Francis Rogallo, the NASA aeronautical engineer widely known as the father of modern hang gliding, was born on January 27th, 1912. He eventually celebrated 97 birthdays, but one in particular stands out, in 1974. Just a few years after his retirement from NASA, hang gliding as a sport was truly taking off, and Rog, as he was known to nearly everyone, 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 noteworthy was simply Rog’s presence. Most of the pilots knew his name, but his face was anonymous enough that he could wander through the assembled gliders unrecognized, many of which were varieties of what were known simply as “Rogallo Wings.”
Maralys Wills, matriarch of the famous hang gliding Wills Wing family, described him beautifully in a piece she wrote for Groundskimmer Magazine:
“He was the tall man wearing the Russian 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 leprechaun. 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 and his wife Gertrude invented in 1948. After all the years of trying to get recognition for the possibilities of their 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, and people all over the world were learning to fly with simple, inexpensive wings–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.”
Written By Billy Vaughn, Francis Rogallo Historian