In Australia during the late 1950s and early 1960s, accomplished water skiers and showmen, having long since mastered the manoeuvres possible on the water, started looking for something a little more radical. It began with the ski-jump, and when jumps alone ceased to excite, other methods of maximizing airtime were considered. Entered the Japanese-style flat kite.
It was an invention of the devil. It looked like a big polygonal child’s kite, but without a tail to provide stability. Operating mainly in drag, it required a significant tow force – in the order of 100 lbs – and a powerful ski-boat! The pilot, if you could call him that, was suspended by a short strap from a trapeze-like bar on the front of the kite. He was towed by a complex bridle of ropes that set the angle of attack and kept the kite more-or-less at right angles in yaw to the tow boat. Both pitch and yaw were fixed and the pilot – with great physical effort – controlled only roll. So the driver and observer were as important to the correct operation of the kite as the pilot. The tow boat speed and throttle settings were the only things that controlled the altitude, so it was very handy for the person working the throttle to have his eyes riveted on the kite.
Kite slalom required weaving the kite through a slalom course which was longer and wider than a normal water-ski course, with water-spouts instead of buoys. A pilot would fly as close to tournament ski rules as possible. Since he had no way to change the angle of attack, the throttle man was key. When the glider cut violently from side to side, as was required for slalom, it would begin to slip from the sky, so altitude had to be maintained via a radical throttle increase. Once the kite straightened, unless the throttle was reduced, the kite would climb until it became aerodynamically unstable, then it would fall like a ton of bricks. It was one hell of a scary ride!
John Dickenson and the Ski Wing
In 1963, John Dickenson was working in electronics, not aviation, and had just moved to Grafton, New South Wales, Australia, with his wife Amy. As a child John was obsessed with things that flew, but as he grew up circumstances forced him to train for a more down-to-earth profession. However, the urge to fly cannot lightly be put aside, and John modified a Bensen gyroplane and was spotted flying it at Woolgoolga beach by officials of the Grafton Water Ski Club. The Annual Jacaranda Festival was approaching and John, by now a club member, was drafted in to build and fly a water-ski kite as part of the show. The reasoning was apparently that if he could build and fly a gyroplane, a ski kite should give him no trouble.
The Club expected John to make a conventional flat kite, but he abandoned that idea when he discovered that every previous kite flyer at the Jacaranda Festival had been injured, and that was what the crowd turned up for! He went for a more scientific approach. John explains:
“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.”
At this time, a picture of a Rogallo wing with a little pod underneath it – a Gemini re-entry vehicle – was released in a magazine. John saw it, was inspired, and history was made. Armed with only the photograph, with no dimensions or back-up information, John started to make models based on the flex-wing principle.
“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 and control bar 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 waterskiing 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 full-size flying model.
“The structure of that kite was made of Oregon timber in place of where aluminum pipes are used these days, except for the crossbar which was made with a TV-antenna pole. The lifting surface had a 165 square ft area and was 4/1,000 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 gaps where they overlapped with electric insulating tape. I did some tests related to the flight load and found that it was quite strong and could do the job. The A-frame control bar 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 from a rubbish bin. The straining wires were made from the cable that holds TV aerials. The harness was made from a little timber seat which was sewn in a plastic cover with foam-padding. The straps were made of potato bag material. The whole thing cost me 24 dollars.”
John and a few friends went to the water ski area and had three attempts to get it off the water:
“We had three centre-of-gravity adjustments in the form of three ring bolts attached to the keel. I made the first attempt and it was too far forward so the kite just kept its 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 80ft, pulled the A-frame to his chest, and went straight down into 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 for ski-kites in those days. That was one Saturday afternoon in September 1963, in the back country of 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.”
More flights were done and a month later, one was organized for the The Daily Examiner, the Grafton local newspaper, as a publicity stunt to get free advertising for the water ski festival. The Daily Examiner recorded the event for posterity. Those first pictures ever taken clearly show the weight-shift single hang point and the A-frame. All the major innovations that led directly to hang gliding as we know it today were developed in the space of about six months! On 11 October 1963 John filed for a patent and Provisional Protection was awarded for the application numbered 36189/63.
“We flew my glider 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 15ft 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.”
