In the beginning …..
Spring 1974 I watched with fascination a news article from the USA about some 'birdmen'. Wow I thought this looks good. I made some enquiries over the next few weeks and eventually (no Google remember) I found some information on this 'Hand' gliding. I bought a set of drawings from Len Gabriels of Skyhook Sailwings.
I was soon the proud owner of an all white kite with two blue squares, one on each wing. This was the limit of my artistic flair.
We (Cousin Roy and I) took this to Cromer to test (this would be late summer ‘74). Not from the top I hasten to add but inland towards the golf greens. So so naïve.
Roy wanted first 'go' he picked up the glider and instantly flipped over, breaking the A frame a leading edge and all Roy’s enthusiasm. The first crash at Cromer I believe.
As a ‘lone’ birdman, I fixed the kite over the next few months and by the beginning of ’75 I was ready to go again.
I needed to find some other dreamer with enthusiasm to help get me into the air so I put a small add in the EEN.
I made contact with ROD PACE who was as surprised as I was that there was someone else with a hang glider attempting to fly. We met up one weekend and made our way to Weybourne where we had heard there was a big hill!!!
We were both stunned to find a third madman fighting with a big orange kite.
This would be none other than Greg Thompson.
The three of us met up a few weeks later in my kitchen (because I lived the closest to Cromer) and formed the Norfolk Hang Gliding Club. A Secretary, a flying safety officer and a technical safety officer being the minimum required to become affiliated to the BHGA.
ROD PACE (Secretary)
GREG THOMPSON (Flying safty)
MIKE LAKE (Technical safety)
The above are the three founding members and this is how the Norfolk Hang Gliding Club was formed.
My early days at Weybourne
These two pictures taken at Weybourne are almost certainly the very first flights in Norfolk, possibly in East Anglia.
The club exploded over the next few months. Some of the early names I remember are
Snowy (1 & 2)
Tony Walsh + Dad
I will add to this as my memory allows.
Of the three founding members
Got fed up after about a year and sold up.
Became the driving force behind the club for many years. He pushed forward Hang Gliding in Norfolk (and in some ways the UK) by bullying and getting things done.
I could write a book about his exploits. He flew everything and anything and still flies an aeroplane.
Early days Cromer cliffs
I flew this white kite for a year or so and had a break for a while when my first daughter was born. I flew another homemade (deflectors battons etc.) then a Skyhook Sunspot (known as a SunSplat after some had crashed) then my beautiful Skyhook Sabre, one of the first CFX gliders.
Along with GREG and PAUL WHITLEY (never a club member) and a (very) few dedicated others we did much of the founding work with towing by both pushing forward the work of our predecessors and by developing our own system. Our work including the time when towing was frowned upon and was ‘banned’ by the BHGA, all seems to have gone unsung. This saddens me and will be addressed next.
In the beginning Towing….
The club continued to grow and our pilots explored the area around the Norfolk coast. Some inland ‘humps’ were experimented with but basically we were reliant on somewhere around a NE wind. We had long long periods of flying droughts and when we could fly we were stuck to a cliff.
Proper inland sites, all several hours drive away, were by now catching thermals and generally having a good time. The Norfolk club despite its suburb coastal cliffs was a hang gliding backwater.
The first wave. Frame towing.
Some information about the practice of tow launching started to filter through and a glimmer of hope was realised by some of the club members. A national tow meet was organised and held in Norfolk. This was designed to bring together the various techniques. I am not sure whose brainchild this was, probably Greg’s.
The date of this event was the 25/26th August 1979 and it was Greg's idea.
No one …but no one in the whole of the UK had more of an interest in exploring this launch technique, although, at this time, we had taken no part in its development.
The meet was well organised and attended and, despite one incident, it was a huge success.
Shame there doesn’t seem to be any video footage, probably because cams at the time weighed a ton and cost a fortune. (My god am I that old).
Some footage has now been found.
The systems demonstrated were.
This winch was mounted on a truck and worked very well. There was no bridle at all instead the A frame was modified with a release system in the middle of the bottom bar.
Today’s tow pilots, with their relatively tranquil and stable launches, can have no idea of the severity of this system.
First, the object of the launch was to get away from the ground as soon as possible. A good idea, but there is a difference between scratching your bum and tearing it to pieces! This was taken to the extreme.
