Hang gliders: Airborne 154 Sting 3 and Wills Wing 145 U-2
Harness: Aeros Myth 2
Camera: GoPro HD
At Bell Hill, near Blandford Forum (that’s a town, not a web site) in north Dorset, England, the strengthening wind provided patchy lift and plenty of sink on this day in mid April. Several hang gliders landed in the field at the bottom, which incurs a more than one-hour turn-around for a ‘relight’, assuming conditions are still flyable.
My first landing approach to the field on the top of the ridge began much lower than I have ever tried, as the first photo illustrates. The entire approach was a turn until the last few seconds, when I levelled into wind (more or less), slowed in a partial flare, touched down lightly a wingspan from the designated track, and came to a halt in a couple of steps.
Another pilot said afterwards, “As I watched that I was thinking this can go horribly wrong at any moment.”
However, I felt it safe because I had been flying in smooth sinking air for a whole minute, so the air I turned back into was unlikely to have acquired much more turbulence. (It was of course a sub-conscious feeling of safety, my reasoning for which is retrospective.)
My variometer (a device that emits a series of clicks to indicate climbing and a tone to indicate sinking) was not working, as a result of which I was unable to take full advantage of what lift there was. I was lucky and I landed back on top on each of my three short flights that day.
My next top landing was a similar distance to the right of the track.
The pilot of the other hang glider visible in this photo — an Avian Rio 2, on the right — attempted a landing too near the front of the top field and he overshot, flying out in front of the hill to gain more height and try again. Unfortunately, all he found was sink and he landed at the bottom. (The bottom landing field, only part of which is visible at the left edge of the photo, is the green one to the left of the light track with a line of trees separating it from a brown field. Not the big green field to my left; it is the one beyond that.)
The third photo shows my final approach at the back of the top landing field. (My camera, a GoPro HD, is set to take a photo every minute.)
Again, I landed little more than a wingspan to the right of the track. If I can land so consistently to the right of the track, why can I not land on it? (A rhetorical question.)
Others did better on this day. Several paragliders climbed to cloudbase and flew to the coast (about twenty miles) and a high performance rigid hang glider flew an up-wind and cross-wind triangle. (However, another rigid failed to connect with strong lift and sunk out to the bottom field.)
Mid June brought a north wind, sunshine, and cumulus cloud. (Cumulus clouds are caused by thermals.) Mine was the only hang glider flying at Monk’s Down this day, along with some paragliders whose pilots braved what was, for them, a strong wind. (Hang gliders fly faster than paragliders, so they can cope with stronger winds without risking flying backwards over the ground.)
This was a first flight of two new items: A new hang glider and a new variometer. (The hang glider had been flight tested by the manufacturer and by the UK importer.)
Ideally, you should fly with only one new or changed item at a time. However, my previous variometer stopped working…
While I expect my ‘old’ (2009) hang glider, an Airborne Sting III 154, to remain my main wing (see an update on that) my new Wills Wing 145 U-2 provides an extra margin of speed and glide. That can make a difference at sites such as Bell Hill, where the north half of the ridge is out of reach of the bottom landing field in the slow-flying Sting III if I get sunk out there. (I used to fly a high performance Aeros Discus 148, which could easily make it across the power line by the road and reach the bottom landing field.)
The inspiration for the colour scheme is principally from two sources: Firstly, it is similar to the colour scheme of my Sting III, itself inspired by its own black batten pockets (standard on Airborne flexwings) and the spacecraft of the 1960s. (I read that the black and white rocket scheme was devised by Werner von Strangelove himself.) Secondly, the distinct 1960s USAF colour scheme of the early Lockheed U-2 (black and aluminium). Black and white schemes also confer the safety advantage of being highly visible to other aircraft in most conditions.
The Wills Wing U-2 is certainly more ‘wingy’ than the Sting III, in that it responds more slowly to roll weight-shift, but, like the Sting III, it is thoroughly predictable and proportionate in its response in both pitch and roll. I did not detect any adverse yaw either, which affects some older hang gliders with the wider 130 degree nose angle. However, the U-2 is ten percent heavier than the Sting III and it takes two or three minutes longer to rig.
There were two paragliders flying the ridge during my ten minute flight, one of which is visible in the photo, and I quickly rose above both by circling in thermals. Unfortunately, at a certain height, I encountered strong turbulence, which made for an uncomfortable experience on a new wing, which was why I landed after only ten minutes.
