Flight or plight?

Children flying a homemade plane.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by things that flew — airplanes, gliders, rockets, helicopters, and yes, hovercraft. If you happened to make it through my column in the last issue of Leaside Life, you know far more than you probably wanted to know about the single-seater hovercraft a classmate, Geoff Elmer, and I designed and built when we were both 15. I thought it would be better to start with a column about our pseudo-successful foray into aviation. After all, the hovercraft worked. It flew.

But long before the hovercraft, Geoff and I had our share of epic flight-fails. You see, the early 1970s marked the rise of hang gliding as a sport. Recent advances in flexible wing design ushered in a new era of personal flight. For a couple thousand dollars, you too could run down a hill shouldering a simple gull-winged contraption of aluminum tubes and nylon, and soar with the birds. At the tender age of 12, I wanted some of that, and so did my co-conspirator, Geoff.

Naturally, we were not satisfied with the popular design of conventional hang gliders as developed by the respected aeronautical engineer, Francis Rogallo. I mean what did a respected aeronautical engineer know about hang gliding anyway? Geoff and I decided a smaller, heavier, and chunkier design constructed out of wood and fabric would fly much better.

Falcon 1 was constructed in our backyard under cover of darkness on a Friday night in December. It had a 12 ft. wingspan and measured 10 ft. from nose to tail (though it may not have been obvious to the casual observer which end was which). Bed sheets pilfered from our linen closet were cut and stapled to the airframe (I use the word “airframe” as we truly believed it would soon be in the air.). It was too heavy for the two of us to carry down to Talbot Park at the end of our street, so we dragged it on a toboggan. As usual, I drew the short straw and was our designated test pilot for the first “flight” of Falcon 1. To launch it, I sat on the toboggan, just barely supporting the glider on my back as visions of spinal damage danced in my head. Then Geoff pushed the toboggan down the hill. About half way down, when I think we were travelling about 450 miles per hour, the glider did in fact lift off my back nearly wrenching my arms from their sockets. Yet, through it all, my rump remained steadfastly planted to the seat of the toboggan.

Undaunted, we spent a few months designing and building Falcon 2, a much more elaborate biplane configuration that looked much cooler. We were so confident that we installed ailerons that I could control through strings, pulleys and eyelets. If that weren’t enough, we actually fashioned a sling seat. Simply put, I feared that after soaring for 15 or 20 minutes high above the park, I might become fatigued from hanging beneath the glider. Right. Such was the unbridled optimism of youth.

Even my mother got into the act. She kindly sewed the sky blue rayon to fit the wings, nose, and tail. I know what you’re thinking. How could my mother aid and abet this dangerously daredevilish madness? Well, in consultation with my father, I assume they both agreed that Falcon 2 was only marginally more aerodynamic than Falcon 1, meaning that it was only slightly more airworthy than a microwave oven.

It was June by the time of the test flight. Rumours had spread throughout Bessborough Public School and a small gaggle of neighbours, students, and the morbidly curious gathered at the hill in the park, including the official Board of Education photographer. I was a little nervous about taking to the skies, but felt we couldn’t disappoint the crowd. So I strapped on my Cooper hockey helmet and mouth guard, hoisted the glider above me, set the ailerons in the takeoff position (all true), and ran down the hill.

The photographer was not able to get any shots of the glider and me in the air. But he did snap a few of me trapped underneath Falcon 2 after my face dug a trench in the grass and I finally came to rest.

Three months later, the test flight of Falcon 3 was just as successful as the earlier two attempts. That was when Geoff and I decided to abandon homemade hang gliders and build a hovercraft instead. And yes, it all happened in Leaside.

About Terry Fallis 86 Articles
A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis grew up in Leaside and is the award-winning writer of nine national bestsellers, all published by McClelland & Stewart. His most recent, A New Season, is now in bookstores. www.terryfallis.com.