By 1964 all flight and construction problems had been sorted. John’s Ski Wing, as it was called, was now made entirely out of aluminium, except for the mild-steel A-frame, part-battened nylon sails and rigging of wire cable. He had designed the nose-plate so that the leading edges swung into the keel, and the cross-boom pivoted, fore and aft, for quick knock-down and car-top transport. The Ski Wing was an instant success. It was far more easily controlled than the flat kites and required only about a third of the tow force, significantly reducing wear-and-tear on pilot, kite, and tow-boat alike.
“I spent about one year perfecting the glider and another year perfecting the flying technique. It was quite complicated to do a jump start as a water-skier while standing on one leg and holding up a glider that weighed about 30 pounds – and do it in a way that you get skiing and sit in the seat rather than take off straight into the air! 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 was only after all the development was done that I got all the Rogallo papers. So every Saturday for a couple of years I had to test a new aerodynamic design, work out the pitch and the roll, how far it would go, explore the limits of the parameter of what it would do.”
John started flying free.
“I’d get up high and dive down and fly with a slack rope. I developed releases that were operated by a little cord on the control bar and on the boat, so if I got into trouble we could just disconnect the kite. I felt totally comfortable about letting the kite glide down. The first time I actually released was 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 were. I was about 110 ft up 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.”
In 1964 a Brisbane newspaper had published a picture of John Dickenson’s creation. A man called Robin Bishop had seen it and wrote to his friend Francis Rogallo in Virginia, USA, explaining that an Australian had independently developed the Rogallo principle into a perfectly viable man-carrying aeroplane for so little money it was laughable. Understandably interested, Rogallo wrote to John in September 1964 requesting information. On the 24 November, the entire plans and general specification of the Ski Wing were sent back to him at the Langley Research Centre. In just about every detail the craft described in the drawings is identical to what became known throughout the world as the Standard Rogallo, a type of glider which would not become obsolete for another ten years.
Francis Rogallo replied to John on 29 January 1965. He wrote: ‘To get back to your glider design, I hope to make some copies of your drawings and perhaps have some individual or groups build a glider like yours locally ... Your design looks better than other ski kites that I have seen and I wish you great success with it.’
Praise indeed from the master.
The two Bills
By 1964, the publicity surrounding the Ski Wing was beginning to create a demand and John Dickenson started making and selling the glider to water-ski enthusiasts. Rod Fuller now drove the boats, John did the demo flights and people such as Ray Leighton bought the early examples. However for one reason or another the business of marketing the hang glider as a tow-launched craft was making slow progress.
They were flying a lot of exhibitions and everyone was very enthusiastic, but converting interest into sales was an uphill struggle. John thinks that it was the dare-devil publicity that made people wary. After all the work, they had a complete system to sell and John wasn’t making any money out of it. He was beginning to wonder if it was all worthwhile.
In 1966 a move to Sydney and a meeting with Mike Burns seemed to open up new commercial possibilities. Mike was a graduate aeronautical engineer who had independently developed a Rogallo-type tow glider called the Ski Plane. His company, Aero Structures, now started to build the Dickenson Ski Wing while John demonstrated it and taught people to fly. Ski Plane … Ski Wing … Bill Moyes and Bill Bennett began to sit up and take notice.
“As a kid I had a dream that I could fly. I dreamt it so often and vividly that I knew it really was possible to make that dream come true. I didn’t fly like Superman with my arms out in front of me. Nor did I flap my wings to fly. I wasn’t a bird. I was a boy with wings. I used to sit on the cliffs overlooking the beach and watch the seagulls skimming by and marvel at the aerodynamics of their design. I still watch birds. Galahs do the most spectacular acrobatics – it’s their speciality. They have short wings in the same way as all aerobatic planes have short wings. But galahs can fold them up close to their body when they go through branches. We can learn much from birds. I used to lie there and watch them and feel sure it was possible for me to fly like that. Of course other people said that it couldn’t be done. But whenever someone says something can’t be done, that’s when I have to do it.”
Bill Moyes was born at Bronte, Australia, one of Sydney’s southern beach suburbs, in the early 1930s. He left school soon (‘I didn’t enjoy it much. It was a waste of good fishing time’), married his sweetheart Molly at 17 and started to work both at Molly’s fruit shop and as an auto electrician. Soon he bought his own auto-electric garage, which became for many years THE garage, both factory and museum of all his gliders (ah, the rocket-propelled prototype hung to the roof beams!).
