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Hang gliding

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Hang gliding is an air sport. It is both recreational and competitive. The sport is closely related to paragliding and gliding (flying sailplanes) but using a much simpler and less expensive craft consisting of an aluminum- or composite-framed fabric wing, with the pilot mounted on a harness hanging from the wing frame and exercising control by shifting body weight.

Hang glider launching from Mount Tamalpais
Hang glider launching from Mount Tamalpais


There are three classes of hang glider:

  • The flexible wing hang glider, having flight controlled by a wing whose shape changes in virtue of the shifted weight of the pilot. This is not a paraglider.
  • The rigid wing hang glider, having flight controlled by spoilers, typically on top of the wing. In both flexible and rigid wings the pilot hangs below the wing without any additional fairing.
  • Class 2 (designated by the FAI as Sub-Class O-2) where the pilot is integrated into the wing by means of a fairing. These offer the best performance and are the most expensive.

All types of hang gliders can be foot-launched, but landing some class-2 hang gliders is only possible on wheels.


Main article: History of flexible wing hang gliding


The early experiments with gliding flight were made throughout the late 19th century by pioneers such as Otto Lilienthal. These early craft would now be considered hang gliders.

"Standard-Rogallo", 1975
"Standard-Rogallo", 1975

Modern hang gliding was invented, or at least strongly influenced, by the NASA technician Francis Rogallo in 1948 with the invention of the Flexkite. This device was considered as a possible landing system for the astronauts return to earth. In 1960 Barry Palmer became the first to foot launch in a Rogallo wing. Throughout the 60s parallel development of hang gliders occurred in the USA and Australia. In Australia John Dickenson added an A-frame to the Rogallo wing in 1963. This was first flown in public at the Grafton Jacaranda Festival in Sep of that year, flown by Rod Fuller. The hang glider was towed behind a ski-boat driven by Pat Crowe. Bill Moyes became the first to foot launch a Dickenson wing, a Rogallo with A-frame, in 1967.

Hang gliding then became popular world-wide, with the peak in the 1980s. An alternative to hang gliding is Paragliding since the gear is more easily transported although it offers lower performance.

The Rogallo wing was subsequently improved in the mid-1970s with the invention of the Swallowtail design, several of which were used to impressive effect in the 1976 film Sky Riders. Other improvements in leading edge and materials design soon followed, improving the handling and efficiency of flexible-wing hang gliders.

However, "improving" a hang glider is one dimension of design activity; a lateral direction of "morphing" a design category results in variants that provide specific kinds of performance, utility, specific-purpose fulfillment; in this direction one may find hundreds of various hang glider designs within a type family. Consider those who were wanting "all the hang glider one could have from spending less than say $20 USD." Then a Batso or Bamboo Butterfly might fully satisfy; these are variants of the Rogallo theme. Though some "cable-leading edge" designs have more confined safe utility, some have found legitimate interest in the sub-family of rogallos. Modification of flight-safety decision are made in any case of flying.

History of Rigid Wing Hang Gliding

The first notable hang gliders to abandon the Rogallo wing were Icarus I and Icarus II, built in 1971 and 1972 respectively [1]. These were rigid biplane flying wing designs by Taras Kiceniuk, Jr. Icarus V was the precursor to the modern hang glider. It was essentially a monoplane version of the previous Icarus designs. All of the hang gliders in the Icarus series had hand-controlled rudders and the pilot flew in a reclining position (rather than a prone position as with other hang gliders). Although many Icarus II and Icarus V gliders were built from plans sold by Kiceniuk, they were never commercially produced.

In the late 1990's the first commercially successful rigid wing hang glider came on the market (the "Exxtacy") with a leading edge of carbon fiber, which does not deform. The nose angle and wing span is a little higher, and the sail is rather stiff.


Good gliding weather. Well formed cumulus clouds, with darker bases, suggests active thermals and light winds.
Good gliding weather. Well formed cumulus clouds, with darker bases, suggests active thermals and light winds.
Good gliding weather. Cumulus humilis with dark flat base.
Good gliding weather. Cumulus humilis with dark flat base.

