1970 to 1976
The new toy
quickly caught on. Someone decided to dispense with the water and the outboard.
At first they used snow, so they could retain the skis, but soon they sprinted
from the summit of rounded hills. This is when Richard Millar's 'Bamboo
Butterfly' appeared, with its bamboo frame carrying a Rogallo-style covering of
polyethylene. Richard's creation broke no new ground technologically and
rewarded him with multiple fractures and contusions, but it did prove one
thing: that had they not been so hopelessly preoccupied with flapping their
arms like birds, early aviators could have flown long before Lilienthal. After
all, there's nothing new about bamboo, and the polyethylene could easily have
been replaced by waxed cloth, or the large leaves from a banana tree.
'73 and a youthful Alain-Yves Berger takes-off with a Delta Manta from a little
hill in a southern suburb of Paris. Thanks to a glide ratio of only 2.5/1 at 24
mph (39 kph) this particular flight ended in the netting of the tennis courts.
hang-gliders arrived in the Old World at the end of 1972, with a Californian
machine which Christian Paul-Depasse brought into France and marketed under the
name 'Deltaplane'. Hardly had the Deltaplane taken off, than Bernard Danis
brought out his own version, the 'Delta Manta' which became the best selling
hang-glider of its time in Europe. Hang-gliding developed as one would expect,
with a number of serious or fatal accidents, caused by mistakes or foolishness
- it is not for us to judge. But we would do well to remember Otto Lilienthal's
dying words: 'This is the price of progress!'
Paul-Depasse with his Deltaplane flying at Beynes, near Paris
designers followed the well-trodden aviation path of modifying what is
basically a glider to accept a motor. At first they called the result a powered
hang-glider, and only later did the terms ultralight and its FAI equivalent
microlight come into use.
But before we
chart the mainstream development of the sport, we must mention three early machines
which are ultralights in spirit even though they have no hang-gliding roots -
Bob Hovey's 'Whing Ding', Homer Kolb's 'Kolb Flyer' and Michel Colomban's 'Cri
Cri'. All three designers simply set out to create a light, fun aircraft, and
only later found that their machines were attracting ultralight enthusiasts.
The American 'Whing Ding', which first made its appearance in 1970, is still
available in somewhat modified form today and was the progenitor of a whole
series of Hovey designs, though Bob's predilection for biplanes has limited
their influence on the mainstream of the sport. By contrast, Homer Kolb's 'Kolb
Flyer' was a tube and fabric ultralight in what was to become the classic
American configuration, and its influence would have been enormous had this
genial, modest man not flown it purely for his own and his neighbours'
amusement for fully 10 years. Only in 1980, by which time it was no longer
revolutionary, did the world realise what a gem he had produced.
The 'Cri Cri'
is different again. It is not a microlight according to the FAI definition, but
it is mentioned here out of respect for its unique appeal, as the smallest twin
in the world. Unveiled in 1973 at the French 'Oshkosh', it was an instant hit,
with its 139 lb (63 kg) empty weight, Plexiglas blister canopy, a low wing as
thick as a handspan and tiny 16.1 (4.9 m) span. Power came from two 8 hp Stihl
chainsaw engines, but thanks to its tiny wing area it can cruise at very
non-ultralight speeds, around 125 mph (200 kph) being normal for the higher
powered later versions. It remains a fascinating machine, but one aimed at
conventional pilots and intended for normal airfields, rather than the
fore-runner of the new ultralight breed.
That same year,
however, that forerunner appeared, for Bill Bennett was following in Barry
Palmer's footsteps and attempting to motorise a Californian hang-glider. It was
treated by the media as a huge joke. Bill had coupled a 12 hp engine to a
pusher propeller and mounted the package on his back. This was a seductive
solution to the problem of powering a hang-glider: there was no modification
required other than a supplementary harness; the pilot still launched by
running, his motorised back-pack then acting like a winch to get him to greater
and more useful altitudes.
It did not,
however, work particularly well, as the prop was almost completely masked by
his large back, and what little efficiency remained was further reduced by the
thick wire guard with which Bill was prudent enough to surround the package. So
while gliding Rogallos were advancing rapidly in America and elsewhere, it was
left to the Europeans to take up the challenge of finding a practical method of
motorising them. The Americans had other things on their minds, for they were
about to begin their love affair with hybrid and later three-axis controls, an
ardour which shows no signs of cooling right to this day.
