Modern Sport of Hang Gliding First Happened in Newport Beach
May 23rd 1971
40 years ago May 23rd I was soon graduating from a local Southern California High School. It was a warm Spring Sunday morning. Perhaps because I was the middle child or perhaps because I was a High School Senior, at any rate my parent both agreed to escort me for a family drive to Newport Beach. It was a pretty big deal because I was without my own means of auto transport, actually my Mom had persuaded Dad to do this favor for his son, at any rate we drove down the San Diego Freeway into Orange County. I did feel awkward because the reason for the trip to Newport Beach was practically impossible to explain to my Father. I had begged them to make an afternoon family outing so I could attend the special event that day, all I knew was what had been told to me by my Hawthorne High School friend, Tom Valentine. Tom was a avid Sailplane pilot who subscribed to the SSA magazine SOARING which displayed a small ad in the back for a upcoming hang gliding meet.
Up to that point in human history there had never taken place such an event as was too occur on a Pacific facing hillside in Newport Beach. But to find the exact manner of verbally communicating to my parents, what a hang glider was. The only reference my father could possibly have had was if he had seen one of a half dozen odd issues of Popular Mechanix or Science & Mechanics or Popular Science over the past 10 years with articles about homemade one man flying machines or light weight homebuilt gliders.
What was about to occur, what I finally convinced my Mother of was the sincere truth that indeed if they went to this “thing” they would not be sorry & I guaranteed them it would be worth the time, gas & effort to make this trip. Along with the SSA magazine Tom had shown me the night before in his garage a hand printed “flyer” announcing this event so it had to be true. Of course my father being of the right wing affiliation was more or less resigned to think this was some wild crazy hippie experience that would be an utter waste of time.
On the drive down to Newport Beach I sat in the back of the Ford leaning up over the front seat feeling like the tail wagging the dog, because if this turned out to be a farce & wasted Sunday afternoon …believe me I would not hear the end of it. After several vain attempts to locate the site of what should be many people on a hill somewhere near Fashion Island Mall , we managed to find our way along a rough spot on the road a gravel unpaved level section of what is MacArthur Blvd. Eureka …Yes! The event was a reality we could see a hillside of tall dry grass dotted with persons & an assortment of “winged” contraptions. As my father parked along with a growing mass of on lookers I couldn’t wait to get out of the car. My overwhelming desire to get a closer look at these airships & find my buddy Tom was quashed all at once when Mom said, …Neil, you don’t go up there you’ll only be in the way & I don’t want you getting hurt.” …Dad nodded in agreement so I was relegated to standing in the dust watching the Flying Circus at a distance of perhaps 200 yards.
That was the day, the day which now is recognized by the International Aviation Community as the beginning of the Sport of Modern Hang Gliding. The hand printed mimeographed handbill / pamphlet which gave a complete after action report of the event in great detail by editor Joe Faust one of 3 men responsible for the Vision & Foresight to dream up this event … “Never can there be another First Modern Universal Hang Glider Championship —opening to the world a refreshing renewal of that relentless desire of man woman & child to fly freely into the ether that is our home. All the purity of intention commensurate with the historic significance of the big event.
So it happened that I was one of about one thousand persons to witness this mostly unrecognized events in the history of aviation, of human flight & of modern technology it was to be known as-
The Great Universal Hang-Glider Championships -Celebrating the 123rd Birthday of Otto Lilienthal –Sunday May 23rd 1971- Keeping with the counter-culture spirit of the times when Sit-Ins & Be-Ins & spontaneous Hippie gatherings were common place this location had been selected at a last minute in an attempt to avoid being entangled in a bureaucracy of formal red tape permission & legality. The actual handbill flyer gave Capistrano Beach as the original site of an upcoming man-kite meet, with the preface & stipulation that last minute changes may force this event to be moved to a more suitable location. Looking back & knowing my father as I do, it is a miracle that he agreed to sponsor this outing at all.
What remains is the fact of the matter the evidence of that event. The Los Angeles Times for Monday May24th 1971 carried photo of pilot from San Luis Obispo, John Hancock flying during the event on the cover of the morning issue.
Later the December 71 National Geographic printed an article with photos & a detailed story.
Far & away the best report is carried in an archive edition of Low & Slow magazine the publication of the Self-Soar Association (SSA) – edited by Joe Faust. This is a part of a PDF document set of 6 DVD’s sold by the USHPA /USHGA as a Complete magazine Collection 1971 -2004.
We have a comprehensive list of those who received the tangible written certificates of award handed out & signed by Jack Lambie, one of the three organizers. About half of the flying man carrying airplanes launched or present on that hill were derivations of Jack’s “HANG LOOSE” design bi-plane hang glider, which he was selling plans through the US mail at the time for $3.00 a set. Jack, a part time middle school science teacher, had used the biplane as a summer school student participation project the year before. Several of the entries in the event were either students he instructed or from plans purchased & mailed out. I visited Jack Lambie, over 12 years later, in 1983, he had a large box up in his garage with stacks of ready to mail Plan Sets for the Hang Loose. He told me even after 3 address moves people still contacted him to buy Hang Loose plans.-
Now we have come 40 years, the world has pasted by what occurred on that Buffalo Hills Estates slope overlooking MacArthur Blvd. in 2008, I took a drive up to walk around through the wonderful peaceful residential park atop that hill. Knowing I was probably the only person who attended the “Otto Meet” of 71’ to go back to that location since the Fly-In. I send this story because it is my great hope that the memory of such an important historic event will now be brought to the attention of those living in Newport Beach.
It is my desire to establish a respectfully designated tribute marker that will recognize the historic place & perhaps a simple stone marker of granite will be placed nearby that hillside to give honor and dignity to such a worthwhile celebration of flight & human endeavor.
**** I have much more interesting details & background information concerning the (Otto Hill Fly-In of 71’)
AKA- The Great Universal Hang-Glider Championships -Celebrating the 123rd Birthday of Otto Lilienthal –Sunday May 23rd 1971-
Neil Larson USHPA Charter Member #24 & first SCHGA Historian
United States Hang Gliding & Para Gliding Association #24