Fifty years ago, a simple sailwing took flight for the first time, becoming the world's first paraglider. Gliders have come a long way since, with advances in technology allowing pilots to maneuver effectively and nail tricks like the famous infinity tumble.
With these advanced paragliders, a tough hike-and-fly event like Red Bull X-Alps (track the event live here) is possible.
The sailwing was developed by NASA engineer David Barish while working to improve parachutes designed to bring space shuttles back down to Earth. Barish's invention was first flown in September 1965 by Lee Guilfoyle, a milestone celebrated in 2005 at the Coupe Icare festival in France with the flight of a replica sailwing.
It took more than five years for Frenchman Francis Heilmann, who flew the paraglider himself, to build the replica. It was difficult work, and the sailwing's original creator wasn't sure if the replica should be made at all.
“There was no pattern and David Barish didn’t want to help at all," says Heilmann. “He didn’t give me any information. He said that if I had lived in the U.S., I would never have been allowed to reproduce the glider. He thought it was too dangerous to remake it and if there was to be an accident, the responsibility would have lain with him.”
But Heilmann continued with his mission and flew the replica himself.
“The original paraglider had to be light because the goal was to go to space with it," he says. "The wing works just like a sailwing. It’s a simple surface and there is no air chamber."
The flight itself was another challenge altogether, one Heilmann didn't fully comprehend before taking off.
"I thought Barish performed a long flight from a cliff with the wind," says Heilmann. "In fact, he only used to fly less than 100 feet above the ground. I didn’t know that when I took off for the first time, so I’m basically the only guy who has flown really high and took thermal with this kind of wing.”
Although he managed to fly the sailwing, Heilmann says he wouldn't use it for regular flight.
“It’s the Jurrassic Park of paragliding, there’s a good reason why it disappeared," he says. “The wing is slow and hard to handle. It’s really hard to turn. It doesn’t handle turbulence well and you can’t take off with tail wind. Thermals are hard to take, too. It’s only good for straight flights with good conditions and landing can be brutal."
This year’s X-Alps athletes should be glad they have modern-day gliders to take them across the difficult course. Heilmann believes it would be nearly impossible to complete the route with a sailwing.
“Can you do a hike-and-fly with a sailwing? Well you might need to walk a lot," says Heilmann. "Take off would only work on a big slope with head wind. Conditions need to be perfect to fly, so you’re not as flexible as you are with a modern-day paraglider."
Nevertheless, Heilmann still uses his replica sailwing. He'll bring it out again to fly at this year's Coupe Icare festival in September.
"I still use the wing sometimes," he says. "I live in Aix-en-Provence and the idea of flying with the very first paraglider is really exciting!”