David Barish 1921-2009: The forgotten father of paragliding

The death of David Barish on 15 December 2009, so soon after that of Francis Rogallo, marks the loss of another of the visionaries which led to paragliding becoming the most popular world-wide aviation sport. During an amazingly full and adventurous life, New-Yorker Barish became a pilot for TWA at the end of the 1930s. He was a P-51 Mustang pilot just as the War ended, remaining in the USAF while he obtained a Master' degree in theoretical aerodynamics at Cal-Tech. As a consultant, he put his knowledge to work in the field of parachute development, with much of his effort contributing to that powerhouse of radical design – NASA. The eventual outcome was a parachute with a glide ratio which could be as high as 4.2:1. Apart from the original design objective of being a medium for space-vehicle recovery, David Barish, a keen skier, saw potential for what he called 'slope-soaring' at ski resorts. In the summer of 1966, Barish and his son, Craig, made a coast-to-coast tour of the USA, successfully demonstrating foot-launched slope soaring at numerous ski-resorts. He saw it as a new activity which with sufficient popular appeal to keep the cable-cars open through the lean summer months. This long tour absorbed a lot of his time and energy to little lasting effect and he soon returned to more rewarding aviation matters. He reckoned that he was a little too early and history has proved him right: the Barish Sailwing was almost forgotten. It would be almost another twenty years before paragliders as we now know them became common sights among the mountains. Fortunately David Barish lived to see this and was even tempted to experiment further with design. He was Guest of Honour at the Coupe Icare in 2000, to a large extent through the efforts of French Journalist Xavier Murillo. He is survived by his wife, Johanna, sons Craig and Dana and daughter Wendy. Noel Whittall Jan 2010 Following is an abstract from ‘And the World Could Fly’: David Barish and the Sailwing David Barish started his flying career in 1939, at the age of eighteen. The US government was suffering a shortage of pilots, and was offering a free training program to new recruits. “I was soon a co-pilot for TWA, flying transatlantic routes,’ he recalls.’My brother, three years older than me, was a bomber pilot flying B-17 Flying Fortresses, and was killed during the Normandy landings in 1944. I joined the US Air Force soon after and trained as a fighter pilot on the Mustang. But luckily, the day I graduated was the day Japan surrendered. The war was over.” He then gained a place at the prestigious Cal Tech University, where he obtained a Masters’ degree in theoretical aerodynamics. He put it into good use by working for the Air Force’s Research and Development division at Dayton. In 1953, he left the armed forces, but remained a consultant for the Air Force and NASA, working on parachute design. In the early 60s, the space race was on, and huge amounts of money were thrown into development. In 1964, Barish applied himself to the design of a parachute for bringing space capsules back to earth. A full-size version would have needed a span of more than 30 metres, so he made models of different sizes and tested them behind his car, or by hand in a steady wind on the Staten Island ferry. The first Sailwing was single surfaced, rectangular and made up of three lobes. The front of each panel was turned-under and stitched to the undersurface along the seams joining the panels. This formed a double surface of over 30 cm, which when inflated, rigidified the leading edge. “NASA wouldn’t buy a double-surface chute, but they did want a better glide. That’s why, in 1966, we progressed to the version with five lobes. Then the double surface part was extended to one third of the chord. What else about the design? Well, I thought the enormous stabilizers were necessary. And spinnaker cloth was an obvious choice; if you want a wing, you need the lowest possible porosity. I determined the length of the lines from the experience of kite-flyers, who already knew all there was to know on this subject.” The first flight, in the company of his son and his friend Jacques Istel, took place in September 1965 at Bel Air in the Catskill Mountains. This is a ski resort two hours from New York and not far from Woodstock. A keen skier, Barish knew the area well and had a crazy idea: a new summer sport which would consist of skimming down the grassy slopes of the ski pistes. The new sport was christened ‘slope soaring’ at the suggestion of a friend who was a journalist on Ski Magazine. Later, in the summer of ‘66, Barish and his son did a tour of American ski resorts, from Vermont to California. The aim was to demonstrate that ‘slope soaring’ could be a viable summer activity for the resorts. Of those barnstorming days, Barish said: “It was probably too soon! At that time, slope soaring was just for fun. We didn’t know that it might be possible to soar in thermals or dynamic wind. We just pushed the sport as being a fun way to race downhill. We raced down the ski slopes, skimming the ground, rarely more than thirty metres up. I still managed to end up in the trees several times!” In 1966, NASA was trying to finalize its choice for recovering the capsule of the Apollo space shuttle. For the next two years, David worked hard on his project, trying to convince NASA of its benefits over the Rogallo design ... “Francis Rogallo came to the wind tunnel one day during my tests,” he remembers: “He didn’t say anything, but seemed very interested. In fact, we had both constructed what would later be called paragliders. The Air Force organized a demonstration day for the different projects in California. It was there that the glide ratio of 4.2 of my wing was officially measured.” Only a week after the demonstration, NASA HQ totally abandoned the idea of using parachutes. “They change their mind sometimes! Now, thirty years on, NASA has returned to the use of parachutes. The most recent, the X-34, the so-called ‘space lifeboat’ for recovering the Space Shuttle crews, is 30 metres across. The same size as my design from 1966! “When the contract was terminated I just gave up. As far as parachutes are concerned, I have never thought that I designed anything which was really much better than those of Jalbert or Snyder. There were already 30 or 40 companies in the business and as many legal fights. My whole professional career has been rooted in subsonic and supersonic aerodynamics. In the science of low-speed flight, there has been little innovation in the last hundred years. Most of what we need to know today has already been written in the books of Ludwig Prandtl, of the German school of aerodynamics. ‘Slope soaring’ was a hobby. In order to develop it, I would have had to dedicate myself to it full-time. I had other inventions which I didn’t want to neglect.” Closed cells, the profile, trim tabs, spinnaker fabric, flaps, eight-metre lines, high aspect ratios, launch techniques, tree landings, the paramotor … it all existed as long ago as the ‘60s! But the explosion in popularity of the sport was not to happen for another twenty years. During the 1980s, David Barish maintained some interest and manufactured another paraglider with semi-closed cells, and later a hang glider for his son. Then, one summer’s day in 1993, while driving near the site of Ellenville, just outside New York, he spotted thirty paragliders in the air, and suddenly realized that ‘slope soaring’ had grown into a sport. His interest was rekindled and during a skiing trip to Europe, he saw how popular paragliding had become at resorts such as Gstaad in Switzerland. “I was impressed by the number of companies selling equipment” he remembered, “And, technically, I noticed the Airwave gliders with their diagonal cells.” In 1995, he visited St Hilaire in France, as Guest of Honour at the annual Coupe Icare flying festival, where the number of wings laid out on the launch carpet finally convinced him of the sport’s size! Now aged over 70, he returned to the drawing board and sewing machine and even started to fly again, explaining: “I ran out of test pilots”. At St Hilaire David Barish delighted everybody he met with his kindness, his limitless curiosity and, perhaps above all, his modesty. Typically, he says: “I wouldn’t be surprised if one day someone finds a Russian or a Japanese engineer who did the same thing before I did!” ‘And the World Could Fly’, written by Noel Whittall & Stéphane Malbos, is available, while stocks last, on special promotional offer at just 10euros. Please contact the FAI office for further information.