth
  • Dustin Martin and Johnny Durand battle it out, and Dustin goes farther than anyone ever has on a hang glider. The record still holds.


Mentioned in this episode:

Miguel Gutierrez, Rob Kells, Chris and Bob Wills, Steven Pearson, Mike and Linda Meier, Larry Tudor, Benny Abruzzo, Ben Abruzzo, Dean Potter, Gerry Katz, Trip Millinger and Gene Blythe, Steve Moyes, Don Partridge, Joe Bostik, Gerry Forberger, Manfred Ruhmer, Bobby Bailey, Moyes Dragonfly, Campbell Bowen, Bill Moyes, Brad Kushner, Mark Knight, Icaro, Moyes Gliders, Aeros, Pete Lehmann, Gary Osoba, Frank Brown, Davis Straub, Alex Ploner, Bruce Weaver, Nick Greece, Leonardo Davinci, Ted Boyce, Pete Layman, Gary Osoba, Dustin Martin, Jonny Durand, Bill Moyes, Pete Brock, Zac “Zippy” Majors

1959 Wind Tunnel Test


1976 on an SST


Bamboo Bombers



Chris and Bob Wills


Rogallo’s Daugher Carol on a Rogallo design, 1968


David Aldrich


Roger Flying Jockey’s Ridge


Francis Rogallo on Jockey’s Ridge

Watch this amazing film, “Playground in the Sky” that documents the beginnings of hang gliding:


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