Wills Wing & Hang Gliding
A Brief History of Wills Wing and Hang Gliding…
by Mike Meier
Although often thought of as a newcomer to aviation, hang gliding is actually among the oldest forms of human flight. Before the airplane, the first successful emulation of the birds involved running down a hill with a light weight glider, taking off into the air and gliding down. Otto Lilienthal was the most successful early aviator, and made more than two thousand successful gliding flights in the late 1800’s. After the turn of the century, two bicycle mechanics named Wilbur and Orville Wright made successful flights on gliders of their own design from the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. After developing their aircraft designs and flying techniques using gliders, they fitted a motor to one of their designs and invented the first successful airplane.
The obvious practical advantages of the powered airplane effectively ended further development of gliding, as intensive effort was devoted to the development of airplanes for both civilian and military use.
Unpowered gliding as a form of sport aviation saw a rebirth after World War I, starting in post war Germany. The treaty of Versailles prohibited the development of powered aircraft in Germany, and pilots who had been trained during the war, as well as people who wanted to take up flying, had no choice other than gliding. As gliding developed as a sport, and as the technology of gliders evolved towards higher performance, the concept of a light weight glider which could be picked up and launched by running down a hill was almost totally abandoned. Pilots of larger, heavier gliders, learned to use the upslope winds along ridges as well as thermal updrafts to extend the duration of their gliding flights, and the sport of soaring was born. Flights of a few minutes became flights of several hours, and cross country flying over distances of hundreds of miles became possible. Over the next forty years, great improvements were made in the design of gliders and the knowledge and techniques of glider pilots, until soaring became an activity available to anyone who wished to pursue it. During that same period, hang gliding, the first form of flying, all but disappeared.
Then in the late 1960’s a number of different people participated in the re-birth of hang gliding. The major impetus for this rebirth was the adaptation to hang gliding of a new type of wing, invented by an American engineer named Francis Rogallo. The Rogallo wing was an extremely simple wing, consisting essentially of two sails joined along a central spar, forming a delta shaped single surface fabric wing. Rogallo had originally invented the wing with the idea to create an aircraft which would be simple enough and inexpensive enough that anyone could have one. Along the way, NASA became interested in the wing as a possible re-entry vehicle for the Mercury space program, and invested substantial time and money in researching its aerodynamic characteristics. Eventually, the wing design was borrowed for use as a hang glider, and its simplicity of design and ease of construction, along with its capability of slow flight and gentle landing characteristics led to an explosive growth in popularity of the “new” sport of hang gliding. For the first time in history, simple, unencumbered bird like flight was available to almost anyone who wanted it.
At the very beginning of this growth period, early in 1973, two brothers named Bob and Chris Wills formed one of the first hang glider manufacturing companies, Wills Wing. The company was born out of their passionate enthusiasm for this magical new form of aviation, and it was founded on two simple ideas: to build the best flying gliders they could make, and to treat each pilot who flew one as a personal friend. Bob and Chris displayed a remarkable talent early on for both flying and designing. Chris Wills won the first U.S. National Championships in hang gliding in 1973, while Bob took second, and a year later they traded places as Bob won the national championship while Chris took second. In the years since, Wills Wing has maintained a tradition of winning in competition, as Wills Wing pilots have won 19 of the 43 official U.S. National Hang Gliding Championship titles awarded in various competition classes since 1973. Wills Wing pilots have won every U.S. National Championship title awarded from 1992 through 1996. As of the 1996 flying season, Wills Wing hang gliders are the only gliders ever to have flown cross country more than 300 miles.
Following Chris’s departure from the company to attend medical school in 1976, and Bob’s tragic death in a filming accident in 1977, the majority ownership and management of Wills Wing was taken over by Rob Kells, Linda and Mike Meier, and Steve Pearson, who continue to head up the company today. In the ensuing years, Wills Wing made significant contributions to the development of hang gliding through innovation in design and by providing leadership to the fledgling industry in its efforts to improve safety and customer service. In 1984, Wills Wing became the largest manufacturer of hang gliders in the United States, and has retained that position in every year since.
In the 1980’s Paragliding, a new form of foot-launched gliding and soaring, was developed in Europe and soon migrated to the United States. Using specially designed ram air parachute canopies instead of wings of aluminum and dacron, paraglider pilots launch, glide and soar in much the same way that hang glider pilots do. In 1991, Wills Wing contributed to the growth of paragliding in the United States by hosting one of the first large scale training and certification seminars for paragliding instructors. Today, Wills Wing distributes the highly respected Swing line of paragliders in North and South America.
Though the sport and related industries of personal soaring on foot launchable wings have seen numerous revolutionary and evolutionary changes since their beginnings in the early 1970’s, Wills Wing still operates today on the same two principles on which it was founded; to build the best flying gliders we know how to make, and to try to treat each pilot who flies one as a personal friend.
For more information on lessons and equipment available at Muller Windsports, Email Us or call: 1-403-932-6760
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