Hang gliding is an airborne activity in which a pilot flies a simple aircraft known as a hang glider, or "glider", by means of shifting his weight or even other aerodynamic controls. A typical flight can last anywhere from 5 minutes to many hours, if the pilot finds a source of lift, usually either from a thermal or ridge lift. Several major types of flying are possible including recreational, cross country, aerobatic, and speed gliding.
The first recorded controlled flights in hang glider were by German engineer Otto Lilienthal who published all of his research in 1889, influencing later designers. The hang glider lost in relatve importance through the emphasis on powered flight. Controls systems developed for powered craft were also adopted in hang gliders like wing warping by the Wright brothers in 1902 and subsequently of aileron control by the French.
On 1948, aeronautical engineer Francis Rogallo invented in 1948 a self-inflating wing which he patented as the flexible wing, also known as the Rogallo Wing. The flexible airfoil and its full spectrum of stiffenings were tested by NASA as stearable parachutes, parawings, paragliders, kite-hung-payload gliders, and manned hung-pilot kited hang gliders in free-flight for the aimed purpose of space capsules' return to Earth; and some images of these tests were published in the early 1960s by NASA and by some aviation magazines. Rogallo's wing's simplicity, ease of construction, capability of slow flight and its gentle landing characteristics did not go unnoticed by hang glider and ultralight glider enthusiasts, like Barry Hill Palmer who built seven to eight versions of foot-launch hang gliders with up to four distinct control strategies; Palmer may have been the first to build and fly a Fleep-like or Paresev-like stiffened Rogallo wing hang glider. Australian Mike Burns later attained a water-ski SkiPlane that released to gliding flight; later yet John Dickenson, in 1963, fashioned a water ski kite with a wing hardly distinguishable in detail from what was findable on one of the Paresev 1B kite-glider machines that used the stiffened Rogallo airfoil in a construction designed by NASA Charles Richards under the lead of Francis Rogallo's promotions and models developed in teamwork from 1958 to 1961 when Paul Bikle gave a directive for Charles Richards to build a glider quickly and cheaply along the lines Rogallo had exampled. The pilot sat on a swinging seat hung from the airframe as had been done on many hang gliders since the 1900s and made use of a 1908--at least-- triangle control frame to push/pull for enhanced weight-shift control; the triangle control frame had been in aviation since at least 1908 as cable-stayed like Dickenson later used, as well as strut-stayed by others; also earlier Barry Hill Palmer had reached a similar solution but trussed as Gottlob Espenlaub in 1921; in 1929 George A. Spratt well instructed the triangle control frame for hang gliders; the triangle control frame for aircraft had already many versions, even used in the collapsed form on the gyrocopter that Dickenson had copied from Benson. The Rogallo wing as templated in the Paresev 1B and in Palmer and Mike Burns devices prior to the end of 1962 together with the extant triangle control frame common in extant arts, formed a mechanical basis for manufacturers around the world to forward what became known as the Standard Rogallo or versons close to it. One strand of furthering that type came from Bill Bennett and Bill Moyes; another strand came from Palmer, Miller, Riggs, and others. Builders and manufacturers made improvements over the wings forwarded from the several strands of construction and the Standard Rogallo began to pass away from vogue by mid-1970s. Richard Miller had a community of people designing wings for hang gliding and self-launch sailplanes in the mid 1960s; the underground of the Soaring Society of America were communicating their constructions and ideas and plans through Low, Slow, and Out of Control; their energy and communications formed a foundation of interest that was adopted and forwarded by Low & Slow magazine and Self-Soar Association; this strand built a market that paralleled such actions as Jack Lambie's Hang Loose and the actions of Volmer Jensen, Irv Culver, Peter Lissamen, Klaus Hill, Larry Hall, and many others in Southern California professional aviation circles; this provided the synergy that resulted in the big Otto Lilienthal Meeting; then Self-Soar Association spawned seven other flight meetings, one of which was visited finally by Bill Moyes. The Southern California synergy built a market for Bill Bennett and then Bill Moyes as they began to sell their wares. Original hang glider designs were in USA from before Palmer, after Palmer, and through the parallel influence of the Bennett and Moyes wings. The originality came through with the likes of Dick Boone, Roy Haggard; Dr. Paul MacCready evolved his man-powered success partly from his being active in the Southern California strand that had its synergy fully apart from the Australians. The extreme nature of foot-launched hang gliding appealed to the freewheeling culture of the late 1960s across America more as an expression of freedom and the sudden commercial availability plans for hang gliders and a rise of small commercial makers of the stiffened Rogallo hang gliders. Sporting hang gliding was begun in the late 1800s, furthered in early 1900s; the sport continued to grow, but some pause occurred as focus on power and war took a bite from exercising the sport. Then here and there around the world as part of the influence of Popular Mechanics plans, the influence of gliding clubs, and the show of the handiness of the wing in the Fleep and Paresev, builders in 1960, 1961, 1962, and onwards tested their skills on hills. By the influence of aeromodelling, Palmer, Purcell, E.A.A. publications, Richard Miller, Mike Burns, aerodynamicists Irv Culver, aerodynamicist Bruce Carmichael, aerodynamicist Peter Lissamen,Joe Faust, Waldo Waterman, Volmer Jensen, Jack Lambie, Robert Trampenau of Seedwings, author-leader Michael A. Markowski, parachutists-author Dan Poynter, aeronautical engineer Michael Riggs, designer-pilot Taras Kiceniuk, Jr, John Dickenson, Bill Bennett, Bill Moyes, and many others of the late 1960s and 1970-72, and the trigger Otto Lilienthal Birthday Meet in Newport Beach, California, paralleled with gatherings by Man-Flight Systems in Massachusetts, an exponential level of energy occurred that resulted in new and safer hang gliding designing and participation. Organizations after Self-Soar Association began to blossom with club activity and club newsletters. The rest is history.
