Showing posts with label aeronautical history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label aeronautical history. Show all posts

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hang-gliding pioneer from Grafton nominated for world's highest award

The FAI [Fédération Aéronautique Internationale], whose head office is in Switzerland, governs world records in all kinds of air sports and astronautical achievements.

They have recently announced on their website [click here] that John Dickenson has been nominated as a potential recipient of their distinguished 2012 FAI Gold Air Medal.

There has been considerable discussion on my blog concerning this man whose pioneering efforts in hang gliding were conducted on the Clarence River alongside my native town, Grafton, in 1963. The test pilot was a local man, Rod Fuller. To access this material, use the search box up in the left-hand corner with the term dickenson.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hang-gliding history

For years, I've accompanied efforts aimed at demonstrating that the fabulous phenomenon of hang gliding was born in Grafton NSW.

Click the photo to access the John Dickenson website.

Recent experimental tests in England confirm that the famous wing designed by John Dickenson—built with plastic banana bags and towed by a speedboat—could indeed have flown and glided. In the context of the history of Grafton, this is a wonderful story. I shall continue to publish news in this domain, as it emerges... thanks primarily to Graeme Henderson.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Proving the past

There has been a bit of contestation, in recent times, about the question of whether or not John Dickenson's wing, demonstrated at the Grafton Jacaranda Festival in 1963, was an authentic precursor of modern hang gliders. An obvious but risky way of handling these doubts consists of rebuilding a Dickenson wing, to strict specifications (observed by the master himself), and seeing how it behaves. It would have been appropriate if this experimentation could have been carried out, say, in Grafton, New South Wales, on the banks of the Clarence. But that kind of imagination is missing, these days, in my birthplace. So, it's an English hang-gliding specialist, Mark Woodhams, who's determined to perform the simple but much-awaited research.

[Click the photo to access the Dickenson website.]

The current world trip of John Dickenson and Tricia is a little like a revival of a beloved and respected pop-music group. In a way that is not yet possible with current gliders (not even FusionMan), Dickenson is stepping around the planet from one friendly free-flight zone to another. Meanwhile, John and his historic wing are being followed through the air by a tracking device called the Internet.

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!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Flying with eagles

It's not always easy to maintain that an individual named X invented, in the year Y, a phenomenon to be known as Z. In this respect, I draw the attention of readers to an interesting exchange of views on hang-gliding history that has been taking place, over the last few days, through comments attached to the following two posts:

Inventor of the hang glider [display]

Australian inventor of hang glider on French TV [display]

Such conflicts are inevitable, if not constructive, since nothing is clear-cut in the case of such a profound human endeavor as the desire to fly like Icarus. Does such-and-such a prototype deserve to be labeled an "invention" even if it didn't actually work ideally, or didn't even work at all? For those who reply yes, then the inventor of free flight (French wording) was surely the German Otto Lilienthal [1848-1896], photographed here a week before a mortal crash:

Certain observers contend that a historical prototype only merits the designation "invention" if it was a direct precursor of a popular modern device. Such critics are wading through historical quicksand, since their alleged "inventions" are appearing and disappearing at the same speed as current progress in technology and marketing. This is particularly true in a domain that is considerably more familiar to me, personally, than hang gliders. I'm referring to computers. Maybe certain naive folk would be happy if today's history books were to claim, say, that Bill Gates invented the computer! It goes without saying that I wouldn't agree with them.

Yesterday, I expressed my admiration of the aerial spectacle provided by the magnificent eagle Sherkan, his Swiss trainer Jacques-Olivier Travers and their French parapente pilot Laurent Cochard. Might it be said that this trio invented the concept of flying with eagles? No!

This engraving comes from an issue of the excellent magazine Scientific American (to which I subscribe today) dated 1865. A Baltimore inventor had sent in a letter to the editor suggesting the exploitation of a team of eagles as "a means of air transport that would be extremely simple and not costly". He calculated that, since a bird can carry up to 10 kg in its claws [legend of vicious eagles clutching lambs and children], only ten would be required to transport an adult passenger, enclosed (for safety?) in a metallic cage. The Baltimore fellow explained that a "system of ropes" could be manipulated like reins by the human passenger, obliging the eagles to orient their flight in any desired manner. American science in 1865!

Getting back to the case of my compatriot and friend John Dickenson, I've often dreamed that my birthplace of Grafton, inspired by Dickenson's delta-wing legacy, might get around to organizing an "overdrive" version of our archaic Jacaranda Festival. I now know that John, too, has had this same idea in the back of his mind. Unproductive squabbling about aeronautical history has thrown a spanner into the works, to the extent that the revisionists appear to have frightened Grafton authorities, who must think at times (wrongly, of course) that they're being duped by the Dickenson story.

