A Brief History of Hang Gliding


Although often considered to be one of the newest extreme sports around today, hang gliding can actually be traced back to the late 1800’s.  Before the airplane was even invented people were taking part in a form of hang gliding which basically consisted of strapping a lightweight glider, similar to the modern day hang glider, to themselves, running down a cliff and taking off.  Since then hang gliding has clearly become much more specialized, not to mention safe, so how did we get from the light weight gliders of the 1800’s to the modern aviation machines we have today?  Let’s take a look.

Hang Gliding First Evolved in 1919

When the first airplane was invented a lot of effort was put into developing it further and so hang gliding took a back seat until 1919.  Unsurprisingly the country that we have to thank for the evolution of hang gliding is Germany.  Due to the Treaty of Versailles Germany was prohibited from developing powered aircraft and so the pilots in the country took to hang gliding in order to continue flying.

In between the two World Wars the basic hang glider was further developed.  The technology of the gliders was improved to increase the performance level and before long the initial technology was abandoned in favor of heavier gliders that extended the length of the flights.  As hang gliders became much more efficient the practice of running down a cliff in order to take flight also became obsolete as gliders learned to use upslope winds in order to take off.

As technology continued to improve hang gliding died a slow death in favor of the more efficient gliding machines.  At least that is until the 1960’s.

The Sport was Reborn in the 1960’s

In 1948 Francis Rogallo developed a form of flexible wing which enabled gliders to enjoy a slower, more relaxing flight and leant itself well to safe landing.  This design was patented and released to NASA in 1957 but the first known usage of this technology on a hang glider was in 1961 when Robert Palmer used Rogallo’s wing design on a glider model.  The design was successful but hardly portable which led to further developments in the glider’s design.

Shortly after this Australian John Dickenson designed a simple towed water ski kite which also implemented Rogallo’s wing design.  This was much more successful than Palmer’s previous model due to its ease of portability and how easy it was to master.  Before the end of the decade Dickenson’s hang glider design was being mass manufactured and for the first time ever, anyone who wanted to experience the feeling of weightless flight had the chance to do so.

The First Hang Glider Manufacturing Company

It is widely believed that Wills Wing were the first manufacturing company of hang gliders.  The company was established in 1973 by brothers’ Chris and Bob Wills just a few short years after the first successful hang glider was designed.  Both brothers were incredibly passionate about the sport and had two aims:

  • To befriend every pilot who flew one of their gliders
  • To build the best hang gliders that they could possibly make

The brothers were extremely talented not only in designing and manufacturing their gliders but also in flying them and they both went on to win many hang gliding championships in the years that followed.  Unfortunately Bob died in a tragic accident in 1977 and Chris left the company to attend medical school so the majority share of the business was sold on.

Even though the brothers parted with the company, their gliders have also been incredibly successful in competitions and it is believed that Wills Wing gliders are the only design that has managed to fly over 300 miles of cross country to this day.  Wills Wing is still the most popular hang gliding manufacturer in the United States today and the two main aims that Bob and Chris spoke of back in the 70’s are still in place today.

The latest modification to the hang glider design was in 1997 when a topless hang glider was designed in order to reduce the amount of drag and hence increase the efficiency.  Only time will tell whether any new designs are on the cards however with everything the hang glider has been through over the last 200 years we would not be surprised.