How To Fly Without A Plane
FRANCIS ROGALLO WANTED TO FLY, AND LIFE’S FATEFUL twists prevented him from flying in the ordinary way, so he discovered a new manner of flight, one so revolutionary and simple that today more than a million people have tried it. And they have done so without runways, airframes, or big, powerful engines, flying instead by actually attaching wings to their bodies, as Daedalus did in mythology and as Leonardo, da Vinci only dreamed of doing.
The story begins on a quiet summer day in 1919, when Rogallo, a seven-year-old boy living in what was still the frontier town of Sanger, California, several miles east of Fresno, heard the buzz of an approaching airplane. Above his head passed a small single-passenger biplane. “When I saw that thing going over,” he recalls today, “I said, ‘That’s for me!’”
His father, Mathieu Rogallo, was a Polish immigrant who had gone to California looking for his fortune and in the 1890s had established a hotel and office building at the bottom of what was then the world’s largest lumber flume, strategically placing his business at the point where lumber was transferred from flume to railroad. As Francis Rogallo grew up in this settlement, his passion for flying never abated. He made kites from newspaper and scraps of wood from packing cases and roof shingles. When barnstorming pilots visited Fresno, he and his family would picnic nearby, watching as people paid $10 apiece for a 10-minute flight aboard a wildly soaring and dipping plane. After saving his money, Rogallo one day asked his parents if he could go watch the people get in and out of the airplane. “I didn’t tell them I was going to fly,” he remembers. “The takeoff went right past my parents. As we went by, I waved to them.”
He was too poor to afford flying lessons, so when he was old enough, he tried to join the armed forces: “I wasn’t really interested in being in the military, but I wanted to fly.” First he tried the Army Air Corps, but he failed the physical. “They didn’t really want anybody. It was between the wars, and they didn’t even have places for the people that were already there.” Then he tried the Navy but was rejected because he had lost the two large toes of his right foot in a childhood accident.
Turned down by the military, Rogallo went to Stanford University to study to become an aeronautical engineer and graduated in 1935. He immediately applied for a job at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), in Virginia. Established in 1915 by the federal government “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution,” NACA then owned the world’s largest wind tunnel, at Langley, and was considered the world’s foremost aviation research organization.
Because of the Depression, the lab had not hired anyone for years; when it finally decided to recruit five new engineers in 1936, “everybody in the United States took the test,” Rogallo recalls. “It took them eight months to correct the papers, there were so many.” To Rogallo’s delight and surprise he was chosen, and in 1936 he drove across the United States to settle permanently on the East Coast.
HE WOULD NOW BE DEEPLY involved in the development of advanced flight, but he was still no closer to soloing. The best he could do was to get his pilot friends to let him take the controls for short periods now and then. During the next decade he came within an eyelash of flying solo, but fate stepped between him and the air. When he designed full-fan slotted wing flaps for improving the lift of airplane wings, Piper Aircraft asked for his help in putting them on its planes. Invited to Piper’s Pennsylvania factory for a week, Rogallo was given free flying lessons, enough to get him ready to solo. On Friday he took the physical and passed. On Saturday he went to the airfield, scheduled to fly, only to discover that when the assistant chief engineer had taken the plane up earlier that morning, it had caught fire, crashed, and killed him. A crack in a filter had allowed fuel to drip onto the exhaust pipe. “If I had been in the plane, it would have done the same thing to me,” Rogallo says.
At Langley he was required to take an annual physical, and one year the doctor told him there was no real reason for the Air Corps to have rejected him. He once again applied to the military and once again was turned away. Today he thinks he was rejected not because of health but because he was more useful to the government as a designer. “And I’m sure they were right,” he adds, a bit wistfully.
BY THE END OF WORLD War II, he was in charge of two of Langley’s many wind tunnels, and he and his wife, Gertrude, were settled down raising their four children. Getting a pilot’s license no longer seemed practical, so instead for diversion he returned to his childhood love of kites, using his aeronautical training to try to improve their lift ratio. As he said at one point, “One of these days we’re going to make one of our kites large enough to lift a man.” Blocked from piloting a powered aircraft, Francis Rogallo was going to find another way to fly.
