Twenty Years Later

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An Open Letter to Soaring Pilots

by Richard L. Gilmore

What Goes 'round Comes 'round

I would like to talk about two seemingly unrelated subjects, and make a modest proposal. The subjects are the location of the USHGA offices and paragliding. We can look to the example of the Soaring Society of America (SSA) to get ideas on both of these subjects.

Let's first explore the subject of office location. The business office of SSA and the editorial office of the national magazine, Soaring, share the following address: P.O. Box E, Hobbs, New Mexico 88241.

It is interesting to note that during the recent flap over NPRM 88-2, the SSA was able to mount an impressive lobbying campaign to get changes advantageous to soaring pilots. For an organization of only 15,000 they were surprisingly effective. I have seen no call in Soaring magazine for a change in location of SSA's national offices. The offices are where the pilots tend to be, the desert southwestern U.S.

I tend to agree that a full-time lobbyist in Washington, D.C. would be a good idea, particularly for hang glider pilots, since we are not licensed and, therefore, not informed about issues that might affect our sport, such as NPRM 88-2. The hang gliding community, in fact, did not get into the process on NPRM 88-2 until the very end when we could do little to shape the outcome. Thankfully, the SSA was in the process working from the start.

I am proposing that a liaison committee be formed to explore the possible joint funding of a lobbyist to work on the largely identical issues of government regulations that affect sailplane and hang glider pilots. This would spread the cost between the two groups, answer the concerns about representation in Washington, D.C. for glider pilots, and allow USHGA to keep its offices near the majority of the pilot population.

Paragliding-Reflections from History

Recently I had the great fortune to come across a collection of Soaring magazines (late '60s to early '70s). To say that this reading has been "educational" would be an understatement. I was interested, and somewhat chagrined, to read a history of modern hang gliding from a non-hang glider pilot perspective.

Hang gliders and their pilots commanded very little respect from sailplane pilots for a variety of reasons. The standard Rogallo wing could hardly be considered a soaring vehicle except in strong conditions, and no training, licensing, or airworthiness certificates were required. But most importantly, some of the hang glider pilots back then were grade A oven buzzards (turkeys).

Poor pilot judgment while operating hang gliders caused serious safety hazards and threatened some sailplane soaring sites. Torrey Pines is one mentioned in Soaring articles. There was a proposal made that hang gliding become a part of the SSA. The inclusion of hang glider pilots would have meant that SSA could train hang glider pilots to operate safely in traffic, teach basic piloting skills and review construction practices that would lead to safer aircraft. Further, the membership of the SSA would be increased, giving lobbying efforts the greater clout of larger numbers. Last, but not least, would be the increased revenue base from more dues-paying members.

However, the counter argument went, hang gliders aren't really aircraft. Sailplane interests and hang glider interests will never be the same. And those "pilots" are just a bunch a daredevil fools who will make the SSA look bad. Sound familiar?

In the past few weeks I have spoken with a number of sailplane pilots who feel that the SSA made a mistake in cutting the sport of hang gliding loose to fend for itself. Because we went off on our own, hang glider pilots wasted a lot of time learning things about flying that were already known and applicable to hang gliding. Of course it was probably hard to believe that the state of hang gliding would advance from the 4:1 Rogallo wings to 10:1 flex wings capable of 200+ mile flights.

I would recommend that hang glider pilots concerned about paragliders stop and think about what history has to teach. I believe the current state of affairs is identical to what the sailplane community experienced with hang gliders in the late '60s.

If you think that: ALL paraglider pilots are daredevil fools; paraglider technology and performance will not improve; or paragliding is a passing fad... ask a sailplane pilot what he or she thought about hang gliding in the late '60s.

Paragliding will not go away even if USHGA kicks the sport out on its own. The sport will continue to grow. And perhaps because of our alienation, basic aviation knowledge will not be gained from experienced hang glider pilots, but from the death and injury incurred by pilots who don't even know what resources are available on low-speed flying.

We should learn from history and not repeat mistakes of the past. Pilots of all motorless aircraft can help each other to keep regulation of our sport to a minimum, keep our invaluable flying sites open and keep the skies safe for each other. We have more in common than we have differences.

Where does all this lead?

Recreational pilots (power or glider) are a small minority in the aviation community. Glider pilots are a small minority of the minority. As it now stands we are fractionalized and, therefore, weak when confronted by the bureaucratic juggernauts of the Dept. of Transportation, the commercial aviation lobby, military aviation and of course the FAA. It is long past time that glider pilots recognize their common interests and work together to protect them.

I respectfully make the following proposals:
  1. That the United States Hang Gliding Association be dissolved.
  2. That the Soaring Society of America be reorganized into three divisions:
The combination of some administrative costs and expansion of revenue base would mean more efficient delivery of services to pilots, improved safety and cooperation between divisions and a larger coordinated voice in Washington, D.C.

Of course many details would have to be worked out and agreed upon by the memberships of SSA and USHGA, but I never said this was going to be easy. To show my personal commitment to cooperation among all glider pilots I have sent a $35 check for membership in the SSA. I invite other hang glider pilots to do the same. I also extend an invitation to join the USHGA to all sailplane pilots as well as paraglider pilots. I know pilots tend to be an individualist bunch, but the benefits I believe are well worth the controversy this letter will undoubtedly stir up.

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last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2004