Launch techniques include foot-launching from a hill, tow-launching from a ground-based tow system, aerotowing (behind another powered aircraft), and powered harnesses. Other, more exotic launch techniques have also been used successfully, such as hot air balloon drops for very high altitude launches. In flight, conditions can be either soarable or not soarable (flights in non-soarable conditions are referred to as "sled runs"). Soaring flight can be sustained generally through thermals (caused by solar heating of surface air) or ridge lift (caused by wind rising over geographical features), or both. Flights powered by ridge lift are generally confined to the vicinity of the ridge (which can be very high and long in mountainous regions) or coastal cliff, while thermal flights can extend over great distances and reach thousands of feet in altitude over mountains and flatlands.


Hang gliding has traditionally been considered an unsafe sport, ever since its inception. Otto Lilienthal himself died of a cracked spine from a glider crash after a gliding career lasting only five years. 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 numerous fatal accidents and many 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 with them in the harness. In case of serious problems the parachute is deployed (thrown by hand) and carries both pilot and glider down to earth. The size is typically 30 m² and the related sink rate should not exceed 6 to 7 m/s (but can be less, depending on the state of the glider). This is still sufficient to break some bones, so pilots are encouraged to climb into their control frame after a parachute deployment to allow the frame to absorb some of the impact energy. Some pilots have used rocket-assisted (pyrotechnic or compressed air) parachutes to increase the chances of a successful parachute deployment, but these systems proved unreliable enough that carrying a hand-deployed backup parachute was deemed necessary, so most just carry a single, hand-deployed system. Many hang gliding clubs hold parachute deployment clinics to practice this emergency technique on the ground and to encourage regular inspection and re-packing of parachutes.

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. While the pitch and roll stability built into modern hang gliders can help prevent high altitude problems in flight, these features require altitude to take effect. If a stall or slipping turn happens while close to the ground or other obstacle then the glider will not have the time to self correct. This has placed the prevention of accidents during launch and landing as the main priority of early training.

Performance (2006)

  • Topless gliders: glide ratio ~17:1, speed range ~30 to >145 km/h, best glide at ~45 to 60 km/h
  • Rigid wings: glide ratio ~20:1, speed range ~ 35 to > 130 km/h, best glide at ~50 to 60 km/h

Note: Glide ratio is typically not provided by the manufacturers as it is nearly impossible to measure reliably and because the pilot is in the airstream (unlike in a sailplane) depends on many factors like pilot weight, pilot position, harness design, helmet, placement of instruments and so on.

Costs (2003)

  • Rigid wings: ~10000 Euro
  • Topless gliders: 5-6000 Euro
  • Intermediates: ~4000 Euro
  • Beginner gliders: < 3000 Euro
  • Harness: 500 - 1500 Euro
  • Parachute: ~ 500 Euro
  • Instruments: 200 - 1000 Euro
  • School: 2-3 lessons (introductory package) 3-400 Euro
  • School: 10 lessons (full course) 800-1000 Euro


In order to maximise a pilots understanding of how the hang glider is flying, most pilots carry a series of instruments. The most basic being a variometer and altimeter- often combined. Some more advanced pilots also carry airspeed indicators and radios. When flying in competition or "Cross country" pilots often also carry maps and/or GPS units. Hang gliders do not have instrument panels as such, so all the instruments are mounted to the control frame of the glider.



People can sense the acceleration when they first hit a thermal, but they cannot detect the difference between constant rising air and constant sinking air, so they turn to technology for help. A vario-altimeter indicates climb-rate (or sink-rate) with audio signals (beeps) and/or a visual display. These units are generally electronic, vary in sophistication and often include, an altimeter (sometimes 3 with different height settings QNH QNE QFE) and airspeed indicator. More advanced units often incorporate a barograph for recording data and/or a built in GPS. The main purpose of a vario is in helping a pilot find and stay in the ‘core’ of a thermal to maximise height gain, and conversely indicating when he or she is in sinking air, and needs to find rising air.


2m-band radio
2m-band radio


Pilots use radio for training purposes, and for communicating with other pilots in the air – particularly when travelling together on cross-country flights.