Why did America
power pilots turn so decisively to fixed-wings? Part of the answer is
undoubtedly Volmer Jensen, a gliding enthusiast who began his career in 1925 by
building a Chanute biplane from plans published in Popular Mechanic magazine.
He was smitten for life by the rustic pleasures of weight-shift and hybrid
controls, and in 1941 completed his own design for a downhill glider called the
'VJ-11' a strut and wire braced biplane in the Chanute style but with the
addition of a T-tail. Later he built a light aircraft and a slightly heavier
amphibian, but despite these side-tracks he remained throughout the bleak (for
low speed flight enthusiasts) days of the '50s and '60s one of the few
designers who never ceased to think in terms of sporting aircraft, especially
those capable of being foot-launched and easily transported. But even he could
not go against the current of history; his ideas were years ahead of their time
and the '60s would be over before people realised the fact.
1970 the world was catching up with him. Jensen, by then no longer a practising
aeronautical engineer, stumbled across hang-gliding at Santa Ana in California.
He was inspired! He built a monoplane hang-glider with a cruciform empennage
and a rudder and called it the VJ-23 Swingwing. It was particularly advanced
for its time and with the technology of its day could only be constructed with
difficulty, so it was followed in 1974 by the VJ-24 Sunfun. Like its
predecessor this needed an engine (of around 10 hp) to get the best out of it,
and in motorised form is still in production - a testimony to its designers
France, the oil crisis had arrived. Hang glider pilots were finding travel to
the mountainous regions a long and expensive business, while gliding
enthusiasts too were hit, as the price of towing increased dramatically.
Parisian architect Jean-Marc Geiser realised that if the Rogallo could be
effectively motorised, 'hang gliding' from the flatlands would become a
reality, and glider pilots too would have an alternative. He sat down at his
drawing board in 1974 and chewed over the problem…
was to become the Motodelta: a happy marriage between a Danis 'Delta-Manta'
Rogallo and what we would now call a trike unit, although unlike modern trike
units this one incorporated a tail boom and fin/rudder assembly. Fitted with a
12 hp flat twin, this assembly first flew in May 1975, without any major
problems, and represented a major advance. Constructed from glassfibre,
polystyrene, polyester and epoxy, the 'trike unit' was suspended from its wing
by a single streamlined mast and did away as far as possible with the spider's
web of cables. No trapeze here - instead a single top-mounted stick was
attached to the wing, the conventional-control theme being continued by fitting
rudder pedals in the normal fixedwing position.
authorities were completely disoriented by this sudden apparition, for which
they had no applicable regulations and which could land and take-off almost
anywhere. The bureaucratic logic was inescapable: 'If it isn't a hang-glider -
and it can't be, because it has an engine - then it must be a lightplane, and
if it's a lightplane the pilot must have a license and the aircraft must be
certificated as a homebuilt'. On top of all this, Jean-Marc Geiser is a
perfectionist to extremes. A combination of careful development, bureaucratic
problems, and a few mishaps, meant that the Motodelta didn't go on sale until
1982, fully seven years later!
By that time
the trike proper was well established and within a few months production
ceased, but there is a happy ending to the story, for the design has re-emerged
virtually unchanged in Japan.
We do not know
how much of the Motodelta was due to Geiser's inventiveness and how much he was
inspired by others, but certainly he was not the only person thinking along
such lines in the early 70s. Almost simultaneously with the Motodelta, a Daf
powered trike-like device appeared in Italy, while a glance at Dan Poynter's
'Hang Gliding' book, published in 1973, reveals an aircraft carrying the number
N4411 and consisting of a Bensen gyrocopter with its blades replaced by a
Rogallo but with its rudder retained.
There were two
other noteworthy French pioneers. J Duvaleix flew a tubular-construction
hybrid-control machine very like a modern trike but with twin fins, exposed to
the wash from the pusher prop, each with its own rudder. Between the fins was a
monobloc elevator. Controls were conventional stick and rudder, though there
was an element of weight-shift in its control system as the pilot could alter
the angle of a trellis of tubes and cables. Behind the pilot, mounted to the
wing support struts, was a 1500 cc VW engine of some 45 hp. No more was heard
of this unique machine.
