Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Grafton in aeronautical history books

Towards the end of 2002, while using Google, I discovered by chance that my birthplace, Grafton, was mentioned in the French-language website of the Fédération Française de Vol Libre [display] as the place where the hang glider was invented. The author of this article was a French university lecturer named Jean-Paul Budillon in the nearby city of Grenoble. For me, this reference to Grafton was unexpected, to say the least. Initially, I imagined a misunderstanding at the origin of this story. Hang gliders usually take off from mountain slopes... and there are simply no mountain slopes in my native town. But Jean-Paul Budillon mentioned precise dates and events, and even indicated the reference of an article and photos in an October 1963 issue of Grafton's Daily Examiner. I sent off a request for enlightenment to the CRHS [Clarence River Historical Society]. Their president, Frank Mack, delved into newspaper archives and sent me back a copy of the article. I learned that the wing had been designed and created by a Grafton man named John Dickenson, and that the glider pilot, Rod Fuller, took off by being towed behind a speedboat.

Rod Fuller is shown in these pictures in the latest equipment for those who like water-skiing with a difference. It is a ski-wing, designed and made by John Dickenson for the Grafton Water Ski Club. The ski-wing is something new and its design has been registered by Mr Dickenson. The wing, about 18 feet in length, will soar to a height of 70 feet. Its construction is rather unusual and, despite the frail look of the wing, it soars like a kite. The ski-wing was made from light timber and plastic, of the type used for covering bananas. It was made in a few weeks and donated to the ski club by Mr Dickenson. It will be one of the highlights of the club's water-ski carnival next Sunday. A water-skier straps himself to the wing and is pulled behind a speedboat until air-borne. It operates in similar fashion to a kite, but is much more risky to operate than the box-type kites formerly used behind speedboats. In the top picture, the Crown Hotel forms a background.
— The Daily Examiner of 21 October 1963

I put this data up on a personal website, along with other low-quality photos and a technical drawing of John Dickenson's invention.

For several years, my website article on Grafton's "ski wing" evoked no reactions whatsoever. Then a hang-glider pilot from New Zealand, Graeme Henderson, stepped into the arena and started to publicize John Dickenson's historical role. Henderson had found a Canadian article of May 2004, published in the Cloudstreet magazine of the BCHPA [British Columbia Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association], which mentioned Dickenson's pioneering work.

The article in question [display] was written by Mark Woodhams.

My first encounter with Graeme Henderson was somewhat abrupt, in that he appeared to be criticizing the content of my innocuous web page about John Dickenson and Rod Fuller. The issues at stake were slightly technical. Since I knew little about hang-gliding, I promptly deleted my offending web page. In spite of his blustery manners, I congratulate Graeme Henderson today for having played a dynamic and efficient role in gaining recognition for Grafton's pioneers, shown in this recent photo alongside a replica of the historic wing:

The latest news is that John Dickenson's place in hang-gliding history has just been recognized officially by the highest instances, through an award from the FAI [Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world's Air Sports Federation]. Here is the citation:

FAI Hang Gliding Diploma

John Dickenson invented the modern hang glider at Grafton, Australia. It was flown on 8 September 1963. John built scale models to determine design concepts, until a full sized glider was towed behind a speedboat. He incorporated the control bar into the airframe by designing the A-frame to distribute flight, refining this further when he invented the pendulum weight-shift control system. John developed the piloting techniques, and taught all the early pilots, including Hang Gliding pioneers Bill Moyes and Bill Bennett, to fly the wing. John Dickenson’s invention has been copied by every manufacturer globally, with few minor changes for over a decade.

[Click the banner to visit the FAI website.]

This is an enormous honor for Dickenson, Fuller and Grafton. The city's Big River made it possible—through Dickenson's inventiveness and Fuller's courage—to concretize the myth of Icarus. I would like to suggest that Grafton might look into the idea of a twinning operation with the town of Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet [not far from where I live], which is the hang-gliding capital of France. Click [here] to see their website concerning the fabulous Coupe Icare. Ten minutes ago, I was talking on the phone with Jean-Paul Budillon, who suggested that his hang-glider friends of Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet would no doubt be delighted to receive John Dickenson as a guest of honor for next year's Icarus Cup...


  1. Congratulations re "Grafton in aeronautical history books" Thanks to Graeme Henderson the true story is being told at last.History is being corrected,It is difficult for some to accept after such a long time. It must have been hard for John Dichenson to endure so long with out recognition,There were many who stand out in the long struggle to achieve the dream of "Fly like a Bird" foot launched flight,but it was The "Dickenson Wing"that finally brought low cost flight to the world.His wing was copied by manufactures around the world. Thousands were produced and it wasn't till the late seventies that his design was improved to provide higher performance.He never received any finacial reward from his invention.Reconition is overdue.

  2. The wing, one-point hang, and A-frame for hang gliding was solidly in public domain BEFORE Dickenson made his personal version. So, "invented" is clearly does not apply for the JD ski-kite.

  3. Joe, it's nice to see you still exist, and that you're still sprouting your comments. You're obviously eternal, like the DNA of viruses. I feared you'd maybe disappeared in the Mayan end-of-the-world affair. Many of my younger readers have probably never heard of you. So, please be kind and supply us with a nice little autobiography that tells us all who you are, and why you've gone on a crazy crusade against the great Graftonian aviation pioneer John Dickenson.

  4. Thanks, William,
    I just want hang gliding history to be as accurate as we all may make it; I work on thousands of hang glider invention matters; the Graftonian matter is simply one of the matters. Partial intro to me, as you asked is at http://joefaust.org My hang gliding publishing started in 1970, but my kiting publishing started in the 1960s where I operated from founded K.I.T.E.S.A., dedicated to open free exchange of kite information and technology; this followed from my interest in free flight as an Olympian high jumper where I held several kinds of flying (high jumping) world records and national records. My long-term hobby has been hang glider history. My first 218 papered editions in hang gliding periodicals had JD as a mention, but never for status undeserved. I continue daily hang glider history publishing; and JD is part of the story. Founder of Self-Soar Association, Low & Slow, HangGliderHistory site and forum, editor of UpperWindpower, founder of WorldHangGlidingAssociation, father of three, and current worker in many hang gliding forums dedicated to the entire history of hang gliders.
    The claim of "invention" globally smacked for the mechanical spectrum is simply an important untenable by GH for JD; and JD has been going along with such culpably; that GH pushed and yelled so hard some good story surrounding the untenable "invention" mechanicals is a core issue. It is fine for JD to have made a ski-kite, but since all the mechanicals involved at all levels of concern were solidly in public domain, then the title globally as "inventor" does injury to JD, to former inventors, and to the sport of hang gliding with respect to how future inventors will be treated. And since anyone can tap ... and did often tap .. that prior public domain, then it is a kind of crime to grab merit that is unearned from those using the public domain arts to do their own makings. GH pushed the mixed bag of tricks into texts where scrutiny was low; and now we have an important infamy wrapping JD, which is sad; he could have had a clean story, but GH grabbed too much in a way that will forever draw him and JD into infamous aviation stories. The raw story of JD is great; the untenable and false set of mechanical claims is a rhetoric trick by GH to get attention for himself and JD. The injury level is not fun. I am not against JD, but against the untenable claims. The tenable facts are fine. The facts that show the public domain space is found in my sites, not too hard to uncover, as well as in the primary sources. Examples and patents show priority; the public should not be disrespected by the "inventor" smack.