The truck would accelerate down the runway the winch brake would be applied and the glider and pilot would be yanked into the air, remember the line was attached to the base bar so the glider at takeoff was doing its utmost to pitch up. The pilot was a sort of hanging on passenger.
Once the initial takeoff was over the pilot was treated to a ride that was continually trying to tip the glider over to one side or other. If you want to know what this feels like ask Greg, he still has nightmares.
There was infact a top leg that helped keep the nose down on t/o. This had a seperate release.
Greg at Little Snoring
Despite this many launches of about 1500 feet were made, cumulating in BRIAN WOODS catching some lift and doing a short cross-country.
This was a first from a tow in Norfolk and probably the UK.
If there was ever anything that gave us flatlanders some hope it was this flight.
I think this similar system was also demonstrated but he had some technical problems and left early (Or did I imagine this?)
There were some technical problems, but the system was successfully demonstrated later.
This was a neat device about the size of a small generator it easily fitted into a car boot. The small engine was simply incapable of pulling too much tension so, baring a cable snag, the danger of the glider folding around your ears did not exist
The attachment to the glider was by a three-cable bridle, one to each corner of A frame and one to the heartbolt, a release was mounted where these three met. The effective tow point (because of the top leg) was somewhat higher up than the base bar.
The takeoffs, as compared to the BAKER’S system, were tranquil and eerily silent with the winch being some distant away. However, the inherent instability during the tow remained.
Len Gabriles at Little Snoring
WELSH GUY (I cannot remember his name)
His name was Gary Philips form Temby Wales, flying a Falcon IV.
This was a simple system with a cable connected directly to a vehicle with I think a weaklink.
At the glider end a single cable was attached just forward of the heart bolt.
A cable ran from nose to tail through the hang point. The release was on this cable giving an effective tow point as described.
This tow point would have given a slightly better ride in terms of roll & yaw, but introduced a bit of a problem. The tow force was constantly trying to tuck the glider.. and this is exactly what happened.
I had to look away but I can still hear the thud. I think several people lost interest after this.
The club purchased a static winch from Len and towing had arrived.
A meeting was arranged sometime later to discuss the way forward. It was well attended and many issues were discussed.
On the 26th September 1979 at the Fleece in Suffolk.
The club had one valuable member (Brian Barry? I can’t remember) who had studied tethered flight in some detail. He had been appointed a tow technical adviser.
His name was Brian Pattenden
During discussions he described his theory that some part of the tow force should go through THE PILOT.
You may wish to reread the above. What was being described was C of M towing. I believe this was a first, worldwide!
It was a radical suggestion at the time and was greeted with silence. However, the seeds had been sown.
Unfortunately, at the same meeting, when asked for his advice on safe towing his answer was ‘DON’T DO IT’. This was not what several dozen flight starved pilots wanted to hear. His short reign as tow technical advisor came to an end.
At this point things were at a high but were about to take a drastic turn for the worst. There was a serious accident after just a few tow launches, enthusiasm plummeted and the winch and all towing activities were put into cold storage.
This was Ken Cole from Norwich flying a SST. A classic lockout.
The first towing wave had come to an end.
Second wave. The Brooks Bridle.
Around about this time trikes appeared on the scene and the club became fragmented. Interest in towing was zero. One day I decided to drive to North Walsham to collect the winch and try to regain some enthusiasm. Along with Greg and Paul Whitley we had several tows around Norfolk, We found, and were given permission to use, a couple of old air strips at Heveringland and Flixton and, to satisfy his Triking needs, Greg got his own airstrip (yep) just outside Norwich. This was very convenient.
We tried one or two different techniques, modifications & ideas including (with the help of Peter Hammond) a remote control link from glider to winch. However, frame towing always felt like, and was, a disaster waiting to happen.
Bridle design. An attempt to give some stability to frame towing. Untested and now ,with hindsight, obviously heading down the wrong track.
A trickle of information about a new bridle that promised a more stable tow came to our attention and a group of us were invited to go (somewhere or other) to see it in action. We took all our kit and met BILL BROOKS and HOWARD EDWARDS.
What we were treated to was a revelation. Our winch and another winch pulled gliders into the air all day, including some fairly new and intermediate pilots. Every flight had the look and feel of being in control.
Our frame bridles never left the car and were cut up and cannibalised the very next day.