A typical flight begins with the pilot setting up the glider and doing a thorough preflight inspection of it and the harness. The pilot will then launch by one of several methods, usually either by foot launching, aerotowing, or scooter towing. Once airborne, the pilot will generally start looking for a source of lift in order to extend their flight. If the pilot finds a thermal, he will start doing 360 degree turns within the thermal and will be carried up along with the rising air. By doing this with various thermals, a pilot can fly for several hours and dozens of miles.
Another source of lift can be found when wind blows against the face of a mountain or ridge and rises up over it. If the pilot stays in this band of lift, known as ridge lift, he can remain aloft for as long as the wind blows.
When a pilot decides to land, he will head for a landing zone, or LZ. Each flying site will have a landing zone, usually a field that is cleared of buildings, trees, and bushes. The pilot will try to arrive at the landing zone with enough altitude so that he can check for wind direction on the ground along with any obstructions or hazards such as power lines nearby, air traffic, or ground traffic. The pilot will fly a standard aircraft approach consisting of a rectangular box around the field until he is low enough to land. The pilot will always try to land heading upwind, as long as the approach and size/shape of the landing zone allow it. After landing the pilot will take down his glider and reflect on his flight.
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Modern hang gliders are fairly sturdy when constructed by HGMA, BHPA or DHV*-certified manufacturers using modern materials, though they remain lightweight craft that can be easily damaged, either through misuse or by continued operation in unsafe wind/weather conditions. All modern gliders have built-in stall-recovery mechanisms (such as luff lines in kingposted gliders) and are designed and tested for as much stability as possible, depending on the performance characteristics desired. Pilot safety is, as in all other forms of aviation, a matter of training (through certified instructors) and perhaps most importantly, self-discipline. Nevertheless, the inherent danger of gliding at the mercy of unpredictable thermal and wind currents, often in proximity to dangerous terrain, has resulted in fatal accidents and serious injuries over the years, even to experienced pilots, and the resultant adverse publicity has affected the popularity of hang gliding.
As a backup, pilots carry a parachute in the harness. Parachutes are commonly hand-thrown but can also be rocket deployed. In case of serious problems the parachute is deployed and carries both pilot and glider down to earth. Pilots also wear helmets and generally carry other safety items such as hook knives (for cutting their parachute bridle after impact or cutting their harness lines and straps in case of a tree or water landing), light ropes (for lowering from trees to haul up tools or climbing ropes), radios (for calling for help) and first-aid equipment.
Another issue that has dramatically improved the safety of the modern hang glider pilot is training. Early hang glider pilots learned their sport through trial and error. Many of those errors have led to effective training techniques and programs developed for today's pilot, with emphasis on flight well within safe limits, as well as the discipline to cease flying when conditions are unfavorable. Most flying sites in the U.S. require pilots to be members of the USHPA, and to have achieved an appropriate rating for the conditions at the site. In addition, several special-skills ratings exist to certify pilots for specific activities such as aerotowing or flying cross-country.
Here is a comparison of the risks of participating in various activities. It was put together by the USHPA using data collected from various air sports organizations and melding it with data from the National Safety Council and other sources.
Activity Participants Fatalities Rate per 100,000 per year participants All accidents 230,000,000 96,000 42 Traffic Fatalities 162,850,000 46,000 28 Power Boat Racing 7,000 5 71 SCUBA 300,000 140 47 Mountaineering 60,000 30 50 Boxing 6,000 3 50 AIR VEHICLES: Air Shows 1,000 5 500 Homebuilt 8,000 25 312 General Aviation 550,000 800 145 Sailplane 20,000 9 45 Balloon 4,500 3 67 Hang Gliding 25,000 10 40 SKYDIVING 110,000 28 25
Training begins with instruction on how to properly set up and inspect the glider, harness, and all related equipment. A hang glider is a simple aircraft and learning to assemble it will come quite quickly to all students. The student will be given instruction on proper methods of performing a preflight inspection, the process by which the pilot verifies that his equipment is in proper working order. This will be followed by instruction on getting into the harness and performing a hang check.
The first training flights may be performed either in a tandem glider -where the student pilot flies with the instructor in the same glider- or over shallow slopes or bunny hills, where the student repeatedly flies short distances at a couple of feet above the ground. The training required to fly solo in mild conditions can be completed over several weeks by most people and is the least expensive type of aviation training. It is also a very rewarding and fun experience, as it is most people's first taste of the freedom of flight. The general flow of training will progress a student through a series of lessons covering ground handling, training hill practice, tandem flights, and then a solo flight from high altitude. Schools that do not have training hills or mountains available will usually provide instruction via scooter towing and/or aerotowing.
The goal of most instructional programs is to get the student competent to the point of earning their Hang 2 rating. This rating means that a student can successfully and safely launch, fly, and foot land a glider in mild conditions. The only requirements to get this rating are to demonstrate certain skills in front of an instructor. Further ratings (H3, H4, etc) have airtime and other requirements that will be accomplished as the pilot flies on their own.
The training required to be a solo glider pilot is the most affordable training that someone who wants to soar with the birds can get. It can usually be accomplished for a cost of $700-$1200, depending on the student, the region, etc. Certified instructors can provide individual training, usually on a per lesson basis, or established schools can provide training packages. See the list of flying sites or request info about lessons to find an instructor or school in your area.