Bill was also a typical Australian sport fanatic who swam every day in the ocean and became a water-ski champion. He was a good friend of Jack Murray, one of the great extroverts. Murray was better known as ‘Gelignite Jack’ – a madman driver who has been in the toughest car trials, around Australia and around the world. He was also one of Australia’s first water skiers: there, he pioneered the sport, spouting it at every water hole, teaching thousands. Bill and Jack were inevitably attracted by the flat kite competition. Bill Moyes:
“The slalom was six buoys 50 ft either side of the centre line over a 1400 ft course. When a competitor achieved a perfect pass, the rope was shortened by 15 ft and he repeated the course. The rope length began at 130 ft. After seven years of competition we were completing perfect passes with 55 ft of rope. This was exciting as we smashed plenty of kites. The World Water Ski Union eliminated kite flying in 1975 because of the unacceptable number of fatalities.”
Just as inevitably, they came across the new type of gliders that were being used. It happened in 1966. Bill Moyes again:
“I was looking for a better machine than our regular kites. I knew that Jack Murray had a Ski Plane built by Aero Structures. I asked Jack where to get one and he told me not to buy one, but to try a Ski Wing as the Ski Plane was too heavy and needed a lot of power to pull it. I called Mike Burns at Aero Structures and John Dickenson came to Sydney Harbour to give me a flight lesson in December 1966. A wind was blowing and John, being careful, wouldn’t let me fly it, but told me to go to the Hawkesbury River the next week, where he would be giving a demo to another group. So, in early January 1967 I went to the river and we ended up with half a dozen candidates. I watched the guys try before me. They went up in turn till all were injured, keeping wives and drivers – including John – busy taking them to the hospital. I wasn’t going to quit. I had the advantage of witnessing mistakes by less-than-expert skiers and of being a good water skier myself. I gave the last remaining driver a simple instruction: ‘35 mph’. The rope was 120 ft long. I took the Ski Wing straight to the top of the rope and stayed there for 8 miles till confronted with a set of high-tension wires. The driver had no other instructions other than 35 mph, so I knew that I had to find out if it would fly in free flight. I released … it flew!
“All our flights were from tow-boat. The main problem with this method is that you are dependent on the skill of the boat driver to pull you at just the right speed. Too slow and you can’t get airborne. Too fast and you go up at too steep an angle and can’t avoid flipping over. Then there’s always the risk that the tow-rope will snap before you’re safely airborne.”
On May 17 1967, Moyes set the altitude record at 1045 ft. On this day, his friend Bill Bennett was a witness from the Kite Club. He flew in a plane alongside him, filming the flight. Bill Bennett was amazed and wanted to fly himself, which he soon did.
Bill Bennett was born in Melbourne in 1931 and followed his parents to Sydney in 1939. He was in the same school as Bill Moyes but they didn’t know each other because Bennett was a bit older (‘At least for that, he says, Moyes owes me respect!’). They met only in the ‘50s when they were both running in the same water-ski competitions, then in the same flat-kite meets. Bennett was an expert towing flat-kiter. He could stand the kite 90° to the water 50 ft up, side-slip down, skim his skis then zoom back up the other side. It wasn’t long before Bennett was also flying John’s Ski Wing. Soon the two Bills stormed the air.
While this book was being prepared the hang gliding world was shocked to hear that Bill Bennett had died in a flying accident at Lake Havasu Airport. This was the very place where, as a young man, he had been towed to a hang glider altitude record of 2,960 ft.
As a publicist for the sport Bill was without equal. Not content with flying over the Statue of Liberty on 4 July 1969 and landing on Liberty Island, he flew over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In early 1972 he claimed the world’s longest unassisted free flight by flying to the bottom of Death Valley from Dante’s Point –some 5,757 ft vertical, and more than six miles. Bill was the stuntman for the hang gliding scenes in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. He was the first hang glider pilot to make a film commercial (Shell Oil, 1973). Without his taste for publicity hang gliding might have taken much longer to become the international sport it is today.
