Hang gliding is an air sport in which a pilot flies a light and unmotorized foot-launchable aircraft called a hang glider (also known as Delta plane or Deltaplane). Most modern hang gliders are made of an aluminium alloy or composite-framed fabric wing. The pilot is ensconced in a harness suspended from the airframe, and exercises control by shifting body weight in opposition to a control frame, but other devices, including modern aircraft flight control systems, may be used. In the sport's early days, pilots were restricted to gliding down small hills on low-performance hang gliders. However, modern technology gives pilots the ability to soar for hours, gain thousands of feet of altitude in thermal updrafts, perform aerobatics, and glide cross-country for hundreds of miles. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and national airspace governing organizations control some aspects of hang gliding. Gaining the safety benefits from being instructed is highly recommended.
Most early glider designs did not ensure safe flight; the problem was that early flight pioneers did not sufficiently understand the underlying principles that made a bird's wing work.
Starting in the 1880s technical and scientific advancements were made that led to the first truly practical gliders. Otto Lilienthal built (barely) controllable gliders in the 1890s, with which he could ridge soar. He rigorously documented his work, strongly influencing later designers; for this reason, Lilienthal is one of the best known and most influential early aviation pioneers. His aircraft was controlled by weight shift and is similar to a modern hang glider. (He was attached to the gliders by his shoulders, and swung his feet to control them.)
In the decade 1900-1910 hang gliding saw a stiffened flexible wing hang glider in 1904, when Jan Lavezzari flew a double lateen sail hang glider off Berck Beach, France. In 1910 in Breslau the triangle control frame with hang glider pilot hung behind the triangle in a hang glider was evident in a gliding club's activity. The biplane hang glider was very widely publicized in public magazines with plans for building; such biplane hang gliders were constructed and flown in several nations since Octave Chanute and his tailed biplane hang gliders were demonstrated. In April 1909 a how-to article by Carl S.Bates proved to be a seminal hang glider article that seemingly affected builders even of contemporary times, as several builders would have their first hang glider made from following the plan in his article. Volmer Jensen with a biplane hang glider in 1940 called VJ-11 allowed safe three-axis control of a foot-launched hang glider.
On November 23, 1948 Francis Rogallo and Gertrude Rogallo applied for a kite patent for a fully flexible kited wing with approved claims for its stiffenings and gliding uses; the flexible wing or Rogallo wing, which in 1957 the American space agency NASA began testing in various flexible and semi-rigid configurations in order to use it as a recovery system for the Gemini space capsules. The various stiffening formats and the wing's simplicity of design and ease of construction, along with its capability of slow flight and its gentle landing characteristics, did not go unnoticed by hang glider enthusiasts. In 1960-1962 Barry Hill Palmer adapted the flexible wing concept to make foot-launched hang gliders with four different control arrangements. In 1963 Mike Burns adapted the flexible wing to build a kite-hang glider he called Skiplane. In 963, John W. Dickenson adapted the flexible wing airfoil concept to make a another water-ski kite glider; for this, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale vested Dickenson with the Hang Gliding Diploma (2006) for the invention of the modern hang glider.
Hang gliding has traditionally been considered an unsafe sport. Modern hang gliders are very sturdy when constructed to HGMA, BHPA, DHV, or other certified standards using modern materials. Although lightweight they can be easily damaged, either through misuse or by continued operation in unsafe wind and weather conditions. All modern gliders have built-in dive recovery mechanisms such as luff lines in kingposted gliders. The inherent danger of gliding at the mercy of thermal and wind currents has nevertheless resulted in numerous fatal accidents and many serious injuries over the years, even to experienced pilots, and the resulting bad publicity has affected the popularity of hang gliding.
Pilots may carry a backup parachute in the harness. In case of serious problems the parachute is deployed and carries both pilot and glider down to earth. Pilots also wear helmets and generally carry other safety items such as knives (for cutting their parachute bridle after impact or cutting their harness lines and straps in case of a tree or water landing), light ropes (for lowering from trees to haul up tools or climbing ropes), radios (for calling for help), and first-aid equipment.
The accident rate from hang glider flying has been dramatically decreased by pilot training. Early hang glider pilots learned their sport through trial and error. Training programs have been developed for today's pilot with emphasis on flight within safe limits, as well as the discipline to cease flying when weather conditions are unfavorable, for example: excess wind or risk cloud suck.
Launch techniques include foot-launching from a hill, tow-launching from a ground-based tow system, aerotowing (behind a powered aircraft), powered harnesses, and being towed up by a boat. Modern winch tows typically utilize hydraulic systems designed to regulate line tension, this reduces scenarios for lock out as strong winds result in additional length of rope spooling out rather than direct tension on the tow line. Other more exotic launch techniques have also been used successfully, such as hot air balloon drops for very high altitude. Flights in non-soarable conditions are referred to as "sled runs".
A glider is continuously descending through nearby air, yet glider pilots can stay airborne for hours by flying in areas of rising air. Once this skill has been mastered, pilots can glide long distances to fly cross-country (XC). Rising air masses derive from the following sources:
With each generation of materials and with the improvements in aerodynamics, the performance of hang gliders has increased. One measure of performance is the glide ratio. For example, a ratio of 12:1 means that in smooth air a glider can travel forward 12 meters while only losing 1 meter of altitude.
