Francis Rogallo was born on this day in “19 and 12” as they used to say, and while I can’t speak authoritatively about all of his birthday celebrations, I know an important one was in 1974. Just a few years after his retirement from NASA, when hang gliding as a sport was truly taking off, Rog was invited for his birthday to what was supposed to be the “First Annual Rogallo Meet” at Escape Country, a premier hang gliding site near Trabuco Canyon, Ca.
Despite careful planning by organizer Kas de Lisse, the meet was a bit of a wash. Fog descended onto the mountain, and the ‘Fogallo’ meet was punctuated only by a few intrepid airmen making occasional flights into the mist, (“onward through the fog!”), guided to the landing area by shouts and amplified music. And the tales of the mud that weekend were reminiscent of Woodstock.
What was truly noteworty was simply Rog’s presence. Most of the assembled knew his name, but his face was anonymous enough that he could wander through the assembeld gliders unrecognized. Maralys Wills, matriarch of the famous Wills Wing family, described him beautifully in a piece she wrote for Groundskimmer Magazine:
“He was the tall man wearing the Russina Cossack hat; at close range, with his head cocked slightly in an attitude of listening, his eyes sparkling and an almost impish smile on his lips, he gave the impression of a tall leprachaun. One could see him throughout the day, observing with wonder the fruits of his earlier imagination. Francis Rogallo, whose birthday the meet was honoring, seemed almost removed from the arena of kiting. It was as if he had turned the switch, and then the machine had gone off and done its own thing.”
Rog saw an incredible variety of designs at that meet, most of which were based on the flexible wing he invented in 1948. After all the years of trying to get recognition for the possibilities of his invention, the tall, leprechaun-like man must have felt an almost disconnected sense of wonder at what had become of his idea. The machine had gone off and done its own thing–what he had always hoped would happen. He knew what was possible as early as 1949, when he wrote in an article for The Ford Times, “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.”
Happy Birthday Rog, and thanks for letting us all “imagine the thrill.”