Thursday, September 10, 2009

A latter-day Wright passes...but his wings live on...

A quiet, humble, happy aviator passed Sept. 1, and outside a small circle of family, friends and admirers, the news generated less notice than was proportional to his impact on today's flying.

But I seriously doubt that Francis Rogallo would have been upset. He knew the impact of his most-important work -- work done in partnership with his wife Gertrude -- because he retired to a center of flying for the machines spawned by the effort: Kitty Hawk, where for decades now pilots have brought their Rogallo Wing hang gliders to soar the on-shore winds deflected off the dunes at the same spot where the Wright Brothers taught themselves to soar those same sand ridges.

Francis and Gertrude moved to the Outter Banks after he retired from active work -- which included engineering and design work in the 1930s and 1940s for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and again in the 1950s for that agency's successor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The couple, working in their home, designed, prototyped and flew in their own wind tunnels a flexible, frameless wing that held potential as a personal flying machine and as a recovery and load-carrying wing.

NACA wasn't particularly interested and, patent in hand, the Rogallos worked further on their invention -- one of about 25 inventions for which Francis held patents.

Jump ahead a decade or so to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik and suddenly America was interested in everything it could find to help it catch up in the Space Race. NASA approached Francis and the couple released the patent to NASA for use as a remotely piloted vehicle platform and aerial recovery machine.

Rogallo recovery devices like the Parasev were built and tested to altitudes as high as 200,000 feet and speeds to Mach 3.0, for potential use recovering capsules and rocket boosters...A combination Rogallo wing and Jeep like vehicle called the Fleep was flown by remote control and in ways was a predecessor to today's Trikes, a combination of a Rogallo wing and a powered chair.

Astronaut Frank Swigert, later to become one of the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 13, flew a full-size Gemini capsul to a soft landing under a Rogallo "parawing" design. Ultimately, NASA decided on ocean splashdowns under conventional round parachutes and Rogallo's NASA work was shelved.

But Rogallo's frameless flexwing design was still headed for greatness when, after a magazine article detailed the NASA research flying of them, tinkerers and backyard aeronautical engineers embarked on their own quests to transform the basic delta-wing design into a personal flying machine.

And thus hang gliding was ultimately born. Tens of thousands of people who craved access to the air helped drive hang gliding to a level of popularity in the 1970s that inspired dozens fo manufacturers and scores of schools. Though the boom flattened and the population declined, the movement never gave out and remains a singular way to fly even today, thanks to ground- and aerial-tow launching, as well as mountain-top and, of course, sand-dune soaring.

Decades later, a small, dedicated cadre of pilots around the world still carve their way silently through the skies suspended beneath the descendants of Francis and Gertrude's original design.

From flat kits to ground skimmers to sophisticated soaring machines capable of staying aloft for hours and covering hundreds of miles, today's machines still bear the fundamental elements of the originals.

My entry into aviation was due to the Rogallo wing and my first 300 hours were accumlated under a wing only slightly evolved from the original. My first powered flying came in a hang-glider trike powered by a small two-cylinder two-stroke engine.

More than 30 years later, when my mind turns to thoughts of my favorite flying, hang gliding at Jockey's Ridge often comes to mind -- or Lookout Mountain, Grandfather Mountain of the old East Cliff near my Indiana hometown.

It was there at Kitty Hawk that some 26 years ago my good fortune allowed me an encounter with an eldery gentleman setting up his wing to make some flights at the park near Kitty Hawk. The winds had been with me that day and the gentleman came out to fly after seeing me carve elongated figure 8s above the dunes for nearly an hour -- a long, rare flight at that site.

He accepted my offer of help on his launch and off he went, climbing slightly, turning parallel to the dunes and soaring for several minutes...then he landed and started back up the dunes. His older-generation wing differed considerably from mine and he asked a number of questions, inquiring about the double-surface, the hinged crossbar and the variable geometry system of the wing. It needed bigger air to soar than mine, so his flights ended more quickly when the winds abated.

But he was happy with his short stints aloft and seemed to care little about setting any records. He just enjoyed the experience of floating in the air, with only the sounds of the wind over the wing as background noise.

After his second flight, he started to tear down, thanked me for my help and introduced himself as, simply, "Francis." Unknown to him, I knew who he was the instant I saw him. Politeness and courtesy restrained me from acting like a kid meeting Santa for the first time.

But watching Mr. Rogallo lug his wing back to his car left me wanting to pour out the questions built up in my brain: what inspired the idea? did you ever think that your work would launch an entirely new era of personal flying?

Would you like to try my wing?

But he seemed perfectly at home there and fine being just another one of the local pilots priviledged to live at and fly above the dunes where the Wright Brothers taught themselves to fly. He did acknowledge the thrill of his flying, his personal high point, when he talked briefly about the joy he felt when he first soared long enough to break the Wrights' personal best in one of their gliders at the dunes: 8 minutes.

Eight minutes. I knew exactly how he felt, since the same joy swelled in my chest the first time the winds on the dunes lifted me high enough to make a 360-degree turn -- and let me look back at the Wrights Brothers Monument a few miles to the north.

His work and that of Gertrude lives on today and we can safely credit the evolution of hang gliders into ultralights to that same groundbreaking work.

In fact, it was better than groundbreaking -- it was skybreaking.

In memory of all you gave us, Francis, I hope you're soaring some great dune in the sky, where the winds stop only when you're ready for a break.

I, for one, will never forget our brief meeting or the lifetime in aviation your work gave me. You will be remembered forever as the Father of Hang Gliding and a Pioneer in Personal Aviation.

Thanks, Francis and Gertrude.

-- Dave


Blogger Rick said...

Dave, this is a great post and reminds me that I should make a point of reading everything you write here. (I suppose I should read everything you write anywhere, but I don't want to bite off more than I can chew!) I learned a lot from your post and was once again reminded that this group of aviators I have only recently joined is a wonderful bunch. From the aviation inventors to the aviation writer/poets. - Rick

7:11 PM  
Blogger Dave Higdon said...

Wow...thanks, Rick. Appreciate the comments!


10:55 AM  
Blogger Dr.ATP said...

I had a similar encounter with Sparky Imeson, author of The Mountain Flying Handbook and a great book on flying taildraggers, just before he died. It was just a quiet talk between pilots about the days' flying, and I did not let on that I knew who he was. He was another gentle man who made wonderful contributions to aviation.

12:11 AM  

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