Perhaps more importantly, Bill Bennett was one of the first designer/manufacturers to bring the sport out of the ‘backyard’ building era. His company, Delta Wing Kites and Gliders Inc were one of the major players in manufacturing from 1970 until the late ‘80s.
Bill Bennett, we salute you. And thanks.
The two Bills were fearless flyers and natural born showmen. Their chase for records and hang-gliding publicity created an enormous press following. Duration and altitude records see-sawed between the two barnstormers.
Jack Murray describes one of those performances:
“I went up to the opening of the Burrendong Dam – the new one out of Wellington, bigger than Sydney Harbour. There were 20,000 people there. It was a fabulous day – not a cloud in the sky. Anyway Bill Moyes is up there and as the program started I just noticed him skiing quietly away. After an hour we forgot all about him. Well, he went way, way back – eight miles upstream – and then he started his run with this 2,000ft long cable. We were watching the bare-foot skiing when suddenly, out of the blue, the announcer says ‘Here comes Billy Moyes – and he’s high!’ We were all standing round and looking and couldn’t see him, so we just went on watching the bare-footing. Another three or four minutes passes and the announcer says: ‘Yes, there he is, he must be all of 1,000ft up – he doesn’t look any bigger than a Coke bottle!’ Well, be blown if we could see him or the boat that was towing him. Then suddenly it shot out from behind an island going like mad. And it hasn’t got that far to go because just up here is the end of the lake. Well, we just stared at the boat – then looked for Bill – and strike me if he wasn’t straight above us! Everybody, all together, 20,000 of them, just gasped. There was a deathly silence, he drops the rope. He was three minutes coming down. Then he goes in a glide, a long turning glide. You could have heard a pin drop – there wasn’t a bloody sound. Down he came, you had to see it to believe it. It’s the best act I’ve ever seen; he came down and landed there right at the edge of the water. He didn’t have to swim a stroke – just stepped straight onto the beach, nodded and walked off.”
Moyes was always willing to take risks. In an attempt to find new methods, he tried launching himself from a motorbike, riding along the sand with the kite strapped to his back until he got up enough speed to become airborne. Someone else was left to collect the runaway bike! That idea didn’t work, but undeterred and even though he wasn’t as good on snow-skis as he was on water-skis, Bill put himself in the record books in the winter of ‘67 as the first person ever to ski off Mount Crackenback in the Australian Alps, for a one-and-a half-mile glide. Early in 1968, on Lake Ellesmere, New Zealand, he attached himself to a 9,900ft cable behind a speedboat and took the record to 2,900ft. Then in 1969 he made an attempt to fly from Sydney to Brisbane, a distance of about 600 miles. He was towed in the air by a boat that struggled along in the open sea for 189 miles, until huge waves swamped the vessel and opened her up. The attempt had to be abandoned after almost seven hours. This mad effort gave Bill the endurance record.
Bennett would not let himself be left behind. He broke records too, flew higher than a mile, got towed for two hundred; balloon-dropped from 10,000ft … and left the skis behind for the first take-off on foot.
If flying was good enough for Australia, it was good enough for the World. The two Bills went to the USA and began touring, billed as the Birdmen of Australia.
Bennett was the first to visit the US in May 1969. He eventually moved to California as the ‘60s came to a close. He exhibited the new wing at the National Water-Ski Championships in Berkley and performed at Cypress Gardens, among other venues. He knew where to operate: the Golden Gate Bridge; Death Valley; Arizona London Bridge. On July 4, 1969, he boat-towed to free fly around the Statue of Liberty, landing on Liberty Island at the very feet of the statue itself. Not satisfied with stage, he moved on to film. Those who recall the hang gliding scenes from the James Bond movie Live and Let Die should know that it was actually Bill Bennett, not Roger Moore, who piloted the hang glider down into Mr Big’s island redoubt. Bill founded Delta Wing Kites and Gliders in 1969, and manufactured hang gliders for twenty years.
