Yes, we really thought it would fly

August 21, 2018 by Terry Fallis

Illustration by Malcolm Jones
I had a youthful fascination with planes, rockets, gliders, helicopters and just about everything else that flew. Books helped fuel this interest, including Pilot Jack Knight and Reach for the Sky, Paul Brickhill’s biography of Douglas Bader.

He was the English First World War pilot who lost both legs in a crash, yet still served in the Battle of Britain as a fighter pilot. What I may not have mentioned before was that my obsession with flight actually extended a little beyond paper airplanes and 50-cent balsa wood gliders.

Back in the 1970s, the fledgling sport of hang-gliding was dominated by the familiar, triangular gull-winged glider. Never quite content with the conventional, at the tender age of 12 a classmate and I decided we should shake up hang-gliding with a new model. Yes, it’s true. My friend Geoff and I felt sure we could design a better hang-glider. We would try to build a better mousetrap. What we didn’t know then was that a mousetrap had a better chance of flying than what we were about to design and build and test.

With visions of soaring with the birds dancing in our heads, Geoff and I got started. First of all, we need a cool name for the project. We settled on the Falcon series. Well, there were surely going to be more than one model, hence the word “series.” With the name etched in stone, we moved to the drawing board to design Falcon 1.

Based largely on the maximum length of pine one-by-twos available at our local lumberyard, we decided the wingspan would be 3.5 metres. We figured that wouldn’t quite give us the lift we needed so of course we added a second wing above the first. Yes, we designed a biplane hang-glider. From nose to tail, it was also 3.5 metres and the whole contraption was covered in rayon in the appropriately named “sky blue” colour.

Given that Geoff and I were both scared of the sewing machine, my mother sewed the fabric. Her willingness to join in our scheme to take to the air in a homemade hang-glider suggests one of two theories. Either, she had tremendous faith in our abilities and truly believed I could safely fly Falcon 1, or she knew in an instant our creation was about as airworthy as a dishwasher, so there was no need to fear for my safety. Hindsight provides the answer, but I honestly couldn’t pinpoint the right explanation at the time.

Despite its weight and the utter lack of any kind of an airfoil shape to the wings, we were so confident in our design and the cool look of the finished glider, we just knew it would fly. In fact, we even added rudimentary ailerons controlled by string running through multiple eyelets so that we would have better control in the air.

Finally, we were concerned my arms would grow tired hanging beneath the glider on longer flights, so we fashioned a sling seat in which to rest my weary rump. Such is the unbridled optimism of youth.

One June afternoon in 1972, Geoff and I, trailed by a gaggle of curious fellow students and the official photographer of the East York Board of Education, carried Falcon 1 down to the park at the end of our street. I know that makes it sound like only Geoff and I were carrying the glider. Actually, we needed about six friends to help muscle the beast to the top of the launch hill. While our support team held the glider above me, I strapped on my Cooper hockey helmet and mouth guard—safety first—and positioned myself beneath the wing, grabbing onto the handgrips.

We made no concessions for wind direction or strength. The hill alone dictated where I’d be running. When the group could no longer hold up the glider, I started running down the hill as fast as my spindly legs would carry me.

Let’s just say the Board (and probably bored) photographer was not able to capture any photos of me flying Falcon 1 that day. He did snap a shot of me buckling under the weight of the glider as it drove me into the ground. Only my ego was injured. I prefer the photo when the promise of flight was still alive, and before the crash landing.

Undeterred, we built two more hang-gliders. I can report that Falcons 2 and 3 were just as successful as Falcon 1. Thirty year later, I was media training the Snow Birds out at the base in Moose Jaw, Sask., and I told them of my adolescent hang-gliding exploits. They smiled politely.

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