Even odder was
the unfinished prototype built by Jean-Pierre Grammare. Beneath a Danis 213 ft2
(19.8 m2 ) Rogallo was suspended what we can only describe as a GRP
sarcophagus, inside which the pilot lay flat on his stomach. This assembly was
suspended from a triangular arrangement of tubes fixed to the wing and which
also carried the main wheels of the under-carriage. Fortunately, Grammare never
got as far as test-flying his 'Chrysalide', and in deference to his life
expectancy turned instead to other homebuilding projects, which he has
Now for the
first time since Cayley and his reluctant coachman-turned test pilot, an Englishman
enters the story - Len Gabriels, founder of the Skyhook company.
was growing strongly in the UK, and just as elsewhere pilots were getting fed
up with hauling their gear up hills before take-off. Gradually the back-pack
idea was discredited, and small wing-mounted power packs were substituted.
These early experiments went largely unrecorded, even in log books let alone
the press, because the pioneers were uncomfortably aware that the addition of
an engine made the craft liable to registration and airworthiness legislation,
and the pilot liable to licensing.
amongst these clandestine experimenters was Len, who himself cannot remember
whether his first keel-mounted power pack was tried in late '73 or early '74
(his logbook being curiously blank at this point)! But, he does recall that the
McCulloch-engined machine was not a great success, providing enough thrust to
assist flight but not enough for a flat land take-off. One way or another, it
didn't seem worth the hassle, and it was not until 1977 that he pursued the
But across the
English Channel, French-men Maurice Bruneau and Dr Peres were thinking along
similar lines, and early in 1975 mounted a 4 hp Flymo motor on their 'Delta
Manta'. Near Paris that same year, Veliplane proprietor Roland Magallon was
also hard at work, clandestinely testing various methods of powering his
company's products. At first he fitted a triangular structure of tubes to his
trapeze and tapered it back to support a 12 hp McCulloch engine at the end of
this 'fuselage'. Later he replaced the engine with one of 15 hp, which drove
its prop at a dizzy 9000 rpm, but he prudently concluded that it wasn't wise to
market such a device, believing that it wasn't possible to make it safe. His
interest in power remained, but it would be a few years before he would make
his greatest contribution. The day of the trike was yet to come.
the Antipodes, ultralighting had taken off, in every sense. The first flights
of the Ron Wheeler's 'Scout' took place in May 1974, and the aircraft went on
sale immediately, the world's first commercially available fixedwing ultralight
(Bob Hovey's 'Whing Ding' was only offered as plans). Santos-Dumont would have
been proud of it - a light aircraft reduced to the absolute minimum, a
latter-day 'Demoiselle' with a conventional tail and relieved of its
hotch-potch of wires.
Department of Transport were quicker off the mark than their European
counterparts, and in 1976 created the first ultralight legislation, bringing
the 'Scout' within the law and really opening up the market. One of the first
to take advantage of this was Col Winton, who that year introduced his
'Cricket', a design as influential in its homeland as the 'Quicksilver' was to
be in the US.
America, things were really warming up. There was still no quantity production
of ultralights, but a wide variety of new designs was appearing. At the '75
Oshkosh, for example, Larry Haig showed his extraordinary 150 lb (68 kg)
'American Eaglet' with 12 hp McCulloch engine, a beautiful ultralight motor
glider which was featured in the first edition of this history. However, with
its completely enclosed cockpit, it appealed more to licensed pilots or
sailplane enthusiasts than to hang gliders, and it thus met with only limited
success. Georges Applebay's 'Zia' was unveiled in its canard guise at the next
Oshkosh, but this too remained more of a curiosity than a force in the market
place. Well before either of these came the Birdman 'TL-1A' and 'TL-1B' by
Emmett M Taly, an interesting design produced from 1976-82. In truth, however,
none of these designs really launched the movement in the US in the way the
'Scout' had in Australia; that would have to wait until 1977.
Meanwhile, a Mormon from Utah
called John Chotia had since 1975 been working on a two-axis ultralight which
was to be a major influence on the growth of the US ultralight movement.