The First Ten Years


February. Len Gabriels finally managed to get his hang glider airborne, but quickly altered the design progressively until by the 'Mk3' version he was satisfied with its performance. In Len’s words “It handled well and was easy to fly”.

The 'Daily Telegraph' wrote an article about Gerry Breen breaking Geoff McBroom’s duration record, by raising the bar to 17 minutes in early 1973. Gerry still has the newspaper cuttings of the event.

April. The 'Pilot' magazine published an article about the latest craze of hang gliding. Although the article was basically American it also mentioned Australians Bill Bennett and Bill Moyes, and towards the end Geoff McBroom was also mention briefly.

April. Geoff McBroom revised the dimensions of his glider and based it on a 17 foot boom length. This became known as the 'Arion', for which he produced two instruction manuals, one to build the machine and one explaining how to fly it. It had a nose angle of 80º, a wing boom length of 16 feet 9 inches, with a span of 22 feet. The 18 swg version weighed 37 lbs, the 16 swg version 44 lbs (including seat). It had a performance that included an approximate take off speed of 15 mph with a glide angle of 4:1. Min sink rate was 7.5 feet per second at around 25 mph. Its recommended speed range was between 15 to 35 mph. Geoff also offered plans of this particular model and claimed to have sold several hundred copies.

April. Len Gabriels who by now was happy with his 'Mk3', produced a set of plans and advertised them in the ‘Aeromodeller’ magazine and was inundated with orders. About 1800 sets were sold. He was also inundated with phone calls and letters asking where would-be flyers could purchase the materials, and could he supply ready made parts, like sails etc, but mainly could he undertake training. It took a couple of his modeler friends to deal with all this working from home. They formed the Skyhook Sailwings Company, rented a large garage to store the materials and make the parts. There is evidence that some buyers, who later became manufactures, also purchased sets of these plans.

A quote from Len Gabriels at the time when asked who invented what on the hang glider. “As to who was responsible for what, I think the truth is that we all saw good ideas and did our own thing with them. Somebody once said ‘Pigmies standing on the shoulders of giants can see the farthest’ Not sure who the pigmies were. I think we all took it in turns”.

Although there were many cases of people copying each other's gliders, it's also accepted that without it the hang glider would not have developed like it did or at  the speed in which the sport grew. On many occasions especially during hang glider meeting some people could be seen openly walking around un-ashamedly with pencil and paper in hand along with a camera. While in later years especially during the major competitions it became more of a past time for many. One well-known character of the day was affectionately known by many as Mr. Xerox. Geoff McBroom has also stated that his plans were copied and then later sold to other.

April. Brian Griffths from Ipswich purchased a set of 'Arion' plans from Geoff McBroom and within a couple of weeks started building his glider. Brian went on to make his first flight some time during the summer of 1973, in Christchurch park in Ipswich Suffolk.

April. Mike Lake from Norfolk purchased a set of 'Mk3' plans from Len Gabriels, and started work immediately on building his glider. Its believed that Mike made his first flight during early 1974.

April. Miles Handley made contact with Len Gabriels and purchased one of his Skyhook 'Mk3' gliders and made his very first flight at Steyning Bowl.

April. Mark Woodhams: "I bought the April 1973 issue of 'Pilot' and read the article that was to change my life. There were the Rogallo wings like the models 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".

Here are the 'Plans' for the 'Arion' that Mark Woodhams purchased from Geoff McBroom during April 1973, which also includes the 'Construction Instructions' from Brian Griffiths. Brian also purchased a 'Flying Manual' dated April 1973.

Tony Prentice flew his first aluminium framed hang glider on the South Downs, using parachute material for the sail (Film Footage).

Ken Messenger took delivery of his first hang glider from the USA from Bill Bennett and taught himself to fly from the hills around Marlborough in Wiltshire. A few stunts followed that generated a lot of publicity in the national press and on television. As a result Ken received well over 2000 letters from all over the UK. This was an opportunity not to be missed and he was soon involved with importing gliders on a regular basis from Bill Bennett in California. However, there were a few problems when several of the gliders arrived with vital parts missing. Therefore a few changes had to be made and Ken started manufacturing parts himself. Eventually Ken formed Birdman Sports Promotion Ltd and brought out the 'Grasshopper'. Working for Birdman Sports at that time was David Walling an ex European tow kiting champion and a UK national water ski coach and later Dave Raymond an ex mountaineer and qualified engineer, who supervised the building and development program. The meeting of Ken and Bill Bennett also links Ken’s first hang glider design back to the Dickenson Wing from Australia. It’s also worth noting that the early 'Grasshopper' glider had no king post and was fitted with a plastic bucket seat. Later this was abandoned after a few back injuries. It did not take Ken long to start notching up many firsts in the sport, that included endurance records, first to offer instruction, and first to set up a training school.

A little idea as to the popularly of people wanting to get in to the air under their own steam, can be gauged by referring to the British Broadcasting Corporation's  current affairs television program 'Nationwide'. In which Ken Messenger took part and was interviewed and seen flying. He later received an enormous postbag of nearly 2,000 letters all asking him if he could help them.

14th June. Ann Welch published an article called 'Like A Bird On A Breeze' in the 'Flight International' magazine about her views on the fast growing sport of hang gliding. This was the very first time that hang gliding was mention in the 'Flight International' magazine.

While on the Isle of white Peter Scott had read an article in a post office engineering magazine that Tony Prentice had submitted about his hang gliding activities on the main land. Peter invited him to the Island for a holiday along with his first aluminium built hang glider during the summer of 1973. There is a film in existence of the event, that is owned by Tony. It clearly shows Peter stalling with his arms fully outstretch on take off. They spent much of their holiday together searching out sites to fly from. Tony believes the first club to be formed on the Isle of White was the Briton Norman Sky Surfers.

