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High honour for aviator

John Dickenson is delighted after receiving an FAI Gold Air Medal Award for developing a hang-glider, way back in 1963 but now rightly recognised. Photo - Evan Akland: Ken de Russy Collection
John Dickenson is delighted after receiving an FAI Gold Air Medal Award for developing a hang-glider, way back in 1963 but now rightly recognised. Photo - Evan Akland: Ken de Russy Collection Photo - Evan Akland: Ken de Russy Collection

THE inventor of the modern hang-glider, John Dickenson, has been awarded aviation's highest award, putting Grafton firmly on the world map as the birthplace of hang-gliding.

Mr Dickenson is the 2012 recipient of the distinguished FAI Gold Air Medal awarded by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, which recognises the role he played as the engineer of the hang-glider, then known as the "ski-wing", which debuted in Grafton in 1963.

Now living in Sydney, Mr Dickenson said receiving the award was very important to him and finally gave recognition to the role he, and Grafton, played in what was to become the prototype of the hang-glider as we know it today.

"It feels fantastic," Mr Dickenson said.

"But there are two local heroes in this story, Rod Fuller and Pat Crowe, and I'm desperately sorry that my good friend Rod, recently deceased, is not here to see it.

"Rod was a man of cool courage and was the first to get it in the air, although I and others had tried to do so," he said.

Mr Dickenson said his mate Pat Crowe was equally important to the success of that first flight over the Clarence River, driving the boat with "considerable skill".

However the event that revolutionised aviation was almost overlooked by history as news of the first flight failed to reach Sydney and it was not until 2006 when former champion cross-country hang-glider Graeme Henderson took up the cause that the world began to take notice.

"This is the first time hang-gliding and paragliding has been recognised at this level in FAI," Mr Henderson said.

"This award is the 'biggie'. Now we have the recognition for John, the rest should fall into place."

The first flight was made over the Clarence River during Grafton's Jacaranda Festival on September 8, 1963.

Renowned as a keen aviation expert, Mr Dickenson was approached by the Grafton Water Ski Club and asked to build a water ski kite to entertain visitors at the Jacaranda Festival Water Ski Carnival.

Instead, he built the world's first hang glider.

Local adventurer and water-skier Rod Fuller was the first to experience the sheer thrill of the sport - but he would only participate if the ski boat was driven by Mr Crowe.

"Rod was strapped into the hang glider and he ended up flying at 140 feet above the river with the Grafton Bridge straight ahead," Mr Crowe said.

"I was in a cold sweat the whole time. I had to use the whole berth of the river to turn, and because the boat weighed a tonne and was ill shaped I couldn't slow down enough to bring Rod down gradually.

"In the end I managed to pull up at a consistent speed which allowed Rod to land on the water safely. The first thing he said to me was 'why the bloody hell didn't you slow down?' and at the time I couldn't.

"Hang-gliding is a fantastic sport and it is a big part of the Clarence River. The sport has been taken overseas but this is its home."

The FAI Gold Air Medal is the highest honour bestowed by FAI; the award is reserved for those who have made a significant contribution to the development of aeronautics by their activities, work, achievements, initiative or devotion to the cause of aviation.

Mr Dickenson joins names like Hinkler, Lindbergh, Fossett and De Havilland for his contribution to aviation.

Unfortunately, he said he had not received any financial gain from what was then a revolution in design.

A ceremony will be held in Turkey later in the year.

For more information on the history of hang-gliding in Australia, visit australian-hang-gliding-history.com

Topics:  grafton, hang gliding, john dickenson


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