Radios used are PTT (push-to-talk) transceivers, normally operating in or around the FM VHF 2-metre band (144–148 MHz). Usually a microphone is incorporated in the helmet, and the PTT switch is either fixed to the outside of the helmet, or strapped to a finger.


GPS (global positioning system) is a necessary accessory when flying competitions, where it has to be demonstrated that way-points have been correctly passed.

It can also be interesting to view a GPS track of a flight when back on the ground, to analyse flying technique. Computer software is available which allows various different analyses of GPS tracks (e.g. CompeGPS).

Other uses include being able to determine drift due to the prevailing wind when flying at altitude, providing position information to allow restricted airspace to be avoided, and identifying one’s location for retrieval teams after landing-out in unfamiliar territory.

More recently, the use of GPS data, linked to a computer, has enabled pilots to share 3D tracks of their flights on Google Earth. This fascinating insight allows comparisons between competing pilots to be made in a detailed 'post-flight' analysis.


Records fall into nearly the same categories as those for sailplanes and are sanctioned by the FAI. The current world record(s) (as of 2005) for "free distance" is held by Manfred Ruhmer with 700.6 km (435.3 miles) in 2001, but Mike Barber has flown an uncertified distance of 704 km (437 miles) on June 19th 2002 in Zapata Texas.


First Flights

Flight of the Human Bird

First Flights

Flight of the Human Bird

(India 1974)

Russia had not yet made its first hang glider flight so Indian aviation enthusiasts and the press alike were pushing for a success in what was being viewed as a grand accomplishment not unlike the moon landing of the nineteen-sixties.

Aviation has always been a passion in India, from the Vimana flying ships of ancient Sanskrit to the purchase of Air India’s first 747’s in the early nineteen-seventies a fascination with flying has captured the imagination of the Indian people.

In more modern Indian history Vishwa Bandhu Gupta (newspaper man and aviation enthusiast) built India’s first Human Kite harkening back to aviations ancient roots. His newspaper The Daily Tej in association with Sun Powered Flight Club of New Delhi sponsored American pilot Caril Ridley to become the first person to hang glide on the subcontinent of India in the fall of 1974. Known as “The Human Bird” Caril flew from one of the maharajas hill-towers above Sonar Hot Springs near Jiapur where children were let out of school and spectators from surrounding villages gazed upward entranced by the image of a butterfly shaped wing soaring high above. Sanskrit legends were evoked harkening Vedic scriptures from Mahabharata “On this sun-like, divine, wonderful chariot the wise disciple of Kuru flew joyously upward and when becoming invisible to the mortals who walk the earth, he saw wondrous airborne chariots by the thousands.” On the third flight of The Human Bird the sixteen-foot delta wing fell to pieces sending its pilot crashing into a thorn bush which broke the fall and saved the pilot. The future of Hang Gliding on Asias subcontinent was set back years but the magic of flying has since flourished from a very long tradition.


Competitions started with "flying as long as possible" and spot landings. With increasing performance cross-country flying replaced them. Usually two to four waypoints have to be passed with a landing at a goal. In the late 90s low-power GPS units were introduced and have completely replaced photographs of the goal. Every two years there is a world championship. The Rigid and Women's World Championship in 2006 was hosted by Quest Air in FloridaBig Spring, Texas is hosting the 2007 World Championship. Hang gliding is also one of the competition categories in World Air Games organized by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (World Air Sports Federation - FAI).

Related sports

The related sports are gliding, in which the gliders have full control surfaces and an enclosed cockpit, and paragliding, where the pilot is sitting on a harness suspended below a fabric wing.

External links

  • Hang Gliding Org hang gliding forums and community, videos, pics, news.
  • US Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association - USHPA
  • Hang glider bible
  • Current hang gliding records
  • DMOZ Open Directory category: Hang Gliding
  • Hang Gliding Photo Gallery
  • The Oz Report - Worldwide Hang Gliding eZine and blog
  • Hang Gliding Photos
  • Hang Gliding Faq
  • HangGliderHistory group
  • [2] The Scottish Hang-gliding & Paragliding Federation.
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