Phil Lardner's All-Carbon Dragon

2012 - Started Building...

Phil Lardner

Phil Lardner on Monte Cucco 2010 

Hi there!

The devilishly handsom dude, above, is me - Phil Lardner. I've been flying flex-wing hang gliders in Ireland and around the world since 2000 and, for my sins, have been the Training and Flight Safety Officer for the Irish Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association for much of that time also. Flying is one of the great passions in my life... and like most of my other passions, I ain't getting enough of it! So to keep my impishly inquisitive hands busy and out of mischief I decided to build myself a Carbon Dragon. My decision to go for a Carbon Dragon was partly dictated by lust and partly by pragmatism - I wanted something with a lot more performance than a hang glider but without the regulation, licencing and price tag of a sailplane!

Enter the Dragon...

The original Carbon Dragon, by Jim Maupin with airfoils by Irv Culver, was designed to be built out of spruce, 1/4" mahogony plywood and 1/32" (0.8mm) plywood, reinforced here and there with the judicious use of carbon fibre rovings bonded to the wood. The prototype CD, now owned and flown by Gary Osoba, was a masterpiece of minimalism - Jim Maupin's philosophy in building the Dragon was "if you want to add to or change the design, first take it outside and toss it up in the air. If it comes down... it's too heavy!"

Spruce and plywood are incredible materials - their strength to weight ratio is very hard to beat. It's easy to make something stronger, but it's very difficult to make it stronger and lighter. Even modern composites struggle to beat natures own wonder materials. Where spruce and thin plywood do fall down is when it comes to humidity. Wood is naturally hygroscopic - that is to say, it absorbs and releases moisture depending on the relative humidity of the atmosphere around it. Over time, the thin (0.8mm thick) plywood leading edges of the flight surfaces begins to deform and go out of shape and, as a result, looses aerodynamic efficiency and strength. Ireland, sadly, is not noted for its dry, desert-like climate, so building such a light, flimsy glider out of wood in this country is probably not the smartest idea!

Various builders have replaced some of the wooden parts with composite materials to a greater or lesser extent. No one, as far as I could make out, had ever built a Carbon Dragon entirely out of carbon fiber, or had done a thorough analysis of the loads and stresses on the wings and airframe. If I was going to build one of these gliders and fly it, then I certainly wasn't going to trust life and limb to a lot of guess work and wishful thinking. I wanted to know exactly how strong each individual part and assembly of the glider needed to be and I was going to verify those numbers through destructive testing first...

Later incarnations of the Carbon Dragon, with Steve Arndt leading the way with his beautiful Magic Dragon, replaced the wooden wing spar caps with much stronger and lighter pultruded carbon rod. However, when I started seriously looking at the Carbon Dragon, there was no information about how much of this new wonder material was to be used, so I decided to analyse the loads and stresses on the wings from scratch. You will find a record of my calculations, along with an interactive spreadsheet into which you can enter your own design criteria, on my Wing Stress Analysis page.

As my study of the design progressed and I learned more about the strengths of carbon fibre cloth, I decided to fabricate the leading edges out of two layers of carbon twill cloth laid up at 45°. The carbon leading edges will likely turn out slightly heavier than the original 1/32" plywood skins, but they will be much stronger and not subject to warping in humid conditions. I hope to save weight else where to compensate. [Note: Rick Mullins talked to Steve Arndt about the construction of his Magic Dragon. Steve says that he built carbon fibre leading edge D-skins for his wings and has successfully towed behind an airplane at speeds in excess of 70mph with no sign of wing flutter.]

The original wing ribs were fabricated out of 5/16" x 1/4" spruce, reinforced at the joints by 1/32" plywood gussets. These looked very fiddly to make up and would require the rib caps to be steamed and formed if they were to assume the desired curves accurately. After some experementation I arrived at a method for fabricating ribs out of 5mm PVC foam, wrapped and fully encapsulated in carbon cloth. These carbon/foam ribs performed extremely well under load testing. A full report on the rib fabrication experements and load tests can be found on the Rib Construction page. My aim is to completely eliminate the use of wood in my glider and (hopefully) to end up with a stronger and lighter aircraft.

Design Criteria

The design load-limit for my wing is +8g / -4g at a maximum pay-load weight of 260lbs. The ultimate load limit (catistrophic failure point) is +10.5g / -7.5g. Both sets of figures may seem to be overkill, and indeed it is not anticipated that the glider will ever experience more than +2g or possibly +3g in flight, but account most be taken of the instantaneous shock-loads that the glider may experience during ground handling, launching and especially during a rough landing! You can view the full details of the design weights and loads I used in my wing stress analysis spreadsheet.

Phil Lardner playing with Gerol's Malibu on Monte Cucco 2010

Playing with Gerolf Heinrichs' Moyes Malibu at Monte Cucco in Italy during the 2009 Hang Gliding Pre-World Championships
Sensational legs, huh?!