At first he tried to get the Langley authorities to help him by letting him use their giant wind tunnels to experiment with kite shapes, but his supervisors were not interested. As Rogallo says, “The director there said he was being paraglided to death.” Undeterred, the Rogallos began a research program of their own.
He began by studying sailing ships of the past and asking why their sails couldn’t be modified to take a payload into the air. Then, cutting apart their old kitchen curtains, which had a chintz coating on one side and thus were fairly impervious to the wind, the couple tested various shapes, studying the resulting flutter patterns as they pulled them around the living room. They and their children took the more successful kite shapes to the nearby Chesapeake Bay shore and tested them.
AS THEIR EXPERIMENTS BECAME MORE sophisticated, they required more sophisticated tools. They built a wind tunnel in their house, installing a three-foot-wide exhaust fan in one window and closing all the others so that the fan would suck air through the hall toward a single open doorway.
By 1948 the Rogallos had realized that the rigid mast and boom used by sailors were simply not necessary for a sail-like wing. They began experimenting with parachute designs and discovered that the air itself could supply a wing’s shape. Their first fully flexible wing, made of a pale green flowered curtain, was stiffened only by a strip of buckram that Gertrude sewed along its edges. Six separate threads, emanating from the main line, were attached to the wing at different points. In a standard parachute these cords are evenly distributed around the cloth’s edge. When the chute fills with air, it forms a simple round shape. Such a shape slows the parachute’s descent through the atmosphere, but its lift ratio is not sufficient to keep it aloft. Rogallo instead reshaped the curtain into a rectangle, resembling a kite, and turned it 45° so that the corners pointed to the front, rear, and sides. Unlike a kite, however, this first wing had no frame. Rogallo placed four cords on the outside edge of the curtain and added two threads down a center spine.
“Such a flexible wing simply does not exist in nature,” Rogallo observes. “Even birds’ wings have bones and a rigid shape.” His wing would take form only when the wind pressed against it, creating two arches that would funnel the air up and toward the rear. This in turn increased the wing’s lift.
By 1948 he and his wife had grown confident enough in their design to apply for a patent, which was approved on March 20, 1951. The document proclaims, “We believe that the principle described herein may be applied to man carrying devices, such as airplanes, parachutes and gliders.” For the next six years they tried ceaselessly to attract both government and industry interest in their flexible wing, and they licensed a manufacturer in Connecticut to sell a child’s kite based on it. When Du Pont announced the development of Mylar in 1952, Rogallo immediately saw how superior it would be for his kite, and the five-dollar toy Flexikite became one of the first products to use the plastic material. The Rogallos found themselves traveling to kiting events around the Northeast to fly and promote the toy.
All to no avail. By 1957 they had sold only 7,000 kites and failed to attract any more serious interest. Lacking a large investment, Rogallo was unable to do the large-scale tests that might show that his invention could lift people off the ground. Then, on October 4, 1957, Sputnik began beeping its message earthward. Everything changed.
Suddenly the Rogallo flexible wing became a hot topic. Lightweight and packable in almost no space, the wing was a possible tool for bringing back to earth America’s future satellites. When Rogallo flew one of his homemade kites for Wernher von Braun, the NASA scientist immediately saw the possibilities. The Rogallos released their patent to the government, and NASA began a series of experiments, flying gliders as high as 200,000 feet and as fast as Mach 3. By 1960 it had made the first test flights of something it called the Fleep. Conceived as a flying jeep for transporting supplies over enemy lines, this two-person aircraft used a small engine for power and the Rogallo wing for lift.
THESE VARIOUS EXPERIMENTS MADE THE NEWSPAPERS and in 1961 an aeronautical engineer named Thomas Purcell saw pictures of the Fleep in the November issue of Popular Mechanics . Despite a warning in the article—“Don’t try to design or build one yourself”—Purcell “got to thinking that the thing to do was to make one like a glider and tow it behind an automobile,” as he later said. He quickly put together a 16-foot-wide glider with an aluminum frame, simple control rods, wheels, and a seat for the pilot. “We went out to Raleigh-Durham Airport, in North Carolina, drove out on the taxiway, and I lifted off.”
Purcell visited Rogallo at Langley the next month. He remembers, “When Rogallo saw the pictures, he suddenly became very quiet, then called his engineers in to fire questions at me.” Rogallo was astonished by how easy Purcell had found it to copy the Fleep’s design merely from magazine photographs.
