August 19, 2023

Soaring to New Heights: The Legacy of Francis Rogallo and Kitty Hawk Kites

This week, we’re celebrating some sky-high historic milestones! August 15th, 2023, marked the 75-year anniversary of the first successful flight of the revolutionary Rogallo Flexikite. Additionally, August 19th is National Aviation Day. In celebration of both, we’re here to talk about Francis and Gertrude Rogallo’s contributions to the advancement of aviation, as well as their ties to Kitty Hawk Kites! 

The Rogallos- A quick history

Francis Rogallo, born on January 27, 1912, was an aeronautical engineer whose passion for flight led him to develop a groundbreaking concept that would change the course of aviation history. He worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the federal agency superseding NASA, engineering products in the wind tunnels as American Aviation began to experience rapid advancement in the 30s and early 40s. His wife Gertrude was a talented artist and ardent supporter of her husband’s work. The combination of Francis’s engineering acumen and Gertrude’s creative perspective proved to be a match made in aviation heaven. Inspired by the graceful flight of birds, the couple embarked on a journey to create a wing design that harnessed the power of the wind in a new and efficient way. 

Francis Rogallo displays his Flexible wing design

The Flexikite: From Kitchen Curtains to Kites and Beyond 

In 1948, Francis and Gertrude Rogallo enjoyed the first successful flight of their flexible wing, a revolutionary aero concept that was constructed from Gertrude’s kitchen curtains and developed from research conducted in their in-house, homemade wind tunnel.  

This remarkable invention was a wing with no rigid members that creates an airfoil shape when flying and generates lift similar to a rigid airfoil. This incredible invention led to revolutionized parachutes, recruited and further developed by NASA’s Gemini space program, as well as the hang gliders, paragliders, kites, stunt kites, we enjoy today! Based on the Rogallo invention, millions of people around the world have been introduced to the pleasures, adventures, and challenges of aviation.  

Kitty Hawk Kites: A tribute to Innovation 

Many could argue that Kitty Hawk Kites emerged as a product of Rogallo’s uplifting innovation. While our most obvious connection to the Rogallosis the daily use of his design in our hang gliders and the kites sold in our stores, the Rogallosspirit and dedication to sharing the feeling of flight with others is a purpose that is shared by KHK.  

When our President, John Harris, founded Kitty Hawk Kites as a hang-gliding school and tshirt selling business, the mission of “Teaching the World to Fly” was centered at the forefront of his venture. Harris, an admirer and friend of the Rogallos, recognized both the scientific and experiential importance of the Rogallos invention and has since dedicated his career to sharing the feeling of flight and the spirit of uplifting others. A career that has since brought the experience of flight to more than 90,000 individuals and grown into 28 locations up and down the east coast!  

John Harris attends a meeting honoring Francis Rogallo
A shared history

John Harris pictured with Rogallo in the 1970s.

One of the most notable aspects of Kitty Hawk Kites is its commitment to providing accessible and exhilarating flying experiences. The company offers a range of activities, from hang gliding and paragliding to kiteboarding and kite flying. These activities not only allow participants to engage with the wind in ways Rogallo could have only dreamed of but also emphasize the joy and freedom of flight. 

Openly, Kitty Hawk Kites pays tribute to the Rogallos with the installation of the Rogallo History Wall that is located at our flagship location in Jockey’s Ridge Crossing. In 2009, the Rogallo Family was honored by the Rogallo Foundation and joined them at Kitty Hawk Kites for the unveiling of the informational marquee that shares a part of their story with all who come to visit Kitty Hawk Kites. 

Francis Rogallo is honored at Kitty Hawk Kites
Honoring Innovation

Francis Rogallo is honored at Kitty Hawk Kites in 2009

Historical Recognition and Preservation: The Rogallo Foundation 

While KHK was undoubtedly inspired by Rogallo, Kitty Hawk Kites holds ties to the efforts to recognize and preserve their place in aviation history. Harris, many former KHK pilots, and company members comprise the board of the Rogallo Foundation that was formed in 1992 with a mission to honor the Rogallo’s; preserve their priceless records, artifacts, and research; interpret their incredible story; and protect their legacy of free flight for millions of people in all the Nations of the world.

In the years since its inception, the foundation has spearheaded projects of great ambition and importance aimed at telling the Rogallos’ story. A biography of Francis Rogallo has been commissioned by the Foundation and is well underway. Kitty Hawk Kites’ own hang gliding school legend, Billy Vaughn, is serving as the lead biographer. Additionally, each year, the foundation inducts pilots and free-flight enthusiasts into the Rogallo Hall of Fame, which honors individuals who have contributed to and improved the advancement of free flight in modern aviation. 

Rogallo Hall of Fame Induction
Hall of Fame

The Rogallos, and John Harris at a Rogallo Hall of Fame Induction

 Perhaps most notably, Kitty Hawk Kites hosts the annual Brewtag in benefit of the Rogallo Foundation! A celebration of flight and beer, OBX Brewtäg is modeled after the whimsical and entertaining Red Bull Flugtag, translated to “flying day” in German. With OBX Brewtäg, the general premise is the same, although rather than human-powered flying machines, Brewtäg contestants will be competing to see who can launch and fly an empty 1/6 keg barrel the furthest.  Brewtäg is The Rogallo Foundation’s number 1 annual fundraiser and has come to be renowned as a tradition in the Outer Banks for locals and visitors alike.

In the future, the Rogallo Foundation hopes to build a Rogallo Museum on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This Museum will showcase the significant contributions of the Rogallos (Outer Banks residents; the couple retired to Souther Shores) to aviation, their inventions and their incredible story. The Museum will tell the story of hang gliding, paragliding, kiteboarding, parachuting, and kiting – all spinoffs of the Rogallo Wing.  

The Rogallos and Kitty Hawk Kites: A Lasting Impact on Aviation 

The impact of Francis Rogallo’s invention and Kitty Hawk Kites’ dedication to flight enthusiasts is undeniable. Rogallo’s flexible wing concept opened doors to various recreational and practical applications, forever altering the way we explore the skies. Additionally, Kitty Hawk Kites has played a crucial role in introducing people to the thrill of flight, fostering a sense of adventure and appreciation for the natural forces that allow us to take to the air. 

As we reflect on the legacies of both Francis Rogallo and Kitty Hawk Kites, we are reminded that the spirit of innovation and a passion for exploration can lead to remarkable accomplishments. The story of Francis Rogallo and his enduring impact on aviation serves as an inspiration to inventors, aviators, and dreamers alike, encouraging them to reach for the skies and beyond. And with companies like Kitty Hawk Kites continuing to carry the torch, the legacy of flight remains vibrant and alive for generations to come. 

On this National Aviation Day, consider making a personal contribution to the protection and advancement of the legacy of Free Flight by making a donation to the Rogallo Foundation. And remember, no matter where you are or what you are doing, you have the ability to teach the world to fly.  

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