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.




so the mid-life part…

At 52, I’m a little late. But I started a couple of years ago, so really–50 is the new 40, right?

The backstory: I finished a Masters in English Literature when our first kid was a year old, in 1996. The small state school I attended had a position open–an entry level PhD slot, non tenure track. Nothing for me, but a pretty good indication of what that market was like at the time. They had something like 350 newly minted PhDs apply, and I saw the writing on the wall. I’d be dragging my new family through a PhD and then chasing jobs to Lower Nowhere State for years. I had been a “Literary Theory Kid” from the ’80s, all high on dead-bald-gay-French philosophers, once in a program called “Comparitive Studies in Discourse and Society.” Heady times indeed…

By the time I got back around to going to grad school, that particular academic bubble had burst, which was actually lucky I guess. I’d gone back to school to answer two nagging questions: “Could I do the work at that level?” and “Did I want to pursue the career?” The answers turned out to be yes and no.

That answer firmly in place, we moved here. Mary had been a nurse here at the University hospital years earlier, and was able to re-establish herself on a great career track. And since we didn’t want to pay someone to raise our kids, I became a full time, stay-at-home dad. What could possibly go wrong?

What a great gig! There are volumes I could write about the years my kids were kids. What a great ride. Mary and I had the flip side of traditional gender roles, which worked out well–when Mary was not working she wanted to be with the kids, and I needed a break. I got to go flying.

We had a lot of fun, and it seems like we didn’t mess the kids up too badly. I did a little handyman work on a ‘school’ schedule–put the kids on the bus, go play handyman, home in time to get the kids off the bus, take summer off. A great gig.

But fast forward about 20 years. Now I’m an out of work housewife with no income and no resumé. And it stings.

When I half-heartedly threw my hat in the ring a couple of years ago, I got crickets: I couldn’t even get hired as a greeter at the hospital. When I used my old handyman boss/friend as a reference for a senior-at-home-care job, he offered to hire me back, at about triple what the at-home-care job would pay, so…..I did that for another year or so.

But now my wrist is trashed–an old injury come home to roost. Even typing hurts.

So I’m midlifing like hell. And it sucks. I always joked about how the male primal directive is a variant of “must kill meat for family,” and how I never subscribed to that. I know I was priveledged and lucky to spend all those years with my kids. It was a no brainer–it was right, whole, and completely worthwhile. But as my youngest starts his senior year, and I find myself at this place where they don’t really need me any more,  I’ve been gobsmacked.

Heard a great little interview with legendary TV producer Norman Lear. He’ll be 94 soon, and when asked for ‘advice,’ he offered this: “Two words: Over, and Next. When something’s over, it’s over, and you move on to next. If you can hang your hammock in between the two, that’s present, which is a pretty good place to be.”

So yeah, Over. An unemployed housewife. What’s next? 





The Big Thin Fluid

beachflyinbvYou can’t see the air–you can only see what it does. You can see it move sand, create waves, even lift leaves from the ground occasionally. But you can feel it. Hold your hand out the window of your car and feel the force of textured air at 50 miles an hour. Stand on a mountain top in winter and feel the air flow by, milk-thick and smooth.

The air is a big thin fluid, busily rushing around conforming to the shape of its container. The physics is clear, but its complexities are thoroughly unknowable. Fluid dynamics is the realm of high math–the greatest of the wave theorists claim that the math runs out to seven integrals really quickly. Nobody can keep up with that…

Flying hang gliders is all about balance. Suspended below the wing, pilots simply move fore and aft, and side to side, shifting their weight, balancing the wing in the air. To launch, your wings must be balanced in that invisible fluid or you’ll take off into an unwanted turn. But here’s the deal: balance and symmetry are decidedly NOT the same thing. More often than not, balanced wings will not appear level. In order to soar small dunes, you’ve got to stay very close to the hill, deliberately launching into a turn to stay in the lift–a move that will most likely get you banished from a mountain site where you’re trained to fly away from the hill because the area of lift is large and you don’t want to risk hitting the hill in an immediate turn.

You have to visualize the air, feeling it as it crosses your face and wings. Airfow–unseen fluid dynamics. If we could really see it we’d probably never fly in it. At its most basic level, flying hang gliders is learning to stay suspended in the invisible fluid, constantly balancing in the vagueries of unknowable fluid dynamics, never mistaking symmetry for balance.

No wonder it has captiviated my imagination for so long.

Simply Flying

Almost everyone has had a flying dream. The first one I remember was after a day of sliding down the dunes in front of my house on a plastic kick-board. In my dream, the wind was strong in my face and got under the blue kick-board as I slid down the small hill. And I flew, soaring in place above the small dune. I was 7 years old.

Growing up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the 1970s, I saw hang gliding all the time, but didn’t get around to taking a lesson until I was 19. The first time I saw someone soar the small dunes along the beach, I remembered that dream, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Hang gliding has been a constant in my adult life, for over 30 years now, and while I’ve flown high and far, I’ve never lost touch with the small dunes of my youth. It’s been called the “flyingest flying,” and at its essence is a freedom and a purity that appeals deeply to some. Simply step into the air and fly. Imagine that.

I have no idea if this little project will go anywhere, but it’s time to start–I’m goin’ crazy out by the lake. Flying, writing, and a perfect storm that’s led to the mother of all mid-life crises. Maybe this will help keep me from putting someone in the chipper.