Purcell, however, had not been alone. A number of other pioneers on two continents had also seen those early pictures of the Rogallo wing and decided to try it themselves. In the United States Barry Hill Palmer built a hang glider from bamboo and cellophane in 1961, and in Australia John Dickenson made one with an aluminum frame in 1963. Using Rogallo’s invention, they both took flight by jumping from cliffs like birds.
The tests at NASA continued. In 1965 Jack Swigert, who would later be one of the Apollo 13 astronauts, softly landed a full-scale Gemini capsule using a Rogallo wing. Here the wing’s size was increased by several magnitudes, and the structure was stiffened not with buckram but with inflatable tubes along the wing’s edges. Later the Golden Knights, the Army’s parachute-exhibition team, made the world’s first parachute jumps with it. They used the double wing arch of Rogallo’s original kite multiplied many times over, with repeated arches placed side by side, creating what is today called a paraglider.
Rogallo, 53 years old by 1965, still had not flown himself. Purcell had taken the wheels off his wing and replaced them with floats so that the glider could be pulled by a boat. On September 21, 1965, he took his glider to the Back River, adjacent to Langley Field, to show Rogallo how he had gotten it so well trimmed that he could now fly without a towline. “I could even take my hands off the controls and the thing would fly steady,” he says.
PURCELL SUGGESTED THAT ROGALLO ALLOW HIMSELF TO be towed around a few times to get the feel of the controls. As they did this, Purcell told the boat driver “to speed up a little bit. Next thing we knew there was daylight under the glider and he was in the air.” Francis Rogallo had finally soloed.
In 1967 NASA decided to abandon Rogallo’s flexible wing because standard parachutes and ocean recoveries would do well enough for its lunar space flights. Rogallo retired from Langley, and he and his family moved to Kitty Hawk, where he, his grown children, and many neighborhood children began to make almost daily flights at their oceanfront cottage. “Sometimes we would do short untethered nights running down the dunes. Sometimes we would tow ourselves into the air from either cars or boats. Mostly, however, we flew tethered at the beach, which was simpler, easier, and more enjoyable.”
Despite NASA’s rejection, Francis Rogallo’s invention hardly faded into obscurity. By the late sixties an underground of enthusiasts had begun manufacturing hang gliders for sale, and by 1971 the sport was so big that the United States Hang Gliding Association was formed. Today an almost bewildering number of unpowered fliers dot the skies over recreational beaches worldwide, using hang gliders (where a hard frame improves maneuverability), paragliders (where multiple arches and a lack of frame increase lift), ultralights (where muscle power adds energy to the system), and stunt kites (where the pilot merely stands on the ground and imagines that he or she is flying).
In 1974 Peter Brock, who was manufacturing hang gliders in California, gave Rogallo his first factory-made glider, and Rogallo made his first true hang-glider flight, floating over a California beach in the state where he had been born 62 years earlier. “I think that at that moment he really began to see what a great thing he had done,” Brock says.
Today Rogallo and his wife are frequently honored at hang-gliding festivals around the world. In 1995 they both were inducted into the First Flight Shrine by the First Flight Society of Kitty Hawk, joining such pioneers as the Wrieht brothers, Neil Armstrong, and Amelia Earhart.
At 85 and living near Kitty Hawk, Francis Rogallo still does not have his pilot’s license. “Never have soloed,” he notes. “In order to fly, I had to invent a flying machine.” He did much more than that. Consider in hindsight how obvious and simple Rogallo’s invention appears. Astonishingly, he was the first person to take the concept of the sail, known to civilization for millennia, and refine it to where it could lift the weight of a human being into the air. As he says, “The Egyptians could have done it four thousand years ago if they had wanted to.”
Today human-powered gliders number in the hundreds of thousands, and Francis Rogallo is known as the father of personal flight, the man who did what da Vinci and numerous other dreamers could never do. “He made flight possible for people around the world who never would have had the opportunity to fly,” observes John Harris, the founder of Kitty Hawk Kites, the East Coast’s first full-time hang-gliding school. “He can’t be given enough credit.”
Andy Torrington, a hang-glider instructor at Kitty Hawk, puts it more simply: “To hang gliders Francis Rogallo is the most important inventor of the twentieth century.”