Grafton's Ski Wing

Ancestor of the delta-wing hang glider


Towards the end of 2002, I came upon an unexpected mention of Grafton in the website of the French Federation of Free Flight (with headquarters at Nice on the French Riviera), which caters for people who move through the air in all kinds of devices without motors, including gliders, parachutes and kites. Here is the address of the historical pages in this French-language website:

In the part that presents the history of the delta-wing hang glider, there are three items (which I have translated into English) about events in Grafton:

  • May 1963. John Dickenson, a gyro-plane pilot in Grafton, New South Wales, Australia, is asked by the local water-ski club to build a kite for the Jacaranda Festival. At that time, the accident rate for conventional models is 100%. He builds a half-scale prototype.
  • September 1963. Initial flights of a full-scale model, piloted by Rod Fuller.
  • October 1963. Article and photos in The Daily Examiner.

I mentioned this information to Frank Mack, president of the Clarence River Historical Society, who provided me with further data and images including a copy of the original article in The Daily Examiner announcing this invention, which we reproduce here:

Rod Fuller is shown in these pictures in the latest equipment for those who like water-skiing with a difference. It is a ski-wing, designed and made by John Dickenson for the Grafton Water Ski Club. The ski-wing is something new and its design has been registered by Mr Dickenson. The wing, about 18 feet in length, will soar to a height of 70 feet. Its construction is rather unusual and, despite the frail look of the wing, it soars like a kite. The ski-wing was made from light timber and plastic, of the type used for covering bananas. It was made in a few weeks and donated to the ski club by Mr Dickenson. It will be one of the highlights of the club's water-ski carnival next Sunday. A water-skier straps himself to the wing and is pulled behind a speedboat until air-borne. It operates in similar fashion to a kite, but is much more risky to operate than the box-type kites formerly used behind speedboats. In the top picture, the Crown Hotel forms a background.
                                                     — The Daily Examiner of 21 October 1963

Here are two color photos taken from the motor-boat:

In the following photo, the tip of Susan Island can be seen on the other side of the tow rope:

And here is Rod Fuller high in the sky:

Here is a technical drawing of Dickenson's device, referred to as a kite-glider:

American pioneers

Francis Rogallo
and his wife Gertrude


In Dickenson's drawing, we find the name of the American engineers, Francis Rogallo (1912-) and his wife Gertrude (1914-), who had invented the concept of the flexible wing and successfully developed the first delta wing. They had been investigating the possibility of using a delta-wing to handle the re-entry of space capsules. A photo of a Gemini capsule suspended beneath a Rogallo wing was published in 1962 by the US company Ryan. John Dickenson saw this photo in a magazine, and it became his sole source document for the rapid design and low-cost construction of the Ski Wing for Grafton's 1963 Jacaranda Festival.