During a sunny spring day back in 1971, on a hill near San Miguel Park in Newport Beach, the modern sport of hang gliding took flight.
“We were teaching ourselves to fly,” said one of the original “birdmen,” Newport Beach resident Frank Colver.
Now, a group of people, including Colver, are interested in placing a plaque in the park commemorating that day.
“It kick started the modern sport of hang gliding… It kick started the whole idea of personal flight,” Colver said. “It started right here in Newport Beach.”
Colver and Newport Beach Historical Society President Gordy Grundy will present the idea to the City Council during public comments at the meeting tonight.
*Read Neil Larson’s eyewitness account of the world’s first hang-gliding meet here.*
“The more we can commemorate our history, the better,” Mayor Nancy Gardner said. “Hopefully, it will be in a way that will work with the city.”
If a majority of council members want to look into the possibility of placing the plaque at the park, the issue will go to the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission. They will research the matter and report back to the council.
The granite monument, already built and ready to be installed, would need to be set in cement, Colver said. The funds to pay for that could come from private donations or from the city, should the council approve it. The historical marker would sit flush to the grass, Colver said, so it would be easy to mow the grass around it.
The marker is meant to memorialize the first time a group of hang gliders ever got together for a meet. The engraving on the plaque reads: “On this site, May 23, 1971, with a gathering of enthusiasts for personal human flight, began the worldwide sport of hang gliding.”
The group gathered on that hill in 1971 in honor of Otto Lilienthal’s 123rd birthday. Lilienthal was a German pioneer of human flight, known also as the “Glider King.”
The adventurous bunch strapped themselves into handmade personal aircraft and launched themselves, and the sport of hang gliding, off the hill and into history.
“Leave it to a bunch of rowdy Newporters to jump off a cliff with a little triangle of sail cloth on their back,” Grundy said.
The event, also known as “The Happening” or the “Otto Meet,” was the world’s first organized competition for the sport and is commonly called the birth of the modern sport of hang gliding.
“I never knew that our community was the birthplace of modern worldwide hang gliding. This is the most exciting thing, to discover our history,” Grundy said. “That’s what the Newport Beach Historical Society is all about.”
Colver was handed the plaque project because he’s the only person who attended the 1971 meet who currently lives in Newport Beach. And that first meet was quite the event, he said.
News of the event spread quickly and when May 23 arrived the hill was covered with flyers and spectators.
Traffic was backed up on MacArthur Boulevard, Colver said. About 500 people were on hand to watch, according to reports.
At one point the police came and tried to get the crowd to cease and desist, Colver said, but nobody claimed to be the organizer and the owner of the cemetery allowed them on the property. So the police just left, Colver said, and the event continued.
At the end of the day, certificates were handed out for the top competitors in various categories including most original, best all-around pilotage, and “kited landscape leaping with heart full of joy,” among many others, according to reports from Low & Slow magazine. Colver’s son, Matt, won the youngest flying team award with his friend Ernest Feher and their bamboo and plastic hang glider.
The event got quite a bit of media attention, including coverage in the LA Times and a spread with photos in National Geographic later that year.
At first, people were making their own gliders, Colver said, but soon new businesses were created to manufacture more sophisticated equipment for the sport.
Some of those original “birdmen,” including Colver, formed a hang gliding group that started locally and grew to become the Southern California Hang Gliding Association in 1971, it grew even more and is now known as the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
“Look what has progressed. That day in 1971 also established the action-sports phenomenon,” Grundy said.
Most of the hill where the original 1971 competition took place has been developed and the park is the closest available public area, Colver said.
Colver said he has received lots of support from the hang gliding community, as well as from locals that he has spoken with. The plaque might also generate new interest in the sport.
Gardner said she doesn’t know a lot about the history of the sport or that day on the hill back in 1971, but she would be interested in learning.
It would be ideal if the monument could be installed before May 23, Colver said, the 41st anniversary of the original Otto meet.
“People around the world want to see this happen,” Colver said. “We’re interested in preserving a piece of history.”