Invented in Grafton 1963




Experienced by the World

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Article from Stephane Malbos 1993  

1963 - 1993... 



"JOHN WHO?..."

It is amazing that in our days of instant communication and all powerful medias the true birth of our sport is still unknown to most of us pilots.

If Francis Rogallo and Bill Moyes are widely recognized as the (grand) fathers of hang  gliding and both have received in the past years awards and medals, there is an another man, an Australian, who is seldom known in the hang gliding circle. And yet, he designed the structure of the machine we have been flying now for 30 years. And yet he actually built the first hang glider ever, and towed it, and free-flew it, opening up for us a brand new world of pleasure and challenge.

John Dickenson is his name.

As Bill Bennett (an other well respected pioneer) puts it: "if Rogallo invented the wheel, Dickinson invented the first car..."

1963 - 1993... Thirty years of hang gliding.

1963, first towed flight over an Australian backcountry river.

1993, the year of the  World Championship in one of the mythical place of our sport, the valley of all records, The Owens.

It certainly is about time to straighten the records and at long last give John Dickinson the recognition he certainly deserves, and never got.

<< My name is John Dickenson. I am 58 years old. I am living in Elanora Heights in the northern suburb of Sydney, Australia, by the ocean, close to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

When I was 6 years old I was making model aircraft. I was interested in flying models and gliders from a very young age right through to my twenties. I always wanted to fly and even had an hour of flying instruction; but I was a young married man, and just couldn't afford to go and learn how to fly. I had been playing around with gyroplanes, and  built one, and it was seen flying along the beaches of the north coast of New South Wales. I was also a member of the Grafton water-ski club, and somebody reported to the club that I had been flying that device. The club had a water-ski festival each year, and one of the features  of the festival was a kite flying show. Every year somebody would put himself in the hospital. I had just moved up there recently, and they thought that people from the city were expendable, so they asked me if I would take on this project.

I approached it in a more scientific way. Rather than building a kite shaped device - the old five-sided flat machine -, I started building models like the modern hang gliders, with high aspect ratio. I started working  from there because in the Grafton area lives an animal called the "flying-fox." It's  a bat the size of a small dog; it has a flexible wing which folds up and it flies and glides beautifully. So I thought that if I could emulate this type of thing, I would be on my way to develop something I could really fly. Then someone who knew what I was doing saw in a magazine a picture of the Rogallo wing with a little pod underneath it, which was a space re-entry vehicle.

So I started making models using that wing shape, but a little different from Rogallo's. He had imagined a totally flexible wing that you could put in a bag. I started adding a stiffer structure to it, to form the frame which everybody now is very familiar with. I made models and got them to glide quite well. Then I built a half size wing which we went water-skiing with to see if the control system I worked on would operate, and that seemed to do all right. We had mainly skiing crashing problems. Then I built the first one that was a flying model.

The structure of that kite was made of Oregon timber in place of where aluminium pipes are used these days, except for the crossbar which was made with a TV antenna pole. The lifting surface had a 165 square feet area and was 4/1000 of an inch thick. It was made with the blue plastic used to wrap around bananas to help them ripen, and I got that in strips, nailed them to the timber frame and sealed the gap where they overlapped with electricity sticky tape. I did some test related to the flight load and found that it was quite strong and could do the job. The A frame was just a natural way of incorporating both the control column and something to carry the weight of the kite. I had that idea straight away. The A frame was made out of a metal bed that I got in a rubbish bin. The straining wires where made from the cable that holds TV aerials. The harness was made from a little timber seat which was sown in a plastic cover with padding foam. The straps were made of potatoes bag material. The whole thing cost me 24 dollars.

So we went to where we used to water-ski and we had three attempts to get it off the water. We had three center of gravity adjustments: three ring bolts attached to the keel. I made the first attempt and it was too far forward so I just held the kite nose down and flapped the fabric. After skiing a mile or so not being able to get it in the air, I returned to the beach and had another one of the club members try it because I was exhausted. He put it on the rear ring, did a jump start and went straight in the air to about 80 feet, pull the A frame to his chest, and went straight down 80 feet to the water.  He was badly shaken but not hurt otherwise. So we hooked on to the middle ring and had another of our most confident skiers, Rod Fuller, do a jump start and get it out of the water. He flew it, exactly how I had suggested to him that he should, for over a mile, which was about the record in those days. That was one Saturday afternoon in September 1963, in the back country in northern New South Wales, and that's one of the reasons why there was never much publicity about it. When the glider was finally developed, nobody heard about it.