Some performance figures as of 2006:
Because hang gliders are most often used for recreational flying, a premium is placed on gentle behavior especially at the stall and natural pitch stability. The wing loading must be very low in order to allow the pilot to run fast enough to get above stall speed. Unlike a traditional aircraft with an extended fuselage and empennage for maintaining stability, hang gliders rely on the natural stability of their flexible wings to return to equilibrium in yaw and pitch. Roll stability is generally set to be near neutral. In calm air, a properly designed wing will maintain balanced trimmed flight with little pilot input. The flex wing pilot is suspended beneath the wing by a strap attached to his harness. The pilot lies prone (sometimes supine) within a large, triangular, metal control frame. Controlled flight is achieved by the pilot pushing and pulling on this control frame thus shifting his weight fore or aft, and right or left in coordinated maneuvers.
Furthermore, the fact that the wing is designed to bend and flex, provides favorable dynamics analogous to a spring suspension. This allows the wing to be less susceptible to turbulence and provides a gentler flying experience than a similarly sized rigid-winged aircraft.
To maximize a pilot's understanding of how the hang glider is flying, most pilots carry instruments. The most basic being a variometer and altimeter—often combined. Some more advanced pilots also carry airspeed indicators and radios. When flying in competition or cross country, pilots often also carry maps and/or GPS units. Hang gliders do not have instrument panels as such, so all the instruments are mounted to the control frame of the glider or occasionally based on one's watch.
Gliding pilots are able to sense the acceleration forces when they first hit a thermal, but have difficulty gauging constant motion. Thus it is difficult to detect the difference between constantly rising air and constantly sinking air. A variometer is a very sensitive vertical speed indicator. In other words, the variometer indicates climb rate or sink rate with audio signals (beeps) and/or a visual display. These units are generally electronic, vary in sophistication, and often include an altimeter and an airspeed indicator. More advanced units often incorporate a barograph for recording flight data and/or a built-in GPS. The main purpose of a variometer is in helping a pilot find and stay in the ‘core’ of a thermal to maximize height gain, and conversely indicating when he or she is in sinking air and needs to find rising air. Variometers are sometimes capable of electronic calculations based on the MacCready Speed Ring to indicate the optimal speed to fly for given conditions. The MacCready theory answers the question on how fast a pilot should cruise between thermals, given the average lift the pilot expects in the next thermal climb and the amount of lift or sink he encounters in cruise mode. Some electronic variometers make the calculations automatically, allowing for factors such as the glider's theoretical performance (glide ratio), altitude, hook in weight, and wind direction.
Pilots use radio for training purposes, and for communicating with other pilots in the air – particularly when traveling together on cross-country flights.
One type of radios used are PTT (push-to-talk) transceivers, operating in or around the FM VHF 2-meter band (144 MHz–148 MHz). Usually a microphone is incorporated in the helmet, and the PTT switch is either fixed to the outside of the helmet, or strapped to a finger. Operating a 2-meter band radio without an appropriate Amateur Radio license is illegal in most countries that have regulated airwaves (such as the United States).
As aircraft operating in airspace occupied by other aircraft, hang glider pilots also use the appropriate type of radio i.e. the aircraft transceiver. It can, of course, be fitted with a PTT switch to a finger and speakers inside the helmet. The use of aircraft transceivers is subject to regulations specific to the use in the air such as frequencies restrictions but has several advantages over FM (i.e. frequency modulated) Amateur Radios. One is the great range it has (without repeaters) because of its amplitude modulation (i.e. AM). Two is the ability to contact, inform and be informed directly by other aircraft pilots of their intentions thereby improving collision avoidance and increasing safety. Three is to allow greater liberty regarding distance flights in regulated airspaces, in which the aircraft radio is normally a legal requirement. Four is the universal emergency frequency monitored by all other users and satellites and used in case of emergency or impending emergency.
GPS (global positioning system) is a necessary accessory when flying competitions, where it has to be demonstrated that way-points have been correctly passed.
It can also be interesting to view a GPS track of a flight when back on the ground, to analyze flying technique. Computer software is available which allows various different analyses of GPS tracks (e.g. CompeGPS).
Other uses include being able to determine drift due to the prevailing wind when flying at altitude, providing position information to allow restricted airspace to be avoided, and identifying one’s location for retrieval teams after landing-out in unfamiliar territory.
More recently, the use of GPS data, linked to a computer, has enabled pilots to share 3D tracks of their flights on Google Earth. This fascinating insight allows comparisons between competing pilots to be made in a detailed post-flight analysis.
Records are sanctioned by the FAI. The world record(s) (as of 2005) for "free distance" is held by Manfred Ruhmer with 700.6 km (435.3 miles) in 2001 and Michael Barber flew a distance of 704 km (437 miles) on June 19, 2002 in Zapata Texas.
Other records include:
Out-and-Return distance - 332.5 km (206.6 mi), July 5, 2007 by George Stebbins, starting and ending just South of Lone Pine, California.
