Who Invented The Hang Glider? | Flight Notch

This article may contain affiliate links where we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.

If you’re trying to learn as much about hang gliding as possible, you should start from the very beginning. So who invented the hang glider?

Hang gliding is such an amazing sport that if you’re anything like me, you want to know everything about it. When I first got into gliding, I just wanted to be doing it constantly. And if I couldn’t be physically out there flying through the air, I wanted to learn as much as possible, so I know exactly where you’re coming from. Let’s take a journey down memory lane and find out who invented the hang glider.

Even though Sir George Cayley created the first piloted hang glider in 1853, he never achieved sustained flight with it. This is why Otto Lilienthal is credited with creating the modern-day hang glider after creating his own gliders and achieving thousands of controlled flights in the late 1800s.

Hang gliding is one of the oldest forms of aviation, first made possible by the fact that these types of aircraft don’t require any motors or any other power source. In the early days of gliding, aerodynamics and the principles of flight were largely misunderstood, so it was a marvel once the first successful gliders were made. Let’s dive in and learn everything about the inventor of the hang glider.

At Flight Notch, our goal is to be the premier site on the web for all things related to hang gliding. While most of the site is dedicated to things like how hang gliding works and the best equipment to use, we also want to share our knowledge with you about the history of the sport. After all, the more hang gliding content the better, right?

Table of contents


When Was Hang Gliding Invented?

Hang gliding is one of the oldest forms of aviation. Since these aircraft don’t require any sort of engine to provide power, early aviators and engineers were able to come up with innovative ways to take to the skies. Thanks to natural air movements, winds, and thermal updrafts, the idea of unpowered gliding through the air became a possibility. And in the mid-1800s, it started to become a reality.

The first piloted hill-launched glider is credited to English engineer Sir George Cayley back in 1853. Cayley’s gliders were never able to achieve safe, sustained flight since there was a general lack of aerodynamics and the components of flight back in those days. But his work helped spur future advancements as technology improved and aerodynamics became better understood.

Heading into the 1880s, engineers from all over the world were working on ways to create gliders that could reliably, safely, and predictably fly a pilot using nothing but the wind and aerodynamics. Some of the countries that were working on creating the first practical hang gliders at this time include the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and more.

And none are credited more for the invention of modern-day hang gliders than an engineer from Germany.

Who Was The Hang Glider Invented By?

Otto Lilienthal was a German aviator with a mechanical engineering background that worked diligently on gliding innovation in the late 1800s. He spent much of the 1870s and 1880s compiling work from other experts around the world in order to have the most comprehensive hang-gliding knowledge.

In 1889, Lilienthal published his work and began documenting the construction and practicality of his own fleet of gliders. Due to his extensive work on aerodynamics, the principles of flight, and hang gliding innovation, Otto Lilienthal, the “Flying Man”, is known as one of the first pioneers of aviation and the father of the hang glider.

As he kept stocking up more and more on his fleet of gliders, he was ready to make the first controlled glider flights in history in the early 1890s. His success became renowned around the world when he began making 82-foot (25-meter) flights. It’s important to note here that Lilienthal was not the first person to ever fly with a glider, but he was the first to make controlled flights, meaning he was actively controlling/steering the glider while it was in the air.

He kept innovating and improving his design and by half a decade later he had made more than 2,000 controlled flights. By this time, he was able to fly 10x further than the first flights that made him famous, now reaching distances of 820 feet (250 meters) while under his control. Unfortunately, his innovations and passion for the sport were his downfalls soon after.

In 1896 while flying one of his own gliders, Lilienthal lost control of the aircraft and fell from a height of 49 feet. He fractured his spine upon landing and died the next day at the age of 48. Lilienthal was way ahead of his time in terms of aviation, and who knows what else he would’ve come up with in terms of aviation. Thanks to his contributions to gliding, he is rightfully credited with inventing the hang glider and is one of the first fathers of aviation.

When Was The Flexible Wing Hang Glider Invented?

Even though Lilienthal is credited as the inventor of the hang glider, especially the modern-day hang glider, we’re not actually flying that type of glider these days. Of course, there has been innovation over the years, so it’s no surprise that hang gliders have been improved on. The most influential innovation since Lilienthal’s first flight was the introduction of the flexible wing.

The flexible wing glider is basically what we fly with today. It’s a stiffened fabric wing stretched over a rigid frame with the pilot tethered and suspended from the frame. Sounds familiar, right? This design is largely based on the famous Rogallo wing, named after NASA aeronautical engineer Francis Rogallo when the US and Russia were in the Space Race.

Originally designed to act as a series of pseudo parachutes to assist with the Gemini space capsules, NASA ended up choosing regular round parachutes instead. But the simplicity of the design and its effectiveness didn’t go unnoticed in the hang gliding world, and the rest is history.

In the end, we have Otto Lilienthal and Francis Rogallo to thank for the modern-day hang glider we all know and love.