I would dearly love to talk like the pope, and tell my fellow Graftonians that they should not be afraid to go forward bearing the banner of Dickenson. But the real problem is: What would be the ideal geographical location in Australia to organize a fabulous free-flight Aussie Icarus air show? And who would be prepared to invest in the launching of such an event?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Icarus show

The Coupe d'Icare [Icarus Cup] is an annual air show that takes place about 20 km to the north of Grenoble, in the village of Saint Hilaire du Touvet, perched on the cliff tops of the Chartreuse mountain range. It's not far away, as the crow flies [oops, I meant to say: as the parapente glides], from the great Carthusian monastery: the Grande Chartreuse. One understands immediately that it's the kind of landscape, or rather skyscape, in which fearless individuals are inspired to soar upwards, undaunted by the threat of maybe having their wings burned by the Sun.

Not knowing how I might best approach the show, from a practical viewpoint, I parked my old Citroën as soon as I came upon a festival atmosphere. In the sky, above the gigantic cliffs, scores of parapentes and hang gliders were circling around like colorful insects, and the public address system was informing us of the identity and nature of each aircraft. Every minute or so, one of them would drop down towards us, ready to land smoothly in a vast grassy field surrounded by seated onlookers.

Many aircraft [archival images] were decorated with weird colorful trappings, since one of the basic goals of the Coupe d'Icare, if I understand correctly, is to entertain the crowd.

Often, the parapentes carried, not only the pilot, but one or even two passengers. Dozens of slim airfoils, manned by daredevil experts, provided us with acrobatic displays: loops, spins and cliff crawling, terminating in high-speed descents and horizontal landings that always appeared to me as near crashes.

Still a few hundred meters away from the landing zone, I was amazed to see a parapente accompanied by a big bird, gliding and swooping around the aircraft. Hardly believing my eyes, I wondered whether it was merely some kind of robotic device linked to the aircraft.

Five minutes later, I learned with amazement that I had witnessed the flight of the eagle Sherkan and his human friend and trainer, a Swiss master of falconry, Jacques-Olivier Travers, conveyed by a third team member, Laurent Cochard, an experienced parapente pilot.

This is a truly beautiful and unique story, which is rapidly becoming world-renowned. I haven't found any English-language video that presents this case of an amazing bird/man relationship, but you can click the photo to access a short presentation on French TV. To obtain more information, Google with the French expression "aigles du leman" (eagles of Lake Léman), and look for their English-language pages. Magnificent stuff!

Getting back to the air show, I soon realized that the main action was no doubt taking place, not down on the landing field, but up on the clifftops. So, I wandered along to the nearby funicular railway, where the crowds were such that I had to wait nearly an hour. The wait was well worthwhile. The antiquated wooden cars scale the 700-meter cliffs at snail's pace, but at a maximum angle of 83 degrees.

And the ascension ends with a scary trip through a black tunnel: the steepest passenger tunnel of any kind in the world. I prefer not to think of what might happen if the steel cable connecting the two cars were to break. A couple of local girls with whom I started to chat while awaiting the departure assured me that it was unthinkable that the cable might ever break... because it had been in operation since 1924, and it hadn't broken yet. Good optimistic thinking!

Up on the clifftops, a gigantic noisy carnival was in full swing. In certain places—particularly inside the vast tents where visitors could sit down for exotic meals of all kinds—I had to shoulder my way through the joyful crowds, which included hordes of kids.

I nearly got eaten up, with my camera and all, in the embrace of a couple of giant Oriental puppets, who would not have surprised me one iota if they had suddenly ascended into the blue Icarian sky above the delightful village of Saint Hilaire du Touvet.

Strange creatures on stilts created panic in the crowd. One imagined that they might slip and slide off the cliffs.

Elsewhere on the plateau, crazy but serious members of a local quintet in black costumes and top hats insisted that visitors arriving in the lovely little alpine village should wipe their feet on door mats.

Confused tourists, of course, were at a loss to know how to react... so we saw them wiping assiduously their feet. Delightful detail: From time to time, the absurd crew decided that such-and-such a visitor had to be measured with a wooden yardstick to see if he/she might not be too big to enter the village. Their actions were conducted so seriously that tourists obeyed... whereupon successful entrants of a plump kind were rewarded with a tap on the buttocks with the yardstick. Nice fun of a second-degree kind. Simple and innocent, but never vulgar nor tiring.

Elsewhere on the gentle Chartreuse slopes, a proud dad was initiating his kid into the art of jumping into nothingness.

