This is how it all began: Icarus, bold child of myth, flew too near the sun and crashed in a mess of hot wax and feathers. We have gone a long way since. Indeed, we have advanced through fog-banks of aeronautical hypertechnology so far and fast that we are now as much slaves as masters of the art.
Today a moon-bound astronaut can escape the pull of earth but he is still a puppet. The astronaut dances lightly on the lunar face, but it is the NASA computer bank in Houston that calls the tune. A small-plane pilot throbbing along at 2,000 feet is more his own master than a spaceman (provided, of course, he obeys FAA rules and the air controllers who bawl at him on selected crystal frequencies). Sailplane pilots and parachutists are free souls for sure, but neither can do his thing unless he is hauled to altitude. Of all the adventurers now crowding the sky only the aimless balloonist, drifting under a hot bag of mixed gases, is in position to enjoy the majesty of space and its silence. Despite the advantage, not even a free balloonist is truly free. He is always prisoner of the wind and spends a lot of time aloft with a propane burner roaring in his ear.
Just now, when the sweet old Icarian dream of flying like the birds is all but lost, a new breed of primitive birdmen is emerging. In the Mountain States and on the U.S. West Coast, the new Icarians are called hang-glider pilots. Back East they are known as sky surfers. Regardless of the name, East and West and in between the new breed is proliferating and quietly enjoying the sky at a dirt-cheap price.
The machines the new aviators fly are variously called hang gliders, kites, sails, delta wings and Rogallo wings. The machines glide, but they are not gliders in the current sense since they do not have rigid, cambered wings. They look like kites and resemble sails in stress and structure but are really neither. They more nearly approximate the delta wings of supersonic craft. Most commonly—and deservedly—they are called Rogallo wings in honor of Francis Rogallo, the Stanford graduate engineer who invented and developed them.
Viewed head-on in flight, a Rogallo wing is an awesome thing, novel yet archaic. Hovering in silence with a pilot dangling beneath as if he were its prey, a Rogallo wing suggests a pterodactylian throwback from Mesozoic time. Viewed from below, pressed against the bright sky, it is as casual and beautiful as a butterfly on a summer day.
The simplicity of a Rogallo wing begs belief. In a standard model a central keel of aluminum tubing is joined at the front to two other tubes that serve as the leading edges of a Dacron wing fabric. A fourth, transverse, tube holds the leading edges out so they form the 80-degree apex of a triangle. The angle of the fabric connected to the leading edges and keel exceeds the apex angle by about eight degrees so that in flight the material billows conically on either side of the keel. Four steel cables connected to a king post atop the wing—as on primitive monoplanes—serve as landing wires. Six flying wires under the wing are connected to a rigid, trapeze-like control bar. Abaft the control bar the pilot's seat (a plastic affair originally made for kiddie swings) is suspended on lines from the wing frame. That is about it. Using a few expensive tools, a competent home do-it-yourself craftsman can build a Rogallo wing for less than $100. The best Rogallos now sold ready to fly cost just over $600.
In learning the new art a fixed-wing pilot has little advantage over a non-flyer. There is no mechanical linkage between pilot and control surfaces as in a plane. In a Rogallo it is direct feel that must be acquired. In a plane the body of the pilot is a factor only with respect to wing loading and center of gravity. In a Rogallo every pound of the pilot is part of the action. An average size Rogallo wing—say 18 feet on the leading edge—weighs 35 pounds. Because his pendant body is the predominant weight, when a Rogallo pilot pushes forward on the control bar, the nose of his craft goes up; when he pulls back, the nose drops. When he shifts to either side, the wing banks and turns.
All the bold sports born or revived in the past 25 years have three things in common: 1) they all offered relief from the Babbitty boredom of these times, 2) they all languished at first because they were considered too much for ordinary folk, and 3) once this notion was dispelled, they all prospered. Consider, for example, ballooning. Fifteen years ago there was one U.S. balloon club fitfully active in suburban Philadelphia. Today there are big fat balloons carrying lawyers and bankers, publishers and candlestick makers. Consider also parachuting. Tapping its hard-core reserve of ex-paratroopers, smoke jumpers and stunt men, the U.S. could barely muster a five-man team good enough for the 1956 world championships. Ten years later mothers and sons, sons and lovers, vegetarians and octogenarians were jumping out of planes together, holding hands along the way down.
Scuba diving is this country's gross example of an underestimated sport. In the closing years of World War II a crippled aviator, Jacques Cousteau, and an engineer named Emile Gagnan devised an air demand regulator easy to use under water. By 1950 their invention could be rented by tourists on the pleasure coasts of Europe. Although it never saw service in World War II, in the U.S. the original Aqualung became associated with the heroics of frogmen—it was definitely not the kind of thing Junior should be fooling around with. When Cousteau visited here in 1950, he learned that all 10 regulators he had sent his U.S. distributor had been sold. Offered a second shipment, the distributor declined, claiming the U.S. market was saturated. In the 23 years since, more than 1� million scuba regulators have been sold here, and no doubt somewhere in obscurity the original distributor is still pounding his fat head against the wall.
So here comes hang gliding, the latest contagion. Like the other bold sports, hang gliding languished for quite a spell, specifically from 1961 through 1971. In the past two years its track record has been phenomenal, particularly in Southern California, an area long famous as the spawning ground of restless, festering souls anxious for something different. When organized two years ago, the Southern California Hang Glider Association had 25 members. A year ago the SCHGA membership was nearly 500; it is now over 4,000. As yet there is no national association, and the SCHGA serves as such: about 2,700 of its members live outside California. Prior to 1970 most Rogallo wings were handcrafted, the total number begging 100. Many are still home-built, but in the past two years a dozen manufacturers have sold nearly 4,500. Three years ago, at the first commemorative Otto Lilienthal hang-glider meet in Corona Del Mar, Calif., 15 machines turned up. Two were Rogallo wings; the other 13 were fixed-wing gliders such as the pioneers Lilienthal, Chanute and the Wright brothers learned with long ago. At the third Lilienthal meet last July there were 157 Rogallo wings and a dozen fixed-wing craft.