Francis Rogallo dies at 97; engineer invented flexible wing that enabled hang gliding
Francis Rogallo, an aeronautical engineer who was considered the father of modern hang gliding and other recreational sports for inventing a flexible wing in 1948 that revolutionized nonpowered flight, has died. He was 97.
Rogallo died Sept. 1 of natural causes at his home in Southern Shores, N.C., said Carol Sparks, his daughter.
He was a researcher at what is now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who dreamed of coming up with an affordable way for people to fly, his daughter said.
At first, the agency wasn’t interested in the idea, so Rogallo developed the lightweight wing at his Virginia home with his wife, Gertrude, a former schoolteacher and expert seamstress. They cut the first prototype from their old kitchen curtains and later tested models in makeshift wind tunnels in their basement.
By 1951, they had patented a flexible wing with fabric that spread into a fan shape with help from wind pressure.
“Such a flexible wing does not exist in nature,” Rogallo told Invention & Technology magazine in 1998. “Even birds’ wings have bones and a rigid shape.”
With further development by others, the Rogallo wing transformed personal flight beginning in the 1960s.
“People were building their own wings from pictures in magazines. They were teaching themselves to fly,” said Mike Meier, president of the Hang Glider Manufacturers Assn. and a principal at Wills Wing Inc., a hang glider manufacturer in Orange.
“Suddenly, here was this idea that people had dreamed about for thousands of years -- to be able to fly like a bird with a personal set of wings,” Meier said. “All of a sudden, with a very simple apparatus . . . this was possible. It was profound.”
Rogallo’s kite-like apparatus led not only to hang gliding but to paragliding, ultralight flight and kiteboarding, among other pursuits, according to the Rogallo Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1992.
“Without his invention, we may not have had personal flight for several more generations,” said John Harris, president of the foundation. “It made inexpensive flight possible for many, many people.”
Francis Melvin Rogallo, the second of four sons of Mathieu and Marie Rogallo, was born Jan. 27, 1912, in Sanger, then a frontier town near Fresno. His Polish immigrant father ran a hotel there but died when Francis was about 12.
Rogallo had been captivated by flight since he was 7 and saw his first plane -- a barnstormer -- fly over his town. Years later, he tried to join the military to become a pilot but was rejected because he had lost part of a foot in a childhood accident.
Instead, he attended Stanford University and studied mechanical engineering and aeronautics, graduating in 1935. A year later, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Virginia, the precursor to NASA.
He oversaw aerodynamic research and airplane development and managed research for a low-speed air tunnel. Rogallo also held patents on about 25 devices that included wing controls, airfoils and target kites.
For nearly a decade, Rogallo tried to interest the government and military aircraft builders in his wing design “but no one would seriously consider it as a man-carrying aircraft,” he told the Washington Post in 1978.
A diminutive version of the wing made it to market in the 1950s in the form of a kite manufactured by a Connecticut company.
After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the space race was on and NASA became interested in the Rogallo wing as a potential tool for bringing satellites back to Earth. The Rogallos released their patent to the U.S. government so that it could be used for public good, according to the foundation, and never profited from the wing’s future uses.
NASA began a series of experiments and by 1960 made the first test flights of the “Fleep,” conceived as a flying Jeep, powered by a small engine and the Rogallo wing for lift.
In a 1965 test, a Gemini capsule landed softly using the flexible wing. But NASA abandoned the approach in favor of standard parachutes and ocean recoveries.
Pioneers on at least two continents had seen pictures of the Rogallo wing and started putting together hang gliders despite admonitions, such as one in a 1961 issue of Popular Mechanics that warned: “Don’t try to design or build one yourself.”
Rogallo retired in 1970 and chose to move near Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the Wright brothers pioneered powered, manned flight. He had once met Orville Wright, in 1939.
About once a month, until his 80th birthday, Rogallo would drive five miles to Jockey’s Ridge State Park and fly his red-and-white hang glider. The only time he was ever hurt hang gliding, he later recalled, was when someone else crashed into him.
Gertrude, his wife of 68 years, died at 94 in 2008.
In addition to his daughter Carol, Rogallo is survived by three other children, Marie “Bunny” Samuels, Robert Rogallo and Frances MacEachren; three grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.