Hang Gliding and Development Of New Gliders

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Rob Kells/Wills Wing

High and Higher: One More Way to Ride the Wind

GIVEN the hazards of hang gliding, it is a bit disquieting to hear Mike Meier, an owner of the glider manufacturer Wills Wing, say that the trial and error method is integral to the company’s design process. Rest assured, however, that Mr. Meier was not implying that test pilots are placed in unnecessary peril. The minor errors to which he referred affect in-flight speed and handling, not safety.

The 32 years spent correcting such flaws have led to the company’s T2 model, which will soon replace Will Wing’s previous top-of-the-line hang glider, the Talon. Though the two gliders are tough to distinguish from each other with the naked eye, Mr. Meier said that the T2 offered approximately 1 percent better overall performance than its predecessor.

That may mean little to a hang-gliding neophyte, whose main goal is to enjoy an unpowered flight without dying. But to a veteran hang-gliding competitor, 1 percent can mean the difference between a world distance record and an ignominious defeat.

The main problem with the Talon, Mr. Meier said, was that it had trouble maintaining appropriately high speeds between "thermals," the bubbles of warm, rising air that push up a descending glider. Competition courses are plotted around thermals, so that participants can keep gliding for hours. The key is to hit each thermal at just the right speed – usually 35 to 55 miles per hour – to take maximum advantage of the altitude bump.

To improve the pilot’s control of the glider’s speed, the T2 was outfitted with a slightly flatter, lighter frame than its predecessor. Wills Wing also smoothed out the surface of the sail, or fabric component, which has long been one of the toughest obstacles to improving hang-glider performance.

"What you’re trying to do is take a fabric material and make it conform to a shape which is full of very complicated mathematical curves," said Mr. Meier, who in 1978 bought a controlling interest in the company after one of its founders, Bob Wills, died in a hang-gliding accident. "You want it to sit on the frame without any bumps or ripples or discontinuities that might interrupt air flow."

Wills Wing, based in Orange, Calif., used three-dimensional computer modeling to approximate the perfect sail shape for the T2. Then it built several prototypes. Unable to afford NASA-style wind tunnel testing, it relied instead on a pickup truck outfitted with a steel boom. After a prototype was suspended from the boom, the truck would be driven at speeds up to 80 m.p.h. Test loads weighing six to eight times more than a human were dangled from the frame to ensure that the glider was plenty strong.

The final tests of the T2 involved an estimated 125 flights, carried out by Mr. Meier and Steven Pearson, Wills Wing’s head designer, along with a few other plucky employees. In addition, a company pilot flies each Wills Wing hang glider before it goes to a retail store. And the store owners often fly the glider once more for good measure before selling it.

The first 12 T2’s are being shown at the company’s annual demonstration show, which ends today outside Orlando, Fla. The glider will be available later this spring at 150 authorized dealers nationwide at a suggested retail price of $6,275.

Wills Wing does not sell gliders directly to customers. "We don’t want these products delivered to people for whom it has not been verified that they have the skills to use it safely," said Mr. Meier, who estimated that 150 to 250 T2’s would be sold each year.

The T2 is absolutely not intended for beginners – or for faint-of-heart experts, for that matter. Hang gliders intended for novices are much less sensitive to pilot maneuvering than the T2. Make a mistake in say, Wills Wing’s Falcon 2, which is designed for new fliers, and you won’t suddenly go into a nose dive or yaw sharply the wrong way.

But it’s a different story with the ultrasensitive T2. One imprecise shift of body weight, Mr. Meier said, and the T2 "will do something that the pilot doesn’t want it to do." And while trial and error may be a fine approach in designing a tightly fitted sail, it’s not recommended while flying.

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