Largest triangle - 357.12 km (221.9 mi), December 16, 2000 by Tomáš Suchánek a Czech HG and sailplane pilot, starting and ending from Riverside, Australia.
Competitions started with "flying as long as possible" and spot landings. With increasing performance, cross-country flying replaced them. Usually two to four waypoints have to be passed with a landing at a goal. In the late 1990s low-power GPS units were introduced and have completely replaced photographs of the goal. Every two years there is a world championship. The Rigid and Women's World Championship in 2006 was hosted by Quest Air in Florida. Big Spring, Texas hosted the 2007 World Championship. Hang gliding is also one of the competition categories in World Air Games organized by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (World Air Sports Federation - FAI), which maintains a chronology of the FAI World Hang Gliding Championships.
Hang gliders are not certified for aerobatic flight. Pilots perform aerobatics at their own risk. There are three basic maneuvers in a hang glider, not counting a loop, which is actually a climbover with the same entry and exit heading. The following descriptions are excerpts from a nationally recognized rules book.
3.1 Official Maneuvers A figure with a bank angle of more than 90° is a maneuver.
3.1.1 Loop A loop is defined as a maneuver that starts in a wings level dive, climbs, without any rolling, to the apex where the glider is upside down, wings level (heading back where it came from), and then returning to the start attitude and heading, again without rolling, having completed an approximately circular path in the vertical plane.
3.1.2 Spin A spin is scored from the moment one wing stalls and the glider rotates noticeably into the spin. The entry heading is noted at this point. The glider must remain in the spin for at least 1/2 of a revolution to score any versatility spin points.
3.1.3 Rollover A Rollover is a maneuver where the apex heading is less than 90° left or right of the entry heading.
3.1.4 Climb over A Climb over is a maneuver where the apex heading is greater than 90° left or right of the entry heading.
For competitive purposes, there are three classes of hang glider:
In addition to typical launch configurations, a hang glider may be so constructed for alternative launching modes other than being foot launched; one practical avenue for this is for people who physically cannot foot-launch.
There is sometimes confusion between gliders, hang gliders and paragliders. In particular paragliders and hang gliders are both foot-launched aircraft. The main differences between the types are:
|Undercarriage:||Pilot's legs used for take-off and landing||Pilot's legs used for take-off and landing||Aircraft takes off and lands using a wheeled undercarriage or skids|
|Wing structure:||entirely flexible, with shape maintained purely by the pressure of air flowing into the wing in flight and the tension of the lines. prone to collapse in turbulence.||generally flexible but supported on a rigid frame which determines its shape and thus does not collapse in turbulence, but note that rigid wing hang gliders also exist||rigid surface to wings that totally encases structure|
|Pilot position:||sitting ‘supine’ in a seated harness.||usually lying ‘prone’ in a cocoon-like harness suspended from the wing. Seated, and 'supine' are also possible.||sitting in a seat with a harness surrounded by a crash-resistant structure.|
|Speed range (stall speed – max speed):||slower – hence easier to launch and fly in light winds, can get into trouble when winds pick up, poor wind penetration and no pitch control, cannot dive for speed, although some pitch variation can be achieved with speed bar.||faster – much faster, up to 145 km/h (90+ mph), hence easier to launch and fly in stronger conditions with better wind penetration, and can outrun bad weather, full pitch control||even faster - maximum speed up to about 280 km/h (170 mph); stall speed typically 65 km/h (40mph). Able to fly in windier turbulent conditions and can outrun bad weather. Exceptional penetration into the wind. Semi- or fully aerobatic.|
|Maximum glide ratio:||about 12, relatively poor glide performance makes long-distances more difficult. The current world record is just above 500km (310 miles)||about 17 for flexible wings, though up to 20 for rigid wings. Glide performance enables much longer-distance flying, 700km (430+ mile) record||Open class sailplanes typically around 60:1 but in more common 15-18 meter span aircraft, glide ratios are between 38:1 and 52:1, high glide performance enabling long distances, 3000km (1800+ mile record)|
|Turn radius:||tight turn radius, allowing circling in the rapidly rising center of thermals||somewhat larger turn radius, but faster and more efficient therefore resulting in equally high rate of climb in thermals||even greater turn radius but still equal climb rate|
|Landing-out:||smaller space needed to land, offering more landing options from cross-country flights. Also easier to carry back to the nearest road||slightly longer approach & landing area required, but can reach more landing areas due superior glide range||Much larget landing area required, 200 metres if unobstructed and smooth enough to roll on, and can often reach another airfield. Specialised trailer needed to retrieve by road, chase & de-rig crew required.|
|Learning:||teaching is done in a two seat glider with dual controls|
|Convenience:||pack smaller (easier to transport and store); lighter (easier to carry); quicker to rig & de-rig; transported in the trunk of a car||larger during transport & storage; 10-20 minutes to setup or pack up; transported on vehicle roof rack||trailers are typically 10 m (30 ft) long. Rigging & de-rigging takes a crew about an hour|
|Cost:||Cost of new gliders very high but long lasting (several decades), so active second hand market typically from €2000 to €145,000 . Often shared ownership|