True confession: I didn’t come up with the name Rogismycopilot. This little experiment in exhaling online takes its name from a play on the old dyslexic bumper sticker parody ‘Dog Is My Copilot’. My friend David came up with it years ago, and I stole it, fair and square.
“Rog” was the nickname of Francis Rogallo, a brilliant aeronautical engineer who, with his wife Gertrude, invented the flexible wing in 1948. Searching for a cheaper, easier method of flight (“flying shouldn’t be just for millionaires and the military”), they secured a patent for their “flexible kite” in 1951. Even then, they saw man carrying gliders as one possibility for the invention: “Imagine the thrill of carrying such a glider in your knapsack to the top of a hill or mountain, and then unfurling it and gliding down into the valley below.”
The wing was eventually considered for many uses, including as a recovery method for the Gemini and Apollo space programs. It wasn’t until published photos of NASA’s flexible wing research inspired a handful of creative aeronautical pioneers that the possibilities for individual free flight began to be realized in the mid 1960s.
The famous Rogallo Wing first came into my consciousness in the summer of 1969. My father was back from his year in Vietnam, and together with another military family, we vacationed on the Outer Banks. Before beach cottages had gimmicky names for easy rental identification (like my favorite, “Conch Potato,”a mispronounced play on the often mis-identified local whelk shell), rental cottages were simply named for the owner. We stayed that summer at the “Rogallo Cottage.” As I’ve only recently learned, the Rogallos bought that flat top house in 1967, and often experimented with man-carrying paragliders when they stayed there, tethering kids in the coastal breezes.
The 16 year old son of the family we vacationed with had seen pictures of the Rogallo Wing, and he connected the name of the house with the wing, and with Francis Rogallo. I was 5 years old. I didn’t see a hang glider until the early ’70s after we’d moved to Kitty Hawk, and I didn’t learn to fly hang gliders until I was 19, but I’ve always known about the Rogallo Wing.
At last May’s Hang Gliding Spectacular, I was fishing around for a writing project to sink my teeth into, and I got more-or-less ‘volunteered’ into writing Rog’s biography for the Rogallo Foundation. On my way out of town I stopped to mail a letter at the Kitty Hawk post office so it would have the local postmark, and a woman came in behind me in the empty lobby and noticed my hang gliding shirt. She asked if I’d flown in the recent competition, and when I turned to say “Yes,” she offered her hand and said:
“My father was Francis Rogallo.”
I don’t believe in fate, cosmic guidance, or divine intervention, but I’m a sucker for poetic coincidence, and the symmetry of how I came to this project. Rog’s story is a great one, and I look forward to telling it. I was born to write this book.