If ever there was a piece of equipment that took the tow launching of hang gliders out of the Stone Age it was the Brooks Bridle.
Me using the Brooke Bridle
The Brooks Bridle simply towed a pilot from their hang straps. There was a spreader bar in front of the pilot and two cables one routed either side of the pilot’s head. A bungee cord wound this all out of the way after release. Within a few weeks just about everyone with a towing interest had one, including me.
We made fantastic advances in a very short space of time and, with the newfound knowledge that we would not actually be pulled through the A frame and hit our heads on the keel, we also began to explore the principles as proposed by our (short lived) tow technical advisor in the late ‘70s.
It was apparent that towing from any part of the pilot, pilot/glider combination was an order of magnitude better than frame towing. I remember hanging from my shed and, with a broom handle for a bottom bar, Peter Hammond and I explored all sorts of combinations. One, suggested by Peter, was a heart-bolt to pilot cord with a pulley to evenly distribute the load. Sound familiar? Dismissed though because we thought the bottom bar got in the way at various line angles.
About this time I tried to design a bridle that required zero modifications to the harness or glider. This was both for my own convenience, I did not like wires and stuff flapping around my face, and also to try to tempt some other pilots to have a go, as it removed one very good excuse.
A simple attachment that consisted of a strap, spreader bar and cord release attached to the pilot’s chest was devised. This pulled highish up the pilot and was a good compromise.
I believe that this type of bridle is in use today and I like to think that I can take some if not all the credit for it. We had a full working, flying unit during the very early Eighties, just as soon as I had solved the under/over bottom bar problem.
I modestly called this the Lake bridle.
Original chest tow prototype. Possibly the first example of what I believe is now called 'Pro Tow'.
The actual release mechanism being recycled long ago.
There was only one release releasing both upper and lower cables at the same time. The slider contraption allowed the tow force to pass automatically from over to under the bottom bar.
(I never liked the idea of over/under twin releases and went to great pains to avoid this. However, having now used one a couple of times it is not as bad as I thought)
Interest was intensifying. Some of our other club members were taking note and the Suffolk boys were making their own progress. Things were buzzing.
Another player about this time was OXFORD GUY (sorry I can’t remember his name but he should have his place here). He had a beautifully built payout winch mounted in the back of a Austin Maxie. His bridle was a release around about the hip area this meant that the towline was routed UNDER the base bar on take off. Takeoffs were a bit severe but he had a good complete working system with spectacular height gains.
I think his name was Andy Brough
OXFORD GUY arranged a Tow meet at an airfield near err Oxford. This was a two-day event and was well attended. Only on the first day could I attend and it was fantastic. There was a thick air of optimism. The Norfolk and Suffolk boys all shared ideas, made plans and had a good time. This was it, towing was about to boom.
Day two the 6th of June (not sure of the year but the day will always be in my mind) one of the Suffolk boys known as Woolly was killed during a fixed line tow demo. From what I can remember of the reports he whip-stalled when a weak-link broke.
When I heard this news I was devastated. The Suffolk boys were in a state of shock and the shockwaves reached the whole of the hang gliding community. The BHGA instantly put a ban on ALL towing activates.
The second wave had come to an abrupt end.
The third wave. The dark ages and the light at the end of the tunnel
The towing ban by the BHGA had little effect on the rest of the non-towing community so there seemed very little urgency to lift the ban.
Despite the fact that our group were active and probably had at least as much experience as anyone else at that time, we were never asked to participate in finding a way forward or even asked to share our experiences. The backwater image persisted.
We flatlanders had no choice. We tow or we scratch about waiting for a NEish wind to take us up and down the same bit of coast (all be it and a long bit of coast and lots of fun).
Our group persisted but frankly, to some, half the fun of flying is the overwhelming need to share the experience. There was almost no interest from our own club, (and many had gone powered) there was, apparently, no interest from the rest of the UK and it took a while for the devastated Suffolk boys to regain their enthusiasm.
There was also an article by (I think) Southdown Sailwings, a leading manufacture of the time, that gave all sorts of reasons why towing was no good and never would be. The negative press was depressing and, to boot, as far as the BHGA were concerned we were flying illegally anyway.
I think it is fair to describe this as a low point.
This was a going nowhere situation. Something was needed and we reckoned that we might as well push on, despite the BHGA ban. There was an agreement to try to take things on to the next level.
This was made between three pilots.