Ah, what a magnificent concept for those who, unlike me, are not the victims of vertigo. Jumping into nothingness! If only my father had behaved like that! I would have been spared both a religious adolescence and a lifetime of catching up on existentialists such as Albert Camus and Richard Dawkins. [Soon, maybe, I should think about the idea of awarding nice little Gamonian key rings to perspicacious readers of Antipodes who succeed in detecting blog posts in which William has failed to sneak in even a tiny mention of his Oxfordian hero Dawkins.]

Meanwhile, in the free flight domain, as elsewhere, business is business... which means that a lot of owners of hang gliders are trying to sell them, no doubt with a view to purchasing parapentes.

A few days ago, in an article entitled Inventor of the hang glider [display], I spoke of my joyful encounter with my compatriot John Dickenson, who has been a guest of honor at the Coupe d'Icare. A replica of Dickenson's 1963 wing was hung up in one of the halls at Saint Hilaire du Touvet.

Unfortunately, its curved whitish form could hardly be distinguished from that of the enclosing marquee.

In conclusion, recalling the trivial quarrels in Australia about Dickenson's role as a pioneer, I look out upon the grandiose dimensions of the Coupe d'Icare, and I'm ashamed of my fellow-countrymen... The other day, John and I chatted at length about the kind of marvelous air festival that might be staged in my birthplace of Grafton... if only the local authorities were to react seriously to Dickenson's claim to fame, which has sadly never been the case. Today, after having glimpsed, like John, the fabulous events of the Coupe d'Icare, I'm more than ever thoughtful on this theme. To stage such an annual happening, it goes without saying that it helps a lot if you happen to have cliffs of the French Pre-Alpes [the generic name of the Chartreuse and Vercors ranges] in the background. More than that, you need an attractive mountain village up on top, and a luscious green landing field down in the valley. Needless to say, preparations for an aeronautical festival such as the Coupe d'Icare are helped immensely if you also happen to have a giant provincial city such as Grenoble just a stone's throw away [oops again... a parapente glide] down the road.

Having expressed those minor doubts of a factual nature, I continue to believe firmly that the land of John Dickenson should observe what has been happening in France, and look into the idea of organizing a great Down-Under Icarus show. We've got the pretexts and the potential, and surely the public and the right places. All that's required is a bit of imagination, kindness and cooperative thinking...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Australian inventor of hang glider on French TV

A short video portrait of John Dickenson, who invented the concept of hang gliding in Grafton in 1963, is being aired every evening on regional TV news for the south of France.

As I said in yesterday's article on this subject [display], in Dickenson's home country, Australia, certain revisionists have been trying absurdly to deny his role in history. In France, there is no such bickering. On the contrary, two Frenchmen—Stéphane Malbos and Jean-Paul Budillon—were the first aeronautical historians to discover the importance of John Dickenson's pioneering work. Well before nasty disputes on this question were ignited in Australia, no doubt through jealousy and vested interests, the website of the French Federation of Free Flight (with headquarters at Nice on the French Riviera) made it clear that John Dickenson was the inventor of the delta-wing hang glider. Towards the end of 2002, I relayed this information in my personal website concerning my childhood township of South Grafton.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Inventor of the hang glider

This morning, in a villa on the slopes of the Chartreuse mountain range above Grenoble, I finally met up with a celebrated fellow-Australian, John Dickenson, who is recognized internationally as the inventor of the hang glider.

[Click the photo to visit the Dickenson website, based upon the remarkable
research efforts of an inspired New Zealander, Graeme Henderson.]

John and his wife are staying with a French enthusiast of aeronautical history, Stéphane Malbos, who was responsible for publicizing the Dickenson story, years ago, at a time when few Australians were aware that this revolutionary invention—giving humans the power to glide like eagles—had been made in 1963 in Grafton, New South Wales... which happens to be the rural town where I was born in 1940.

This weekend, Stéphane will be taking John Dickenson along to France's annual high mass of hang gliding: the Icarus Cup pageant in the nearby town of St-Hilaire-du-Touvet, which presents all kinds of exotic variations on the hang-gliding theme.

[Click the poster to visit their website. If you don't read French,
you can find amusing images of hang-glider specimens.]

This morning's encounter with John Dickenson was immensely moving. I sensed immediately that I was in the presence of a man of imagination, a quietly-spoken inventor of the Leonardo da Vinci kind. It's sad to learn that a tiny bunch of jealous loud-spoken usurpers, some of whom have money and influence, have been advancing empty arguments in an evil attempt to deprive John Dickenson of the honors in aeronautical history that are his due.