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.



Rog’s brother Harold in their air-powered car, 1928

In working on this book about Francis and Gertrude Rogallo’s story, I’ve been privy to some fantastic resources, not the least of which is a set of interviews with Rog and Gertrude that were recorded in 1993. The recordings were on cassette, and the digital copies I have are sped up and pitched high, not quite to Chipmunks speed, but bad enough. Even so, the recordings have been invaluable. I’ve transcribed all eleven tapes, about 40,000 words, and one word that Rog used again and again, in many contexts, is “interesting.”

He did not throw the word around rhetorically. It seems that what was important to him, what he spent his time and energy on, were ideas and projects he found “interesting”– a defining quality of an inquiring mind. His work at Shell Chemical just after he’d graduated from Stanford was “interesting, but to me not nearly as interesting as aeronautics would have been.” About birds? “I was extremely interested in birds–anything that flies, I was always interested.” And when Gertrude talks about when their first child, Bunny, was born, Rog is asked, “What did you think about that?” He answers, “Oh I thought that was very interesting!” Gertrude jumps in and says, “He was stunned!” and there’s great laughter.

Starting the summer he was 12, Rog said, “I was more interested in spending my time building and testing miniature motor vehicles than anything else that was available to do at the time.” Over the course of about four years, during summers and on weekends, he built many versions, experimenting and problem solving. No steering box? He built one out of an old Model T brake drum, a chain, and some coil springs. No differential? The solution was to power the car with a propeller. He and his brother Harold bought a draw knife, carved a 36” propeller, and mounted it to the engine on the rear of the car. They eventually licensed the vehicle, and drove it in local parades, selling advertising on its side.

Rog always remained interested in aeronautics, and he became specifically interested in flying that would be available to everyone–not just “millionaires and the military”–in the mid 1940s. By about 1945 he had “a radical idea” in his head, and in 1948 Gertrude sewed their first flexible wing, their first flying prototype. We’re really lucky that Francis and Gertrude had the patience and perseverance to stay interested in the project. And though Rog had many other projects that interested him through the years, he always remained dedicated to pursuing the possibilities of the flexible wing.

I think about things that interest me, about my own patience and perseverance, and like most folks I think, I’m assailed by doubts, and humbled by small failures. I’m interested in lots of things, like the way water displays turbulent fluid dynamics, how music attaches so deeply to memory and emotion, the way the wind becomes visible in moving sand. And how the possibilities for an idea so simple took so long to be recognized.

Finding a way to tell Rog and Gertrude’s story that isn’t simply a dry recounting of facts, a transcription of “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” is proving to be a huge challenge. But I’m still interested.

Happy Birthday Rog!

fogallomeetFrancis 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.”

And On This Day…

original flex wing (1)Sunday, August 15th, 1948, Francis and Gertrude Rogallo took their prototype flexible wing out to the field at Merrimac Shores in Hampton, VA to see how it might fly. Their first successful flexible wing kite was made from some chintz curtains that had hung as a cabinet skirt in their new house. The old pattern didn’t match Gertrude’s choice of colors for the new kitchen, so the old chintz fabric was, in Rog’s words, “handy.” It also proved to be a fortuitous choice. Chintz is a glazed fabric, and its lack of porosity made it a great material for a kite. Later studies showed that porous ‘parachute material’ yielded only about half the lift as non-porous cloth.

The planform for the revolutionary wing was drawn and cut out by Rog, and Gertrude did the sewing. The leading edges had a small amount of extra fabric sewn in for stiffness, but not much. It was nearly identical in shape to the earliest hang gliders, with the leading edges the same length as the keel, but it was completely flexible.

No pictures were taken that day, and no film exists, but the die was cast. For many reasons, both simple and complex, it would be over a decade before the flexible wing would begin to get the attention and research Rog knew it deserved. And it was another decade still before its recreational possibilities would begin to become clear.

The story of the simplest airfoil isn’t a simple one at all, but it’s a great one, and completely worth telling. Today seems like an auspicious day to start…


What’s in a Name?

Rog at Langley 1959

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.