Sunday, September 28, 2008

New Icarus

While I've been blogging on about interesting subjects such as France's Icarus Cup festival and John Dickenson's role in the history of free flight, a Swiss guy named Yves Rossy, nicknamed FusionMan, has added a new dimension to this domain by swooping across the English Channel with a jet-powered wing strapped to his back.

[Click the photo to visit Yves Rossy's high-powered website.]

The charm of Dickenson resided in the fact that he was an amateur inventor, of a kind that is no doubt becoming extinct. To build his primitive delta wing in 1963, he used plastic film of the kind that was used to protect bananas in plantations to the south of Grafton.

The 49-year-old airline pilot Yves Rossy—who was curiously refused entry to the Coupe Icare, maybe because the organizers thought he might kill himself—is not really the kind of guy who would think about recuperating plastic bags to build his jet-powered kite. He's a pure specimen of 21st century professionalism with a capital P. He used to fly fighter jets. Now he's a regular airline pilot. Imagine him making an announcement to passengers: "This is your commander, Yves Rossy. We are about fly over the English Channel, and shall be touching down in exactly ten minutes." Hearing this, as a passenger, I would start looking around for a parachute under my seat...

Meanwhile, to bring us back down to Earth (metaphorically speaking), a 39-year-old Frenchman named Stéphane Rousson has just announced that he intends to tackle the record-breaking cross-Channel achievement of Louis Blériot by means of a pedal-powered balloon.

To my mind, Rousson looks more like a banana-bag Dickensonian inventor than FusionMan. Doesn't that photo remind you of the closing images from Speilberg's marvelous ET ?

The kind of device to be used by Stéphane Rousson was in fact imagined by a certain Frenchman named Goupil (colloquial term for a sly fox) back in 1885.

Goupil's dirigible airship was to be constructed of a silk sheathing around a wooden carcass. In the original article published in Chronique industrielle, the inventor points out that it will indeed be possible, shortly (?), for a cyclist to rise into the air and ride along a desired itinerary... but "only when the atmosphere is not perturbed by storms". So, you've been warned!

The following image reveals a more stable and compact machine, invented three years later, which made it possible to pedal calmly, keeping your cap on, through even the most violent tempests.

Seasoned fliers have learned that the greatest luxury, on long-distance flights, is to be able to stretch yourself out. This goal was attained in a design of 1889, which might be thought of as a kind of precursor John Dickenson's invention of 1963.

Somebody said in a comment to one of my recent posts about John Dickenson: "People have been successfully hang gliding since the 1800s." I don't know whether the devices illustrated in the above engravings were what you might call successful inventions. In this line of thinking, the thing that impressed me most in my recent face-to-face encounter with John Dickenson is the fact that, not only did he invent and test a free-flying wing, but he also survived his invention! In making that declaration, I feel a little like a joyful Saint Thomas crying out on the clifftops that he has actually poked his fingers through the holes in the blue plastic banana bags.

PS While I was watching the breathtaking Yves Rossy videos, sponsored by the Geneva watchmaker Hublot, a lovely but pointless small thought crossed my mind. I imagined my 75-year-old grandmother, Mary Jane Walker née Kennedy, watching the historic Dickenson/Fuller flights back in 1963, during Grafton's Jacaranda Festival. I can't vouch for it, but this possible scenario was perfectly feasible. Maybe my mother drove GrandMa to the banks of the Clarence, to watch the fun and action. Then, in my imagination, I thought of having my reincarnated grandmother seated magically alongside me today, in front of my Macintosh, watching the Yves Rossy videos. How would she react to what is displayed on the screen? Without attempting to answer that unanswerable question, I now see myself, half a century downstream (or upstream, depending upon how you look at time and evolution), in a similar posthumous role to that of my grandmother. I fear greatly that the reincarnated (virtual) William won't have the least idea of what seems to happening around him. To put it bluntly, the encounter will surely be so disastrous, so utterly meaningless, that I'm glad I won't be there to witness the painful confusion. It's weird to think that the advances of our technological awareness are a little like the evolution of our attitudes towards cigarette smoking. I love history!