On a following Saturday about three or four weeks later, we flew it as a publicity stunt for the local newspaper so we could get free advertising for our water-ski festival, and that's when the first photographs were made. We used that glider for two or three months. We flew it at the water-ski festival and it went perfectly; there weren't any problems with it. It was so tame that everybody was bored. We just skied along, took off and flew, and did slight turns. At that stage we didn't know whether it would roll over, or pitch, or tumble, so we took it quite slowly. We had a 15 foot keel, and it flew at 18 miles an hour. It was too slow. We weren't really skiing. In fact we could have soared with it exactly as it was! It was perfectly balanced. We could have jumped from a cliff right then in 1963! Anyway, what I did then was to decreased the size to about a 120 feet area so that was a nice match between skiing and flying if you consider air speed and take off speed. It also decreased the weight and increased the strength and made it very maneuverable in the air.

The gliders stayed that size as long as we designed them for kite flying behind a boat. As such you could do a jump start without being plucked straight up into the air; you could sit in that little basic chair and ski on the water. It was fabulous, like riding an aerial push-bike. You could hold the kite on the water, accelerate to about 33 miles an hour and then slide out to the side of the boat, hit the wave, push the handle forward and snap right up in the air. It was very exciting!

I spent about one year perfecting the glider and one year perfecting the flying technique. It was quite complicated to do a jump start as a water-skier standing on one leg and holding up a glider that weighted about 30 pounds, and do it in a way that you don't take off straight into the air, then get into skiing and sit in your seat! All that required a great deal of physical coordination and skill. Besides we didn't know for a long while what that kite would do. No one had, to our knowledge, done any experimental work with it. It's only after all the development was done that I got all the Rogallo papers. So I had to test every Saturday for a couple of years a new aerodynamic design, work out the pitch and the roll, how far it would go, explore the limits of the perimeter of what it would do.

Then we started flying free flight. In other words we'd get up high and dive down and fly with a slack rope. The first time I actually released was in 1964 under an emergency situation during a demonstration. I was flying in a very strong southerly wind and expected the boat to make a smooth turn with me along the front of the beach where all the people where. I was about at 110 feet up in the air and looked down and saw the boat going the wrong way. So I dived and dropped the rope and glided down to the beach and it was fantastic! It had never been done before, no one had ever seen anything like it, but it didn't get any publicity. By this time the gliders had become aluminium structure, stainless steel straining wires and nylon sail material. We added battens in it to stop the flutter. We developed releases that were operated by a little cord on the control bar and on the boat, so if you got into trouble you could just disconnect the kite. So we felt totally comfortable about letting the kite glide down.

In 1963 I made an initial patent application based around the A frame of the kite because I considered that the flexible wing wasn't patentable although I now realize that I could have called it an improved  gliding device with a rigid structure. The A frame and the control system is still being used today exactly the same as it was, even down to the length of the down tubes. Through a combination of calculations and empirical trials and errors I had established about the best.

I wrote to many companies, I travelled widely through New South Wales demonstrating it, eventually I moved down to Sydney and contacted a company called Aerostructures which was building a little ski-plane using the same type of wing. They had developed it independently and I didn't know anything about it. We finally met and they were going to manufacture and sell my device. The first one that they made I flew  on the 4th of December 1966 and set an Australian endurance record of two hours going up and in circle on the Hawkesburry River, and I believe that it was what attracted the attention of Bill Moyes.

Through a series of people that he and I knew we got together in March 1967. He wanted me to go down to the harbor and fly there and I wasn't very happy about that because it's very rough water and it's hard enough to fly anyway. At that time we didn't have any floats on the kite and if it sunk you'd never get it back again. I made an arrangement to go to a place near Wiseman's Ferry and met him and another chap called Bill Bennett who was to become quite famous in America. There were a number of people who wanted to learn how to fly. The kite we had was one built by Aerostructures. I hadn't flown it in gliding flight because they had changed the design slightly and I thought it was poorly trimmed. I gave everybody instructions on how to fly it. The first guy that flew it broke his leg on the handle bar. I don't know how he did it, but apparently he had chalky bones and had broken his leg before. He was taken off to the hospital. After, Bill Bennett and Bill Moyes flew. Moyes, who had been told by me that you could take that thing on top of the rope and fly, released the rope, which was exactly the contrary of what I wanted him to do because I considered you needed to fly for quite some time before you should do that. Well, he did it, and he bought one, and in three months he had set a world altitude record of 1200 feet.

