Francis Rogallo was born on January 27th, 1912. The NASA aeronautical engineer is widely known as the father of modern hang gliding. He eventually celebrated 97 birthdays, but one in particular stands out, in 1974. Shortly after his retirement from NASA, hang gliding as a sport started truly taking off. Rogallo, affectionately know as “Rog”, received an invitation for his birthday to the “First Annual Rogallo Meet”. This took place at Escape Country, a premier hang gliding site near Trabuco Canyon, Ca.
First Annual Rogallo Meet
Despite careful planning by organizer Kas de Lisse, the meet was a bit of a wash. Fog descended onto the mountain. Only a few intrepid airmen punctuated the meet, making occasional flights into the mist. Several shouting, “onward through the fog!” Shouts and amplified music guided them to the landing area. 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 these were varieties known simply as “Rogallo Wings.”
At that meet, Rog saw an incredible variety of designs, 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. At last, the machine had gone off and done its own thing. 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.”
Rogallo’s Legacy Today
As the matriarch of the famous hang gliding Wills Wing family, Maralys Wills knew Rog very well. In a piece she wrote for Groundskimmer Magazine, Maralys described him beautifully:
“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.”
We still celebrate Rogallo’s birthday every year at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. On January 26 this year, the instructors and students of Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School took a total of 108 flights for Rog’s 108th birthday. Happy Birthday Rog, and thanks for letting us all “imagine the thrill.”
Written By Billy Vaughn, Francis Rogallo Historian