The new variometer, a Renschler CoMo, looks advanced. Unfortunately, I had the audio loudness set too low and I could hardly hear it. Nevertheless, the lift was strong enough that, at least at low level, I could see when I was going up.
The next day, again at Monk’s Up, conditions looked light and turbulent, so I reverted to the Sting III. Similar conditions to the day before (wind quartering from the east) but the clouds were less tall and more widespread.
This time I had the audio volume maximised and the new variometer worked fine. I need to get used to its display and I need to come up to speed on its switchology. I find I have to refer to the printed manual frequently during my familiarisation practice with it at home. It is simple in the field: When I am about to fly, I turn it on and set the altimeter display to QFE (unless I am going cross-country, which I rarely do) with three presses of the appropriate button (just like my old vario). The difference is in the location of the various displays (altitude, time in the air, and so on) on the compact fascia and the multitude of optional settings that can be configured on the ground.
There was one other hang glider (the green Avian Rio 2) and, later, one paraglider flying the ridge during my twenty minute flight. And again, turbulence caused me to decide to land. The paraglider pilot said he landed for the same reason.
The Rio 2, Avian’s answer to the Sting III, seems like an excellent glider. It is nearly always above me. According to a review in the UK hang gliding magazine, it is a little more ‘wingy’ than the Sting III, but has a clear performance advantage. My observations support that. (I am hoping that my new Wills Wing U-2 will take that advantage back!)
The Wills Wing U-2 145 requires a little more effort to rig than the Airborne Sting III 154. That extra effort consists of securing the outer transverse batten (it stays in the sail) one each side*, and inserting the flexible fibreglass tip and tensioning it with an over-centre lever (also one each side). The anti-dive struts (‘sprogs’) almost rig themselves and take no more time to secure than you spend checking the Sting’s reflex bridles. (The U-2 has no reflex bridles.)
* There are two transverse battens each side, but only one needs to be fiddled with when rigging and de-rigging.
Paragliders, hang gliders, and steam
Paragliders generally do a lot more flying than the hang gliders. One prime reason is that you can be sitting (or standing) ready to launch a paraglider almost indefinitely, while being clipped into a hang glider on the hill is considerably more uncomfortable and tiring.
In light winds, when it is important to launch into strong lift to avoid sinking out to the bottom landing field, clipping in to a hang glider and getting into launch position uses up so much time that the lift is usually gone by the time you are ready. Meanwhile, the paragliders are either climbing out or, if the lift turns out to be not as strong as it seemed, they are landing back on the side of the hill and ready to launch again within minutes, which a hang glider cannot normally do.
Hang glider pilots nowadays are somewhat akin to steam engine enthusiasts. We put up with the extra hassle because the flying, what little we get, is (to us) better.
When I undistorted this photo, the hang glider waiting to launch at bottom left (a Wills Wing Sport 2) was cropped out by that process. Therefore, this image contains the wide angle distortion of the GoPro HD camera.
The pilot of the Wills Wing Sport 2 is Jodi Lee Kelt, visiting from Australia. It is worth seeking out her videos taken with both wing-mounted and keel-mounted movie cameras in North America. Try Jodi-Lee’s Videos page on Vimeo.
Steve and Gus turned to find themselves looking down at a stocky, tight-lipped girl in a blue wingman’s jump-suit. She had dark, close-cut hair, a smooth, oval, attractive face; the peak of her cap was pulled down over deep set eyes that looked half closed but missed nothing.
—From The Amtrak Wars book 1, Cloud Warrior, by Patrick Tilley, 1983, introducing section leader Jodi Kazan. See my review; New clear days.
The camera is attached to one of the anti-dive struts inside the sail. Fortunately, Wills Wing provides two-way zippers for these struts, which makes for easy camera attachment. (The struts ‘float’ inside the sail, so there is some movement of the camera when the sail changes shape. The service they provide is that, if the wing goes too nose-down, restraining cables — also inside the sail — limit the struts’ travel, transferring the torsional stiffness of the leading edge tube to the trailing edge, providing ‘up elevator’ effect.)
This was an evening flight in late June at Ringstead on the coast of Dorset, England. Here, I am attempting to use the variable billow chord, but the wheel is in the way. I subsequently moved the wheel inboard a few inches. The wheels do not normally do anything, but they make overly fast landings less dangerous. Such landings can happen in summer when the wind switches direction in the landing field.
Update on my Sting III and a comparison with other wings
I sold my Airborne Sting III 154, made in 2009, to another club member. I still regard it as possibly the best all-round flex-wing hang glider ever made.