Paul was to design and build a payout winch.
Greg would finance the cost of the winch and provide a car.
I would develop the bridles and supply the towrope.
All three would be test pilots winch operators etc.
This was only loosely a club venture in fact Paul was not even a club member and we had no blessing from the BHGA. However, there was also a small core of willing helpers who persisted with us.
Paul was by now a club member
reliable nearly always present, especially on warm days.
I can safely say that he was, at one time, the most experienced winch operator in the UK (Ok the only one, but he was good).
Helped as a ground crew member.
Edmund Potter I believe was the very first brave and trusting flyer, outside of the initial developers, to try the system and later went on to become a towing ace.
Snowy (and some of the other Suffolk boys) drifted in for a look, to help and the occasional flight.
I am sorry if I have missed anyone but I think that was about it.
The winch was built by Paul in just a few weeks and worked better than we could have hoped for.
Originally this was mounted in the back of a Maxie but we soon bought a trailer, cannibalised Greg’s Maxie and fitted the seat for the winch man. This was a good move as it made the kit a bit more universal. Any car with a tow-bar could become the tow vehicle and, with a cover, we could chuck all the kit in the back and trundle it anywhere.
Photo from Edmund Potter
Our one and only accident was a bizarre incident. Paul, using the Brooks bridle, had a perfect launch and climbed several hundred feet. We watched for a while and were curious as to why Paul was having such a tame flight. Anyone who knows Paul will know what I mean. He managed a perfect landing 10 feet from the trailer as usual, but he didn’t emerge from under his wing. When we investigated we found an almost unconscious blood splattered Paul.
He had released under a bit of tension and the bridle spreader bar had recoiled and hit him full in the face. We knew that Paul was lucky and we knew that this must never happen again.
During the BHGA ban a report was produced (something like ‘The Taylor Report’ or the ‘Watson Report’ I can’t remember). BHGA guy’s report was a set of recommendations for a safer towing system.
(We were, almost certainly, the ONLY active tow group in the UK at this time and had a successful system but we were never asked to participate in this report and were never advised of it’s conclusions. We had to obtain a copy second hand.)
As far as I am aware we were the only group in the UK attempting to address the issues raised in this report.
One of BHGA’s guy’s criteria was that the glider should have some assistance to help control any pitch up problems at takeoff.
It was called The Stapleton Report
I designed the Step-Up bridle specifically to satisfy this BHGA requirement, keeping in mind the problem of the pilot getting a face full of equipment. (By the way it was never called a ‘Leg bridle’ I don’t know where that name came from, possibly a mix-up with the completely different Lake bridle),
The Step-Up bridle was a simple but, for some reason, a misunderstood piece of kit.
There was a fixed length top leg connected to the heart bolt area and a bottom leg connected to the pilot hip area in such a way that this bottom leg was long or short depending on the pilot’s position, gorilla or prone. The rest of the bits were just a way to wind the whole thing up against the keel and stop anything hitting the pilot in the face. This worked well and takeoffs were so smooth and easy and then you would ‘step up’ to climb away.
A good few pilots, including some very early trainees, used this with great success. I would guess that this bridle might even hold it’s own today and at one time, for novices, it was thought to be superior to the (I think current) 50/50 bridle, all be it a bit more complicated.
I read an article from the US recently that said (if I understood it correctly) that some training schools have started to use a fixed top leg to assist new pilots on takeoff! Nothing is new.
Other Ideas were explored, for example, the Slip-Link (a weak link that did not break but slipped and dispersed excessive tow loads). Some were practical some were not.
The Slip Link was an attempt to address the dangers of an undesirable weak-link break. The two schools of thought at the time (weak weak-link V strong weak-link) were fiercely debated and I see this argument continues some 30 years later.
The weak-link. A piece of safety equipment equally able to save your life or to kill you.
We pressed on and spent much of our free time trying to get it right. Some times there would be just the three of us, one in the car, one in the trailer and one flying. We would all then swap around. No chance of flying too far, as this would rob the day of one third of the ground crew!
Most of the time however, we could rely on Mick Pulford to help.
Then, sometime between the start of the BHGA’s ban and arrival of ‘new blood’ Tony Webb, we had it sussed.
Gradually test flights became fun flights. Takeoffs and tow-ups became automatic and natural. We started catching lift and actually going UP. Soon after, XCs, a dream started in the 70s, became a reality.
