“For A Few Glorious Moments…”

Note from Elizabeth: This is the third post researched and written by volunteer Jack Hilliard. You can read the other two here and here.

On Saturday, June 5th, 1954, Hugh Morton staged yet another successful event at Grandfather Mountain. It was originally billed as “The Mile-High Kite-Flying Contest,” but high winds up on the mountain that morning prompted the contest to be moved down to McRae Meadows . . . so Bill Hackney, writing in the High Point Enterprise, renamed it the first annual “sky-high kite-flying contest.”

Youngsters 7 to 14 from all over western North Carolina were encouraged to participate. Morton had gotten three of his friends to judge the contest: Major Bill Craig, a Korean War jet ace (at right above),  “Bobby Benson,” young radio cowboy star (at left, in cowboy outfit; the role of Bobby was played at the time by actor Clive E. Rice), and Charlie Justice, UNC’s great all-America running back (not pictured above, although footballer Otto Graham is, at center in blue sweater). Two of the many prizes awarded at the end of the day went to Bob Lineberger from Hickory for his original kite design and to Bobby Cooke of Boone for having the smallest kite (boys possibly pictured above? Note that we’re not absolutely sure this image was taken at the 1954 event; it might have been 1955 or 1956).

As Morton was handing out those awards on that windy June afternoon, I’m sure it never crossed his mind that twenty years later, another young man (though much older than Lineberger and Cooke) would come to Grandfather Mountain seeking permission to fly his “kite” at the famous landmark. The year was 1974, and John Harris of Kitty Hawk wanted to launch his hang glider off the peak of Grandfather.

Permission was granted, so on July 13, 1974, John Harris became the first man to fly a hang glider off Grandfather Mountain. The 1500-foot flight was described in The State magazine this way:

For a few glorious moments, Harris soared free of the earth, sailing effortlessly over the valley, with nothing but the mountain winds and a single wing to keep him aloft.

Up to that time, hang gliding had been associated with the North Carolina coast. Francis Rogallo and his wife Gertrude had set out in the early 1940s, near Kitty Hawk, to see if they could design a kite or flexible wing that could be held together in controlled flight by the action of the air itself. The result, patented in 1947, was the Rogallo Wing. Rogallo would come to be called “the father of hang gliding,” and on May 7, 1987, he was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Hugh Morton was responsible for Rogallo’s nomination.

Hugh Morton was impressed by Harris’ flight, so much so that the following year the U.S. Open Hang Gliding Tournament was staged at Grandfather. The Tournament was called the Grandfather Mountain Hang Gliding Region VI National Championship and was staged June 7th and 8th, 1975.

Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, hang gliding flourished in the North Carolina High Country. Professional pilots gave demonstrations four times daily during the summer, weather allowing; the increasing popularity of competitions inspired Morton to sponsor the International Masters of Hang Gliding Championships. (He also made several award-winning films on the topic during this time: “Masters of Hang Gliding,” “Winning At Hang Gliding,” “Hang Gliding Around The World,” and “The Hawk & John McNeely,” versions of which are included in the Morton collection here at UNC).

Over time, the gliders became much faster and higher-performance, making the small landing areas at Grandfather increasingly unsafe. Demonstration flights were suspended in 1987.

UPDATE 6/1/09: From Elizabeth: We found an image that is almost definitely from the first (1954) Kite-Flying Contest at Grandfather. See below.

This means that the uniformed man in the first image in this post is not Major Bill Craig, as we indicated, but rather Col. Dean Hess, as commenter Julia Morton suggested (and the image on this page confirms). The uniformed man with Charlie Justice, above, is likely Major Bill Craig.

12 thoughts on ““For A Few Glorious Moments…”

  1. Otto Graham went through Navy Pre-flight in Chapel Hill during the War and we got to know him through Orville Campbell. He had to be one of the greatest football players ever. TV made later players more visible and gained them fame, but Otto’s career with the Cleveland Browns spoke for itself. he told me once he went to college on a basketball scholarshiop and majored in music. I’m getting forgetful, but I’ll swear he told me that…. I think.

  2. It has been a long, long time, but I think the gentleman in uniform next to Otto Graham was Dean Hess. Whatever his name, he was an ordained minister who flew combat and trained Korean pilots. And he was an ace. There was a book about him. A movie was made from it because he saved so many Korean orphans by air-lifting them to a safe place that I have forgotten. Martha Hyer (Hier?) was in the film, if I remember rightly. Ought to be something someone could check if it interests anyone.

  3. The kite flying contest was sponsored by the JayCees around the state and the finals were held at Grandfather Mt. I will never forget that the Wilmington entry was a child who had never seen the ocean. (Odd to see the mountains before you see the ocean that is only a few miles away.) He was very homesick the two nights he was at my house in Linville. The Wilmington JayCees saw to it that he saw the ocean soon after he returned home.

  4. The hang gliding meet held at Grandfather in June of 1975 was the USHGA Eastern Regionals — which was won by a New Englander named Terry Sweeney.

    Then in September of 1975, we hosted the USHGA National Championships won by Dave Muel.

    The following year, 1976, my father decided he wanted to sponsor an invitational event patterned after the Masters of Golf.

    For a the next 10 years he invited 20 of the top pilots in the world for a best-of-the-best competition at the Masters of Hang Gliding. We welcomed champions from Australia, France, England and South America as well as the best of the best from the USA.

    We watched the sport change from a contest just to see how long the pilot could keep the kite aloft to a contest to see who could fly the furthest.

    The record for a flight from the peaks of Grandfather was set by Stuart Smith who flew to the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. (80+ air miles)

  5. I dont know if you knew this but Graham graduated from Northwestern University and attended the school on a basketball scholarship. In 1944, he was named an All-American in basketball. The crazy thing is, he was talked into playing football by Northwestern’s head football coach, Lynn Waldorf, who saw him throwing a football on campus. By the time he was finished at Northwestern he had played four years of basketball, three years of football, and two years of baseball and also played the cornet in the Wildcats’ school band. Hes got to be one of the greatest athletes of all time!

  6. The picture of Otto Graham, Dean Hess, and Bobby Benson was taken in 1955.

  7. Thanks, Elizabeth, for adding the update.

    The additional photo is similar to one that appeared in “The Charlotte News” on or about June 7, 1954 and it shows Major Bill Craig along with Justice, Bobby Benson and the two contest winners that are mentioned in this post. The uniformed gentleman in the update and the newspaper is indeed Major Bill Craig.

  8. One of the exhibits at the Pro Football Hall of Fame includes a locker full of artifacts from the career of Otto Graham including a contract he signed with the Cleveland Browns in 1948. The Browns were part of the All American Football Conference at the time. He was considered the best quarterback in the league and he was making about 12,000.00 per year.

    Can you imagine what he would have been paid by today’s standards?

  9. Grandfather Mountain is a beautiful place. It is neat to see that a kite flying contest with judges was actually set up, It seems like something only possible in the 1950’s times seemed more carefree and fun then. The kite flying seems ok, but the hang glider is for someone with a little more guts! But hats off to Francis and Gertrude Rogallo and the Rogallo Wing! It is neat to see the pioneers of a sport, where it all began.

  10. There is a magnificent article in the current (May, 2013) issue of “Our State” magazine about John Harris and his Grandfather Mountain flight on July 13, 1974. To support the story, on pages 160-171, is a Hugh Morton photograph from that historic day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>