The first man in England to take off and go up to soar, is believed to have been John James (aka Haynes) sometime during the middle of 1973. This was two years after Dave Kilbournes flight in California USA. Its also reported that John got caught by a strong gust of wind that lifted him up into the air above a row of trees that were growing along the top of the take off hill. He went on to take the impact of a very heavy landing breaking his ankle.

Photos of the early Wasp from Simon Haynes however the date unknown.

July. Gerry Breen soared for an hour flying a 'Quicksilver' rigid hang glider. Gerry also released a book called the 'Hang Gliding Handbook' that was well received by many who purchased it.

12th September 2.05 pm. Ken Messenger stepped off the summit of Mount Snowden (3560 feet) in North Wales to under take a flight that was to take him three quarters of an hour and carry him to a new British unassisted flight record, flying a glider that carried 210 sq.ft of sail and was controlled by an A-Frame and a swing seat. The 'Photography' magazine covered Ken Messengers Mount Snowden's record flight, but did not publish the story and photos until well into 1974.

27th September. 'Flight International' published a photo of Sally Lee flying a hang glider while taking part in the annual Selsey Birdman competition.

John Ivers and Steve Hunt formed Hiway Hang Gliders and operated from Brighton. Their first standard glider did not have a king post. Although not in at the very beginning of the sport they wasted no time in catching up to the other manufactures at that time.

25th October. 'Flight International' published an article about David Walling from Birdman Sports Promotion Ltd and the formation of the Kite Soaring Association club.

Skyhook Sailwing Ltd brought out the Skyhook '3A' which became a successful glider and continued to be offered well into 1974. The earlier models could be purchased in kit form or as a complete glider. Extra rigging wires and an A-Frames were also available to update them to later specifications. By late1973 Skyhook Sailwing Ltd brought out their 'Mk4' along with instructions. This glider was exactly the same as the 'Mk3', but had a king post and top rigging wires. It was sold as a complete kit with all parts being ready made, it only needed to be assembled.

While trying to reduce unnecessary weight Waspair brought out the '229B3'. Its inherent stability enabled the novice pilot to gain experience on junior slopes before progressing to advanced flying, including ridge soaring. Long soaring flights were easily achieved in light winds of 16 mph +. The '229B3' had a sail area of 229 sq-ft, and a span of 24 feet 3 inches. Its length was 18 feet 6 inches with an all up weight of 42 lbs. The sail was made from 3 oz. rip-stop nylon.

Of the Wasp '229B3', Graham Drinkall from Essex reports purchasing a second hand kit from a group of Air Scouts, whose parents were horrified that their scout leader had bought a poisoned butterfly, as they called it.

1973. Saw the very first hang glider known as a 'Grasshopper' appear on the Isle of White, owned jointly by Steve Medland, of Totland, and Peter Cole, of Ryde. They had received basic training from the manufacturer Ken Messenger. Russ Potter purchased a Wasp in February 1974 and, in the process of looking for a suitable site to throw himself off, came across Steve Medland and Peter Cole. They joined forces and through the National Hang Gliding Association (NHGA), made the acquaintance of Peter Scott, Les Pakes and John Cleaver. The following year they formed the very first hang gliding club on the island. Des Norman agreed to be president: Leo Hill Chairman: Peter Scott Treasurer: Les Pakes Secretary: Steve Medland Flying Instructor and Russ Potter Site Management, though soon after Peter and Les reversed roles.

11th November. The British endurance record was stretched to 25 minutes 46 seconds by Len Gabriels, flying one of his Skyhooks. An article about his flight appeared in the first edition of 'Sailwing' the British Kite Soaring Associations first newsletter that was released during December 1973

Early December. Ken Messenger appeared on the Thames Television children’s program 'Magpie' demonstrating and then teaching one of the hosts of the show how to fly a hang glider. Who after a couple of lessons stalled and crashes the glider quite hard to his right after take off. The crash was just out of camera shot, but he could quite clearly be heard uttering a few chosen words of pain.

December. Saw the release of the newly formed British Kite Soaring Association's 'Sailwing' magazine.

29th December. Ken Messenger flying one of his own Birdman Sports 'Albatross' gliders broke the one hour record by soaring for 1 hour and 18 minutes. An article of the event from Ken was published in the BKSA second edition of the 'Sailwings' magazine that was released in March 1974.

John James claimed to be the first pilot to fly backwards and of also stopping the most number of cars on a major trunk road, while flying at Wrotham (wind was 20 mph+ at the time). The site was one used by novice flyers with a nice gentle slope. He eventually ended up in a ploughed field some 20 yards from the road. A full detailed article was published in the #3 'Flypaper' that came out during January 1974.

Up until now every glider that had been designed, built and flown in the UK had been based upon one of Bill Bennett’s early gliders. It’s also a possibility that from the end of 1973 hang gliding gained even more publicity from the media after Bill Bennett flew a hang glider in the latest James Bond movie 'Live and Let Die'.

As more and more people came in to the sport wanting to build their own hang glider, the amount of media coverage and photos clearly showed that an A-Frame and a central hang point would be a major requirement. From now on as designs were altered and pieces and ideas added, we can safely say that all our gliders have been based in one way or another on Bennett’s gliders.

There is a videoed interview in existence of Bill Bennett, in which he actually admits to taking John Dickenson’s original idea, without giving him the credit. This has now appeared on a DVD called Big Blue Sky by Bill Liscomb in the USA. For a Youtube trailer Big Blue Sky, or visit Bills Web site.


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