Light Aircraft Research Laboratory

The slate-gray metal desk matches the color of low clouds outside the window. Thirty-four year old Francis Rogallo sits with his long legs tucked up under the desk, the cuffs of his slacks riding just above black socks. His thin black tie is pulled slightly loose, and the sleeves of his white shirt are rolled to mid forearm. His long frame is hunched over a small journal and he’s writing furiously. It’s June 20, 1946, and Rog’s stranded in a hotel room in Cleveland. He’s waiting for the weather to clear enough to allow his friend fly him in a small plane to Lock Haven, PA, the home of Piper Aircraft. As he waits for the pilot’s phone call, he takes advantage of the opportunity to record his thoughts, having just spent the last three days at the Institute for Aeronautical Sciences Light Aircraft Meeting.

The flimsy desk jiggles slightly as his pencil flies across the pages of his little notebook. The script grows fat occasionally as the lead dulls, then suddenly thin again when he turns the pencil to use a sharper edge, or stops completely to shave a new point. Spanning over 14 pages in his journal, the document is the first articulation of Rog’s desire to urge the NACA to pursue aeronautical research that would benefit light aircraft, ultimately toward the development of “the family car of the future:” an aircraft that would be simple, affordable, and easy to fly. Rog’s enthusiasm, energy, and earnestness fairly drip off the page. As he writes more quickly, his handwriting suffers, but it’s all legible, and it’s all on point.

The journal entry that June morning is simply titled “Plans,” and the first paragraph reads, “Establish a ‘Light Aircraft Research Laboratory’ at Langley Field with the equipment considered obsolete or nearly so for military purposes.” What follows is a nearly 2000 word manifesto calling for the NACA to take seriously the future of light, private owner aircraft. By maintaining “very close contact and cooperation” with the light aircraft industry, this new lab would be committed to discovering “a light airplane configuration good enough to warrant true mass production.” By the time of this writing, Rog already had in his head an idea for such an aircraft, one he had recently referred to as a “radical design that might one day warrant production on the scale of the automobile.”

This is a pivotal time. It is no exaggeration to claim that Rog’s future, the future of the NACA, and even the future of light aircraft aviation hangs in the balance. Only the day before he’d turned down a job to manage a high speed fighter wing project at Northrop, based on his conviction that the NACA might eventually be the best place for light aircraft research to happen, even though the odds at present seemed long.

He was facing an uphill battle at best. The complex institutional changes at the NACA after World War II informed the almost desperate tone of his writing, but his desire to pursue the development of private owner type aircraft, “the family car of the future,” was genuine.

What follows is a story of perseverance, persistence, and eventually a kind of vindication, though in a way that only Rog had even the slightest inkling. Nothing would ever come of his plan for a ‘Light Aircraft Research Laboratory,’ but his “radical idea” would one day affect the lives of millions.

Imagine the Thrill

Some lucky people get to fly in their dreams. Often the dream starts as running,  with longer and longer strides, until finally the dreamer’s feet don’t touch the ground anymore. For some of us, we get to do that in waking life: run until our feet don’t touch the ground. In many ways, flying hang gliders is just that simple. And simplicity is a big part of what it’s all about.

When the Rogallos created the first flexible wing in 1948, their aim was to make flying less complicated, less expensive, and accessible to everyone. They eventually succeeded. Many early Rogallo-style hang gliders were homemade, and some early kits were incredibly inexpensive, with instructions showing how to build the wing on one side of a sheet of paper and how to fly it on the other. Hang gliders have evolved from those early designs into sophisticated flying machines, stable aircraft designed to flex and twist in reliable, predictable ways. Pilots regularly soar hang gliders to incredible heights in thermals, and cross country flights are measured in the hundreds of miles. Instruction is now professional and consistent. Still, hang gliding remains the best kept secret in aviation.

The roots of how we fly are in that simple dream: run, taking longer and longer strides, until your feet leave the ground. When Gertrude and Rog couldn’t get any professional interest in their invention for “practical” applications, they marketed the wing as a kite, but Rog saw the possibilities from day one. In an article in 1949, he wrote, “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.”

Last year I flew Jockey’s Ridge with friends on a light east day. Not even close to soarable, a few of us were on the hill to help one of our elder statesmen in the sport get a few flights. We took turns flying and helping him carry the glider back up the hill, and flew a bit ourselves. The best flight possible that day was a simple pass along the face, one turn back into where lift might have been on a stronger day, and another turn back into the wind. As I waited at the bottom, I watched an old friend fly the two possible turns, land, and expertly perch the glider on his shoulders to carry it back up the hill. His fluid movements, both in flight and on the ground betrayed years of experience and muscle memory. Here’s a guy who has flown at the pinnacle of the sport–an excellent dune pilot, cross-country and aerobatics pilot, tandem instructor, tug pilot. He looked at me with a contagious smile as he carried the glider effortlessly past, and yelled, “That was FUN!”

I saw in the eyes and smile of an old friend that afternoon what Rog knew intuitively in 1949. Even with the experiences and adventures of a lifetime spent flying high and far, simply running off the hill and “gliding into the valley below” is still exhilirating–an experience like no other. Run, with longer and longer strides, until your feet no longer touch the ground.

Imagine the thrill.