  1. "Somebody said in a comment to one of my recent posts about John Dickenson: "People have been successfully hang gliding since the 1800s." I don't know whether the devices illustrated in the above engravings were what you might call successful inventions. In this line of thinking, the thing that impressed me most in my recent face-to-face encounter with John Dickenson is the fact that, not only did he invent and test a free-flying wing, but he also survived his invention!"

    The drawings are just that - not practical machines that flew. Cayley, Otto Lilienthal, Percy Pilcher, the Wright Brothers and a later host of others flew or designed working hang gliders prior to the "standard". Some survived, some didn't.

    Dickenson gave up flying his kite fairly soon though. Sadly, many who flew the "standard" hang glider based on the Dickenson design did not survive the invention, which proved to have a fairly narrow safe envelope. That is not to imply that Dickenson was to blame for their demise - there will always be those who push the limits and pay the price; particularly when the limits are not well known.

  2. Happily you refrained from perpetuating the pervasive myth that the "Standard" was a death trap. That claim is an utterly unsupportable and false one that denigrates the device that was flown by many tens of thousands in complete safety. When constructed and assembled correctly and used in a manner consistent with the prevailing cautionary guidelines that existed at that time it is hard to find more than a tiny handful of accidents fatal or otherwise that can be attributed to the design misnamed the "Standard Rogallo" but properly called the Dickenson Wing.

    I posted this recently on the Hang Gliding Yahoo Group on 31 Oct 08 to defend the design;

    --In May of 1974 I had the pleasure and great good fortune to take part
    in the 4th Annual Otto Lilienthal Meet at Sylmar California. Over 300
    pilots registered and flew that weekend. At times there were 15 to 20
    gliders airborne. It was stinkin' strong thermal conditions with
    several pilots climbing 500' to 1000' over take off. Taras Kiceniuk
    flew his Icarus V for an hour and a quarter in strong thermals and
    climbed 2700 over launch. On one approach to land he hooked a boomer
    200' above the LZ and climbed back up to 1000'. Of course anyone who
    has flown Sylmar/Kagel knows strong thermal conditions are common
    there that time of the year. This was undoubtedly the first time any
    large number of hang glider pilots soared thermals together. It was an
    epic event. I had my longest flight ever to that point. Quite likely,
    like me, many pilots, if not most, had close to zero experience prior to
    this event.

    I have added a photo album at
    the HangGlide Yahoo Group
    "4th Lilienthal Meet May 1974 Sylmar CA"

    1000 to 2000 flights happened that weekend and not one glider tucked,
    tumbled or diverged into the ground. I was 5 months shy of the
    average age 26 and probably not atypical in being utterly ignorant of
    nearly every important aviation principle and safety technique. In
    fact it was at that meet that I finally realized that I had done a
    crap job of following the assembly instructions pertaining to how to
    insure proper keel reflex (mine had negative reflex) when fabricating
    the cables. My wing was divergent but incredibly it still didn't kill
    me! The only injury in the whole event was a kid who fell off his bike.

    165 of the participants were flying carbon copies of the Dickenson Wing.--

    "Carbon copies " is a very slight exaggeration. Most wings by that point had top rigging which had no consequential on the safety of the design.

    This is only one of many events that occurred in those days that enjoyed such an excellent safety record.

    It is worth pointing out that Dickenson was an active pilot that racked up many scores of hours, was both a record setter and contest winner, hand crafted his own designs which he sold to others, and developed improved methods and versions of his own designs throughout the 1960s. Dickenson also served Moyes as a designer and consultant from 1967 into the 1980s.

    With the exception of Bill Bennett and Bill Moyes he was more experienced than any hang glider pilot in history at the time he chose to leave hang gliding to support his family.

    Ken de Russy
    USHGA Life/Charter Member #5114
    Hang Gliding Museum Collector Guy
    Anacortes, WA
    360 293 8621
    Skype ""

    HangGlidingMuseum Yahoo Group Owner