Hang gliding is an air sport in which a pilot flies a light and unmotorized foot-launchable aircraft called a hang glider. Most modern hang gliders are made of an aluminum or composite-framed fabric wing. Pilots usually control the aircraft by shifting body weight, but other devices, including modern aircraft flight control systems, may be used. The pilot wears a harness and is hung beneath a lifting wing by flexible straps.
In the sport’s early days, pilots were restricted to gliding down small hills on low-performance hang gliders. However, modern technology gives pilots the ability to soar for hours, gain thousands of feet of altitude in thermal updrafts, perform aerobatics, and fly cross-country for hundreds of miles. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale and national airspace governing organizations control some aspects of hang gliding.
In 1010 the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury constructed a rudimentary form of glider, and flew from the tower of Malmesbury Abbey for 200 meters before landing, breaking both his legs. He was going to make another attempt at flying, adding a tail for great control in flight, but the Abbot forbade him risking his life in any further experiments.
Most early glider designs did not ensure safe flight; the problem was that early flight pioneers did not understand the underlying principles that made a bird’s wing work. Starting in the 1880s technical and scientific advancements were made that led to the first truly practical gliders. Otto Lilienthal of Germany duplicated some of his contemporaries’ work and greatly expanded on it from 1874. He rigorously documented his work, strongly influencing later designers; for this reason, Lilienthal is one of the best known and most influential early aviation pioneers. His type of aircraft is now known as a hang glider.
In 1951 Francis Rogallo and Gertrude Rogallo applied for a patent for a fully flexible wing with approved claims for its stiffening and gliding uses, the flexible wing or Rogallo wing, which in 1957 the American space agency NASA began testing in various flexible and semi-rigid configurations in order to use it as a recovery system for the Gemini space capsules. It was designer engineer Charles Richard directed by Paul Bikle who showed how to build the wing that would affect a full decade of kited-hang glider constructions. The various stiffening formats and the wing’s simplicity of design and ease of construction, along with its capability of slow flight and its gentle landing characteristics, did not go unnoticed by hang glider enthusiasts. In 1960-1962 Barry Hill Palmer adapted the flexible wing concept to make foot-launched hang gliders with four different control arrangements. In 1963 Mike Burns adapted the flexible wing to build a kite-hang glider he called Skiplane. In 1963, John W. Dickenson adapted the flexible wing airfoil concept to create a hang glider, producing about sixty sold copies. The wing format of the Charles Richards stiffened flexible wing together with the triangle control frame introduced in 1908, revisited by Spratt in 1929 and by Palmer and Burns in 1962 formed a template for a simple hang glider that found expression for most of the Rogallo hang gliders made in the 1960s and first part of 1970s.
Launch techniques include foot-launching from a hill, tow-launching from a ground-based tow system, aerotowing (behind a powered aircraft), powered harnesses, and being towed up by a boat. Modern winch tows typically utilize hydraulic systems designed to regulate line tension, this reduces scenarios for lock out as strong winds result in additional length of rope spooling out rather than direct tension on the tow line. Other more exotic launch techniques have also been used successfully, such as hot air balloon drops for very high altitude. Flights in non-soarable conditions are referred to as “sled runs”.
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