Moyes followed soon. Accompanied by his wife Molly, he crisscrossed the country. He became the highest-paid thrill-show performer in the USA. In big outdoor shows, he donned a flashy white jumpsuit and thrilled audiences by being towed up behind a dune buggy and then cutting loose and executing supposedly graceful spins and turns on the flight down to earth (once the buggy drove too fast; the kite climbed too quickly and flipped over; Bill fell 300 ft to the ground. He was badly injured
and was laid up for six weeks). In 1970, he descended 4,800 ft from the rim of the Grand Canyon to land at Phantom Ranch. Later, to beat the altitude record, he got towed by an airplane – his most turbulent and scariest experience. The plane, a Stearman, was too fast and he graphically describes how the wing rattled as he hung on grimly while the battens ‘shot out of it like spears!’
In 1969, Moyes took his glider along to Europe and gave a demonstration at the World Water-ski Championship in Copenhagen, Denmark. He met fellow water skiers, showed his trade, made followers. Unfortunately, he also made a heavy landing and broke an arm. Alfio Coronti, who was trainer to the Italian ski water-team, visited him in hospital and a friendship became established which was to develop into a 20 year business relationship. Alfio bought Bill’s glider and so became the first European hang glider pilot. Later that year, Bill went to Italy and flew behind boats on Lake Como and off the mountains around there. A few years later, Alfio started to manufacture Moyes gliders in Italy and formed the Icaro company.
Bernard Danis, a French water skier, was also at the Copenhagen show and was equally impressed. He started flying on his own and eventually set up a company which specialised in selling copies of established designs.
John walks away
John Dickenson was also flying at quite a lot of water-ski shows during the 60s. You could see them advertised in the local press or in The Australian Water Skier: ‘New South Wales Championship 1967. These will be held Sunday, May 7. Events listed: Kite Slalom, Kite Tricks, Ski Wings and Delta Plane’. The Australian would also promote, in the same issue, the sale of Aviation Projects’ own Delta Ski Wing – ‘Buy it complete or build it yourself this winter!’ – next to a full-length portrait of Miss Water Ski New South Wales. John Dickenson won that championship and out-flew Bill Moyes and Ray Leighton, who had been flying for over two years then. He also kept promoting his Ski Wing. In April 1969, in Sydney Harbour, he twice broke the Australian endurance record with flights of over three hours. One of the very few pictures of him flying a kite was taken that day.
In the meantime, his provisional patent was running out of date. He didn’t renew it because he thought that nobody 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. That 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 soaring flight a number of times, because he was gradually making bigger gliders, going on to a lot of shows, getting up higher and trying to stay in the air as long as possible. He finally did soar, and was getting paid for it. He was also manufacturing the gliders himself.”
Indeed Moyes’ auto-electrical business was thriving and Bill had the time and money to fulfil his new passion. Bill had no formal training at all in aerodynamics. Instead, he had something far more valuable: an instinctive understanding that he has developed by avid reading and keeping an open mind:
“Every week I would build a new kite in the workshop, changing and modifying the design to improve its aerodynamics. The first kites I made flapped like rags. Then someone suggested that I should read High Speed Sailing, an American book about sailing on ice. I picked up a lot of good tricks from that book about battens and airfoil shapes and flexibility. I just kept on experimenting until I got it right. I started with a 13 ft wing, and then I built a 12 ft for my son, Steve, and a 17-footer that nearly killed me! Those wings were named after the lengths of the leading edges and keel, which were all equal. I then started opening the nose angle, first to 90°, then 100°, with a 14 ft and a 15 ft. Next, in 1968, I reduced the length of the keel and made a 16 x 15 footer – the first higher-aspect-ratio glider! In 1969 we were already flying off the mountains. I built a 19 x 15 and then a 20 x 12 with a 120° nose angle that was really difficult to fly. In 1972, I added a keel pocket and called the wing the Stinger because its long keel reminded me of a mosquito sting. But this innovation remained confidential: the Rogallo Standards were still all-powerful!”
Around 1974, John Dickenson stopped communicating with Bill Moyes and had nothing to do with further technical development. He had a library on aircraft engineering and construction, on flying and aerodynamics and fluid dynamics, which as a symbolic gesture, he 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.”
In 1977 John visited Europe and went to the top of Mount Riga in Switzerland. He had just arrived there when three or four men turned up with hang gliders and took off.
“I was goggled-eyed and my mouth dropped in front of these guys lifting away from that 6,000 ft 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 harnesses and flew like the eagles. And boys, that was really something and I was part of it!”
Courtesy of Stephane Malbos