However, I like the handling (with the variable billow off) and performance of the Wills Wing 145 U-2 even more. (With VB applied, it is stiffer in roll and it needs ‘high siding’, which I dislike.) It would be nice if the U-2 would fly as slowly as the Sting III and if its control frame downtubes were as shiny (compare the photos) but I have discovered that I cannot have everything I want!
Because of its combination of low speed and high performance, the Sting 3 might be regarded as a kind of high performance ‘floater’. The U-2, on the other hand, has all the features of a high performance flexwing (with a kingpost) but it has almost beginner type easy handling. (However, it has a solid stall and is in no way suitable for beginners.) In my estimation its handling qualities in the air are unsurpassed.
The U-2 is the first hang glider I have flown for many years that has a defined stall. Both my 1980s Airwave Magic 4 and the 1990 UP TRX seemed to ‘mush’ downwards rather than stall. My 2003 high performance Aeros Discus did not seem to stall except with a fair amount of sail tightening (using the VB chord) applied. I do not recall ever stalling the Airborne Sting 3 either — except on the rare occasion that I practiced a full landing flare.
However, when I fly my U2 at its minimum sink airspeed (I am near the top end of its weight range) and I initiate a turn by simply shifting sideways, it stalls! Well, what do you expect?! (Incidentally, it stalls ‘straight ahead’, albeit in a bank. It does not drop one wing.)
I suspect that I have been used to flying ‘unstallable’ wings for so long I need to re-learn the normal technique of pulling on a little extra speed before initiating a turn. I used to do that in older hang gliders, but for a different reason: Roll control at minimum sink airspeed was poor, so increasing speed enabled much quicker initiation of a turn. (The Vision 1 was almost unsteerable when flying at minimum sink speed.) In contrast, the U-2 handles perfectly at minimum sink speed. (Again, bear in mind that I am near the top end of its weight range and I fly with the VB fully off.) It is an honest flier.
Bell Hill, mid July
In the early afternoon we experienced wide and smooth thermals. They extended far in front of the ridge, but they were weak and did not seem to go very high. Later in the afternoon they were more turbulent.
Incidentally, what appears to be a white thread dangling in the airflow from the zippered strut access in the first photo is actually a short span-wise stitching line. (The first inverted hump is where the strut impinges on the undersurface and the second is presumably an effect of the hardware where the side flying wire exits the undersurface.)
The second photo was taken later and the lens cover had fogged slightly. I had recently put the waterproof rear closure on the camera housing instead of the one with two large rectangular cut-outs. (I don’t know why I did that!) The lesson from that is to use the rear cover with the cut-outs. It is not waterproof, but the idea is that it provides better sound recording for those who use the GoPro for making movies. It also helps prevent fogging. At least, I assume it does because I have not noticed the problem before.
Bell Hill, late July
I sunk out to the bottom landing field, which is being dug up for some reason, and I did not flare properly. As a result, the right wing tip grounded and I dropped the glider on its nose.
It was all slow and gentle, so no damage was done except getting dirt on the leading edge sailcloth. (The 145 U-2 flies and lands faster than the 154 Sting III.)
On my next landing in the same field, I flared properly and I had no problem.
Fortunately, the feared hi-rise holiday apartments topped by a revolving car park in the bottom landing field did not materialize. I do not know why they dug it up, but it was shortly restored to normality. Unlike our top landing field, but that is a later story…
Bell Hill, late July
During sink cycles on the ridge, it sometimes became too crowded with paragliders for comfort. Fortunately, I encountered a thermal out front away from the crowd, and I was able to rise above the others. It did not get me very high though, as the photo illustrates. The down-wind drift compared to my rate of climb was too great, so I left it and flew back to the front of the ridge, by which time the paragliders had found a thermal core and they climbed above me.
Later in the afternoon, several paragliders suffered canopy collapses in the strong turbulence. Unfortunately, one pilot was seriously injured and was taken to hospital by air ambulance. The helicopter landed on the track part way up the slope. See Low Level Hell (Crowding and turbulence at Bell Hill, July 29th, 2014).
At about the same time in similar conditions at another north-west facing hill about 50 miles away, a paraglider pilot was killed.
Back at Bell Hill, conditions became calmer later in the afternoon and Steve W provided me with the opportunity to use my ground-based camera, a Fuji FinePix HS30 EXR. He struggled to keep his Wills Wing U2 160 aloft (he also flies a rigid hang glider) sometimes sinking below ridge height, occasionally rising slightly in weak lift. After about half an hour, he gained enough height to bring it in to the huge top landing field behind take-off.