After that I kept promoting the kite and flew at quite a lot of water-ski shows. On May the 7th 1967 I won the New South Wales Kite Flying Championship. This was one of the first competitions with the "new" kite which supplanted the old type. I outflew Bill Moyes and Ray Leighton, a guy who had been flying for over two years then. In April 1969, in Sydney harbor, I broke twice the Australian endurance record with flights of four and six hours. One of the very few pictures of me flying a kite was taken then.

Bill Moyes was also showing the kite around, and Bill Bennett too. They began to compete to obtain engagements at shows. Moyes started making his own gliders first, then Bennett. Self publicity was very important to them to attract business, and a bitter rivalry grew between them, particularly when they looked like making some money out of the sport, until Bennett left for the U.S.A..

In the meantime, the provisional patent was long due, and I didn't renew it because I didn't think that anybody was interested in it. Flying had all my attention, and I wasn't doing a very good job at work, and I wasn't making very much money. So I decided I had either to start building gliders as a business and go on with it, or give it away, and I eventually decided to give it away, which was in 1969. I made the right decision because I was on the wrong track. I was still playing with it as a towed kite. If I had taken the decision to stay with the glider, I would have run out of money before I would've evolved to the free flight stage.

So I walked away from it. I just stopped flying. I sold the last glider that I had and haven't really owned one since. I kept in touch with Moyes for quite a number of years afterwards, advising him technically on the development of the thing. We discussed a number of times soaring flight, because he was gradually making it bigger, going on to a lot of shows, getting up higher and trying to stay in the air as long as possible. He was getting paid for it, and was manufacturing the gliders himself. He finally did soar. Then we started increasing the aspect ratio. And then probably around 1973/74 I stopped communicating with him and after that I had nothing to do with the technical development.

That's pretty much the story. Rogallo was involved in it. In 1964 there were a few pictures of my glider that found their way around the country. One of them was seen by a chap in Brisbane who was in touch with Rogallo. He told him about it, because I don't think the Yanks had anybody actually lifted from the ground with one of those things at that time. So they were interested in what I was doing, and he put me in touch with Rogallo and we exchanged letters for about four years. He sent me a lot of the papers he wrote and some of his other researches on the flexible wing which more or less explained what I had been doing behind the back of a speedboat, which was my wind tunnel.

I never got involved in aeronautics after that. I had a library on aircraft engineering and construction, on flying and aerodynamics and fluid dynamics, which as a symbolic gesture I actually burned. It's probably a bit sad, but the trouble was that if I hadn't done that my mind would have been always thinking flying machines instead of working in electronics, where my formal qualifications were. So now in my spare time I play tennis with my wife in the local club, I'm doing a degree in psychology and I take care of my fortieth motorbike. I've also been doing experimental work with hydrofoil assisted sailing boats.

I don't know if I'll ever get any recognition for my work. It would certainly be nice for the future generations to know it because I consider that I played a very important part. I took a machine that Rogallo had developed as a practical lifting surface, but that stayed more or less in the toy stage. I made it into a machine that people could use.

Bill Moyes contribution was important, and I do not wish to belittle it. The development of foot launched soaring flight, the formation of clubs and competitions, of rules and regulations, the demonstration of the sport all over the world is his work. He has also dedicated all his time and money to the sport since 1967 and he is entitled to his financial rewards and public recognition for his contribution.

However you can see all the work I put into the glider and the sport from early 1963 to 1973. I had the technical knowledge about , and most of the development during that period was done directly by me or came from my suggestions. The work that I did in Grafton way up in the Australian bush all those years ago has given birth to an all new branch of aeroplanes, starting with the hang glider and evolving into the microlights. Now laboratories and universities around the world are looking at low speed flight over again. I never received any rewards or any  recognition, but nobody can take away from me the part that I had in changing the history of aviation.

In 1977 I visited Europe and went to the top of Mount Riga in Switzerland. We had just arrived there when 3 or 4 chaps turned up with hang gliders and jumped off. I was goggled-eyed and mouth-dropped in front of these guys lifting away from that 6000 feet sheer drop in a machine that I had designed. They didn't know who I was. I didn't speak with them. But they left me with tears in my eyes when I saw them climb away as they got into their prone harness and flew like the eagles. And - boys - that was really something and I was part of it!

Courtesy of Stephane Malbos


An earlier but very similar version of the 30 years article below was written in 1988 and printed in 1989 in Vol Libre, the French magazine and Skysailor.

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