Beloved Father of Hang Gliding Dies at 97

Share Article

Francis Rogallo a NASA scientist who invented the flexible air-foil, passed away yesterday at age 97. His inventions have helped millions taste flight around the world.

Francis Rogallo, inventor of the flexible wing passed away yesterday in Southern Shores next to Kitty Hawk, NC. He was 97. Francis and his wife Gertrude Rogallo invented the flexible, or Rogallo, wing in 1948 that led to an array of flying machines and allowed millions of people around the world to experience the joy of unpowered flight. Their innovative designs are largely responsible for the development of the hang glider, paraglider, ultra lights (light sport aircraft), sport parachutes, delta kites, stunt kites, parafoil kites, sport parachutes, and kiteboarding kites.

Francis Rogallo was born in Sanger, California on January 27, 1912. He graduated from Stanford with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Aeronautics in 1935 during what was called the Golden Age of Aviation. He joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), now known as NASA in 1936 in Hampton, Virginia. Rogallo was responsible for planning and supervising theoretical and experimental aerodynamic research, airplane development, and managed the research for the giant low speed air tunnel at NASA as well as the "flexible wing". He also held patents on wing controls, slots, airfoils, target kites, and advanced configurations for winged vehicles.

In 1948, Francis and Gertrude Rogallo invented the "flexible" wing. Their dream was to build an airfoil that would allow inexpensive personal flight. The couple experimented using a homemade wind tunnel constructed from cardboard and a window fan. The first successful prototype was made from Gertrude's kitchen curtains.

The Rogallo wing is considered one of the simplest airfoils ever created. This type of airfoil could be used to carry payloads, tanks, jeeps, or pilot-control assemblies. For years the couple tried ceaselessly to attract both government and industry interest in their flexible wing, and they licensed a manufacturer in Connecticut to sell a kite based on it. When the DuPont Company announced the development of Mylar in 1952, Rogallo immediately saw how superior it would be for his kite, and the five-dollar toy "Flexikite" became one of the first products to use the plastic material. The Rogallos travelled to kiting events around the Northeast to fly and promote the toy.

On October 4, 1957, when the Russian Sputnik began beeping its message from orbit that everything changed, and the space race caught the imagination of the newly formed NASA. The Rogallos gave their patent to the government so that it could be used for public good, and with Francis Rogallo's help at the wind tunnels, NASA began a series of experiments testing the Parawing (NASA renamed the Rogallo wing the Parawing. Modern hang glider pilots still refer to it as the Rogallo wing). The wing was tested at altitudes as high as 200,000 feet and as fast as Mach 3 in order to evaluate it as an alternative recovery system for the Gemini space capsules and spent rocket stages. By 1960, NASA had already made test flights of a framed Parawing powered aircraft called the "flying jeep" or Fleep and a weight shift Parawing glider called Paresev that was both manned and unmanned.

As people became aware of the concept, the development of a multifaceted line of flexible wings was developed including: the hang glider, ultralight aircraft, paragliders and sport parachutes, flexible wing kites or parafoils, delta kites, stunt kites, power kites, kiteboarding kites and snow kites.

Mr. Rogallo has been recognized worldwide for his contributions to sport aviation. He has been honored in Japan, Australia, Switzerland, Germany and France for his contribution to personal flight and is considered the "Father of Hang Gliding" around the world. Millions of people have enjoyed flight as a result of Rogallo's invention of the Flexible Wing.

In 1963, NASA awarded Mr. Rogallo the highest cash award to date for his generosity of freely giving the government the use of his patents.

Gertrude passed away on January 28, 2008, and Mr. Rogallo is survived by his children, Marie "Bunny" R. Samuels, Robert S. Rogallo, Carol R. Sparks, and Frances R. MacEachren.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken hang gliding lessons in Rogallo wing type hang gliders at Jockey's Ridge State Park, an enormous sand dune that is located five miles from the site of the first powered aircraft flight. Mr. Rogallo was a frequent visitor to the park, and was usually seen flying his red and white hang glider in his 60's and 70's. He took his last hang gliding flight on his 80th birthday.

In 1992, The Rogallo Foundation, a non-profit corporation was founded. The mission of the Rogallo Foundation is to preserve their priceless records, artifacts and research, interpret their incredible story and protect the legacy of free flight.


Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print