Try to imagine what a mind numbing exhilarating time this was. After such a long wait we, us, the flatlanders, circling over our own countryside.
All reports I have read over the years have given the impression that modern day tow launching in the UK arrived some time after this.
This is incorrect.
At this time we had automatic low-tension tow equipment, safe usable bridles, experience, techniques, procedures and control. Importantly, it was both practical and easy, with a tow turnaround time of just a few minutes.
A bit rough around the edges perhaps, but, allowing for 20+ years of perfecting, it was only superficially different from the systems in use today.
I am not claiming that our group were responsible for modern day tow launching, far from it. I see its development as a big jigsaw puzzle started long before we even got involved and contributed to by individuals & groups over the years. However, we did do a good-sized chunk of this jigsaw and brought it to the point of safe fledgling XC flying. Which was, after all, the whole point of the exercise.
Our contribution at the time was well known but over the years it seems to have been a bit downgraded to something that happened before ‘proper’ towing. This does our group no justice at all.
Original winch tow procedures drafted for the BHGA late '83. The towing ban, for our group, was later lifted then also for the rest of the UK.
On the first page of the BHGA minutes above there is talk of lifting the towing ban for our group. So they did know we existed! However, on the very next page is a proposal to advertise in WINGS for someone to develop a towing system ‘because the UK was being left behind’.
By this time we were already going XC and had equipment and systems in place that most of the current day towing set-ups are derivatives of.
The BHGA never gave us the time of day.
The only thing that was missing was some polish, some ‘bodies’ and acceptance by the mainstream. This need was soon to be addressed.
One evening I received a phone call from an ecstatically enthusiastic Tony Webb a local man who had spent some time in the US and had seen and tried a tow system. Although he had done comparatively little flying or towing at the time he had an absolute belief that tow training was not only a possible but was a superior method to the training systems of the time. It must have seemed like fate, and I find it incredible, that, after travelling around the world, he found (probably) the only active tow system in the UK, on his own doorstep.
I spent many many hours with Tony explaining every small detail of our equipment our experiments, techniques and experiences. Tony was highly organised and his enthusiasm and drive were both priceless and exhausting.
Then, one day, we demonstrated some ‘ground skimming’, not to test anything, but for the first time, in the context of pilot training. With a small audience I trundled up the runway just a few feet high on an ancient Cobra until Tony had seen enough.
We gave Tony the use of our kit and the last bits of the jigsaw (for this era at least) began to drop into place.
Tony’s vision became a reality, experienced pilots got hooked and an influx of ‘new blood’ supplied the bodies so badly needed.
It seems incredible to me that today, tow launching and particularly tow training are now considered ‘normal’
Mike Lake's Step Up Bridle ready to launch during a session at 'Lejair Tow School'. The pilot is Tony Webb who went on to become the foremost authority on tow training.
Taken July 1984. Photo from Edmund Potter.
I am so please to have been part of all this. I get immense pleasure when I hear of a flatlander flying miles and competing with the best.
I have made many good friends and I enjoyed (nearly) every minute of it.
For over a decade I have designed, built, crashed, tested, tweaked, tuned, hopped, skimmed, scraped, launched, soared, landed, flared, rigged, carried, pushed, pulled, towed, powered, Sh***ed, dived, stalled, flew and …. drifted along with the clouds…
Not one sodding photo. Now found some!!!!!
Just the one, after 20 odd years. (Ok so I stewed for a while). It offended me then and it offends me now, so for closure …
I read somewhere, a history of towing in East Anglia and in the UK. It said something along the lines of “All the credit must go to one man, Donnell Hewitt and his Skyting system”.
That’s just Bollocks.
Please note all spelling mistakes & grammatical errors are the fault of Microsoft.
Footnote June 2008
“Soon after, XCs, a dream started in the 70s, became a reality.
Try to imagine what a mind numbing exhilarating time this was. After such a long wait we, us, the flatlanders, circling over our own countryside”
Well, even after 25 years, it did not take long to relive all this again. My stomach churned and I found myself watching the sky. I am now powerless to stop the process. Fellow flyers will know what I mean.
I have now joined the BHPA & the SCFHGC. I’ve got a helmet and hopefully a harness and glider are on the way.
Mike Lake August 2008. (Got a camera this time)
Feet off the ground again.