Daredevil of ?63
By EMMA CORNFORD
WHEN Rod Fuller soared above the Clarence River on a clear Sunday afternoon in October 1963, he became the first person in history to use a flexible-wing hang-glider.
One hundred and forty feet in the air and nothing but a wooden frame covered with blue banana plastic keeping him from a bone-crushing fall, Rod was exhilarated but frightened as hell.
"It was absolutely terrifying," he recalled this week, as discussions began to erect a permanent memorial of that day in aviation history.
"One minute I was on the water and the next second I was 140 foot in the air, looking down at this tiny little boat with just a V of white water behind it."
As he flew through the air near the Crown Hotel, Rod was counting on the man towing him behind a 16-foot aluminium clinker ? his friend and fellow Grafton Waterski Club member, Pat Crowe.
Now a slim, white-haired man with a cheeky grin and obvious passion for that historic day in 1963, Pat recalled what it was like seeing Rod in the air.
"He was sitting there hanging on for dear life.
"We didn't even know if it would fly or not, let alone how high it might go, and next thing he's up 140 foot in the air," Pat said, eyes shining with obvious excitement at the memory.
"I was looking behind me ?never mind the fact I was driving the boat, we could do anything in those days ? and thinking 'we have a problem here. We don't have a plan for this if it goes wrong and there's no Houston I can call and ask what to do'," he said.
The pair had come up with a code ? a nod from Rod, Pat would accelerate. A shake of the head and he would slow down.
"He was shaking his head as hard as he could. I just had to slow down enough as I dared so that the thing would stay up," Pat said.
"I just had to make sure he didn't fall out of the air, then I looked around and saw that someone's put a bloody great bridge across the river ? I had no idea what to do."
In the end, Pat steered the boat in a gentle curve and Rod flew over the top of the bridge and the South Grafton RSL. Some would think the experience would have frightened Rod out of the air ? but nothing could be further from the truth.
"We made a few adjustments and from that day on I wanted to fly every day," he said.
"Did I get a passion for it? Oh yeah, especially when you'd get down there early in the morning ? the river was glassy and the air was so still. You just wanted to fly it."
Rod was never one to shy away from daredevil tricks ? he once skied through a burning trail of petrol and oil which had been lit on the Clarence.
But it seems the hang-glider experience gave Rod and Pat a taste for even more excitement. Rod spent years in the Grafton Glider Club while Pat took up racing cars.
"I don't feel like I did anything really special, no," Rod says. "But I sure feel like we were a part of something that was special."